The Frank Darabont-directed series premiere of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead debuted tonight on AMC. This opening episode was a solid addition to the undead canon, and the show makes an excellent case for adapting serialized comics for television.
Note: Given that this is a recap, it contains spoilers.
As we noted in our spoiler-free teaser of the series, the show follows the opening issues of Kirkman's long-running zombie series pretty religiously. In both the series and comic, Georgia sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) goes into a coma after being injured in a shootout with crooks. Upon waking up weeks later, Rick discovers that zombies have overrun his little slice of Americana. A delirious Rick wanders out of the hospital and is rescued by the father-and-son survivor team Morgan (Lennie Jones) and Duane Jones (Adrian Kali Turner).
After the Jones inform Rick that the world has gone to pot (no one knows why the dead are rising or how far the infection has spread) and school him in zombie-killing basics (the infection is transmitted through bites, head shots are key), Rick rides off to Atlanta with the fugitive hope of finding military assistance, his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and son Carl (Chandler Riggs). Unfortunately for our homespun hero, the city's residents are listless, hungry, and extremely not alive.
The episode ends on an appropriately downbeat note — Rick is trapped in an abandoned tank in downtown Atlanta, a distant military helicopter fails to notice him, and his wife has found new love in the arms of Rick's brotastic best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal). We do get a voice cameo from stalwart Walking Dead character Glenn, but the ending is appropriately a bummer.
There's a lot to love in this series premiere. First off, the opening makes it crystal clear that The Walking Dead won't be pussyfooting around zombie violence. In the first minutes, Rick shoots an undead elementary schooler (in bunny slippers, no less) between the eyes. The show then immediately cuts to Bear McCreary's fantastic opening theme, which sounds like the skittering lovechild of Bernard Herrmann's theme to Psycho and Goblin's soundtrack to Dawn of the Dead:
The shattered picture frames, urban decay, and total lack of zombies in the show's opening credits reflect the fact that The Walking Dead is very much a show about humans forced into inhuman situations. I realize that folks are dismayed about the CGI splatters, but the show isn't shaping up to be a buckets o' blood grindhouse affair. Unlike a horror movie, the show's serial format allows for long, agoraphobic shots of Rick wandering alone and searching for supplies — the show's zombies have more in common with a natural disaster than any Universal Studios monster. It's telling when the show's best scare is courtesy of a non-functioning generator:
Thus far, the show's atmosphere is its greatest strength. How about the characters? Lincoln plays a fine, understated Rick. The zombie apocalypse is hard to take in, and Lincoln's sheriff has a glazed determination. I'm glad that the show's interpretation of Deputy Grimes is grim; in Kirkman's comic, I found Rick to be a bit of a pollyanna in his first appearances.
We don't see a lot of the rest of the cast, but it's hammered into our heads that Bernthal's Shane is a dudebro to watch. It's one thing to witness a character's evolution into a potentially problematic personality; it's a whole 'nother matter to have the audience think he's a total ass five minutes after meeting him. Other minor issues I had with the show included the guy who finger-painted his last words on his living room wall using his wife's brains (too over the top) and the unnecessarily poppy closing music (this is the zombie apocalypse, not an episode of Entourage).
All in all, The Walking Dead won't be resurrecting the zombie genre, as the undead have hit total pop cultural saturation already. It does however make a great case for adapting comic books to television. Movies can compress a comic's plot into incomprehensibility, but The Walking Dead gives its source material room to breathe. If the show becomes a smash hit, I could also see this ushering in a new TV horror renaissance (we love True Blood, but that show's a genre unto itself — Dadaist vampire erotica). If your idea of a good time is riding a stolen bicycle away from a legless zombie while a cool breeze aerates your hospital gown-clad nethers, The Walking Dead is your brain candy.