Doc Jensen and Dan Snierson take a geek-dive into the series premiere of AMC's intense new zombiefest
We are at a crossroads—an intersection on a lost highway choked with scorched and toppled cars. A lawman approaches. He carries a gas can. The service station is a stockyard of abandoned vehicles forming a makeshift village—a refugee camp—but there are no signs of life. Just trash, moldy food and fly-buzzed corpses. The lawman steps toward a pump to get the fuel he needs for his police cruiser—and a sound stops him. He turns. There is no one there. He drops to his knees and looks under a car. On the other side, a pair of feet in rabbit-ear slippers shuffles toward a teddy bear. The lawman stands. He sees all of her now—a little girl, walking away from him. He calls to her. His eyes widen with hope, but no: She is a Walker—a haunted, rabid husk of rotting flesh with a rictus smirk and an inhuman hunger. The lawman knows what must be done, but he hesitates. This isn’t easy. Not yet. He pulls the trigger. Headshot and splatter. What little that was truly left of the little girl is finally lost for good, and the lawman is again alone.
This is the way the world ends, and the way The Walking Dead begins.
TOTALLY WALKING DEAD
Episode 1: “Days Gone By”
A conversation between Jeff Jensen and Dan Snierson about AMC’s The Walking Dead, the zombie drama starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, and Sarah Wayne Callies, from executive producer Frank Darabont, adapted from the comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard.
BRAIN-SPLATTERING, BLOOD-SPURTING ZOMBIE HEADSHOTS: 12
TOTAL ZOMBIE KILLS: 13
ZOMBIE-RELATED HUMAN KILLS (DEPICTED): 0
JEFF: The prospect of a zombie story doesn’t usually get my geek heart thumping with excitement, and it takes an uncommonly excellent one to even make a mark on me. Zombies look boring, they act boorishly, they don’t do anything that Bram Stoker’s Dracula or a pack of H.R. Giger-designed aliens can’t do more stylishly and memorably.I don’t even find zombies particularly scary. They don’t spook me the way Satan-possessed kids and wantonly sinister vampires spook me–
DAN: Oh. So the way you were freaking out during the climactic tank sequence of the pilot was just an imitation of someone being scared?
JEFF: Okay, there are exceptions, and The Walking Dead pilot immediately distinguished itself as one of them. What’s your zombie policy, Dan?
DAN: Well, I would start by saying that I’m no zombie expert, though I really enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. I guess I’ve always had mixed feelings about zombies as agents of horror. There’s something weak, almost pathetic, about their lack of powers. You have extremely limited intellectual capacity and I can outrun you, ergo you are not scary! But that was always countered by their unrelenting, stalkery dedication. You will not be derailed from your mission to consume my head, ergo you are scary—especially when you swarm with others like you! And to be honest, a small, dumb side of me likes to believe that every zombie has the ability somewhere inside its corroded cerebral cortex to transform back to the side of good (like Darth Vader back to Anakin Skywalker), or at least he/she could be persuaded to turn on his/her fellow undead and eat THEM into oblivion. There: Now I have exposed my zombie naiveté to the world.
NEXT: Jeff contemplates “one of the most unsettling depictions of sadistic evil I’ve ever seen in a comic”; Dan uses the word “zombiegasms.”
JEFF: If both of us are but modest zombie fans, then why are we watching this show? My two-part answer: 1. The comic book. Kirkman’s saga is a smartly written survival drama/sociopolitical allegory where the zombie apocalypse is beside the point. The real focus is on the living—and how you don’t need a zombie bite to become a monster. (Although I’d love to know if—or how—the show will handle the comic’s Woodbury storyline, which includes one of the most despicable villains and most unsettling depictions of sadistic evil I’ve ever seen in a comic.) 2. Frank Darabont, best known for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (but also well respected in geek circles for knowing his B-movie/horror genre s–t). Man alive, did he direct the hell out of this pilot.
DAN: Get busy living, or get busy having your brain mouthed out of your skull, indeed. Now, I’ve only read a little bit of the Kirkman comic—thanks again for letting me borrow that—and I saw myself getting sucked in. However, I decided to stop because I want to be surprised by this show. But getting to your point, if the show follows the same structure as the book, that will carry great appeal for me, as well as for those who are interested in more than reveling in zombiegasms. (Though clearly we had a glorious amount of those in the pilot.) My driving interest here is in rooting for a group of unlucky—and hopefully intriguing—individuals who suddenly have to solve a massive problem/reboot their lives/rebuild a society. And isn’t that part of what captivated us about dramas like, say, Lost in the first place? (I bring up the L-Word in passing, Doc J, not as a down-the-wormhole invitation.)
