The Walking Dead episode 1: Instant zombie classic

Well, the pilot episode anyway. Last night AMC aired the first entry in a six-episode season of The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont’s (Shawshank Redepmtion) adapation of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series. The show was greenlit last year and the countdown began to the first mainstream zombie television show. A sizzle reel was shown at Comic Con in San Diego this last summer and the hype whipped to a near-frenzy. Shot on location in and around Atlanta, GA, that early footage looked so good it was almost like dreaming. The hype continued to build and as reviews came out throughout October, it turned into a fanboy (and girl) frenzy, with zombie-survival enthusiasts writing epic love poems to a show they hadn’t even seen yet all over the internet.

So did The Walking Dead live up to its titanic hype?

Yes.

The pilot, “Days Gone Bye” was cinematic in its achievement—a 90 minute movie with an open ending. Written and directed by Darabont, “Days Gone Bye” looks as good as anything on TV today; yes, even Boardwalk Empire. AMC delivers great period detail on Mad Men and that attention and care is evinced on The Walking Dead, too. After watching the initial broadcast, I watched it on my DVR and paused at several points to study the sets, particularly the hospital’s three sets—hallway, loading dock and exterior—the opening scene’s “tent city” Officer Rick encounters along a highway, Officer Rick’s abandoned street, and the ruined city of Atlanta.

Nothing is missing. In the hospital’s hallway Officer Rick, waking from a coma of several weeks (yes, it smacks of 28 Days Later, no, I don’t care—zombie films are based on the idea of homage-and-escalate), has no clue what has happened and he is plainly horrified by what he sees. There is debris everywhere and then blood. And more blood. And still more blood. I can’t believe how much blood AMC got on network cable. Officer Rick gapes at the wall across the from the nurse’s station where there is a line of bullet holes and blood splatter, attesting that something was lined up and shot here. A little ways down near a door is another pool of blood and what looks like a smeared hand print.

I love the ambiguity of this scene. There are no bodies, so there’s no way to know if this is the result of a defense—it’s easy to picture people stationed behind the nurse’s desk waiting for zombies then firing—or the proof of a terrible act—equally easy to see nurses and doctors lined up for a murder/suicide. The locked and barricaded doors with “Do not open, dead inside” written out in blood are the most effective hospital interior. These words make no sense to Officer Rick and as he approaches the silence gives way to shuffling, thumping, and quiet moaning. The door begins to give and gray hands slip through the crack. Officer Rick backs away, and the movement dies down. The Walking Dead’s zombies appear to be able to sense humanity.

The loading dock looks like something from the evidence in a war crimes trial. Rows of bodies under sheets piled up in the courtyard and a military truck standing by. But whatever this operation, it wasn’t completed. And the hospital exterior—a bombed-out building, helicopters, tanks, more trucks, and bodies. Officer Rick is beyond horror now. He just stares, unable to comprehend what happened.

As played by British actor Andrew Lincoln (Love Actually), Officer Rick is a good guy, a family man, a man of few words. The establishing scene shows us Officer Rick and his partner, Shane (The Pacific’s Jon Bernthal), both Sheriff’s deputies in a small town in Georgia, eating lunch in their cruiser and talking about women. Shane talks fast, crudely, and reads as a somewhat sexist good ole boy. Officer Rick, in contrast, is thoughtful, quiet, and kind, though he does possess a steely side. When Officer Rick says he could never be as cruel to his wife as she is to him, the baffled hurt in his eyes is genuine. There’s some internet bitching that Timothy Olyphant (Justified and lately, The Office) wasn’t cast as Officer Rick, but that one moment showed me why Lincoln was the right man for the job. Further, Lincoln comes with no baggage. Timothy Olyphant always looks kind of like Timothy Olyphant to me, but Lincoln IS Officer Rick. From now on, whenever I watch Love Actually, I will say, “Officer Rick!” when Lincoln comes on screen.

