Any wistful Mad Men fan who turned on AMC Sunday night thinking, perhaps, that there might be an MM rerun, or perhaps an hour of Halloween outtakes in which Sally Draper takes a hatchet to her Mommy Dearest, may have been startled to come upon the opening scene of The Walking Dead: In an effort to communicate the kind of show you’re in for, Walking Dead had its hero, Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) shoot a little-girl zombie in the head. If you didn’t get drawn in by that splatter-shock, this was clearly not the show for you.
The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s comic books, takes the standard modern zombie trope—urban survivors of a zombie invasion —and faces down the problem with turning that notion into a weekly series. The challenge was to make running away from zombies (called “walkers” here) engrossing every week. Under the guidance of executive producers Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Gale Ann Hurd (The Terminator), Walking Dead found a solution. The focus shifts to the various humans still extant, and folds in elements from TV shows ranging from Lost to Survivor, to make you care about who these people are and how they eke out an existence. (And the use of The Walker Brothers’ great 1966 version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” in the trailer gives me confidence that the filmmakers really know how to work a metaphor. In addition to the song itself… I mean, there’s a reason they chose the Walkers version, instead of Frank Valli and the Four Seasons.)
Thus Sheriff Rick is searching for his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), who’ve found some approximation of safety with a group of survivors who include Rick’s former deputy, Shane (Jon Bernthal). Uh-oh: Believing Rick dead, Lori has taken up with Shane. There’s also a ragtag group of folks who’ll develop their own subplots.
There were striking images scattered throughout The Walking Dead, and, encouragingly, they weren’t simply lifted from the (fine, smart, despairing) Kirkman comic books. There’s Sheriff Rick riding a horse through a blasted Atlanta — the shot evoked old Westerns and old horror movies while adding a modern air of desolation. The other was the final, pull-back shot of the zombies swarming all over the tank in which Rick has found temporary safety. The distance in the camera placement reduced the zombies to even more inhuman proportions; they were more like ants swaddling a piece of food. Inside, we’d just seen Rick shoot a zombie who’d been sitting next to him. The combination of blood spray and the result of his unthinking reflex — that gun-shot made a terrible, vibrating noise that momentarily caused Rick to lose his hear — did a lot to make The Walking Dead thrillingly frightening.
Much as I enjoyed Walking Dead, I have a small prediction: I think the pilot will score very good ratings for AMC — first, because the show has lots of good hype; second, because it’s Halloween and what could be better programming, and third, because it doesn’t take a helluva a lot of viewers to qualify as a hit on AMC. (A couple million will be a roaring success.) But: I predict that ratings will fall after this week because many AMC viewers who like Mad Men and Breaking Bad will look at this and say, “Um, ick.” I think AMC has to import an almost entirely new audience to its channel for Walking Dead to be a long-running success. I hope my prediction is wrong; I also hope Walking Dead can sustain its quality.
Speaking of which, what did you think of the quality of the first episode of The Walking Dead?