The review is entirely spoiler-free.
As a slightly unstable individual and a completely depraved member of the horror genre’s fanbase, I often find wandering aimlessly through shady areas of my hometown to be a peaceful and relaxing way to end the day. Which is why, when I was approached by a truly sketchy individual wearing a tattered and mud-stained trenchcoat as I relieved myself against the back wall of one of Ottawa’s seedier nightclubs, I didn’t think anything of it beyond “just another crazy local.” My carelessness would prove a mistake as the maniac walked over to me and asked “Hey buddy, does this smell like chloroform to you?” before clamping a rag over my mouth and sending my world into darkness.
When I awoke, I was seated in a La-Z-Boy recliner before the glowing light of a television screen – the only light in the pitch darkness of what I gather in retrospect to have been a basement room somewhere. In an instant, the static on the cathode ray tube faded, and the image of an empty country road appeared. A police car approached the camera, the word “Sherriff” emblazoned on the side. It halted, the door swung open, and Andrew Lincoln stepped out wearing a police officer’s uniform. It dawned on me. I was watching the premiere of The Walking Dead, a week before it was set to air. My anxiety over my abduction gave way to excitement at my being able to see one of the most anticipated television shows of the year. Inspecting my immediate surroundings yielded a can of cola and a bag of hot buttered popcorn next to my chair, and I settled in for an hour of awesome zombie action.
I should preface this review by saying that I have read all of Robert Kirkman’s series of graphic novels upon which The Walking Dead is based, and I think they are some of the absolute best zombie fiction ever written in the history of everything. Kirkman’s series nails the tone of desperation, bleakness and unease that accompanies any major disaster, and the books balance terror and humanity perfectly. There are buckets of gore and hordes of the undead to appease the fans of the genre, and complex character relations, gut-wrenching drama and shocking plot developments to satisfy people who love quality entertainment (as opposed to schlock, which zombie movies often are). And so, when viewing the pilot episode of the television adaptation of some of my favourite graphic novels, I was both giddy and wary, because while the source material really is amazing stuff, it would take a skilled hand to bring it to life.
Luckily, Frank Darabont is a very, very skilled man. This is the director who brought us The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist (which almost made my list of the best movies of the past decade), and so my apprehension wasn’t too great, as he’s clearly a competent director. I had no idea just how good he was, though, until The Walking Dead. I’ve gotta say, this is some of Darabont’s absolute best work. He knows how to handle the characters, themes and ideas so well that I really was blown away. I expected the show to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be touching and heartbreaking in the way that it turned out to be.
I’m not going to be revealing anything that hasn’t been shown in some capacity in the marketing for The Walking Dead, in a bid to keep the pilot episode fresh for all you viewers. The result of this is that I can’t discuss the plot progression of the episode much beyond the set up. After a shoot-out with some daredevil criminals, Rick Grimes, Sherriff’s Deputy, is shot and hospitalized. He awakens from his coma to find the hospital deserted. Staggering from his bed, he discovers a door chained shut with the words “Don’t Open. Dead Inside.” scrawled upon it. As he exits the building he finds the world in ruin: cars overturned, dead bodies laid out in ranks in the hospital loading dock, and no sign of life anywhere. That is, until he finds the torso of a zombie woman – legs missing – crawling through the grass of a park. Rick is, naturally, confused and frightened as he steals a bicycle and returns home, only to discover that his wife and child are missing.
At its essence, it’s the same as the opening for 28 Days Later, but The Walking Dead manages to seperate itself from Danny Boyle’s zombie masterpiece by retaining more of the tropes of the zombie genre. Whereas Boyle was very intentionally trying to distance himself from zombie movie cliches, The Walking Dead embraces these cliches and makes them feel both fresh and familiar at the same time. Oh, and the zombies really are zombies, as opposed to the “infected” of 28 Days Later. The Walking Dead walk, they don’t run, and they actually die before returning to life as zombies, unlike the creatures in Boyle’s film. It may seem like a trivial detail, but it’s an important distinction to fans of zombie movies.
The pilot episode of The Walking Dead is an incredible piece of television. The empty towns, the bleak tone, the heartbreaking moments of character development (such as the scene where Rick Grimes begins to question his sanity and whether he’s dreaming) all add up to a brilliant opening chapter in what will inevitably be remembered as one of the best entries into the zombie genre. In addition to the performances, the make-up effects by industry legend Greg Nicotero are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not only are they terrifying and disgusting, but they’re done in such a way that the actors portraying the zombies can emote through the prosthetics, thereby making the titular walking dead that much more convincing.
The pilot episode of a television series is often the weakest, and if that’s the case with The Walking Dead, then I’m really, really excited to see what Darabont and company have in store for us. It’s scary, it’s tense, it’s beautiful, it’s sad, and, in case you hadn’t gathered, it’s already among my favourite television shows of all time. In my eyes, it’s perfect. I can’t wait to see more.
As the closing credits rolled, I felt the thump of a large club strike my head and I woke up again in the dumpster behind the nightclub. I wandered home and talked about the experience with TK, who told me that something similar had happened to him, only he’d been the one administering the chloroform. He also said I left popcorn all over his basement, and that he suspects that AMC leaked the episode a week early to create buzz for the show. He’s a weird guy.
5 out of 5