There was also internet bitching about the Southern accents adopted by the cast. Since The Walking Dead is set in Georgia, it would be authentic for everyone to have a twang. Based on the comments from early reviewers, I was expecting some “Aw shucks, ma ’n pa gots to warsh the clothes nawr” stuff. Instead I got acceptable accents of varying strength that had a tendency to fade in and out. Lincoln does appear to struggle a bit with mastering his English dialect, but I never thought, at any time, that anyone’s accent was so bad it broke reality for me. I think people may have been expecting some Scarlett O’Hara stuff when really, especially around metropolitan centers like Atlanta, the Southern accents aren’t as strong as you think. I have a lot of cousins around Atlanta—Officer Rick sounded pretty much like them.

The rest of the cast is adequate though no one manages to top Lincoln for the pilot, though Lennie James (Hung, Jericho) comes close as Morgan, the man trying to keep it together with his son after his wife became a zombie (very effective scene—Morgan can’t kill his zombie-wife). Everyone else was pretty much scenery in this episode, frankly. Shane gets two scenes, the establishing one with Officer Rick and one later—which will make you hate him—that shows him with a small band of survivors, including the wife and son for whom Officer Rick is desperately searching. Shane macks on Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies, Prison Break), Officer Rick’s wife, and at first I was like, “Survival slut!” but in rewatching the scene with Officer Rick and Shane I noticed how shifty Shane looked when he asked  about Lori and I revisited Officer Rick’s remarks about Lori’s “cruelty” and how she seems different. Now I think Shane was already involved with Lori before the zombie apocalypse, which actually makes me hate them more as then they can’t claim “grief” and “need to reaffirm life in the presence of constant death” to excuse their actions.

There are a few stand-out moments in the 90 minute pilot—Officer Rick awakening in the abandoned hospital is one, Morgan’s attempt to eliminate his zombie-wife is another, but my favorite moment was in the middle of the episode. As he walks home from the hospital Officer Rick spots…something…in the grass. He looks at it long enough to see it start moving then he scuttles on by. It’s pretty clear it’s a legless corpse but Officer Rick ain’t getting close enough to make sure. Later, with an understanding of what has happened during his coma, Officer Rick walks past the spot where he saw the legless corpse. Only now it’s gone, and there’s a trail in the grass. He follows it into a field and in this pastoral setting he finds the zombie dragging itself along, its jaw working feebly as it looks for something to devour. He crouches down and studies the entity and apologizes to it for this terrible thing that has happened to it. Then he pulls out his huge revolver (seriously, what caliber is that thing?) and as the zombie reaches toward him he blows its brains out. Officer Rick has unburdened himself of his sympathy. It doesn’t mean he won’t be moved by suffering—because he will—it just means he isn’t wasting time with zombies anymore. The price of a zombie apocalypse is the loss of humanity—not only for the zombies but for the survivors, for they must do otherwise horrible things to survive.

The zombie kills were impressive. The moment in the field isn’t close to the best kill. My favorite was Officer Rick’s first zombie kill, when he eliminates a former colleague through a chain link fence. The blood is copious and there’s some brains hanging out and it’s gross and awful and the camera remains steady as the body slumps out of frame so we’re left with that decomposing arm clutching to the fence. It’s those moments of recognizable human activity that are so horrible. This is best shown in the opening scene, an out-of-sequence look at Officer Rick on his way to Atlanta.

While looking for gas he wanders through a tent city set up along the highway—traffic being so permanently bad that people obviously abandoned their cars and opted to walk. Amidst the silence he hears a scuffling and we see, as he crouches down and looks below a car, a pair of dirt, fuzzy slippers on small feet. That figure pauses and bends down, but does not see Officer Rick; instead it picks up a teddy bear. Officer Rick moves around and sees a little girl in a bath robe. She turns and, yes, it’s a zombie. Officer Rick does the right thing. It’s a great opening scene because right away it shows that nothing and no one is safe. Anyone can become a zombie and they must all be eliminated, without hesitation or mercy. No exceptions.

