AMC’s newest series,The Walking Dead, is awesome. At least, the pilot is.Before I am jumped all over for expressing that opinion, I’d like to break down why I think it is such, and what the series has to offer.
Zombie fans have had plenty of movies made over the years. Some of the more serious ones, like 28 Days Later, have been intensely scary. Lately, zombies have also been a fodder for comedy, with Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, which have actually increased the zombie fan base. Personally, I have never been a fan of the genre, but the comedy attempts introduced me to enjoyable zombies, and I can take the more horror-driven if there is a good plot. The Walking Dead goes for the serious route, creating creatures that are gross and hungry for flesh. They are very dangerous, and out to eat you.
While zombies are traditionally slow, more current films have imbibed them with supernatural speed, making them that much more deadly, and much harder to escape. The Walking Dead goes for a middle ground. They can move sort of fast when they need to, and when excited into a feeding frenzy. Usually, they move slow, or lie around until something disturbs them. The real threat from Walking Dead zombies are being trapped by a pack, and not having an escape route. This happened to Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, Love Actually) at the end of the pilot, and he found refuge in a tank.
Like speed, zombies’ intelligence have been approached in different ways. Some are so dumb they can’t even turn a door knob. Walking Dead zombies do not fall into that category. However, they don’t seem smart enough to throw things through windows or use a sledgehammer to break down doors, either. They are not scared off by bullets, but I’ve never seen a zombie that was. Fire remains to be seen.
What the scariest zombie movies do is build suspense, keeping a tight knot in your stomach for the duration. The Walking Dead certainly did that. Whether Grimes was walking down a dark staircase, or approaching a city known to be dangerous on a horse, my adrenaline never stopped pumping. The danger element was ever-present, and camera angles frequently kept the wide shot a mystery, making things seem even more precarious.
The camera work was spectacular. AMC is known for making beautiful-looking shows. Blood, guts, and gore don’t really count as aesthetically pleasing, but the landscapes were nice. And each shot was executed with care and precision. The pilot felt so well made, I couldn’t help but be pulled in. Certainly, even if you are not a zombie fan, you can appreciate elements that fall into place with such care?
The biggest question is, are zombies ripe for a series, and will fans keep tuning in week after week? I believe the audience for this type of show is limited. Plenty of people can’t stand the genre, and few non-zombie fans (except, perhaps, myself) will be drawn into the premise. It will never reach a super-wide fanbase, but zombie lovers have bought enough tickets to sell many a movie, so perhaps they are abundant enough to sustain a weekly television show.
I can’t imagine The Walking Dead will not appeal to the zombie-philes. All of the traditional elements are there, in such rich detail. The pilot felt like an R-rated movie, with so much gore I couldn’t believe I was watching basic cable. This is what they love, and so, as long as they can find it, there’ll be some fans.
A huge part of zombie stories, though, usually involves most of the main characters being picked off one by one. Here is where The Walking Dead has to be careful. Yes, characters have to die in order to keep interest and the sense of impending doom strecthed out for many installments. Yet, it would get old to keep finding new pockets of survivors. In this case, important deaths will need to be doled out slowly, not allowing the body county to rise swiftly. The longer the show goes on, the more attached viewers will become to their favorite characters, and each death will carry a risk of alienating fans of a certain actor. But if death is not a regular part of the show, more will tune out because the series will seem too tame for zombie fans.
So far, everything looks great, and the people playing the survivors of the zombie plague are all decent enough performers. There is mystery, as the audience is still in the dark about where the pathogen came from or how it spread (I assume it’s a pathogen; it often is). There seems to be a fairly large cast, which will support periodic killings, although very few had much screen time in the first episode.
There is also human drama. Grimes is searching for his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies, Prison Break), who is holed up with his former partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal, The Pacific, The Class). They believe that he is dead, so it’s not really cheating, right? Although Grimes has not yet found them, previews and pictures released online reveal that it won’t be long before he does. Also, one of the most moving moments from the pilot dealt with Morgan (Lennie James, Jericho) trying to bring himself to shoot his zombie-wife.
Smart writers will pull a Resident Evil, giving tidbits at a time of the backstory, and be willing to extend the universe periodically, with new directions that fit with what’s come before, but still feel fresh.
The first episode of The Walking Dead will re-run several times this weekend, and new episodes air Sunday nights at 10pm on AMC.