Ew! We’ve seen slow zombies and fast zombies, goofy zombies (Shaun of the Dead) and Nazi zombies (Dead Snow), pet zombies (Fido) and even zombie sheep (Black Sheep). Filmmakers have used zombies as lurching metaphors for everything from race (Night of the Living Dead) to the War on Terror (28 Days Later). Robert Kirkman’s sprawling comics series The Walking Dead, which inspired AMC’s newest show, was more in the vein of the zombie-free The Road — a brutalist survival story that strips the genre down to its barest elements: our fear of mortality, what makes us human, the thin line between society and mayhem. So far, the new show, executive produced by Shawshank Redemption’s Frank Darabont, is (un)dead serious.
The premiere is more killer, less Thriller. There are no zombie Kills of the Week, and the grim premiere’s only joke comes before the apocalypse. So far, the show isn’t laying on the Big Meanings or just sticking to the gross-out splatterfest formula either (though, to be fair, yuck!). So far, it’s a bit hard to tell if The Walking Dead is a bit of everything — gross-out horror and action flick and classy interpersonal drama — or not much of anything. But the hope is that this could be the first zombie story in a long while with both serious brains and “Braiiiiinns!”
Our survivor is Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, who was head over heels for Keira Knightley in Love, Actually), a southern deputy with a drawl, a bad marriage, and a high tolerance for splatter. The last words from his wife (not in the comic) are, “Sometimes I wonder if you even care for us at all.” Turns out, Rick's hunky buddy cop partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) is busy caring for his wife now, unbeknownst to Rick, who's been in the hospital and is now busy learning about the zombification of the greater Atlanta region. (You just know they’re going to meet soon.)
Are these zombies nasty? Oh yes. They ooze, bleed, and feast. Like the show itself, these slow zombies move deliberately toward their target. For a while, you think: Phew, at least there aren’t too many. This isnt’ so bad … Then you get to the ATL. Most disturbing, it's clear that these corpses (so fun to kill in Zombieland) were real people not so long ago. How bad is it all? So bad you’ve got to kill a cute girl in bunny slippers. So bad you’ve got to perform a mercy killing on that old clownish deputy you used to pity. So bad they eat your favorite horse. So bad you have to take a sniper rifle up to the attic and consider killing your wife (again) while your son cowers and listens downstairs.
Like many of the premiere’s best moments, that almost-wife-murder is not in Kirkman’s comic. That father and son are just minor characters who appear on just seven pages. That opening discussion between Shane and Rick? Brand-new. That beautiful outdoor shot of the deputy walking alongside a legless female zombie struggling through the grass? It’s just a blip in the original. So far, at least, it’s a relief to see that Darabont and company aren’t trying to stick to the comic’s story bible chapter and verse. They’re looking at books for inspiration, not bringing the comic back from the dead, frame-by-frame. Single panels in the comic are stretched out into melancholy scenes that deliver. And the comic — which, sorry, fans, is hamstrung by overly literal exposition in the form of zombified, tone-deaf dialogue — has some pretty major flaws. So far, thankfully, The Walking Dead the show feels like its own monster.
What’s really exciting about it is that there’s a chance this will be the most familiar episode of the series — if only because it takes so much work to set up a zombie apocalypse: You have to explain how everyone became zombies. Then you have to explain what these particular zombies are like (Fast or slow? Smart or dumb?). Then you have to illustrate how one kills a zombie (Decapitation or something else?). And indicate how many of them there are (Localized outbreak? Global catastrophe?). And what happens if you get bit (Instant zombification or a slow-burn turn?). And so on. Darabont does a great job of moving through all this story machinery quickly, and with his own slick visual signature.
Of course, once you work through all the setup, you are inevitably locked into an action-survival story about a band of straggling misfits. It’s one reason why so many recent zombie movies just seem to stumble and lurch forward until — splat! — they fall over dead. The setup can be exhausting. Add a few de rigeur sex scenes and a few de rigor-mortis dead best friends, and you’re two-thirds finished. But The Walking Dead’s 90-minute premiere is just the beginning. So even if the premiere didn't blow your mind and eat it too, the most different thing about this zombie story is that it gets at least five more hours to unspool. For zombies onscreen, that’s unusual. If this series does anything new, it will be because it takes advantage of that length to tell us a story we haven’t heard before.
So far, the biggest shock? That after a gruesome, ominous premiere, the show ends with Wang Chung’s jaunty, fairly terrible song “Space Junk.” Other than that, the premiere is a promising start, partly because it leaves so much open: Is this a subtle start to an ever-grosser gorefest? The prelude to a classy zombie drama about the human condition? The nastiest thing to ever stomp through basic cable? Pretty soon, we’ll see what's banging behind that closed door.