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Why “The Walking Dead” Is Even Better Than We Thought (SPOILERS!)

I had been looking forward to the premiere of “The Walking Dead” for months and the promo material AMC would show during the weekly “Mad Men” episode only served to entice me further like a dog to a turkey leg. I did, however, have this nagging worry, like I do with everything I hotly anticipate, that the show was going to be complete and utter pants. I mean, the zombie film has become a cliche again and loads of impossibly derivative or needlessly revisionist takes on the subject have all but ground the concept into (and under) the ground. Would this be the first step in the zombie television movement, a soap-opera-y horror-light version like so many vampire shows are these days? Sure, the show had a lot going for it, being based on the Robert Kirkman’s infinitely excellent graphic novel series and made under the guiding hand of Frank Darabont, but could it really translate to television? I think most of us who watched it Sunday night responded with a resounding “Hell yeah!”

But what exactly worked about it? What set it apart from being just a season-long (preferably seasons-long) version of a well-tread idea? For my money, it was two factors: the quiet and the melancholy. From the opening moments of “Days Gone Bye,” the series sets itself apart. It depicts our hero, Rick Grimes played by Andrew Lincoln, walking silently through a deserted street with a bag of guns and a gas can. There’s no music, no dialogue, really no sound at all aside from the ambient noises of a man walking. Lesser series might have started with narration, some kind of schlocky Phillip Marlowe pastiche meant to sound cool and explain what’s going on, which Darabont mercifully leaves out. This show isn’t about a cool protagonist on the hunt, it’s about a man looking to survive. He comes upon an empty gas station, a dead end as far as he’s concerned, when he hears and then sees what appears to be a little girl shuffling down the street. He calls to her twice and when she finally turns around, he sees what we already suspected: that she is a “Walker,” an undead abomination that wants to devour him. She walks toward him and he draws his pistol, firing one shot in her head. This scene is not played for scares, nor is it played for action, it’s played for sadness. This man, a loner in a lonely world, is given a glimmer of hope that he’s found another living person, and a child no less, but it is soon melted away at the sight of her mangled face and his realization at what he must do.

Most television shows are wall-to-wall talking and even the quiet moments of shows like “Mad Men” are set between big conversations. “Days Gone Bye,” is the opposite, intensely quiet stretches peppered by tiny bits of talking. Once Grimes wakes up in the hospital, after being shot by a bad guy pre-outbreak, he does the inevitable stagger around the hospital trying to find another living soul, and finding only piles of dead bodies and a locked-up door with something horrible behind it. This is incredibly similar to “28 Days Later,” but the difference is that while Boyle’s film uses a driving score and Cillian Murphy screaming to make the point that he’s alone, Darabont uses the almost total lack of noise to make the more potent impact. This is not a zombie-movie (though it is), it’s life. There’s no running soundtrack to everyday existence, there’s just people trying to get by. And a totally dead world would be almost completely silent, which is incredibly impressive for a nighttime drama series.

The moment, for me, when I knew this show was going to be totally brilliant came toward the end (SPOILERS if you haven’t watched it) when we see a cross cutting of Grimes and now-single father Morgan Jones, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Lennie James, each attempting to perform acts of mercy. It had been established earlier in the episode that Morgan’s wife and the mother of his son Duane has died and become a Walker. Morgan tearily recalls how he couldn’t put her down, though he should have, and that she continues to wander around by their sanctuary, faintly remembering when she was alive and with them. After getting weapons from the police station Grimes goes on to Atlanta to find his family while the Joneses go back to the house to wait and practice shooting. Morgan takes his hunting rifle upstairs and begins picking off zombies rather expertly, which draws the attention of more of the undead, until finally, inevitably, his wife appears. Twice he tries to shoot her, finally moving forward, and twice he can’t bring himself to do it. He cries out of frustration and despair at his inability to complete the task and the fact that he has to do it in the first place.

Grimes, meanwhile, has gone back to an area we’d seen earlier in the episode. A woman zombie, mostly decomposed and missing the lower half of her body, crawls towards him with the intention of biting his flesh. Here, a newly dressed and ready for the fight ahead Grimes tracks down this zombie, even more lifeless than before, and puts her out of her misery with a gun blast. It speaks volumes about his character. He has no attachment to her other than a profound sense of pity for her, and does the noble thing, which in itself is a digression to his overall plan. He feels the need to find this poor shell of what was once a human and make things right again.

With these two scenes, which on the surface are nothing more than men with guns killing monsters, exemplifies, I hope, what the series will ultimately become. Never before has an apocalypse been shown to be this sad. This is not a rip-roaring, gun-toting romp of a horror adventure – this is a day-to-day drama about people trying to get by in a strange and terrible world where having to shoot someone is not out of the ordinary, but where doing good still might be. I am incredibly excited for the next episode and hope they all are as interesting and profound.

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30 comments

  • I think a lot of techniques used were innovative and assisted in making the show chilling. However, I am irritated by the characters of this show. I barely have an interest in even the main character. The man and his son that our main character comes upon are really annoying. They are too loud and not cautious enough. The kid in this show reminds me of the annoying and stupid kid from 28 weeks later. Stupid characters ruin zombie movies/and now TV Shows. I just hope we get someone with some brains and a sense of humor soon or I’m going to bail.

  • I do not like Zombie movies, so I had no interest in The Walking Dead. I did watch it, mostly out of boredom. I loved it, and was quite surprised by how much I loved it. The show is very compelling, it really draws you into the characters and the story. It is not a zombie show, but, like you said, a show about people just trying to get by.

