In the foreword to the first issue of his comic in 2003, Robert Kirkman describes how the worst part of every zombie movie is the end, because he always wants to know what happens after the credits roll. He wanted to create a story where we would stay with the lead character for “as long as humanly possible”, so that we never have to wonder what will happen to them next, because we will see it. A comic book series was the perfect format for this concept, and almost eighty issues later, it has made its way onto another medium that can do such an epic story justice. American cable channel AMC produced an incredible adaptation of the books and the first episode will be shown here in the UK this Friday night on FX and FX HD.
The Walking Dead centers around Rick Grimes, a Sheriff’s Deputy who finds himself in the middle of an apocalyptic nightmare after waking up in a deserted hospital. Yes, it’s something we’ve seen before in everything from Day of the Triffids to 28 Days Later, but it plays out quite brilliantly here. Grimes is played by Andrew Lincoln of This Life and Teachers, another British actor putting in a convincing performance as an American on US TV, and we’re with him every step of the way as he meets the undead for the first time and then begins searching for his missing wife and young son. As he returns to his deserted neighbourhood, he meets a father and son who have taken up residence in one of the abandoned homes. They bring him up to speed on the “walkers”, as they’re called here (If Shaun of the Dead taught us anything, it’s to not use the “Z” word). The rules are all familiar – a bite or scratch will turn you in to one of them, the way to kill them is to go for the head – which allows the series to focus on the emotional and psychological impact of the events without having to worry too much about what has caused them.
The first episode is faithful to the original story, although many scenes play out differently to suit the structure of a television programme and because some things that work brilliantly in a comic book need to be paced in a different way to work on TV. So, for example, the episode opens with a flashforward to set-up the premise of the series before going back to a chat between Grimes and his partner Shane Walsh, establishing their characters, before eventually getting to the point where the books begin, the shoot-out which puts Grimes in hospital. While many of the scenes which follow happen in a slightly different way to the comic books, the central story and the whole feel of the books is captured perfectly, and the characterisations are spot on.
Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary has scored an incredible soundtrack, which really adds to the creeping sense of dread throughout the programme. In fact, the whole sound design is excellent, with every crunching bone and blood-curdling moan sounding as good as anything seen in a zombie film before.
But it’s the cinematic look which particularly impresses. Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont for the most part shuns quick thrills, preferring more effective slow-burning chills which creep up on you like the shambling zombies in the show (no fast-moving ones here), utilising some spectacular wide shots to show the horrific devastation and tight close-ups for some terrifyingly claustrophobic scenes including an unforgettable moment under a tank. The gruesome special effects are outstanding for a television series, particularly one unfortunate zombie Grimes meets – you’ll know which one when you see her.
If there’s only one sour note to add, it’s that this first season has only six episodes. There are unconfirmed rumours that it has been picked up for a thirteen-episode run for next year. Based on this extraordinarily good opening episode, it definitely deserves it.
The Walking Dead, Friday 5th of November at 10pm on FX and FX HD.