The official press kit for The Walking Dead came jam-packed with great exclusives, including a miniature revolver that moonlights as an erasable pencil. (Yes, really.) Thankfully, that wasn’t the best aspect of the press kit: as one would hope, it’s the episodes themselves that take the top prize.
The Walking Dead is one of those rare comic book adaptations that just completely gets it. From start to finish, the tone and spirit of Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard’s comic book series is captured perfectly not just through the stunning makeup effects from Greg Nicotero and KNB, but also through the performances and the story’s progression. You can almost smell the blood, sweat and tears that went into this, and everybody involved — from producers Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd all the way to the people responsible for bicycle girl — should be extremely proud of themselves for not only faithfully adapting the source material, but arguably even elevating it.
The preview footage and clips you’ve seen from Comic-Con and other promotional events reveal a lot about what goes down in the pilot episode, titled “Days Gone Bye.” But there’s a lot you don’t know as well, even if you’ve already read the comic books. Kirkman has long expressed his desire for the show to deviate from the comics from time to time to keep fans on the edges of their seat, and his wish is most assuredly granted in round one of The Walking Dead. Case in point: Rick and Shane’s involvement in a high chase pursuit is fleshed out much further here than in the comics, allowing actors Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal to explore their characters’ relationships with each other and themselves in great detail at a very early moment in the episode. There are slight differences to the way the action plays out, as well, that’s sure to throw viewers for a loop, if only briefly.
Speaking of performances, there’s good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad: “Days Gone Bye” pays little attention to any character that doesn’t fall directly in front of Rick Grimes’ path, meaning you won’t see a whole lot of Dale, Andrea, Glenn or the rest of these fan favorite characters in the 90-minute premiere. Those of you itching for extended looks at the performances from Jeffrey DeMunn and the rest of the show’s ensemble are going to have to wait until episode two — and trust me, the wait is well worth it.
But there’s an upside to the fact that Lincoln hogs the spotlight in episode one: he’s really, really, really good as Rick Grimes. The British actor has nailed the southern drawl of our hero, a law man who is both a physical and emotional wreck after being abandoned in the midst of this zombie apocalypse. Lincoln is tasked with carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders in “Days Gone Bye,” and the actor rises to the challenge and clears it entirely. AMC has a fine tradition of compelling leading men from Don Draper on Mad Men to Walter White on Breaking Bad, and rest assured that Rick Grimes sits quite comfortably next to these acclaimed characters.
Still, despite Lincoln’s powerful performance, it pales in comparison to Lennie James as Morgan Jones, the first survivor that Rick comes across in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. Whatever emotional weight Lincoln can’t carry on his own back is swiftly picked up by James; he is at once fierce, filled with rage, protective and ferociously loyal to his son Duane, all while keeping a dark, cancerous sadness at bay in the pit of his stomach. Morgan is forced to be strong for his son, which means he has little time to pay attention to his own personal tragedies. When he can’t hold the darkness at bay any longer, the results are absolutely devastating.
What we see from Morgan is an expert bit of foreshadowing for when Walking Dead hobbles down the road a ways — depending on how faithful the show sticks to the comic’s events, that is — but while it serves its purpose for showing Rick the personal sacrifices he’ll have to make if and when he ever finds Lori and Carl, Morgan’s story stands wholly on its own as the most compelling thread of the episode. The greatest criticism I have for The Walking Dead thus far is that James isn’t a series regular; with any luck, that fact could change a few seasons from now, or perhaps even sooner.
At its core, The Walking Dead is a story about survival in the face of extreme adversity. In this case, extreme adversity’s face boasts several weeks of decomposition, the occasionally unhinged lower jaw and an eternally insatiable appetite for human flesh. The zombies created by Greg Nicotero and his KNB effects house are absolutely stunning, truly some of the best ever seen in the genre. The benefits of zombie school are apparent in the walkers’ performances as they oscillate between slow, mindless wandering to an increased bounce in their step at the faintest whiff of food. It’s one thing to see these creatures in promotional photos, but watching them in motion — better still, hearing these monsters — is unforgettable. Assuming the show is a success, the fact that these zombies will be featured week in and week out on an ongoing television series is bound to make horror fans wonder what they did in their past lives to deserve such brilliant quality. Bravo to Nicotero and his team; they knocked it out of the park.
Really, there’s so much more to gush about when it comes to The Walking Dead — the list is virtually endless — but it all boils down to the same simple fact: as far as pilot episodes go, “Days Gone Bye” is one of the best I’ve ever seen. If the audience shows up on Halloween night and the ratings are there to back it up, there’s no question that The Walking Dead will be both a critical and commercial success.
Believe the hype, folks — judging by the pilot episode alone, this series is everything you want it to be and more.
The Walking Dead premieres on AMC on October 31, 2010 at 10/9 p.m. central.