JEFF: Don’t worry: I’ll resist the urge. But speaking of shows that had instant-classic pilots with astounding opening sequences, I loved how The Walking Dead began. The prologue introduced us to a world ravaged by Sudden Onset Zombie Pandemic—an infection that’s part super-flu, part demonic take-over that saps your life and reformats your complex, robust operating system of self into something sad, rabid, and wrong. Our first zombie–and zombie kill–came in the form of a little blonde girl. Were you surprised that the show didn’t cut away from Rick shooting her in the head? Were you surprised by all the headshots that the pilot episode gave us? Zombie pop does allow for the visceral thrill of watching another human being shoot another human being in the head without feeling guilty about it. After all, they’re just zombies. Darabont sure made the most of the opportunity.
DAN: Totally with you. You almost got a unsettling glimpse of what was to come, though—didn’t you feel like the giveaway was in that little girl’s hair, which looked like it might belong to an 80-year-old? Anyway, what I found notable that our first zombie (and graphic kill) was that it was not an adult, but a little girl— and one who wanted her teddy bear. (A touchstone to her old life. An action that indicated that she might be thirsting for slightly more than just brains.) Yep, we went to very dark place VERY quickly.
NEXT: A scene that show’s The Walking Dead‘s interest in delving into matters beyond zombiedom.
JEFF: And then, we went to a very talky, very masculine place: That squad-car scene between our hero, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, a British actor known for his work on the acclaimed BBC drama Afterlife, who provides this quiet, brooding show with a gritty, soulful center) and his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal; you may know from Eastwick or The Class), as they discussed their woman troubles. Shane-—despite being the kind of good-looking man that I deeply resent-—didn’t quite distinguish himself as World’s Most Charming Southern Gentleman. He offered a vaguely misogynistic mock-sermon about his electricity-wasting girlfriend, whom he referred to as a “chick,” “bitch,” and “pair of boobs.” (Despite all that, I did get the sense Shane is more sensitive male than he appears to be; he did recognize the value of the whole “sharing your feelings” thing.) Rick–more mature yet more closed-off than his friend–disclosed that he was in a hard place with his wife, Lori (Prison Break’s Sarah Wayne Callies, only briefly featured in the pilot), and how she gets on him for not sharing his internal world with her, but then how she disrespects him when he does. In retrospect, I see how this lengthy scene accomplished quite a bit in terms of setting up Rick’s character, who, from this moment forward, wasn’t going to be doing much talking here in the first episode. We got the sense that Rick was a deep thinking, deep feeling guy, a devoted father, and a struggling but faithful husband.
DAN: This scene probably could’ve been trimmed down a bit, though it seemed to signal the show’s intention to go beyond visceral zombie thrill kill and probe more human-condition-y stuff. And it planted a few questions about our characters. Since Rick wasn’t getting the desired feedback from his wife after sharing his feelings, was he better off just shutting down again and turning into an emotional…zombie? How good of a friend can Shane truly be considering what we learned later in the episode? And did Eddie Cibrian audition for the role of Shane?
JEFF: So that wasn’t Eddie Cibrian? Huh. Anyway: I like your interpretation of Rick and Shane as zombies of a sort. Not for nothing, I think, that we were introduced to them as they were eating flesh, i.e., burgers. Typically, the zombie is used as a metaphor for mindless consumerism or seemingly inexplicable “S—t happens” catastrophe. (Although the stories usually leave us wondering if we’ve done something to deserve it.) The Walking Dead looks to be expanding the possibilities. To tease out your idea: Shane’s bitchy rant about chicks and light switches + Rick’s bitter struggle with emotional intimacy and misplaced priorities = unenlightened, emotionally dim, esteem-challenged quasi-misogynistic men living hollow, angry dim lives, i.e. zombies. Still, do you think female viewers might have been alienated by the Rick/Shane conversation and perhaps by the episode in general? Rick’s characterization of Lori—particularly as someone so resentful and impolitic as to meanly criticize him in front of their son, Carl–wasn’t too flattering. When we finally met her late in the episode—to squabble with Shane (right in front of Carl!) and be set straight by him—she proved to be as chilly and insensitive as advertised.
NEXT: Jeff goes for the gross — and a Sandra Bullock rom-com reference.
DAN: Could Shane’s language be a turn-off? Sure. Will this show’s audience skew more male? You’d think so. (Not that that’s an excuse.) I read Shane’s coarseness as an indicator of his emotional limits— he has been frustrated in his attempt to understand women—and maybe that he knows even less than he thinks. As for Rick, he seemed like he has at least more potential for growth. I will say that I was surprised that Rick’s wife was played (in her fleeting appearance) as an overemotional woman who could be easily manipulated; my guess—or hope—is that if Rick’s wife doesn’t begin to blossom into a stronger force, we’ll soon meet a female character who fits that bill. We’re gonna need a Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton T2 version), dammit!
