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July 24, 2014

'The Walking Dead' Review: A Zombie Tale Made with Brains

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 29th 2010 1:00PM
A question recently fielded on Twitter: "'Walking Dead,' yea or nay? Wifey doesn't like gore, trying to convince her otherwise. First impressions? Suggestions to convince my wife?"

Thanks, Isaiah B., for ruining my week.

OK, I kid -- Isaiah is a frequent (and appreciated) Twitter correspondent whose TV preferences are largely aligned with my own.

Yet in this case, I'm with Isaiah's wife: I'm no fan of gore. For me, horror fare has to be firmly centered on the relationships, the characters and the metaphors for emotional turmoil, or I find a hiding spot behind the couch, fingers firmly pressed in ears.

So what should I tell Mrs. Isaiah about 'The Walking Dead' (10PM ET Sunday, AMC), which, thanks to the sure hand of skilled storyteller Frank Darabont, is unquestionably a cut above most scary fare? I've spent a few days wrestling with this question.

On the whole, I'd say 'The Walking Dead' worth a look, no matter what your genre preferences, but horror aficionados are more likely to enjoy this intense, blood-spattered tale, which, like all AMC dramas, is about as aesthetically well-crafted as a TV show can be.

It's an open question as to whether 'The Walking Dead's' characters, who are mostly types in the first two episodes, will become as compelling as they need to be to sustain our interest going forward, but the upside is, the first season of 'Walking Dead' is only six episodes long. If the characters end up being mere cogs in the plot machinery, it won't matter because they won't stick around enough (or perhaps live long enough) to grate.

But if my fellow non-horror people end up watching, I'm just saying, brace yourselves: 'The Walking Dead' is scary. The 90-minute pilot is enormously effective at creating tension -- almost too effective for a gore wuss like me.

As much fun as it is to get lost in zombie metaphors -- Are they a commentary on a too-pliant populace? Stumbling reminders of death and loss? Ambling avatars of the random pain and suffering that life inflicts? -- Darabont never forgets that that the main point of an undead saga is to supply suspense and well-timed bursts of bloody violence. Some of the action and plot twists have a wry cleverness, but this is no 'Shaun of the Dead.'

In the opening scenes of 'The Walking Dead,' a wounded sheriff named Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up in a hospital that is quiet -- too quiet, of course. He soon discovers that the country has been overrun by an illness that turned people into the shuffling, flesh-loving corpses of the title, and in his quest to find his family, he meets a few freaked-out survivors, and lots and lots of zombies.

If your idea of a good time is wondering when an undead person is going to pop out from the edge of the frame, then you'll probably eat up 'The Walking Dead' like a zombie scarfing intestines. Yet there's very little overkill in 'The Walking Dead'; Darabont knows that the way to induce dread is by making you wonder what lurks around the corner. And the fear here is tinged with melancholy; like 'Breaking Bad,' the visually striking 'Walking Dead' knows how to use space to indicate loneliness and isolation.

When you think about it, Grimes does have a good deal in common with Don Draper of 'Mad Men,' Walter White of 'Breaking Bad' and Will Travers of 'Rubicon': Like them, Rick is a bereft, determined man who has lost something important and refuses to give up on a quest that he thinks will save him, or at least achieve some security for his family.

Yet Rick has almost none of the complexity of AMC's other flawed leads, and over time, this may prove problematic. The only thing 'The Walking Dead' requires of its cast, in the early going anyway, is competence, and all the actors are capable of that. It's not clear that anything more will be required of them, though the pressure-cooker environment of the zombie apocalypse is certain to supply opportunities for dramatic confrontations among the mixed bag of survivors.

There are those who may prefer the intensity of 'The Walking Dead's' pilot, but for me, it was a relief when the second episode of 'The Walking Dead' dialed down the suspense and turned the show into a more recognizable "band of survivors on a mission" tale. If 'The Walking Dead' had sustained the first episode's level of tension indefinitely, the show would have lost me.

And though there isn't a Sawyer or a Hurley or a Ben Linus in the bunch, I'm willing to see if 'The Walking Dead' will supply a compelling version of something 'Lost's' producers jokingly promised that show's fans for year: A zombie season.


