When American cable outfit AMC launched its series The Walking Dead in 2010, it quickly became apparent the channel had a hit on its hands. The show attracted 5.3 million viewers for its pilot episode in the USA, making it the biggest show in AMC’s history – no small feat, given the network boasts titles like Breaking Bad and Mad Men in its line-up.
Based on the graphic novel series of the same name, The Walking Dead did come with some level of built-in audience, but the popularity was far greater than that. Whilst zombies have long since become passe in feature films, comics, video games and other media, the idea of a full-on living dead television series was still original.
The series opens with a bang, as in the first episode Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is shot in the line of duty and slips into a coma. He awakes to find the world apparently deserted…except that the dead have come back to life with a hunger for human flesh. So begins a desperate hunt for his wife and son, all the while trying to avoid the roaming hordes of undead.
The pilot is, simply put, terrific television. It blends tension, pathos and elegance with some great set-pieces. Showrunner Frank Darabont (best known for The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist) shows a great eye for memorable visuals, such as when Rick stumbles across a rotting, legless zombie dragging itself through a lush green park in idyllic sunshine. The visuals are helped by the best zombies ever to grace the screen, bar none.
Executive Producer Greg Nicotero first cut his teeth doing zombie effects on George Romero’s seminal Day of the Dead, and he brings all the experience in the 25 years since to bear in the creations of The Walking Dead. Phenomenally detailed and almost beautifully hideous, the zombies here are individual, tragic and pitiful. Their realisation is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The production values in general are outstanding. This really is feature-film level stuff. The acting is also strong, although English actor Lincoln occasionally seems to struggle in keeping his Southern US accent in place.
Early on, the show has a real sense of urgency. Rick first has to get to Atlanta to find his family, which in the second episode becomes a case of trying to get out again. Then he and others must return to find someone left behind. But as the series progresses into its latter stages, the objectives become a little vague and more distant and the momentum of the show dries up. Proceedings get bogged down with soap opera bickering between the survivors and a rarity of genuinely likeable characters before it all winds up with a somewhat underwhelming finale.
The first season is only six episodes long, so the novelty of seeing a zombie series is enough to carry the day, but the patches of boredom risk being overwhelming in future seasons unless a more consistent plot can be put in place.
Overall, The Walking Dead: Season One can be considered a qualified success, creating a convincing and expansive post-zombie-apocalypse world. The stumbling scripting towards the end does threaten to hamstring the series, but the potential is there for the ship to be righted and a truly great show to emerge.
The extras include a decent 30-minutes look behind the scenes, which is a fast-moving look at a variety of the aspects of production and a variety of marketing fluff pieces under the banner, “Inside The Walking Dead”. These are five-minute featurettes typically following a cast or crew member around for topics such as a tour of Dale’s RV or a time lapse look at the make-up process for the pilot’s iconic ‘bicycle girl’ zombie.
One of the more interesting extras is a detailed step-by-step guide to a zombie make-up using commercially-available items. Headed by Greg Nicotero, the tutorial is a neat lesson for budding FX artists or just for those who want to put a bit of extra effort into their Hallowe’en costumes.
Available on R4 DVD from Magna Home Entertainment.