The Walking Dead: Yup, Zombies Are Still Pretty Scary

Last night's movie-length premiere of AMC's new comic-based series The Walking Dead came freighted with, at least for us, a lot of giddy expectation. Did it deliver? We say yes, in spades.

Richard Lawson: I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it again while I sob and pee myself: zombies, above all else, more than impale-happy serial murderers or devil dogs or dark-eyed children with menacing bowl haircuts, scare the living crickets out of me. The hopelessness and brutality (you're not going to be swiftly axed to death, you're going to be eaten, possibly by a loved one) of a zombie situation just sends shivers up my spine and dread plummeting into my stomach. I don't like zombies. But I love zombie movies.

So when I heard that there was going to be a whole television series based on the genre, meaning week after week of zombies, I got excited, then worried. The pedigree of the project — Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's graphic novel series is bleak but brilliant, veteran horror writer and respected director Frank Darabont handled the first few episodes — promised good things, but there was always the chance that it could be a silly, genre-meddling mess. Less 2004's terrific Dawn of the Dead and more 2008's mostly terrible Day of the Dead. Hopes were hung high among the zombie nerd community, and all we could do was suffer the agonizing wait.

Which is why I was extra pleased to find that, so far, Walking Dead is splendid. Not just as a respectably traditional (the undead are slow, as George Romero invented them to be) zombie tale, but as dramatic TV storytelling. Sure the setup, with a man in a coma (the disarmingly likable Andrew Lincoln) waking up to find a zombie-ravaged world, was more than reminiscent of 2002's spellbinding 28 Days Later, but the scene was so artfully and terrifyingly done, relying on agonizing silence rather than creeping music, that its familiarity didn't matter. Continuing on the theme of that scene, the episode was mostly about discovery. Lincoln's small town deputy makes his way to the home he shared with his wife and young son, but they've packed up and disappeared long before. Eventually he runs into a fellow survivor, holed up in a neighbor's house with his own son, emotionally tormented by the presence of his wife, now a zombie occasionally lumbering through the neighborhood. And while all of this was scary for sure, it was also so sad, such a suddenly emptied out world. Every silent house or abandoned car spoke not just of terror, but of melancholy and loss. (The episode was titled "Days Gone Bye".) Ours was a pretty pleasant world until it suddenly wasn't, the show said with a sigh. It's a sentiment we could do well to be mindful of, I suppose.

Of course Deputy Rick couldn't stay boarded-up with his new friends for too long, not with his wife and son out there somewhere, so he loads up on weapons and heads toward Atlanta, to where, he's told, many survivors had fled, based on the promise of protection from the military and possible salvation from the CDC. The travel scenes were presented with, again, a terrible quiet and with shots of the natural world that were cruel in all their teasing, placid, sunny beauty. I loved that all of the up-close-and-personal zombie attack scenes took place in the perfect light of day. Darabont didn't need nighttime shadows to scare us, just his expert sense of mounting tension suddenly toppled over by catastrophe. Rick, of course, finds Atlanta deserted save for a few hundred hungry corpses, and the episode ends with the lonely deputy holed up in an Army tank, not sure where to go, but suddenly in contact with a mocking teenage voice coming to him from the tank's radio.

So he'll get out, obviously. And he'll soldier on and reunite with his loyal friend and police partner Shane (who was with him the day he got shot on the job, putting him in the coma), who is living in a small camp outside of Atlanta, protecting Rick's son and making time with his wife. Sparks will fly there, adding human drama to the obvious shuffling undead-related tension. Which is good! All zombie, all the time would probably be a bit unrelenting and exhausting. Letting viewers take time to not be scared, but still intrigued by the dramatic stakes, is good for a sustained television series. Though this first season is only six episodes long, I have high hopes that it will continue on well beyond that in seasons to come. The source material goes on and on and on (there are something like 78 issues currently available), so there is no lack of story to be mined. Keep 'em coming!

