Last night saw the premiere of The Walking Dead on Channel Five. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), it tells the story of a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.
The show is based on a series of comics written by Robert Kirkman. He came up with the concept after seeing a lot of zombie movies and wondering: “What the future would hold for the survivors after the credits rolled?” Since the zombies would now be an ever-present part of society, what impact would this have on people in the long-term?
Comics gave Kirkman the luxury of having time to explore such an apocalyptic world. As such, it became obvious that were there to be an adaptation of his work, it would have be done through the medium of an on-going television series, rather than a one-off film. Up stepped Frank Darabont, who follows the trend of directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese in moving from the medium of film into television.
The opening episode “Days Gone By” focuses on Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a deputy sheriff in a small town. He gets shot just before the apocalypse hits, and wakes up in hospital a few days later to find he is the only one there. Fans of 28 Days Later will note the striking similarity to that film’s opening scene. Then again, fans of the novel Day of the Triffids will point out this idea was adapted from the opening scene to the 1950s book. In short, if you suspect an apocalypse in coming, get yourself checked into a hospital asap.
The rest of the episode sees us following Rick as he tries to find his wife and son, as well as coming to terms with the horror of the zombie outbreak that has hit his small town.
The Walking Dead is a very well-shot, well-directed piece of television that has a brilliantly cinematic feel to it. In particular its use of make-up and gore is amongst the best of any television show made; really adding to the tension and horror of what Grimes is experiencing on screen.
It is difficult to take away a huge amount more from the pilot, since the characters themselves are barely introduced. Instead, the opening episode is much more interested in introducing the new, bleak, lonely world Grimes finds himself in; a world where silence is broken only by the groans of corpses unable to find solace in death.
Having read around the first 24 editions of the comic I have a fair idea of what lies ahead. If I had any criticism of the story, it is that it remains unflinchingly devoted to the bleak sense that things are never going to get any better. Any happiness or joy that the characters experience is only ever short-lived. The world they inhabit is never going to return to what it once was; things are going to get much worse before they get any better.
Normally I can handle this type of despondincy fine in books and films. In particular, Cormac McCarthy’s unflinchingly sober The Road has been one of my favourite novels of recent years. However, Kirkman’s decision to continue telling this apocalyptic tale over a number of years in his comics, meant I found it difficult to invest in characters for whom I knew there was slim chance of survival.
For me to invest more heavily in Darabont’s adaptation for the small screen, I feel like there needs to be a more tangible sense of hope. There needs to be a reason for these people to keep living, an exploration of the things that truly matter. If Darabont can do this, I think The Walking Dead could be among the most exciting and involving shows on television today.
The Walking Dead airs every Sunday on Channel 5 at 10 p.m. If you missed the opening episode, it is available on their website for the next week (UK users only)