November 7, 2010

The Walking Dead: S01E01- Days Gone Bye (REVIEW)

Undoubtedly, the premiere of The Walking Dead was one of the most anticipated zombie events of the year for zombie fans, comic book fans, and all fans of horror on TV. I watched the episode for its Halloween premiere, and now that I've digested the episode, I have three things to say:
  1. The Walking Dead represents the triumphant vindication of the slow zombie.
  2. The Walking Dead sets a benchmark for visual TV horror.
  3. The Walking Dead makes me remember why I fear zombies.

Episode one of The Walking Dead, "Days Gone Bye," aired on AMC on October 31, 2010. The episode is written and directed by series producer Frank Darabont. Based on the ongoing comic book written by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead premiere introduces us to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a Sheriff's deputy who is gunned down on the job only to awake from a long coma into a world ravaged by the undead.

THE GOOD

As a zombie fan, but not necessarily a fan of the comic series, I thoroughly enjoyed The Walking Dead premiere. First and foremost, "Days Gone Bye" won me over with its depiction of the zombies as the slow, ravenous, and undead variety pioneered largely by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead (1968). For far too long, we've been saturated with fast-moving zombies who sprint across the screen in badly-edited and shaky scenes. 28 Days Later successfully pioneered the fast-moving zombie craze (although Return of the Living Dead in 1985 had some very mobile corpses) until others ran this new representation into the ground. While there's certainly a place for the fast zombie, this style of zombie too often lends itself to cheap jump scares. Sadly, I've even heard some people (zombie fans, mind you) say that slow zombies are no longer scary in our modern media landscape

I point to The Walking Dead and call "bullshit" on that. If slow zombies aren't scary, it's only because people haven't been doing them right. The Walking Dead does it right.


In an age of fast-paced, viral media, The Walking Dead breaks from the pack. It takes time to show the painfully silent and the eerily empty post-apocalyptic world to which Rick awakens The Walking Dead is not a non-stop action thrill-ride. Long stretches of scenes contain little or no music or sound. In this silence, Darabont plants the seeds of the thick, creeping tension that will grow and blossom as the episode unfolds and Rick finds bloody clues as to the violent fate of the world that has degenerated around him.

Into this world, Darabont introduces the undead. With the help of special effects masters at KNB effects, The Walking Dead can unequivocally boast of having the best-looking zombies ever seen ever TV and, perhaps, even on film. Truly grotesque, but still sadly human, the zombies look ... perfect. Each is unique and consists of more than just an extra in face paint. The camera lingers on them but they are not the stars. They are a deadly force of nature -- a swarm of hungry mouths and hands. For the first time in a long time, the sight of zombies gave me chills.


I watch a lot of horror and a lot of zombie movies. Little on film scares me these days. Although I've always said that the concept of zombies scares me, I don't get scared by zombie movies. The premiere of The Walking Dead, however, brought me back to that place of anxiety I first experienced when watching Night of the Living Dead as a young boy on Halloween night. The episode was shockingly grotesque by TV standards, yet it also enforced an emotional weight to the violence. This is not a cavalier video game experience where masses of zombies are repeatedly shot in the head or ground into bloody pulp. Every time a bullet is fired, it means something. This emotional weight and tension goes a long way to making zombies scary again.

THE BAD

The premiere of The Walking Dead was not an entirely satisfying experience. There is a vein of sexism prevalent in this episode that is plainly disturbing. Our introduction to Rick and his partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) is predicated on a long discussion about the uselessness and inherent stupidity of women. When I first read the first few issues of The Walking Dead comics, I also detected a hint of misogyny in how the narrative was structured around placing much of the condemnation on Rick's wife. I'm worried that this trend will continue in the show. The episode's opening discussion about women didn't seem to serve much purpose other than to peg both Rick and Shane as unlikable men. We'll have to see how or if this trend progresses.


In terms of structure, the episode hits a few rough patches of unsubtle exposition dump. Because the premiere must also introduce Rick, place him into a post-apocalyptic world, and also make sure all audience members (not just zombie fans) understand the nature of the undead, we have to sit through several scenes of explanation that bog down the story slightly. Clunky first-episode scripting is to be expected.

Finally, while the zombies look amazing the other effects are clearly produced on a TV budget. I'm referring specially to CGI gun shots and blood effects. I easily overlook many of the rough effects based on the strengths of the episode's practical effects, set design, and makeup, but the CGI blood sticks up like a sore red thumb. What can you do? You have to shoot quickly and economically for TV, even for premium cable like AMC.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I eagerly await the next episode of The Walking Dead. The premiere is not perfect, but as a stand-alone experience it is easily one of the most exciting zombie projects I have seen in some time. I can't wait to see where Darabont and his team at AMC will be taking the show.

Count on me to be walking with the dead all the way to this season's finale.