Saturday 6 November 2010

The Walking Dead: Episode One "Days Gone Bye" thoughts...

For months now I, and many other zombie fans, have been feverishly devouring any piece of information, image or video clip about the Darabont/Hurd/AMC adaptation of Robert Kirkman's revered The Walking Dead. I'd known of the source material for a while, but it was the initial news of the adaptation that inspired me to get on reading them (I don't read many graphic novels) and so far I've covered the first four trade paperback volumes.

Fast forward to November 5th - the UK premiere (on FX) of one of the most anticipated entries in the annals of zombie history, and me sitting with eyes glued to the television. A low quality version was leaked to the internet a couple of weeks ago, and while some couldn't resist to whet their whistle early, I held steady in my determination to show my support for the show officially. I mean how often do you get a zombie TV series, and how often do you get one that features shamblers?

The opening sequence is a mission statement in no uncertain terms. It establishes the style, pace, outlook and serious nature of the show - symbolised in a head shot that could possibly turn away curious folks with a distaste for gore and a fondness for camp silliness. Anyone looking for a Dawn remake style blitz of poorly drawn characters making stupid decisions for stupid reasons while the undead run faster than Usain Bolt, scream like Raptors after a glue-huffing binge, and practically fly from all the bullshit they exude, will be most disappointed - and that's a good thing.

The Walking Dead takes place in a zombie apocalypse, but that's not the point of it all - the point is what it does to the protagonists. We see how it affects them, how it forces them to do things and cross lines that they never thought they'd ever need to, and how society crumbles in human terms - not just visually speaking.

As someone who is familiar with the source material (or, at least, the first four trade paperback volumes), the TV adaptation is a joy to watch. We still get the same milestones happening along the way - the punctuations in the overall journey - but we get to them at a different pace, and sometimes by different means, so even if you've read the comics already there is plenty of interesting new takes (and new content) on what you've come to know, and quite possibly love.

There comes a point in the first episode which really solidifies what the adaptation (and indeed the franchise) is all about - a sequence which intercuts between Rick going after the 'bicycle zombie' and Morgan (considerably more fleshed out than in the comic) attempting to deal with an intensely troubling situation of his own. This sequence absolutely nails the dramatic intentions of the series, with the 'bicycle zombie' encounter delivering a devastating amount of pathos - the undead performance alone is just fantastic.

Further to this, the acting has a real weight to it, a sense of gravitas, but not in a way to become stifling or overpowering. It's not a burden to watch, rather it's compelling - just like all good television. Frank Darabont's sense of character and pacing is strongly evident and assured throughout this episode (which he directed), making it an involving season opener that leaves you wanting more (not least because of the episode's kick arse climax).

Atmosphere wise, TWD is full of it. The visuals of the zombie aftermath, particularly from a production design standpoint, are beautifully bleak. From dozens of covered bodies lying neatly in a hospital car park, to a tank surrounded and almost swallowed up by an incoming sea of the shambling undead, this show knows how to keep your attention. Sometimes the look of the show can feel 'a bit TV' (perhaps in their choice of cameras/lenses), but this is barely noticeable.

Musically the show was fairly bereft of interference; the silence suitably echoing the lifeless streets of Atlanta - although I wasn't particularly keen on the track chosen for the closing moments. It didn't match the tone well enough for me ... but maybe I've been spoiled by the Comic-Con trailer, which featured the pitch-perfect "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" by The Walker Brothers.

Moving on, and something all zombie fans crave, is the gore. This isn't a gore fest - that's not the point in the show - but equally it's no lightweight whatsoever. Even greater is the fact that KNB are the ones pumping the blood and flinging the entrails about, and it's impressive to see how they've done their best to stay true to source material in the look of the undead - I for one will be looking forward to seeing more of the undead with their lips stretched back across their teeth. From the 'bicycle zombie' to a horse getting torn asunder, KNB are on top form. We never see too much or too little, and it fits the show well.

Speaking of gore, naturally we're going to come to the issue of CGI blood. I fully understand why CGI blood is being used more and more, and sometimes it can look absolutely shocking, but when handled appropriately it works nicely - and fortunately it's a case of the latter with TWD. While it's not 100% perfect (it was never going to be) the CGI blood letting is pretty damn close to ideal, although I did see a couple of 'blood strings' that didn't feel real ... but this is nitpicking.

Indeed the use of CGI in the show is saved for when it's really needed, and when it's wheeled out it never feels blunt. It feels appropriate.

In closing, I was very pleased with this opening episode of The Walking Dead. It's great to finally see the shambler zombie being taken seriously - or to get really technical, see the 'Hinzman hobblers' being taken seriously. A couple of shots seem to show the zombies moving a smidge too swiftly for shamblers, but again it's nothing major - just another unimportant nitpick. Furthermore the cast and crew's passion for the material really shines through. There is a palpable sense of respect throughout, making this a most welcome new era for the flesh eating ghouls that George A. Romero so vividly introduced us to in 1968's Night of the Living Dead (Darabont's 'zombie bible' guide for TWD).

George A. Romero has done more than enough for us horror fans, Dawn of the Dead alone is a cinematic milestone, but Romero has given us so much more over the years. Some have criticised (even rabidly) Uncle George for his recent entries (Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead), but I feel this is unfair. While they may not be as beloved, or as potent and virile, as the holy trilogy that is Night/Dawn/Day, the man has earned the right to just have a giggle in his later years - to have fun. They may have split audiences (although polls on HPOTD have consistently shown that, while the original trilogy are preferred, more dig the new flicks than don't ... it's just that the haters shout the loudest), but so what? George has done more than enough - let him have fun, and you know, join in and have some fun yourself - there's room for both having fun with Uncle George and getting into some serious shit with Frank Darabont.

Without Romero we wouldn't have the zombie we all know and love - he's done more than enough for we horror fans - to expect him, after all these years and all these movies, to still be the same filmmaker he was in the 1960s through 1980s is unfair and entirely unrealistic. No mortal man could ever live up to such scrutiny and demand by a one vociferous section of the audience - give him a break - people change, filmmaking changes, the world changes.

Why can't someone else pick up the mantle and proceed onwards with serious determination? This is where Frank Darabont and Co have stepped in - with the balls and vision to give us 'the next great thing in zombies'.

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