The Walking Dead: “Pilot”


The Walking Dead


AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM

Teleplay by Frank Darabont

Directed by Frank Darabont

“The fever burns you out. But then, after awhile, you come back.” — Morgan

In the first scene of AMC’s new series, The Walking Dead, the hero shoots a little blonde girl carrying a teddy bear in the head. We’re supposed to accept this gory head shot, because her face is a nightmare; we’re supposed to approve because she’s a zombie, not a “real” human being. I find that point of view repellent and callous, and it’s why I’m not normally a fan of zombie movies. I just don’t get the attraction; splatter for its own sake turns me off. So I am delighted to find that The Walking Deadtranscends much of the, er, tripe that passes for horror in zombie films, to showcase some interesting questions about the human soul, about humanity. A horror or dark fantasy fan could not ask for better production values: a top flight cast, A-list director/writer, production values that are the equal of a medium-budget movie. The special effects were everything one could hope for in a horror movie, or at least as much as one could hope for in a horror movie in which most of the action takes place in broad daylight (which makes it even harder for the special effects folks). I thinkThe Walking Dead has the legs for a full season. It remains to be seen whether there’s enough here to hold my interest that long.

Our hero, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, Love Actually), is a Georgia deputy sheriff who possesses, to his credit, more empathy and self-awareness than your average cinema cop. Right off the bat, Frank Darabont earns points just for having a hero who breaks the Southern-redneck cop stereotype. I’m glad not to have to sit through yet another version of Jackie Gleason’s God-awful Buford T. Justice. Grimes is partnered up with a good-old-boy redneck, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal, The Pacific), who likes to liven up patrol duty with rants about the bitchiness of women. Five minutes into that scene, I was praying that the zombies would eat him first. As these two brawny cops are letting their hair down, talking about relationships and feelings, they are interrupted by a call to intervene in a high-speed pursuit. Chase ensues, followed by steely-eyed, manly scenes with speeding cars and gunshots. Rick is shot. Fade to white. Dream sequence in which Shane talks to Rick about flowers, choking back tears. Fade to white again, and Rick wakes up in a deserted hospital. He painfully resurrects himself from his hospital bed and finds that the world has become an abattoir. The apocalypse has come and gone while he slept.

The rest of the episode is a combination of exposition and establishment. Rick heads for home, encounters horrific zombies, is suitably repelled. At his house, he finds his wife and son are gone, but no signs of violence. He meets Morgan (Lennie James, Jericho) and his son, survivors of whatever plague has taken over the world, who take him in, feed him, and explain – badly – what has happened. I give credit to Frank Darabont for giving us the thinnest, most threadbare “explanation” in zombie history, in a completely convincing manner. This scene, in fact, is one that really showcases what is right about this show. In the subdued, twilit dinner scene, three human survivors eat and talk quietly, trying not to attract the notice of the zombies wandering around outside the house. The meal opens with a blessing, delivered with no irony and much feeling. The whispered secrets are oblique, grim, soaked in grief and fear. Mostly in grief, which is the touch of genius in this story—the emergence of the undead into the world is occasion for tears as well as shrieks. Morgan’s son sobs heartbreakingly when he spots his zombified mother outside; Morgan confesses that he has not been able to bring himself to “put her down”.

The survivors arm themselves at the local cop shop, with time out for a buddy shower. Morgan elects to stay behind with his son while Rick moves on. Embarking on his own personal quest, Rick rides a horse into downtown Atlanta, allowing the producers to give us a lot of long shots of deserted streets. If you’re a native of Atlanta, no doubt this was thrilling. Everywhere he goes, Rick finds corpses and evidence that, if Atlanta was once a refuge, it isn’t now. The best scene comes when he turns a corner and finds that the street is literally filled with zombies. They give chase, Rick is unhorsed and loses his weapons. He scuttles under a tank, finds a way in (from underneath? What kind of tank has a door on the bottom?) and slams the hatch shut. He’s safe, but trapped. With a corpse he has to shoot. We end on a retreating shot of a horde of zombies swarming the tank, tearing the horse apart, and a voice on the radio mocking Rick. Is that a zombie on the radio? Can they speak? Now that would be an interesting story. And God knows, this series may to need one.

