Despite the apparently inexhaustible vogue for all things undead, it’s taken a long time for zombies to shuffle their way to the small screen. Perhaps it’s harder to make rotting flesh-eaters as appealing as smoldering vampires or shirtless werewolves, or perhaps it’s simply the logistics of slapping on layers of latex week after week. Or maybe it’s the fact that the standard post-apocalyptic scenario can only play out for so long. Even George Romero has managed to extend his Night of the Living Dead saga only by essentially hitting reset on the story each time out.
Part of what makes The Walking Dead so effective is its willingness to take things slow. Adapted by Frank Darabont from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, the show’s six-episode first season moves at a pace closer to the insistent shamble of Romero’s movies than the adrenalized sprint of latter-day offspring like 28 Days Later… and the remade Dawn of the Dead. The first episode starts off with a bang, as small-town sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) puts a bullet in the head of a teddy-clutching tween ghoul. But it proceeds at a whisper. The creatures, we’ll find out, are drawn to sounds, which may be why the pilot is one of the quietest hours of television ever made.
Before the onslaught, in the days when a lawman’s biggest problem is a passel of gun-toting rednecks in a speeding muscle car, Rick takes one to the chest and ends up in a coma, awakening to what is left of a world ravaged by “walkers”. (No doubt wary of seeming like they’re jumping on the corpse-laden bandwagon, the show’s writers avoid the z-word altogether.) He emerges from the hospital into a parking lot strewn with dead bodies and abandoned military hardware, a battlefield in a war that’s already been lost.
Eventually, Rick tracks down a small band of survivors in the hills outside Atlanta, a group that conveniently includes his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies), son (Chandler Riggs) and fellow deputy (Jon Bernthal), who has stepped into place as a substitute for his presumably deceased friend. The problem isn’t as much the cheap melodrama of the arrangement – the human race has dwindled to a handful of survivors yet we’re meant to be concerned whether Rick will find out his wife slept with someone else – as that it undermines the bedrock on which the genre is built. At their root, end-of-the-world stories are about societies reforming themselves with whatever materials remain, human or otherwise. But apart from the running conflict between Norman Reedus’s cracker survivalist and any non-white character who crosses his path, there’s little sense of who the characters were, or even who they are. It doesn’t help that some of the actors are less lifelike than the creatures they’re fighting, or that the Southern drawl Lincoln pastes over his British accent is generic and inconstant.
There are enough unanswered questions to keep The Walking Dead running for a while, and the series doesn’t stint on the gore that genre fans demand. At the end of the season, we’re still wandering in a daze. But the show needs to sharpen its characterizations if it’s going to be around for the long haul. When the zombies are at the door, there’s no time to get to know each other. When the fighting stops, though, it’s time to separate the living from the dead.