The Walking Dead episode 1 review: Days Gone Bye

The show we've been waiting ages for finally arrives. So, can The Walking Dead live up to expectation? Oh, yes...

1. Days Gone Bye

Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), from the tiny town of Cynthiana, Kentucky, is a good cop, but more importantly than that, he’s a loving father and husband. When Officer Grimes is shot and wounded in the line of duty, he ends up lapsing into a coma. When he revives, he discovers that things have changed quite a bit in his absence. Namely, that all the people on earth have become ravenous, flesh-hungry zombies, out to make Rick and the few remaining dregs of humanity into snack food.

Rick’s first stop when he wakes up is home, to look for his wife and son. Of course, they’re gone, but Rick runs into (or rather, gets whacked by the shovel of) some friendly new neighbors, Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner). They give Rick the lowdown on the zombie situation, help him get back on his feet, and point him in the direction where people were last running towards, back when they were still running for cover and not running towards food. Turns out, people were heading to Atlanta, for a safe-zone, military protection, and close proximity to the plague-solving Centers for Disease Control.

Like all safe areas in zombie movies, Atlanta turns out to be not so safe. However, it does put Rick in touch with a fellow group of survivors, of which two members are his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs). Of course, Rick doesn’t know that.

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While the survivors can hear him on their radio, he can’t hear them and thus, rides into Atlanta on horseback with only a satchel of weapons on his back and a burning desire to be reunited with his family. It goes without saying that everything goes wrong while Rick is in Atlanta, but there just might be a silver lining for our hero.

Frank Darabont, who wrote and directed this episode, has really done wonders to push the boundaries of just what television looks like. Yes, there are the requisite close-ups, but Darabont also makes great use of the camera and the scenery. Whenever possible, he opts for nice, wide shots designed to highlight the desolation of the post-apocalyptic wasteland Rick must travel through to find his son. It’s a television drama, but it’s shot like a Western, thanks to its use of a well-placed horse and vast amounts of nothingness all around Frank. A particular shot of Rick’s ride towards Atlanta is simply gorgeous, and communicates more about Rick’s journey than any spoken line ever could.

Unlike most horror movies and programs, there’s not a lot of darkness used here. Normally, anything involving a lot of special effects is shot at night to hide the seams, as it were, and help conceal the makeup and digital tinkering.

The Walking Dead is not shying away from the daylight scenes in its premiere. The whole thing seems to take place mostly in broad daylight, and the special effects team has done some seriously impressive work with their zombie makeup, running the gamut from full-on dismembered, rotting corpses to very subtle throwbacks to the old days of zombies, when all you needed for a walking corpse was some clown white. All of them look very, very cool, and so far, The Walking Dead is not skimping on the gore and splatter when appropriate. A head shot, especially from Rick’s .357 Magnum, makes a lovely splash of red.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sold on Andrew Lincoln quite yet. I know he’s a fine actor, and I know it takes a while for Rick’s character to really get rolling, since I’ve been reading the graphic novels and trade collections for a year now. That said, this is a show that doesn’t need a strong lead, as every episode can be handed over to a different actor to take over.

In this case, for the opening episode, it’s not Lincoln’s Frank Grimes but Lennie James in the role of Morgan Jones, a father in nearly the same position as Rick, with a son to watch over. James is brilliant throughout the entire episode, knowing just when to play the stern father figure to son Duane (named for Duane Jones from the original Night Of The Living Dead) and when to grieve for his lost wife.

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Of all of AMC’s original series, most of which run the gamut from good to excellent, The Walking Dead has the most potential for failure. It’s not that the source material is bad, because it’s brilliant. It’s because the budget is so high and the scope so expansive that if the ratings don’t justify the expense, either the show will get its teeth pulled, so to speak, or it’ll be canceled outright. I certainly hope this is not the case, because, if the first episode is any indication, this is going to be one of the most brilliant series on television.

If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead in graphic novel form, the series will be incredible, because it brings to life every image from the comic books. If you’re a zombie fan who doesn’t know the world of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, you’ll find a familiar world with new characters that you’ll instantly be drawn to.

If you’re a drama fan who hates both comic books and zombies, then you’ll discover the real appeal of The Walking Dead. It’s not the zombies or gore (though those are nice), it’s the characters and acting. Given the time freedom and budgetary restraints of a weekly series, there’s going to be a serious emphasis on relationships and how each individual character adjusts, or doesn’t, to the new law of the land.

It’s one of those rare occasions when there’s literally something for everyone. Given just how much I wanted this to be great, I was expecting to be let down. However, The Walking Dead was everything I wanted from the first tentative exploration of a dangerous new world, and some things I never expected from a television series (like gore and an unflinching eye for mangled zombie flesh).

Bravo, AMC. This was one of the best debut episodes I’ve ever seen.

US correspondent Ron Hogan is glad to finally see zombies get to become a weekly thing, at least for the next five weeks. Zombies are the perfect medium for serial television. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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The Walking Dead premieres in the UK on Friday, November 5th at 10:00pm on FX.