JEFF: I agree. Moving on! Rick was shot during a gunfight with white trash hoodlums. He passed out… then woke up after an indeterminate amount of time in a hospital that had been deserted in the wake of Sudden Onset Zombie Pandemic. So began a series of really intense scenes that took Rick out of the hospital (I loved the barred door with “DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE” written in blood and those zombies trying to claw free; I got the sense they could smell Rick) and out into the streets lined and filled with abandoned military helicopters and dead bodies covered in tarps. Kudos to the writers and set dressers for evoking the terrible history that transpired during Rick Van Winkle’s coma-nap. But I have to admit, amid the capture-the-imagination creep and dread, I could only think of one thing while watching Rick stroll around in his hospital gown: Catheter?
DAN: You always have to go for the gross, don’t you? Of the many images from this 90-minute episode that have stained my yet-uneaten brain, you can definitely include the “Don’t Open Dead Inside” door (and to a lesser degree, that grim suicide wall note “God Forgive Us”). The hospital scene, which was reminiscent of 28 Days Later—
JEFF: You mean, the Sandra Bullock drug rehab dramedy? That was a zombie flick?
DAN: Ignoring that. The hospital scene was creepy, as we watched a disoriented man slowly coming to the terrible realization that he had power-napped through a mass murder executed by a force so formidable, military might was no match for it. The only thing to do now? Feebly peddle home on a bike to look for the wife and kid. (Helplessness of hero sold? Check.) It was on his block that we finally met two other humans—a protective, overwhelmed father (who went nameless, but credited as Morgan) and his traumatized-but-feisty son Duane.
JEFF: And by “met,” you mean: “Smacked him in the head with a shovel.” First rule of Zombie Fight Club: Trust no one.
DAN: The sense of distrust and fear that they had was so palpable—and so justified (after all, they’d lost Morgan’s wife/Duane’s mom to the Undead Zone—you almost would’ve forgiven ’em if they had blown off Rick’s head, just as precaution. I latched on to this fractured family quickly, and they provided a tiny, perfect moment of dark humor: When Rick took them to the police station to load up and clean up, they found outright if fleeting joy in a shower that washed away unknown days of dirt, death, and drama. I’m banking that we will find more moments like that this season, if only to provide temporary relief from the grisly grind of zombie attacks. Were you liking the Three Amigos vibe too?
NEXT: Some non-Sandra Bullock rom-com comparisons, and the front-runner for the Emmy for Best Performance in a Drama by an Eyeball.
JEFF: Naked men showering with children make me uncomfortable. You saw Three Amigos; I saw The Road. I’d love to know if Cormac McCarthy’s book (and/or the movie adaptation) was an influence for Darabont. The pilot loved having its neo-cowboy hero wandering the wrecked urban plains of his surreal southern gothic—and I loved watching it. The pilot was gorgeous ruin porn. And if each installment of The Walking Dead is going to be like the pilot—an episodic travelogue of harrowing vignettes and poignant anecdotes a la Apocalypse Now, The Road Warrior, The Straight Story, and obviously, Space:1999 (why isn’t Hollywood remaking that show, like, RIGHT NOW?), then I’m in, especially if the scenarios are as compelling as the Morgan/Duane interlude. I loved their struggle to maintain some semblance of civilized behavior: Morgan’s insistence on “common courtesy,” his scolding of Duane for his choppy grammar, and Duane’s insistence on asking for God’s blessing before mealtime, even though God clearly seems to have abruptly abandoned his creation to the hoary hordes of hell.
DAN: Can I stop you for a second? How awesome was that shot of Rick’s eyeball looking through the peephole, nervously and curiously studying Morgan’s zombie wife on the other side of the door before rolling down with a yeahhhh-that’s-not-good dread as the knob started turning? I think his one eyeball just acted better than most actors’ entire faces.
JEFF: Give that eyeball an Emmy nomination! And the culmination of the Morgan/Duane story was one of my favorite passages in the pilot—the cross-cutting between Rick returning to the half-destroyed zombie park woman and putting her out of her misery (“I’m sorry this happened,” he said empathetically) and Morgan tearfully struggling—and ultimately failing—to pull the trigger on shooting Zombie Wife. (And I loved this: Little Duane downstairs, face wrenched in anguish, hands over his ears, trying to read his comic books while blocking out the horror of his father taking target practice on the Walkers milling outside their house.) From there, we pushed into that killer climactic sequence.
DAN: Count me too as moved when Rick euthanized that zombie torso. In that moment, he had such compassion—and such an impressive lack of the creeps—you’d swear that she was someone he knew. And there was a wonderful pastoral quality to that scene, as well as a few others, that served as placid counterpoint to all the hideousness taking place.
