Over the past decade, zombies have undergone, ironically enough, a pop cultural resurrection. Movies like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland offered clever spins on classic zombie films; video games like the Resident Evil series and the first-person shooter Left 4 Dead allowed players to gun down the undead in real time; and books like Max Brooks' World War Z and Seth-Grahame Smith's irreverent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turned zombies into popular literature.
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The only medium that hasn't been overrun by hordes of the undead is television. It's easy to see why. Zombies lack the soulful, seductive appeal of the tween-friendly vampires in the CW's The Vampire Diairies and the Twilight series (and, for that matter, the decidedly not tween -friendly vampires of HBO's True Blood). With a vocabulary that consists mainly of groans (and, occasionally, "braiiiiiins"), zombies don't tend to make particularly nuanced characters. And the favored method of killing a zombie—a hard blow or gunshot to the head—is far too graphic for primetime television. What kind of network would have the guts to even attempt to make zombies work on the small screen?
Enter AMC, which recently pulled off a second life of its own with innovative, critically-acclaimed original series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. AMC is taking yet another gamble with The Walking Dead: a TV adaptation of a comic book series, centered on a small-town deputy who struggles to survive in an alternate-universe America overcome by flesh-eating zombies. In the wrong hands, such a story could be lurid, gory pulp. In the hands of executive producer and director Frank Darabont (of The Shawshank Redemption fame), The Walking Dead is as dark, intelligent, and uncompromising as any of AMC's other dramas.
In last night's series premiere, "Days Gone Bye," protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakens from a gunshot-induced coma in a nightmarish, abandoned hospital. He has no sense of time, and little sense of place, and everywhere he turns he finds blood or bodies. Racing through his abandoned hometown on a borrowed bicycle, Rick finds that his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) have already left town.
Rick quickly encounters fellow survivors in Morgan (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner). After confirming that Rick is not, in fact, a zombie, Morgan tells Rick that his wife and son have probably traveled to a government-mandated safe zone in Atlanta, Georgia. Morgan is holed up in a reinforced house with Duane, attempting to work up the courage to kill his now-undead wife. In the episode's most devastating scene, Morgan aims at her head through a rifle from a window, almost pulling the trigger several times before collapsing in tears. Morgan's fate is a dark reflection of Rick's worst fears; with his wife and son missing, and with no way to contact them, Rick never knows if he'll turn a corner and find a grotesque perversion of the wife and son he loves.
Of course, we know that his wife and son are alive and well, in a small group of survivors led by Rick's friend and former partner Shane (Jon Bernthal). Rick alludes to marital problems with Lori, and it quickly becomes clear Shane and Lori are having an affair. What's not clear, however, is whether the affair began before the zombie outbreak or after (though a long, pregnant pause between Shane and Rick early in the episode seems to indicate the former). Shane is also attempting to play a kind of surrogate father to Rick's son Carl. If Rick ever catches up with them, Shane will have a lot of explaining to do.
As a former sheriff's deputy, Rick is handy with a gun, and he's quickly established as tough, practical, and quiet. Unfortunately, Rick's stoicism can, in some situations, be both maddening and implausible from a storytelling perspective. After meeting Morgan, you'd expect that Rick would be curious about a few things; "how long ago did this happen," or "is there a cure," or, perhaps most obviously, "what the hell turned everybody into zombies?" The Walking Dead also carries on an illogical genre tradition that began in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead: no one calls the zombies "zombies," though that's obviously what they are.
Or are they? On first glance, the walking dead of The Walking Dead are as generic as zombies come: they rise from the dead, lumber around, and try to eat flesh. But there are tantalizing hints that the undead may have more of their humanity left than it first appears. A zombie that was once a young girl stops to pick up a teddy bear. Morgan's undead wife attempts to open the door that Morgan and Duane are hiding behind. And the bisected zombie that Rick executes reaches feebly toward Rick as he raises his gun, in a gesture of self-preservation that's both pathetic and oddly touching.
"Days Gone Bye" ends with an action set piece as shocking and grim as anything recently seen on television. Riding his horse down a city block, Rick turns a corner, only to be met by dozens of zombies. They lunge at him, hungrily tearing his horse to shreds and feasting on its intestines. Rick hides under a nearby tank (which was presumably abandoned after a failed military strike on the undead). As the zombies close in on him, Rick puts his gun to his head almost shoots himself; at the last second, he discovers an escape route.
Clearly, this kind of despair will be a large part of The Walking Dead; it's difficult to be hopeful surrounded by such hopelessness. But the show offers hope, too. As he prepares to head out on the road, with his entire wardrobe to choose from, Rick selects his deputy uniform. There's a practical concern in appearing as a police officer, of course, but there's a moral concern, too. Rick is a force of good, and his uniform reminds him of it; like Morgan's evening prayers, Duane's comic books, or Lori's photo albums, it reminds him that he's human. In a world of utter lawlessness, that's something to hold onto.
Shock of the Week: The opening scene, in which Rick shoots the zombified young girl in the forehead. Its startling violence and bleakness set the tone for the rest of the episode.
Zombie Survival Tip: Morgan explains that zombies are drawn to sound. Avoid yelling or firing a gun unless absolutely necessary.