Saturday, October 30, 2010

Review: The Walking Dead (AMC)

Dir. Frank Darabont, 2010, AMC

Small-town cop Rick Grimes pulls into an abandoned gas station. Nothing moves. Nothing makes a sound. Cautiously wandering between derelict vehicles and scattered personal possessions in search of fuel, Rick suddenly spots a small figure shuffling along in the adjacent row.

'Little girl..?' he calls out.

The figure stops. And then...

Well, any zombie fan can tell you what happens next. But if you don't recognise this as a scene from Robert Kirkman's cult graphic novel The Walking Dead, that's because it's not a scene from the comic; it's the opening scene from Frank Darabont's television adaptation (for AMC) of that same graphic novel.

That's an important word to keep in mind, here: adaptation. Because, while the first episode of the show does indeed closely follow the plot of the novel(often to the point of achieving near-identical visuals), it's not a completely faithful reproduction. Scenes have been changed, shortened, elongated; more (or less) screen-time given to particular events, characters and plotlines.

So, what does this actually mean? (I hear you ask). Is AMC's The Walking Dead actually any good?

Frankly, it's magnificent.

There's scarcely a change made to the original source material that doesn't strengthen the TV adaptation in some way, say, by heightening the tension, or perhaps rounding out a character a little more. Despite some initial misgivings over that 'flashforward' opening scene (which, to my mind, potentially could have robbed the subsequent scene in which a bemused Rick wakes up in hospital of any major tension), I was drawn almost immediately - through a combination of excellent acting, scripting, and direction - into Darabont's vision for the world of The Walking Dead; a world in which the 'rules' of Kirkman's novel - such as 'no neat escapes', 'no tidy endings' and 'no true heroes' - are brutally enforced; a world in which violence - even against the hungry dead - is depicted as an ugly, vicious thing, robbed of all vestiges of action-movie wish-fulfillment.

Darabont opts for creeping tension over short, sharp scares; human emotion over kick-ass action, and the result is one of the most devastating and emotive ('enjoyable' probably isn't an appropriate term, here) televisual offerings I've ever seen. I'm not afraid to admit that Rick's almost painfully-extended exodus from the hospital left me with knots of tension throughout my body; nor shall I deny that another 'extension' of a scene from the graphic novel, in which Rick tracks and puts down a wretched, crawling half-corpse - while at the same time, young Duane's father tries to bring himself to put down Duane's undead mother - literally brought a tear to my eye.

In short, Frank Darabont has created an adaptation that is guaranteed to win over both hard-core Kirkman fans and those ignorant of the source material alike. This is as close to a perfect cinematic representation of the human side of the zombie apocalypse as I've ever seen, and I simply can't recommend the show highly enough. Watch it now, and keep watching.

The Walking Dead premieres on U.S. television tonight (October 31st in the States), and is also available internationally to download now from iTunes.

(Image copyright AMC).