  • Ever since I heard Jonah talk about the Walking Dead and how good it is as a graphic novel, I’ve been so excited to watch it. I must say it is a really good show. I enjoyed every minute and I can’t wait to see the next episode. :D

  • This series was beyond what I was expecting. It had heart and it had despair everything that a first episode needed to pull you in. The director did do an amazing job of not flooding the scenes with easy jumpers, zombie noises, crappy sound track, it was simple and unnerving because how quiet it was. I am definitely looking forward to watching more episodes in hope that it stays on par with the premiere. Also great review.

  • Kirkman has said that his interest is in post-apocalyptic worlds and survival and not so much zombies, which I think is a really strong way to tackle it. I’m sure there will be episodes later on with hardly any, and possibly no, zombies. Very strong source to work from, and I think episode 2 is even better than episode 1.
    Kyle, have you seen the first 4 or is Hardwick hording that shit for himself?

  • author

    Brian, I have only seen the first episode. Chris, being the Grand Poobah of Nerdism, has a certain security clearance and access that a mere mid-level nerd such as myself cannot obtain. That’s a silly way of saying he’s rightfully famous and I am not that.

  • I have never been a huge zombie or horror movie fan, can me a scaredy cat, but I am in love with this show! It has that element of humanness so it doesn’t alienate the viewer and instead draws you in with how realistic it looks. You can actually imagine the emptiness…my new favorite show!

  • I really liked the show- one thing bugged me though: how come those dang zombies didn’t just eat Rick while he was lying unconscious in his hospital bed? Sure, there wouldn’t be a show, but really, he would have been easy pickin’s. Dumb, lazy zombies…

  • Agree completely. It reminded me of The Road more than Zombieland (both of which are great, but in different ways) and The Road is definitely more what I was hoping for considering who was involved.

    This is a Zombie show that will be artistic and scary more for the reality of such a situation than for the cheap thrills Zombies can provide (although it appears that will be there as well and used to great effect as opposed to wearing it out).

    I am very excited to see where the series goes next.

  • I go into a super zombie mode for about 2 months every year.
    This show is going to extend that now. I usually watch some movies and play zombie games, but now I started listening to
    We’re Alive (zombie survival drama podcast thing) and now with a TV show about zombies I feel so excited.

    The first episode was great, I thought it was paced well with a balance of the action and character introductions.

    To bad for the horse.

  • The whole Atlanta sequence, with no sound at first except for the horse’s hoofs, and then Rick galloping into the zombie horde, was just so fantastically done that words cannot describe it.

  • Fear not nerds! The Walking Dead was renewed for another season weeks before the first episode aired. I don’t follow tons of shows, but I know this is not common. We’re in for at least two seasons, short as they may be.

  • I agree with @Kyle Anderson’s review. The blatant humanity of the protagonists makes the show so relatable. I especially loved that in the last bit where Grimes shoots the zombie woman, he says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” Simply heartbreaking.

  • Lovedlovedloved the premiere episode! I think one of the reasons I liked it so much is that I rarely feel satisfied at the end of a zombie flick. Two hours to introduce characters, the epidemic, and try to give an explanation for the epidemic, followed by what’s always a hollow resolution to it just never seems wrapped up.
    So making a more methodical series on television that really gets to explore people trying to survive in such a horrible scenario gives me optimism to more satisfaction with characters and plot!

  • i was lucky enough to have a friend with connections to the first few episodes and have seen them as well. this show is incredibly good. and it gets better and better. somehow it actually makes me feel more for the characters than i did when i read the books oh those seven years ago. i’m sure now that the ratings have proven incredible, that AMC will pick it up for a second season in due time. This thing is going to be a phenomenon like “Lost”. atleast i hope it will. this needs to be water cooler television.

  • If you think the apocalypse has never been depicted with such sadness, then you have never read or watched The Road. That book brought me to a whole new level of sadness that I didn’t know I could reach using only a novel. Very, very good, though.

  • Brian, the season 2 pick up is confirmed by internal communication from AMC to a cable service provider. I am unable to post it as it contains other proprietary information, but this came from AMC directly.

  • The first scene of this first episode sets the audience up for what this series is all about and I can’t imagine it done any better. This show is a breath of fresh air in the oversaturated zombie world right now.

  • I think what makes it possible to show this as a sad, drama-filled, quiet apocalypse (as the apocalypse should be) is the very fact that it is a TV show, and that is what will make it great. It is very difficult to get an audience to sit through two+ hours of slow quietude and desolation – yes, you can have some here and there, but mostly there needs to be action of some sort, at least for most movie-goers. (The Road, of course, is an excellent exception to this, as there always is some exceptions to the rule – and even that they had to spice up a bit.) Television shows, on the other hand, can do the slower pace and the quiet, because it’s not terribly long, people are watching it in their own homes where they can shake it off a bit during commercial breaks, and the plot is drawn out over several episodes or seasons and not condensed into a couple hours, which gives it more leeway. I feel like build-up is much easier to do in television than in movies, simply because you have more time in television to do it.

    I was very pleased with how it turned out myself, and I’m glad they’ve changed things from the comics because frankly, I’d get bored if it was a simple retelling of the comics – they tweaked just enough to make it fun and interesting for someone who already knows what’s going on, which I wholeheartedly approve of. I cannot wait for this week’s episode! Which is tomorrow. Yay!

  • Such a great show. Living in Atlanta, knowing most of the places where the scenes were set and the very real way that the show was shot makes it extra-double-creepy.

    Pack a sledgehammer for your trip this week! I hope to make it out to Laughing Skull.

  • Great show, no doubt. I just don’t understand why they don’t use the Z word – it’s either geeks or walkers. In that world, does the word “zombie” not exist? Or has it been tacitly proscribed for some reason?