“The Walking Dead” gives new life to the undead

Originally published in the November 5, 2010 issue

In the world of monsters, zombies are a rare breed. There are no star-crossed zombie lovers, they have no real talent, and there is no such thing as a sexy zombie.

If anything, zombies are relegated to the children’s table of the horror world, rarely used effectively since “Dawn of the Dead” to scare an audience, and the idea of building a TV show around the creeping creatures seems like a risky one.

At the same time, betting against television behemoth AMC seems even riskier than facing a giant group of hungry zombies.

Zombies and all, “The Walking Dead” is nothing short of standard AMC fare, tapping into the human emotion even in a world dominated by the undead.

Based off a comic book series, “The Walking Dead,” which premiered on Halloween, finds police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) waking up to a zombie-filled world, after getting shot and slipping into a coma.

From there, he sets out to reconnect with his wife and son, both of whom are living in a camp of survivors outside of Atlanta. Outside of Rick, there isn’t much substance behind any character, only glimpses, like of his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) and former partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) sharing a passionate kiss at the camp. While such minimal character development can be frustrating, it provides the show with a solid base from a developmental standpoint.

Mere minutes into the plot, the suspense is already looming. After Rick wakes up, every step he takes, hallway he limps down or slight bump in the background could be a zombie. Most of the time, the anticipation is more thrilling than the actual payout, but that never makes the final product any less tense.

Even during the episode’s only relatively happy scene, where Rick and two other survivors, father and son duo Morgan and Duane, finally get to shower, the nerves are there. With such a dismal existence, to see them have any joy only feels like it must be quickly ripped away. In this world, happiness doesn’t belong.

Whatever bold statement the show set out to make, time wasn’t wasted to establish it. Even on cable, it takes a bold show to open with an 8-year-old girl, albeit zombie girl, getting shot through the middle of her forehead while grasping a teddy bear.

For a 90-minute episode, the amount of dialogue is minimal, but it never bores. Besides the ominous tone permeating every scene, Lincoln’s facial reactions can sell even the most outrageously depressing moments.

But it’s good that his brooding, lost yet determined glare is so excellent because when he opens his mouth, the British-born actor fares pretty terribly with a southern accent (something many of the actors struggle with and could have been avoided by changing locations. For the time being, the small Southern town could have been anywhere).

Minus the shoddy accents, nearly everything about the pilot screams perfection. It looks and feels so similar to a zombie movie, but with an added layer of misery to give the characters – even the zombie ones – more depth. Though dreary, depressing and chilling, the entire episode is visually stunning.

The score behind it, too, is minimal, with director and executive producer Frank Darabont opting to set the mood with dead silence and lingering shots. What score is there is melodically eerie yet never overpowering, like a light fog lingering over it.

Part of what makes the show so special is that it is a relatively new venture for TV. Zombie movies attempt to scare up some levels of dread, kill off a majority, if not all, of the characters and end. For a series to successfully try to do so remains unseen, but with such a promising start, “The Walking Dead” looks to be able to do that.