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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
he first thing that most people think of when they hear the word “zombie” is the horror genre, but to call AMC’s newest original series, “The Walking Dead,” a horror show would be a major disservice. True, the serialized drama – based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book – doesn’t stray too far from its horror roots, but it’s so much more. Like AMC’s other shows, “The Walking Dead” is first and foremost a character-based drama that relies on rich dialogue and strong performances from its cast to tell its story. The fact that it also happens to have its fair share of blood, guts and zombie-chomping fun is just the cherry on top.
Andrew Lincoln stars as Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who gets wounded in a shootout and falls into a coma at the hospital. When he wakes up a month later, he discovers the hospital in complete disarray, with the dead bodies of doctors, nurses and patients scattered throughout the hallways, and hundreds more piled up outside. Desperate to make sure his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) are safe, Rick races home only to find that they're missing, and learns from a fellow survivor (Lennie James) all about the zombie outbreak that transpired over the last few weeks. When he’s told that the government informed people to travel to the nearest major city for refuge, Rick heads to Atlanta to find that it’s also been completely overrun by the undead, and is nearly killed upon his arrival only to be saved by a pizza delivery boy named Glenn (Steven Yeun), who was in the city scavenging for supplies.
Glenn is a member of a small group of survivors camped just outside the city – a group that also includes Lori and Carl, as well as Rick’s best friend and partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), who was instrumental in protecting his family while he was in a coma. Shane isn't all that happy about Rick's return (not only was he having an affair with Lori when they believed Rick was still dead, but he liked the idea of being in charge for once), and it causes some tension between the two friends. Rick is too busy reconnecting with his family to really notice, but the reunion is cut short when the campsite is attacked by zombies and the group heads to the Center for Disease Control looking for answers.
Though the first season is only made up of six episodes, executive producer Frank Darabont gets a lot accomplished in that time, despite the fact that the show often veers off course, like in the Robert Kirkman-penned episode, “Vatos.” There are also a lot of characters to juggle, but most of them get their chance to shine, even if it does take a few episodes before we get a proper introduction. Rick is such a compelling hero figure that it's easy to see why the writers would want to spend so much time telling his story, and although Andrew Lincoln is everything you could want in a leading man – he’s good looking (but not too good looking), has tons of charisma, and commands the screen with ease – it wouldn’t mean a thing if he wasn't surrounded by so many great actors.
Luckily, “The Walking Dead” is flush with talent both known and unknown, and more often than not, they’re an improvement on Kirkman’s well-rounded characters. Darabont alum Jeffrey DeMunn brings a humor to Dale that isn’t really prevalent in the comics (and his chemistry with Laurie Holden’s Andrea holds great promise for the future), while relative newcomer Steven Yeun steals every scene he’s in as the wise-cracking Glenn. And in a perfect example of how the show has managed to forge its own identity unique from the comic book, the Dixon brothers (Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus) are an excellent addition to the story, even if Rooker is MIA for a majority of the season.
Perhaps the biggest divergence from the comic, however, was the decision to keep Shane alive beyond the first season, because while the love triangle that he’s involved in with Rick and Lori may border on soap opera at times, the three actors are so good in their respective roles that it’s hard to argue against letting it play out for a little longer. Additionally, the haunting and beautifully emotional portion of the pilot episode involving Lennie James’ single father is so powerful that you’d wish Darabont would break canon and make him a recurring character. After all, most of the changes have been for the better, and even then, the series is still incredibly faithful to the source material – especially in the level of violence that AMC has allowed. Greg Nicotero’s make-up effects are absolutely phenomenal, and it really elevates the quality of the series. That might not sound like much of a surprise for anyone who’s tuned into AMC at some point over the last few years, but even though “The Walking Dead” seemed like a perfect fit for the cable channel, no one could have imagined they would strike gold again so soon.
Special Features: AMC certainly hasn’t skimped on bonus material, but the lack of any audio commentaries or the much-talked about black and white version of the pilot is definitely a disappointment. Nevertheless, the two-disc release does include a solid making-of featurette, a series of web videos titled “Inside the Walking Dead” where members of the cast and crew discuss each episode, highlights from the Comic-Con panel, and several other mini-featurettes on everything from "Zombie School," the creation of the decaying half-zombie from the pilot, and a tour of the inside of Dale’s RV.