Monday, November 1, 2010

The Walking Dead – “Days Gone Bye”

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up to a nightmare.
Photo Credit: AMC
Review by Paul Steven Brown

‘The Walking Dead’
Season 1 – Episode 1
“Days Gone Bye”

I enter my viewing and reviewing of AMC’s newest series ‘The Walking Dead’ in an interesting predicament. I’ve been reading the series for a few years; not monthly, but I make sure to get the latest trade paperback collection the day it hits the shelves at my local comic book shop. Now, I face the challenge of reviewing episodes of a television series based on a comic that I’ve really grown to appreciate. To that end, I’m going to do my best to address ‘The Walking Dead’ in the context of the television series, with as little as possible reference to the comic book series.

It’s only fair. This program must be able to stand on its own. (Though, I did get a kick out of the fact that first episode sharing the title “Days Gone Bye” with the reprint volume that collects the first six issues.)

With all this in mind, I can safely say that ‘The Walking Dead’ is off to an excellent beginning. In the first episode (thankfully expanded to an hour and a half) we are introduced to Rick Grimes (strongly played by Andrew Lincoln), a world ravaged by an epidemic and haunted by the undead, and our hero’s mission to find his wife and son.

Like other shows on AMC, ‘The Walking Dead’ moves at a steady, purposeful pace. This is not a show that’s in any kind of hurry, and it benefits from this deliberateness. There are a few smart editorial and story choices that help move things along, though. First, the teaser quickly set up that this is a world fallen on disrepair. Rick is hunting for gas and comes across a little girl, who just happens to be a zombie. The basics of this world have been quickly established.

We flashback to before the apocalypse with Rick and his police partner Shane talking about their relationships with their respective others. This is followed by a shootout that leaves Rick in a coma. He then wakes up after all hell has broken loose. Actually, well after all hell has broken loose. Now, some viewers will decry this transition as a rip-off of the film 28 Days Later, but it should be known that this is exactly how it happened in the original comic book story, which came out around the same time as the aforementioned movie. It is purely coincidence, and being very important to the beginning of ‘The Walking Dead’ it thankfully hasn’t been altered in this new series.

The real heart of the episode is Rick’s encounter with Morgan and his son Duane. The pair not only fills Rick in (and us) on what has transpired since he lapsed into a coma, but they are our first real window into the toll this fearful new world has had on normal people. Morgan’s dilemma is beautifully and painfully portrayed by Lennie James. He may be from Nottingham, England, but James instills Morgan with an earthy vibe of a man from Kentucky. Producer Frank Darabont has made it known that the television series will have the freedom to move around and add to what was established in the comic book series. I certainly hope that we will get more Lennie James as Morgan during this first season.

Andrew Lincoln, another British actor, is no slouch as Rick Grimes. He does a wonderful job bringing us along with Rick as he slowly discovers the horrors that have replaced the world that he knew. Given the emotional strain the character has the endure upon seeing a parking lot full of dead bodies and discovering his family missing, I think Lincoln does a fine job by dolling out just the right level of histrionics.

I would like to point out that this first story takes place in my home state of Kentucky. Now, traditionally this is considered a southern state (well, actually we’re a commonwealth), and to that end I’m am always on the look out to make sure that shows and movies set in the Bluegrass State have characters with the appropriate accent. A lot of times actors go deep and everyone sounds like they’re from Georgia or Alabama. I’m happy to say that, for the most part, the characters sound like Kentuckians. We don’t drop consonants at the end of words as much as those in the Deep South and we don’t have a drawl like Texans. We like our Rs. Hell, some people here put Rs in words that don’t even have them like “toilet” (ter-let) and “wash” (wor-sh). But, I digress.

The production of ‘The Walking Dead’ is top-notch. Everywhere Rick wanders there is some indication of a world that has fallen apart. What really sells all of this is the sound. Rick and Morgan walk outside and all we hear are the cicadas. Rick enters Atlanta, only to be greeted by the sound of his own horse’s hooves. This is a silent world where any noise may be a warning of flesh-eating death or a sign of hope that there is someone else out there.

The make up on the zombies is great, too. In fact, the zombies are just simply great. They stagger, but move with purpose. They aren’t runners like the 28 Days Later infected, but these zombies aren’t necessarily slow. This strikes a very exciting and scary balance between the two types of undead that we have encountered in pop culture thus far. Also, the undead woman that is missing half of her body is just an achievement in special effects. It very convincingly done, and really helps sell the emotional impact of Rick’s compassion as he addresses her.

“Days Gone Bye” is also cinematically shot. Let’s face it, Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, directed this episode. It looks better than regular television; this looks like a feature film. Moments such as Rick lighting matches over and over in a pitch black stairwell not only look sharp, but they heighten the potential terror of the unknown. Rick chases after a helicopter in Atlanta only to run smack into a mob of the undead. What seemed deserted is suddenly teeming with shambling bodies and we can believe that they were there the entire time.

AMC continues to develop some of the best television that I have ever watched. Like the pacing of their series, this is a network that takes its time and nurtures the development of a show. The attention to detail is evident on ‘The Walking Dead’ as well. It’s amazing that program wrapped in something so horrific can be this beautiful.

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