This review contains spoilers for the pilot episode of AMC's "The Walking Dead"
AMC's new zombie series, The Walking Dead," - based on Robert Kirkman's Image Comics series of the same name - begins with a startling cold open. Main character Rick Grimes is searching for gas when he discovers a rural service station overrun with cars and corpses. As he approaches a pump, he hears the shuffling of feet and spots a young girl. When she turns around and reveals she is one of the undead, Rick quickly makes a choice that will shock viewers new to the world of the series or the zombie premise as a whole. One could say the scene, simultaneously deliberate, creepy and engrossing, is a statement of intent as the following eighty minutes unfold in much the same fashion.
Following a short credit sequence, the story returns to some time before the dead outbreak occurs with Rick and his deputies ready to stop a high speed pursuit. After being shot by one of the suspects, Rick slips in and out of consciousness only to wake after his town has gone to Hell. Rick stumbles out of his bed and encounters all the zombie film staples; blood splattered walls, flickering fluorescent lights, even a cordoned off area with the hastily painted warning: "DO NOT OPEN, DEAD INSIDE." Once outside, he sees (literally) tons of bodies laid out on the ground and an abandoned military command post. It is a great albeit somewhat familiar set-up thanks to films like "28 Days Later," though in this case the intended message is, "The zombie movie already happened. Here is what comes next."
While trying to get home, Rick encounters Morgan Jones, a survivor who explains to Rick - and the audience - what has happened during the sheriff's coma. This is where the episode really picks up steam, building tension as Morgan tries to figure out if Rick was bitten or just shot. Instead of a full-on zombie attack, Morgan and his son Duane prepare Rick for his first night in the new world. As the dead gather outside, we learn Morgan's wife is now one of the "walkers" (as Morgan refers to them) and see the impact of the outbreak on the Jones family in a scene illustrating the horror of survival.
While it is somewhat difficult to judge Andrew Lincoln's performance as Rick Grimes, much credit and praise goes to Lennie James as Morgan Jones and Adrian Kali Turner as his son Duane. During their time on screen, they have the unenviable task of making the show's premise become an all-too gripping reality. With Jones' always welcome gravitas and Turner's quick switches from man to child, the pair offers viewers their first taste of what life is like for those that have survived the zombies thus far.
In some ways, the pilot episode, titled "Days Gone Bye," is more about Morgan than it is about Rick. While we are presented with Rick's emotional distance before the outbreak, it takes a back seat as he plays the observer in this new reality where his wife and son could very well already be dead or, worse, walkers. For Morgan, there is the immediate conflict: can he shoot the walker that was once his wife and move on to the next cache of supplies? As an added bonus, can he do this without his son seeing it happen? This may be what sets "The Walking Dead" apart from most other genre shows of the past. The jeopardy is emotional and, heightened by the fantastical presence of zombies, it has an intensity one could not get as quickly on, say, a space ship show or even a medical drama, for that matter.
Once fairly recovered from his wounds, Rick makes plans to head for Atlanta, rumored to be a secure place for survivors. As he drives up the highway in a sheriff's vehicle, he broadcasts his position for anyone who might have a two-way radio. It is here the viewer is are given a fleeting glimpse of his wife Lori, son Carl and a group of survivors who will play parts in the ensuing five episodes of the series' first season. One conflict with Rick's co-worker Shane is immediately set-up, though the group does not actually make contact with Rick.
Instead, Rick rides (on horseback) into the episode's big zombie sequence, accidentally stumbling upon - and into - a herd of walkers waiting for live flesh. While Rick narrowly escapes, the horse he rode in on is not so lucky. It is at this point we first see the dead ripping open a carcass and eating gooey innards. The imagery is a staple of the zombie film, but is held in reserve in "The Walking Dead" as a crescendo moment, and even then, it's a horse rather than a person that gets to be the first on-screen victim. The scene is intense, well executed and offers the claustrophobic atmosphere of any good zombie film.
The episode is beautifully shot by director of photography David Tattersall, a veteran of the "Star Wars" prequels, while being directed with great skill by veteran filmmaker Frank Darabont. While a great deal of the story occurs during daylight hours, the team still makes the post-apocalyptic world seem enclosed, dark and unsettling. The production also makes great use of its Georgia locations. Lacking the familiarity of the usual California or Canadian production hot-spots, the show feels all the more authentic. Also, they make use of a slow zoom-in technique that was once popular on television. Now all but extinct, the zoom adds to the sense of dread in the often picturesque landscapes.
If the episode is missing anything, it is more time to explore the main character. We only get a loose feeling for Rick, as his role in this episode mainly to introduce the viewers to the series' world and premise. Of course, the show has five more hours this season to flesh him out along with his relationship with his family and how it will be redefined by the outbreak. In this episode, Rick merely has to survive and be driven enough to keep the audience interested - which he does.
Like the pilot's cold open, "The Walking Dead" promises to be startling and unusual. It appears to be a zombie story with a high regard to its characters combined with a high quality production and a horror premise at its core. It is genre material taken seriously and, as an opening for a series, a strong beginning.
"The Walking Dead" premiers on AMC October 31 at 10/9c