Creepy from the first frame — and inching along at a languid, ambling pace that’s oddly effective — “The Walking Dead” draws the audience in almost instantly with its cinematic 90-minute pilot, then incorporates tasty soap-like elements meant to animate the ensuing episodes. Although we’ve seen no shortage of zombies and post-apocalyptic stories, producer-writer-director Frank Darabont has deftly tackled the seemingly perilous task of adapting a comicbook about zombies into a viable episodic series. Arising in the wake of the brainy “Rubicon” and “Mad Men’s” stellar fourth season, “Dead” demonstrates AMC’s creative team has plenty of life in it.
Given all the overdone genres on TV, horror remains that rare undercooked one, perhaps because of its inherent limitations. Moreover, so much presented under that mantle in theaters has devolved into little more than splatterfests that the idea of exploring something on an episodic basis sounds especially fruitless.
“The Walking Dead” overcomes those obstacles, largely, by avoiding the most cliched horror elements and — like most good science fiction — illustrating bigger issues through drama. For starters, it’s hard not to come away from the first few episodes thinking about euthanasia, when simply moving around isn’t much of a life. Race, too, becomes moot — even in Georgia — when people have become “white meat and dark meat,” as one character notes.
Smartly cast from top to bottom, the series opens with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who awakens from a coma after being shot to find what amounts to hell on earth. Zombies have taken over, forcing surviving humans to scatter. Grimes learns the ropes, basically from a father (Lennie James) and son, adding an element of “The Road” to the pilot, along with bracing images of solitary figures in abandoned streets.
Grimes is also looking for his wife and son, leading him toward Atlanta, where there are rumored to be survivors. There, he will encounter the remnants of what passes for a community struggling to stay alive and maintain a semblance of humanity.
Of course, hordes of hungry zombies (fortunately, a shot to the head still works on this bunch) allow for visceral thrills as well, including a sequence involving Grimes and a smart-ass forager named Glenn (Steven Yeun) in the second hour that’s truly gut-churning. The episode is appropriately subtitled “Guts”– and merits kudos to makeup maven Greg Nicotero — which will only cement the show’s fanboy cred.
Still, the tone of “Walking Dead” is cleverly understated, and Darabont makes especially good use of silence and stillness to convey a sense of dread without overly relying on cheap scares.
Perhaps foremost, these opening installments contain enough intriguing personalities and topnotch guests (Michael Rooker appears in the second hour) to suggest there’s genuinely a series here — one that needn’t hinge on characters becoming somebody’s hot lunch each week.
Television has always specialized in assembling offbeat families, and this one threatens to be more dysfunctional than most. Yet what “The Walking Dead” has done most shrewdly is to take what could be a stale premise and enlivened it in a way that feels unexpectedly fresh.
All that could bode well for “Dead,” especially by AMC’s ratings standards. If so, don’t be surprised to see the zombies at other networks begin shuffling similar concepts in its direction.