October 29, 2010 in Features

‘Walking Dead’ offers more than grisly images

Chuck Barney Contra Costa Times
Associated Press photo

Costumed actors, promoting the Halloween premiere of the AMC television series “The Walking Dead,” shamble along the Brooklyn Bridge while posing for pictures in New York earlier this week.
(Full-size photo)

On the air

“The Walking Dead” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.

“The Walking Dead,” AMC’s new zombie apocalypse drama, has got to be a makeup artist’s ultimate dream.

The series, which fittingly debuts on Halloween, is jam-packed with decomposing ghouls running – no, lurching – amok. They’re beset with dark, sunken eyes, rotting flesh, exposed innards and really bad teeth.

As you watch, you can imagine the filmmakers gleefully declaring: “Let’s come up with more fresh and imaginative ways to desecrate the human body!”

If you’re more voyeuristic than squeamish, “The Walking Dead” is worth a look, based on its striking images alone.

Zombies, after all, are the new vampires, and they’ve come a long way since the late ’60s, when director George A. Romero imagined an invasion of animated corpses playing out in chintzy black-and-white.

Fortunately, there’s much more to this series than the gruesome imagery.

Finding inspiration in an acclaimed graphic novel by Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” gives us a world ravaged by a zombie epidemic. But whereas most entries in the musty genre are simply inclined to go for cheap shrieks and lofty body counts, this saga defies expectations with a more humanistic approach.

At its heart, it’s a survivalist story that focuses on how lives are drastically changed in the face of imminent doom. And in that vein, it has more in common with the recently departed “Lost” than Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead.”

Sunday’s 90-minute opener acquaints us with the sad tale of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a stoic Southern lawman who, after being injured in a roadside shootout, slips into a coma that lasts for weeks.

When he finally awakens, Grimes is stunned to find himself alone and abandoned in a vacated hospital. Eventually, he learns the horrifying truth: All across the land, a plague has spread, causing the dead to rise and feast upon the living.

Amid this ominous outbreak, society has collapsed. There is no government, no law enforcement, no cell phone service, no Facebook.

What few survivors there are have fled to large cities or rural encampments. Holding out hope that his wife and young son are still alive, Grimes embarks on a frantic journey to find them.

Along the way, he valiantly fends off mobs of insatiable cannibals. The bullets fly and so do the icky blood and guts. (Apparently, it’s OK to use zombies for target practice.)

Deftly directed by Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile”), Sunday’s episode is a triumph of tone and mood.

Rather than try to achieve total shock treatment, Darabont wants to plunge us into a state of constant anxiety, and he pulls it off with panache. The pilot contains plenty of small, artfully crafted creepy moments, especially in the well-executed hospital scenes.

Zombie nerds will be pleased to see that the show hews closely to Kirkman’s narratives (published by Berkeley’s Image Comics).

But it also adds intriguing subplots and fleshes out the characters while amping up the emotional oomph. The bewilderment, desperation and anguish conveyed by Lincoln’s Grimes is thoroughly palpable.

Season 1 of “The Walking Dead” is set for six episodes, and it will be interesting to see if it can sustain the suspense, and/or attract more than just horror hounds to a cable channel known more for non-genre dramas like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

For now, it’s off to a thrilling start.

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