I went to a cinema screening of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead here in Glasgow, and it was AMAZING! Well worth the wait, and it more than lived up to the hype.
Right from the opening, I was hooked, and knew this was going to be great. That cold open, with the loooong single shot instantly set the atmosphere of the piece, sacrificing the jump cuts that one might have expected them to use for easy scares in favor of building up this slow, squirming sense of dread as Rick’s surroundings become increasingly nightmarish, culminating with the reveal of the zombie girl.
It was a technique that was effectively reused again later in the episode, both in the hospital and outside – as we pan from the (literal!) truckloads of bodies to the chaos on the streets. What impressed me is that I knew everything that would happen in the episode – really, you could apply that “Iron Man trailer to be adapted into a film” skit perfectly to this pilot episode, and even before that I’d read the comic – but I still managed to get drawn into the sphincter-curling tension of scenes like the stairwell, with the light constantly going out and casting Rick into darkness, or the claustrophobic panic of Rick caught underneath the tank with zombies crawling in after him from all sides.
So yes, more than anything, I’d say this pilot episode was a triumph of direction – masterfully paced, beautifully shot. And fantastically minimal in its sound design, too. For all the excitement generated in some quarters over Bear McCreery doing the score, there is very little non-diagetic music here, with our soundtrack instead eerie ambient noise and distant groans that immerse us in this world. Of course, because it’s used comparitively rarely, when McCreery’s score does kick in, it really packs an added emotional wallop into the intercutting scenes of Rick’s mercy kill of the mangled zombie and Morgan trying to kill his zombie wife – in my opinion, the highlight of the episode. In the screening, you could have heard a pin drop when that sequence was done.
And that’s the best point to bring up the performances. Andrew Lincoln is great as Rick Grimes, but it’s a difficult role he’s playing. Rick here is very much a protagonist in the mould of his AMC stablemates Don Draper and Walter White: we can sympathise with them, but have difficulty fully understanding them, kept at a kind of arm’s length even at their most intimite moments and therefore unable to really get into their head and grasp what’s going on in there.
While in the comics we’ve barely known Rick a couple of panels before he’s shot and put into a coma (a nice twist on that scene here to further subvert our expectations, by the way), here we get a nice little prologue to that in a conversation with his partner, Shane. This set up an interesting dynamic, I thought, where it’s ironically Shane who seems the warmer and more likeable of the two, the one who you suspect would turn out to be the hero in a typical zombie film. Rick is colder, more distant, and talks about his wife viewing him as uncommunicative, angry and even uncaring, though he doesn’t know why. We sense that, even before the world he knew ended, there was an inkling of darkness residing within the essentially decent Rick.
Once Rick wakes up though, we’re thoroughly drawn into his plight, Lincoln handling his growing sense of horror in a way that feels believable and true-to-life. Through him, we discover the well-worn zombie genre all over again. And I think there’s a lot of room for growth here, as Rick experiences more and, eventually, begins to fall apart. Already – such as the moment near the end where he briefly contemplates suicide – we’re starting to see the cracks.
But as impressive as Andrew Lincoln was, I think the standout performance here belonged to long-underrated British actor Lennie James, bringing heartbreaking humanity to Morgan. He could have easily gone melodramatic with the material, but by underplaying his grief, only letting it out in agonised bursts, it feels all the more real and painful. I really hope that, like in the comics, we get to see Morgan again in the future.
The rest of the cast I can’t really comment on. We need more time to get into those performances before I can really talk about who is making the biggest impact on me. And really, that’s perhaps the most exciting thing of all about this pilot – masterfully crafted and convincingly performed as it is, you get the sense we’re only just scratching the surface, and the real meat of the series is yet to come.
AMC, just go ahead and greenlight Season 2 already. If the rest of season 1 is remotely as good as this, you’ve got a surefire hit on your hands. Cinematic, atmospheric, with the perfect blend of horror and drama that makes it a worthy adaptation that does justice to – and maybe even improves upon – Robert Kirkman’s excellent source material.