Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review: The Walking Dead "Days Gone Bye"

Non Spoiler Review:
We open on a vacant highway, on which a sheriff's car approaches a series of overturned vehicles. It's quickly obvious that the entire stretch of road is littered in abandoned vehicles, and Rick Grimes emerges, walking down the hill to search for gas. The gas station is empty, and he wanders through the field of cars and corpses, only to see a sign of life...a little girl (in bunny slippers, no less) wanders away from him. He calls out to her. She turns, and we see her face is eaten away. At the sight of him, she begins to approach...faster, until Rick pulls his gun and shoots her in the head.

With that beginning we get a sense of how dark and brilliant this series will be. The opening sequence is a creepy rendition of shattered picture frames spliced with scenes of abandoned civilization, to the score of Bear McCreary (composer to Battlestar Galactica). What follows is 90 minutes of mature horror and drama, capturing near perfectly (and sometimes better) the graphic novel the series is based on. It follows the literature very closely, but when it does take a tangent (as with fleshing out some secondary characters), it does so to the show's benefit. 

While we only get a glimpse of other characters at the moment, focusing primarily on Rick and a few others, the series is off to an amazing and compelling start, leaving me wanting more. This is not a zombie killing horror fest, but an intimate drama about characters and the struggles they must endure to adapt to the end of their civilization. These zombies are not faceless monsters. They are everyday people who have fallen victim to this plague and illicit the audience sympathy more often than not. We are quickly made aware that each walker dispatched with a shot to the head was a person. Do they still think? Are they at all aware? They are a force of nature against which the main characters must find some way to continue as human.

The Walking Dead stars Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Sarah Wayne Callies as wife Lori, Jeffrey Demunn as Dale, and Laurie Holden as Andrea (the latter two from Frank Darabont's The Mist). Fans of The Mist will get a sense of just how dark this series will become. The Walking Dead is very gruesome, but the premiere episode was a fantastic first chapter in what will hopefully be a long saga on AMC. Watch this, even if you're not a horror fan!

Spoilers Now!
Rick Grimes is shot in the line of duty, and awakens some weeks later after a zombie infection has collapsed civilization. Fortunately for him, these are slow moving zombies, and he's in a small town so he's not immediately over run by them. We get a sense this is not a typical horror series as he comes across his first animated corpse, rendered in meticulous detail (from the graphic novel)...a poor bicycle girl with just a head and torso. Horrified, he takes the bike and peddles to his home in his hospital gown to find his wife and kids gone.

In shock, he's nearly killed by a boy, but is taken in by him and his father, Morgan, who have managed to survive in town. They bring him up to speed once they determine he's been shot, and not bitten. They tell him how the disease spread quickly through bites and an intense fever, where the dead rise shortly after. This includes Morgan's wife, who we soon see, as the zombies come out at night and wander about, and Mrs. Morgan seems to have a sense of her old home as she wanders up the porch. Morgan can't bring himself to kill her.

As in the book, Rick recovers and then sets off to Atlanta in the hopes of finding his family in a refugee camp, after setting up Morgan and the boy with supplies from the sheriff's office. He eventually runs out of gas and finds a horse, and we get a nice chilling view of his approach to Atlanta with all the cars littering the highway on their way out of the city. Unlike a lot of horror films, there's never any zombies immediately lurking around, and he wanders the quiet streets littered with military equipment.

Then he turns a corner and finds zombies everywhere (they all appear to be directed at something, so I'm wondering if they had noticed Glenn on his supply run in one of the buildings? We'll see next episode. They, of course, stumble towards him and he's soon surrounded, the horse goes down, and Rick takes refuge in a tank. We're left with him stuck in the tank as zombies swarm the vehicle and consume the horse...and then we get Glenn's voice over the radio.

What Worked:
I can find nothing major wrong with this lavish, and lovingly adapted pilot. The music captured the perfect mood of sadness at the loss of civilization. The casting also appears to be bang-on, though we've really only gotten Rick and Morgan, and snippets of Shane and Lori, but from the looks of Carl, they seem to have cast him well. I wasn't really familiar with the actor playing Rick, but he appears to have nailed everything he needs to pull off the character. And even better, his reactions seem genuine to the horror around him. Graphic novel Rick always seemed a bit too chatty, so we'll see if that carries over.

The diversions from the graphic novel also made for more interesting viewing for those familiar with the storyline. Having Morgan's back story fluffed up made for a much more riveting series of scenes (and I found myself emotionally attached to the character in a way I didn't for the comic book version).

McCreary's score was easily the best scene and thoroughly differentiated this horror piece from any other. Rick feels sympathy for her, and the audience feels sympathy for her—they're victims, not monsters.

Just a note about the helicopter...this was not in the graphic novel, however an Atlanta helicopter is referenced later on in the storyline, so I'm wondering if this is an easter egg in regards to that.

What Didn't Work:
My only real critique is the final fade-out pop song against the swarm of zombies over the tank. It took me out of the moment, when compared to the morose tones of Morgan attempting to shoot his wife. I can see what they were trying to do, but perhaps a better modern song would have been less intrusive (The Walker Brothers song that was in the initial Walking Dead trailer, perhaps?).

Finally, I realize we're supposed to dislike Shane for all sorts of future reasons, but they really seemed to hammer this into the story, when a little more subtly might have worked. A theme of Walking Dead is how the apocalypse changes people, so a more likable Shane might have been more effective in preparation for what's coming with the characters.

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