Judge Mike Rubino can lead a horse to zombies, but he can't make them eat.
Our reviews of Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (published October 12th, 2009), The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published August 17th, 2012), The Walking Dead: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published August 27th, 2013), and The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published March 4th, 2011) are also available.
Rick: "I woke up today…in the hospital, came home, and that's all I know." Morgan: "But you know about the dead people, right?"
Zombies have always been popular, but in the last few years they've risked overstaying their welcome. The undead infested everything from videogames and direct-to-DVD releases to comics and classic literature. There are plenty of shambling brain-eaters to satiate even the hungriest fan, but quantity is beginning to overrun quality.
It's in this dangerously over-saturated atmosphere that AMC delivered The Walking Dead, the first zombie-drama television series. Like a gang of strangers barricading themselves in a mall, it was a big time risk. Lucky for us, it paid off.
Facts of the Case
Officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, Love Actually) wakes up from a coma after being shot on duty. He's not sure how long he's been out, but his bedside flowers have wilted…and the world is overrun by zombies. Now Rick has to find his wife and kids, and make sense of the horrors, both living and dead, that await him in this new world.
The Walking Dead is based on the long-running comic book by Robert Kirkman.
The problem with recent zombie fiction has always been quantity over quality. There have been plenty of z-movies over the years, more than most monsters in the horror genre, and yet only a handful are actually worth your time; the same goes for videogames, and, heck, decent zombie books are even rarer. The most successful entries into the genre are the ones that realize the zombies aren't what's important. Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman get that.
The Walking Dead is a show about survival, compassion, and connection, all of which take place amongst the living members of the cast. Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) spent years fighting to get the series off the ground, and the result is a polished, somber, and often heartbreaking show that pays its dues to the genre while reaching for something much higher. The Walking Dead's cinematic aspirations are apparent from the first moments of the pilot episode, "Days Gone Bye." Darabont, who wrote and directed the 90-minute premiere, establishes a style guide for the series: the visuals are washed out and grainy (it's filmed on 16mm), the pace is as slow and deliberate as the lumbering zombies, and the atmosphere is dour and humorless.
The pilot is the crowning achievement of the show's first season. Rick's awakening in the hospital is followed by one silent sequence after another as he explores a dead world: decaying corpses littering the hospital hallways, body bags filling the parking lots, a crawling torso wriggling around in a nearby park. It's only after running into Morgan (Lennie James, The Prisoner) that he learns what's really going on. It's not often that zombie fiction moves you to tears, but when a character wrestles with the idea of killing his undead wife, you'll wonder why it took a basic cable station to reach this level of earned emotion in a horror story.
It's unfortunate that the rest of the season doesn't meet the high standards set by the pilot. That's not to say that the remaining five episodes aren't good, but their tone, pacing, and characterization isn't as consistent. Darabont's vernacular screenwriting still shows up in flashes, but the ever-growing ensemble turns into a mix of stereotypes with only a few well-rounded individuals. The action, always gory, at times feels obligatory. The storyline spins its wheels in the woods. All of this is, ultimately, forgivable because the show, even despite its flaws, is so darn enjoyable.
For one thing, The Walking Dead is exceedingly well cast. Andrew Lincoln, managing his best Southern drawl, plays Rick as an imperfect hero, making mistakes with his heart in the right place. He's a little naive, and maybe too quick to act, but his insistence on human compassion (like when he checks the contents of a zombie's wallet before dismantling him in "Guts") makes him the most likable on the show. It only makes sense that his foil is his own partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal, The Pacific), who is leading a camp of survivors in the woods next to Atlanta. Out of all the characters, Shane develops and changes the most throughout the six episodes, leaving a lot to look forward to next season. The supporting cast of survivors is varied and colorful. Even if the characters themselves aren't the best written, the actors make the most of it. Highlights include Steven Yeun as Glenn the plucky pizza delivery kid, Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break) as Rick's wife Lori, and Jeffrey DeMunn (The Mist) as the wise old camper Dale. Even the completely unlikable, seemingly one-dimensional characters like the redneck-racist Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker, Mallrats) are acted with full-blown honesty. It's possible that folks like Merle, Daryl, T-Dog and other flat characters will have a chance to breathe in a longer second season, but for now they feel like basic conflict generators.
Season One of The Walking Dead is certainly more enjoyable on DVD as opposed to the weekly TV broadcast schedule; the subplots, hints, and connections to minor characters and events are much more apparent. The episodes flow better when watched in larger chunks, and the great filmmaking and hit-or-miss writing averages out. If anything, this first season shows incredible promise of things to come. It's a TV show about zombies that isn't just about blood and guts (although there is a surprising amount of that too). It's appealing to a broader audience because it's a good family drama…that happens to have dead people in it.
The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season is presented across two discs with a whole slew of promotional special features. The excellent audio and video transfer shows off some examples of solid, old school filmmaking. The dense 16mm grain on the video is not only a nice texture, but it enhances the grim mood of the show. The soundtrack is sparse, and only used occasionally (to great effect), leaving most of the audio track to the sounds of an empty world. The show is eerily quiet, and I couldn't be happier about that.
The supplements are another story. While there's a deceiving amount of them, including behind-the-scenes videos for every episode, most of it is promotional fluff. The interviews with the cast and crew are interesting, but the lack of a Play All button means you'll probably get tired of this stuff (if you haven't seen it online already).
The Walking Dead is what zombie fans have been waiting years for: a serious, well-crafted, serialized take on a genre too often cut short for just being a reason for gore. Frank Darabont has given AMC something not only successful but promising. The first season has its ups and downs, like any high-concept drama would, but it's a great first impression that left me hungering for more.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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