That said, there were a few, tiny things that I didn't love about the show. Specifically, there were a few moments where the zombies exhibited too-human characteristics. There was the little girl "walker" in the opening scene, who picked up a teddy bear for no apparent reason, and the zombie wife of the father and son (who I think were just one-episode characters, but who knows) who jiggled the door handle to her own house. I mean, I don't think we're going to go into Land of the Dead zombies-using-tools territory here, at least I hope we're not, but those little things intended to heighten the creepiness to me just infused the otherwise spare and almost elegant horror with a little bit of unwanted cheese.

But those are tiny gripes in what was otherwise a harrowing, masterful hour and a half of television. I'm speaking from a biased, zombie-mad position here, but I think I did see enough of regular TV drama goodness in there to satisfy a less undead-enthused viewer. Lincoln is unshowy but likable in the lead role, a dowdier Matthew McConaughey, and as Shane, Jon Bernthal pleasingly hints at a dark undercurrent hidden beneath his character's easygoing, wisecracking veneer. We didn't see much acting from any of the other folks yet, but if nothing else, AMC has always shown a flair for casting just the right (mostly) unknown, so I see no reason to expect anything less here.

So I'll moan it from the rooftops: I'm hooked. I'll admit that I was still scared while walking home last night, even though I was on a very crowded 2nd Avenue in the East Village, which means it's going to be tough going watching this damn thing every week for the next five weeks. But I'll manage, my nerves can stand it, and if the quality stays this high, I'll ultimately love every second of it.

Brian, what did you think? Too much zombie? Too little zombie? Not what you were hoping for, or just right?

Brian Moylan: I was equally happy with the show, Richard. Zombie movies (and their fans) are obsessed not with storytelling but with the monsters themselves. But The Walking Dead proves that the much more interesting angle is the humans they terrorize.

Knowing the quality of AMC's recent programming and the good reputation of the comic book series the show is based on, I had high hopes for The Walking Dead when it was announced, but, after seeing the trailers I was worried that it was going to be a boring rehash of 28 Days Later. It seemed so similar to that great movie: a guy wakes up in a hospital, the world has suffered a zombie apocalypse, the man has no clue what happened and has to try to survive.

That's the basic outline, but the really interesting stuff starts to happen when the hunky Andrew Lincoln has to start surviving. So much zombie fare is fixated on the zombies themselves—what made them, how to kill them, why they so damn nasty. This is especially true in the George Romero movies like Night of the Living Dead which focus on a band of human survivors, but the real action is the allegorical meaning of the zombies.

So far, The Walking Dead isn't messing around with the creatures, but uses them as the dark undercurrent plaguing humans' everyday lives. We learn a few rules about the zombies—they're created by a virus, they come out at night, they're attracted to loud noises—but mostly we're left to follow Frank as he tries to find his wife and son and get about the business of living in a world filled with mindless monsters.

That's where this show differentiates itself from 28 Days Later. That movie was so quickly paced that there was no time to dally on the range of human emotions that would come after such a disastrous epidemic. It was more about what to do when zombies attack, and it made the audience think, "What would I do if the creatures came for me." The luxury that The Walking Dead has as a series is that it has the time to ask, "How would I live after the creatures took over." Survival is not a quick act that makes for a great movie, but rather a slow, painful recovery marked with moments both mundane and terrifying. The most memorable scenes of the first episode—Rick's new friend trying and failing to shoot his zombified wife, Rick finding a dead couple in a farm house, Rick's wife trying to help other survivors, Rick venturing into the city to find it has been overtaken by a hungry zombie mob—were all a little bit of both.

Yes, there was some great action sequences (I was gasping when Rick was trapped under a tank by a hoard or creatures), but the most effective visuals came from the stillness—the eerie quiet that is more of a threat than a solace. The serenity is menacing, like when Rick returns to an abandoned park where he previously stole a bike from a zombie. It is lush and green, something that would be mistaken for beauty if not for the dismembered creature headed for some unknown destination. As Rick repays it for the bicycle with a mercy killing, we're not at all interested in the bit of gore splayed out on the grass, but rather what it did to Rick, how this event has changed him and all the other characters left in the world. The Walking Dead uses zombies as the draw, but the first episode clearly shows that the humans are the real reason to tune in.