JEFF: The special effect/make-up on that sawed-off revenant was pretty effective, too. I want a whole spin-off devoted to those things. The Crawling Half-Dead. It would be a star-crossed zombie romance between a creeping zombie torso searching the city for his better, lower half.
DAN: I like it! And think of all the bad slogans we could use: “Come crawling back for more!” “You half to watch!” And: “(Tor)so we meet again!” All right, we’re losing focus here. Let’s talk about those final minutes. This is when my brain switched from “I’m finding myself rather riveted by this show” to “HOLY LIVING CRAP! I’M SO STRESSED—WATCH OUT! THEY’RE GOING TO EAT YOUR FACE! GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!!!!” First sign that you should not head into the city: In one lane, there’s a traffic jam of cars stopped dead on the highway while trying to flee the city, and in the other lane, it’s just you. On a horse. And soon enough, our fears were realized—zombies swarming on all sides, devouring that poor horse. (Horse: “Riiiiiiick! I thought we had a pact! I’d make you feel more guilty about that but I have to focus on the horrific pain of my entrails being feasted on!”) And then, somehow, our hero miraculously scooted under a tank and retreated inside its safe metal walls, where he could catch his breath next to a dead zombie. EXCEPT IT’S NOT SAFE BECAUSE THIS ZOMBIE AIN’T DEAD.
NEXT: How about that sensational final shot?
JEFF: This was where The Walking Dead made me a zombie horror convert. At that moment in the show, when we were watching this in your office, I was literally on my feet and pointing at the Zombie Tank Guy and yelling at Rick: “HE’S AWAKE! HE’S AWAKE! SHOOT HIM! SHOOT HIM!” This show has made me one of those people who talk back at the screen during a horror movie.
DAN: Finally, it was time for us to catch OUR breath as the camera pulled back, revealing a virtual city of hungry zombies clawing their way toward Rick, still barricaded inside the tank. I haven’t seen a character written into such a how-the-hell-is-he-going-to-get-out-of-this corner since last week’s episode of a J.J. Abrams show. Seriously, the best word to describe it: Terrordome.
JEFF: That last shot was sensational, the pull back into the sky, looking down as more and more zombies swarm in for the Mr. Ed buffet and Rick trapped in the tank. We were left to wonder: Who was the voice on the radio? Surely he’ll be the key to Rick’s rescue—but how? Also on my mind: Shane, Lori, and Carl. We got a scene—almost wedged into the show, as if to assure the audience that yes, there will be other characters in this series—in which we briefly visited a camp of survivors and we learned that Rick’s wife and kid are indeed alive and well, and that Shane and Lori have become romantically involved. (Should we be wondering if they had something going on prior to the zombie apocalypse?)
DAN: Yes, we should be wondering, and yes, I’m guessing that they did.
JEFF: And I guess for those who wish to get a sense of where this may all be going, you could read the comics—the pilot was largely faithful to the first issue, different only in its elaborations, not deviations. Still, it all felt fresh and new to me. Bottom line: The pilot totally lived up to my very high expectations. I’m champing at the bit for more.
DAN: How could you not be? You at least have to tune in to see Rick wriggle out of this pickle of a jam and figure out a new plan. (First step: Find the key to that tank and pilot that baby out of there.] I know what you said earlier, Jeff, but now I want to know: What caused the zombie apocalypse? Am I setting myself up for disappointment if I crave some backstory here? Also: Will Shane prove to be a large obstacle for Rick, or will he be an invaluable partner who just happens to have betrayed his friend? And what is the over-under on when we’ll get the 100th kill? Episode 3?) I leave you with two thoughts. One: In a TV season of blah, this fresh, rotten face felt like ahhhhhh. (Or is that AHHHH!?) And two… What the—Oh my god, Jeff, look behind you!
JEFF: I’m not going to fall for this.
DAN: No! Seriously! This is an emergency with a capital Z! Spoiler: The Z stands for Zombie!
JEFF: Fine. Sigh.…. Yeah, there’s nothing here.
DAN: Huh. That’s weird… I swear I hired Dalton to dress up as a zombie and eat the hell out of your brains. But I guess he got pulled away on a Survivor story or something.
JEFF: You know this bit would’ve worked better on video.
DAN: Probably not that much better, though.
JEFF: Happy Halloween, guys.
Speaking of our good friend–and certifiable zombie lover–Dalton Ross, you can find him and the whole EW TV Insider crew–Michael Slezak, Annie Barrett and some temporarily unemployed guy named Michael Ausiello–chatting away on their latest podcast, which also features interviews with Andrew Lincoln and The Walking Dead’s comic book creator (also an exec producer of the TV show) Robert Kirkman.
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