I think AMC has expressed an enormous amount of faith in Robert Kirkman’s award winning critically acclaimed comic book series “The Walking Dead” by taking it seriously and investing in to it as they would a normal drama or thriller series. Kirkman’s black and white horror comic about the zombie apocalypse and the man trying to find his wife and son in the middle of it is possibly my favorite comic book series ever made, and AMC has treated it with dignity and respect. Any other network may have toned down the violence, and made it much sleeker and action oriented, but director Frank Darabont manages to treat this series with the same character study and emotion as he has with masterpieces like “The Green Mile,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” where the supernatural element is much more secondary to the human story. Deep down “The Walking Dead” is actually a human story with much of the tone from the series transplanted on to a full color epic television scope and while it is different from the series it is also very loyal to Kirkman’s original concept and even lifts some scenes from the original first issue.
Kirkman and Darabont have warned hardcore readers that this series will not follow the storyline of the comics very much thus even fanatics like me will be surprised. “The Walking Dead” is very much a Darabont production with top notch character actors (the sighting of Jeffrey DeMunn as banner series character Dale is very promising and exciting), a gritty desolate tone, and specific attention to colors and flourishes that make this feel nightmarish but down to Earth. Deep down this series is just about human beings communicating in the middle of hell, and Darabont takes great pains in expressing the humanity before the horror. You have to love the symbolism of Shane bringing Rick flowers and Rick awakening to the flowers now dead and rotted. Rick Grimes is a conflicted sheriff’s deputy, one who is having problems with his wife and confides in his friend Shane often. But a day of bickering about spouses ends in gun fire as Rick is shot in the back during a shootout and taken to the hospital. A few hallucinations later, Rick awakens in his room anxious for a nurse and tries to make sense of what has happened and where everyone has gone.
The hospital shows signs of the aftermath of a war with bloody foot prints, gun shot holes in the wall, and the barricade holding back dozens of the walking dead struggling to get out when they hear Rick’s breathing. Most of the first episode revolves around Rick simply trying to come to grips with this new world where he struggles to look for signs of his wife and son, looks for a reason behind the walking dead, and meets two kind strangers, a father named Morgan and his son Dwayne who have managed to survive the apocalypse based on evasion, wits, and their bond. Brit actor Lennie James (who I loved in “Snatch,” and “Human Target”) is fantastic and given the prime spotlight here as Morgan the father coming to grips with his own demons and helping Rick along with his quest to admit to himself that this is reality and he has to fight or become the horde. In the first comics of the series Morgan has something of a bit role and is a plot device allowing Rick clarity in this madness, but here the episode is based around Morgan’s own parallel story riding alongside Rick’s where both are dad’s with nothing left to lose fighting for their families, and James knocks it out of the park with an already fascinating character.
Along the way there is some wonderful zombie carnage and Darabont never shies away from the blood and guts while Gregory Nicotero and KNB provide some disturbing and often gruesome special effects allowing the zombies their own distinct personalities as well as their own unnerving characteristics that pay tribute to George A. Romero. Beyond James, Andrew Lincoln (the guy with the signs in “Love Actually”) handles the role of Rick Grimes excellently giving him a heroism and humility that will make him a character people will root for and want to see fight against the dead. Lincoln is given a heavy task of portraying Grimes who, in the comic books, is the most important aspect of the series offered up much subtext, and back story, conflict, dueling ideologies, crisis of morality, and extrapolation, and Lincoln seems to be up to the task offering a stunning performance.
He especially shines in one scene in particular where Rick is desperately trying to awake from this world he is convinced is just one long vivid nightmare he’s yet to come out of in the serenity of the hospital. Grimes is an excellent character and Lincoln handles the role like a pro. If the “Days Gone Bye” is any indicator, “The Walking Dead” could be another award winning series for the AMC Network who is displaying immense respect and courtesy toward and I foresee a potentially groundbreaking series for an already ground breaking comic book that could work on its own path and still manage to satisfy devotees of the Kirkman tale. I absolutely loved the taste Darabont gives us here and I couldn’t get over the final scene. It’s a thrill when a great piece of fiction is done some justice by people willing to understand its content, and AMC has proven once again that they understand drama and humanity and they’re showing it again with “The Walking Dead.”