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The Walking Dead - First episode reviewed

Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

ZOMBIES, like vampires, are another of those enduring horror creations that never seem to run out of steam. Yet while many films adhere to a similar formula, there’s always one or two that come along that show a willingness and bravery to offer something different.

On TV, for instance, True Blood sets itself ahead of the pack in the vampire genre, while movies such as Let The Right One In and even its US remake Let Me In show that there is room for something a little different.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later are two examples of the zombie genre broadening its scope and offering appeal on a wider level. And now TV’s The Walking Dead would appear to be entering that fold.

Based on the popular comics by Robert Kirkman and arriving from the same US TV network – AMC – that has delivered Breaking Bad and Mad Men, it already looks like another masterful creation.

The 90-minute pilot – shown in the UK [on FX] without adverts [and therefore 75mins] so as to maintain the momentum – was a masterclass in character building and tension.

It followed Andrew Lincoln’s sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes as he attempted to get to grips with a zombie apocalypse after waking from a coma he had entered after being shot in a gun battle with meth dealers.

The set-up may not have been that different, but the way it was done screamed quality.

But then we kind of expected no less given the talent involved behind the camera, thanks to the presence of Frank (The Shawshank Redemption/The Mist) Darabont in the director’s chair, and Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator/Alien) as producer.

The clever thing about this opener, however, was the way in which it confidently delivered to every demographic: whether zombie fan (with nods to past genre classics and the odd shot of gore), or curious newcomers seeking something other than endless chase sequences involving zombies and lots of flesh eating.

The opening sequence, for instance, found Lincoln having to fend off a little girl zombie after stopping at a gas station in search of fuel. It was tense, startling and a clear nod to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – a clear sign that The Walking Dead wasn’t going to be mucking around.

It then flashed back to the moments prior to Grimes’ coma – a thrillingly executed car chase and shootout – before placing the likeable deputy in the middle of his chilling dilemma.

The early moments, involving Grimes staggering around a deserted hospital, were eerily reminiscent of The Day of The Triffids and 28 Days Later… yet striking enough to be masterful on their own.

A corpse here, a warning sign written in blood there… a hand coming through a door – all key ingredients in raising the tension. You didn’t want to look at times, but simply couldn’t pull yourself away. Darabont had you transfixed.

Once Grimes found daylight, however, the nightmare truly began to unfold. An encounter with a father named Morgan Jones and his young son Duane offered him respite and insight into what had happened… as well as a chance for Darabont to show that this will be a series that refuses to discount the human factor.

Hence, the revelation that Jones’ wife had become “a walker”… and his subsequent inability to shoot her and end her misery even when presented with a long-range rifle. In Jones’ face, and through his tears, you could see the anguish and fear of a man torn apart by guilt and feeling.

Lincoln, too, excelled, displaying a flawless American accent and a perfect ability to marry compassion and distress with a determined ability to survive. He should be a fascinating guide for the remainder of the series.

The remainder of the episode was divided between a small group of survivors – containing Grimes’ wife (Prison Break‘s Sarah Wayne Callies) and son – and the deputy’s encounter with a horde of zombies in Atlanta’s city centre.

But once again it showed the strengths that look certain to mark this show out as a classic. The survivor group already contains elements of a love triangle, with Grimes’ former partner clearly now vying for his wife’s affections.

While the climactic scenes in Atlanta gave the zombie enthusiasts the moments they had been waiting for. These included the iconic site of Lincoln’s deputy riding a deserted highway on horseback and then navigating the cities streets before being surrounded by vast swathes of the undead.

Needless to say, the horse bought it, while Lincoln found himself holed up – apparently hopelessly – in a tank…. Darabont affording us an aeriel view of his horrific predicament as the show delivered its final shot.

It was a grim, tense, memorable opening chapter in what already rates as another small screen masterpiece for AMC. And with five more episodes to follow in this first series, Friday night viewing feels alive with creativity once again.

The Walking Dead airs in the UK on FX, starting on Friday, November 5, 2010, at 10pm. View photos