DEAD OR ALIVE Both, technically.
Credit: TWD Productions/AMC

As protagonists for a TV series, zombies have a few disadvantages. They don’t talk much beyond Yarrggghhh! They don’t move very quickly, which makes for slow chases. They are, however, relentless and steady. And they’re not brooding romantics — they lack the tragic sexy self-awareness that gets vampires such good PR .

Nonetheless, The Walking Dead is a success as a comic-book series written by Robert Kirkman, and deserves to be an even bigger success in this clever, gross, humane AMC version. Not that you’d know about the ”humane” part from the opening moments of the pilot: To communicate the kind of show you’re in for, Dead has its hero, Sheriff Rick Grimes (Love Actually‘s Andrew Lincoln), shoot a little-girl zombie in the head. If you don’t get drawn in by the splatter-shock, this is clearly not the show for you.

Dead takes the standard modern zombie trope — urban survivors of a zombie invasion (in addition to Kirkman’s comics, begun in 2003, there are movies such as 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, and Max Brooks’ best-selling novel World War Z) — and faces down the problem with turning that notion into a series. The challenge is to make running away from zombies engrossing every week, and under the guidance of high-profile exec producers — Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, who also helms the pilot, and The Terminator‘s Gale Anne Hurd — Dead has found a solution. The focus shifts to 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. 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 including Rick’s former deputy Shane (Jon Bernthal). Uh-oh: Believing Rick dead, Lori has taken up with Shane. There’s a ragtag group of folks who’ll develop their own subplots (the best involves Michael Rooker’s rootin’-tootin’ racist, Merle Dixon, because Michael Rooker is a human god). The zombies — or ”walkers,” as they’re called here — are nothing new in the genre’s history; it’s the way they’re dealt with that gives The Walking Dead its fresh fizz. Like other AMC shows (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), Dead is beautifully shot, but what it’s shooting are former humans with rotting skin and bleating agonized groans. And like the comics, there’s great, grim humor. When Rick needs body parts to smear all over himself as a zombie disguise, he hesitates at taking an ax to an infected corpse. That is, until it’s pointed out, ”He was an organ donor.” Thwack! B+

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