The trouble is, there is no inherent story in a zombie tale. People die, come back, shamble about, drool blood, and try to eat the living. If we’re lucky, they sing and dance behind Michael Jackson, but most of the time they are pathetic grotesqueries more suited to showing off the talents of a makeup artist than the talents of a storyteller. They function best as metaphor, not plot. The Walking Dead tries to be a mix of The Odyssey and 28 Days Later. We discover that, like Homer’s Penelope, Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies, Prison Break) has survived. However, Shane has also survived, taken over the encampment where the survivors are holed up, and is “involved” with her. We are allowed to surmise that this involvement pre-dates the opening conversation in the patrol car, which paints Shane not only as a seducer but a traitor to his partner. Rick’s son Carl, standing in here for Telemachus, is around as well, mostly looking confused and resentful when Shane gives him orders. You can almost see him thinking, “You’re not the boss of me!” No doubt he will ally with Rick/Ulysses against Shane when they finally meet up. The series is going to have to piggyback on some such myth, because as presented, there’s not much here to go on with. Zombies drool, the living rule. End of story.

As I noted, I’m not much for zombie flicks. I like survival and/or apocalypse stories, however, so there’s enough here to garner my attention—briefly. Finding one’s way among the ruins of one’s own civilization affords much material for irony and/or commentary, and there is always the attraction of the familiar made homicidal to add piquancy. The transformation of the hero into Ulysses works as well: the ache of loss, the hope of reunion driving the hero is always good story material. Darabont has even cleverly worked in the paranoia of betrayal, in the person of Shane – otherwise, it’s all too easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys in a zombie story. Subtle, it’s not.

Fortunately, we have a better-than-average writer at the helm. I like the way Frank Darabont thinks. I have ever since he wrote the screenplay for the best cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein, ever since he wrote the adaptation for Stephen King’s The Green Mile. All of those films carried an undertone of quiet tension, an undertone Darabont finds again in these all too silent scenes in Georgia. What I especially liked about Darabont’s work in the past is that he recognizes humanity when he sees it. In films like The Mist and The Shawshank Redemption, we see human reactions to extreme stress: people freak out, become paranoid, turn vicious. And they also find humanity and compassion in themselves. Rick shows compassion when he goes back to find the first zombie he encountered. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” he says, and pulls the trigger in a coup-de-grace. It’s not an ironic moment, not a moment soaked in black humor. It’s a moment of telling humanity, the recognition that this horror in front of him was once a human being, and would have wanted oblivion rather than this nightmare. It also reflects and comments on the opening scene with the little blonde girl, and now we can recognize that head shot as Rick being merciful, rescuing that child from an unbearable reality and giving her peace. It is not a good choice, but it is the only one left for a man with a soul. Lincoln, the very epitome of cool Englishman in real life, here is completely convincing as a Southern sheriff’s deputy. When called into action, he is quick, efficient, ruthless as necessary. His grief at his wife’s absence, his stunned bewilderment, and his silent acceptance of the chaos he has awakened to are all brought very fully into the light. The acting talent in this show could not be better. Lincoln and James ably balance a story arc about wives and sons between them.

James’ Morgan has the worst choice of all: whether to protect his son by killing what’s left of his beloved wife. The sheer mayhem of your ordinary zombie movie, focused on exploding heads and goopy entrails, is here transformed into real tragedy, real grief, and the exploration of what makes us human. Like all stories involving the transformation of humans into something else, the question is really about what makes us human. In zombie lore, which reflects traditional Christian lore, it’s not the corrupt body which makes us human, but the indestructible soul. There’s plenty of soul in this story so far, which gives it, in my opinion, a leg up on all other zombie stories.

And the idea of that horse coming back as a zombie may keep me up nights for awhile.

The Walking Dead had a massive marketing campaign, so I am not surprised to see it debut with impressive numbers. A preliminary accumulated rating shows that 5.6 million viewers tuned in, with 3.6 million in the 18-49 demographic. AMC claims that this is the highest rating in its history for an original series, which is still like claiming to be the tallest dwarf in the room. Broadcast networks have cancelled series with numbers that high, but for a cable series it’s deliriously good news. Critical reviews are through the roof, hailing The Walking Dead as the second coming of zombies. Perhaps the current fad for vampires will segue into a fad for zombies, who knows? I do know that, given the talent on exhibit in these first 90 minutes, I confidently expect not to be let down by the second episode.