Fun fact: In this piece, I asked if readers thought it was a good idea to read the Robert Kirkman graphic novels on which 'The Walking Dead' is based before watching the TV show. In the end, I decided not to read the books before watching the show. I hope to catch up with Kirkman's stories soon, perhaps after season 1 of 'The Walking Dead' ends.

For more on 'The Walking Dead' from executive producer Gale Ann Hurd, look here. For more from the show's cast, look here.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Piecar

I think the show needed all the elements that happened in both eps so far, with the exception of the over the top cheating wife and friend element.

The "graphic novel" thing is ridiculous. The comic comes out every month, (at one point, every two weeks) it tells incomplete stories, framed by climactic events every issue. That's a comic book. Pretend however you like. But you ain't fooling me.

November 08 2010 at 11:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Shouty D.

I find it strange that you're willing to make swooping generalizations about character development after only one or two episodes, yet you refused to do any research about the story. It's almost, ALMOST, like you're purposefully (and ignorantly) bashing on the character/story development WAY too soon.

November 01 2010 at 4:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ColleenO

Watched the first half hour snd LOVED it! I love horror movies that can scare with what they DONT show- ala the door that had "Dont Open, Dead Inside" scrawled on it and banging from the other side... ooooh, creepily delicious! Then it got a little too much for my son and his two buddies, (all 12 years old) that I was watching it with, but I hit that DVR button to see the rest today!!! (I will see if those 12 year olds can make it through it with me!)

November 01 2010 at 11:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dec2006

Kinda bragging a bit, but I was an extra in the filming of the first episode. I even attended the 'zombie school' they put on. One thing I learned in my limited exposure to them, is that Frank Darabont and makeup guru Nicotero (who spoke to us at zombie school-- incredibly engaging) have a serious love for the genre. And they really don't want to screw this up!

When all is said and done I believe this show will be one of the greats, and I really, really, really hope they come back to film in Atlanta for season 2!

October 30 2010 at 6:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dec2006's comment
SF

Greg Nicotero started out working on George Romero's Day of the Dead back in the mid-80s, so he really knows his zombies.

October 30 2010 at 7:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lazaruslupin

I agree with the above commentor the characters gain complexity over the course of the original work. It starts with "just ordinary people" and they just get worn away into something quite different than they used to be by the events. As an example from another work consider the hobbits in LOTR. They start out fairly callow. They are just interested in having a good time and have no idea what they are in for. Look at what Frodo and Sam became at the end of Return of the King and you have just an itty bitty idea how our little sheriff here evolves in the time of zombies.

October 29 2010 at 11:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Borat

Just wait and see how Rick develops. It's astonishing how different the Rick from issue 1 is compared to the one in issue 78 (the current issue).

October 29 2010 at 6:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rick Chung

Living with 'The Walking Dead' :: http://j.mp/bhZFV1

October 29 2010 at 4:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GerryofNorVA

I hope AMC does better with this than they did with "RubiCON" which doubled as a sleep aid. My interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies died long ago in childhood so hopefully this series will succeed on plot and themes than on the more obvious decaying elements.

October 29 2010 at 3:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
olddarth

As a big horror - true horror not slash/torture porn - fan your review has very excited.

TWD as a series can really explore what is like for the survivors to cope with the long term realities of living in such a world beyond the initial outbreak stages.

October 29 2010 at 2:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JordanFromJersey

While Rick might not start out as a complex character, if they stay even slightly close to the comics he will be one before very long. I think it's actually one of the great beauties of the comic that Rick starts out as a very boring guy, but over time becomes a man who has to make terrible decisions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.(without getting too spoilery anyway.)

I look forward to the show's premier on Sunday night. So much in fact, that we've already begun podcasting about it at www.walkingdeadtv.com ...sorry about the plug.

I hope by the end of the season Rick will start to show the complexity he may be lacking in the pilot so you can enjoy his character's growth as much as we have in the comics Mo. :)

-JFJ

October 29 2010 at 2:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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