The real achievement of “Days Gone Bye”, though, lies in its use of silence and space. For a 90 minute, well, movie essentially, there isn’t much dialogue. Long stretches of story happen while Officer Rick is alone, and most of his communicating is done with his face and body language. Even the score is often dormant as Darabont elects to let the natural sounds of an empty landscape carry the scene. There are few truly empty vistas—everywhere are scenes of abandonment and destruction—yet the sense of Officer Rick being truly alone is strong. Long sweeping shots of barren horizons add to the effect. It’s a cinematic achievement and I hope one day this episode is aired in a movie theater.

We’ll revisit The Walking Dead at the end of its six-episode run to see if the rest of the season lives up to the phenomenal pilot. I have very high hopes after seeing just how good this show can be. But even if the remaining episodes are somehow less than, this one, “Days Gone By”, may be the single best episode of anything ever aired on television.

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7 thoughts on “The Walking Dead episode 1: Instant zombie classic

  1. Lula

    Don’t eyeroll me for what I’m about to say, but rather take it for what it’s intended to be, and that’s the highest praise I can impart for this gem of a pilot episode:

    “Days Gone By” was, for me, as utterly brilliant, captivating, intriguing, and noteworthy as Lost’s pilot. I’ve never said that about any other television show…not Mad Men. Not Dexter. Not even Friday Night Lights. Never have I ranked any hour (or hour and a half) of television on an even keel with Lost. Until last night.

    Again, from a die-hard, my blood bleeds Oceanic 815 blue Lostie, this is the highest praise I can give to The Walking Dead. It would be easier to say, “I freaking loved it.” But where’s the fun in that?

    My favorite moment of the episode? Rick trotting along the streets of Atlanta atop the horse. The clopping of the animal’s hooves shattering the silence of the city was the perfect prelude to the chaos we knew Rick would inevitably face. A small moment, but truly effective…I loved it.

  2. I freaking loved it! LOL. But, truly, I did. I have a thing for zombie flicks, and I definitely felt like the pilot lived up to the trailer. Am totally crushing on Andrew Lincoln, and, while I really like the stuff Timothy Olyphant has done recently, I always end up distracted by the crowns/veneers he has on his upper teeth. What can I say? I’m a little shallow when it comes to teeth.

  3. Arianna McGregor

    Excellent assessment. When you watch it again (if you watch it again) check out the noticeable lack of foley at the very start, and throughout the pilot the use (or non-use) of ambient sound. The gradual flies in the bodies-outside-the-hospital scene. Brilliant. The post-sound folks mirrored the silence and space you mentioned. And, yes, oh joy, the bloodnguts. I’m really pleased with the network for doing whatever it did to be able to do the goo properly.

  4. Heidi

    I cannot believe what they accomplished in this first hour and a half. AMC has surpassed it’s already established reputation of creating quality shows. I completely agree with Sarah. This may be the single best episode in TV history.

    For the first time in my Zombie movie loving history, I felt very emotional about a Zombie. I wanted Rick to kill the half-corpse. Not just because of what it was but to save it from what it had become. I’m not sure if this signifies a loss of humanity or if it represents a new definition of the word. Rick felt compassion for what had happened and while he knew there was no room for feelings like that anymore, in reality, he DID do the only compassionate thing he could do. “Kill” it.

    1. Arianna McGregor

      I agree completely. He made a point of going back for Lady Legless. The fact that he apologized for what had happened to her (not in the book BTW, maybe they were worried about misunderstandings?) made his compassion unmistakeable, if not a little obvious.

      The half corpse isn’t the usual gross zombie either. She’s gross, but she’s also sad, pathetic, weak and miserable. Watching her struggle to fulfil her imperative to feed was heartbreaking.

      Yes. Mercy Killing. Not a loss of humanity but I’d argue a very strong expression of humanity.

  5. Pingback: Zombies are the New Vampire (?) « AngryEgg

  6. Ellie

    It is a great episode. Watched it with my spouse in varying degrees of wonder, dread and squeamish horror. Thought the tank scene was also pretty good, especially the realism of the ringing noise from the gunshot.

    The gun in question is a .44 magnum. Not standard police issue.

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