Things are pretty slow at the theaters this weekend, what with the umpteenth version of the rusty "Saw" franchise taking over for Halloween. Given that, we thought we might take a look at something that has been every bit as anticipated as a summer blockbuster, at least in the world of comic book fanboys: director Frank Darabont's television version of "The Walking Dead."
Based on the groundbreaking comic book series by Robert Kirkman, the series follows the fortunes of a group of humans struggling to survive in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. One nip from the living dead, and you come back hungry for flesh and eager to spread the disease that spawned you. And so on, and so forth, until the end of the world.
The first episode of the six-part "Walking Dead" miniseries, titled "Days Gone By," premiered on Halloween night, and will undoubtedly run every day leading up to next Sunday night's part two. Check local listings to catch it. And whatever you do, if you're a horror or zombie film fan, be sure to catch it. The first episode is pretty much destined to go down in history as a landmark of how far you can push the envelope on cable, and will hopefully spawn a whole new wave of high-concept horror on TV. Cut that in with more than this series' fair share of fine acting, all delivered with the same deft touch Darabont brought to films like "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and you've got something special.
Darabont said that he planned to take the violence as far as AMC would let him. How far does he take it? In the first scene of "Days Gone By," the lead character, Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is out scavenging gasoline for his patrol car while headed to Atlanta to search for his wife and son. He enters a field where cars sit stacked together, abandoned by their drivers. Lying flat on his belly to check a gas tank, he sees the feet of a little girl, wearing bunny slippers no less, shuffle past. He stands, and calls after her. When the girl turns — all of seven years old, with flowing blond hair over a dirty white robe — she is a horror, one of the walking dead, with pale gray skin, milky eyes, and a hole in her cheek that looks like something chewed its way in. She puts out her arms and starts coming for him. When he realizes he has no other choice, he pulls out his pistol and shoots the little girl in the head.
It is a testament to Darabont's commitment to going further that he doesn't allow the camera to look away while the bullet does its awful work. The back of the girl's head literally vaporizes in a spray of too-real CGI, and she goes down like a sack of potatoes — bunnies over teakettle, as it were. Even for a seasoned horror fan, it is a terrible, brutal moment, and leaves you a little shocked. It's hard to think of an R-rated feature film where a child (even a monstrous child) has been so openly killed, much less a television show. But Darabont makes us bear witness to the horror, the same way that his character must bear witness to it, and that is the moment when he writes the Bible of the series: hyper-realistic special effects, pull-no-punches plotting and a camera that never looks away just to spare our delicate sensibilities. It all adds up to a living dead film that raises the bar, and maybe even surpasses those of the acknowledged masters of the genre like George A. Romero. And Darabont is doing all this on TELEVISION.
This is not to say that "Days Gone By" is just shock. There are some scenes of heartbreaking human anguish as well, such as when Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), the young son of Deputy Grimes' new friend Morgan (Lennie Jones) runs sobbing from the window after he sees his recently-zombified mother walking around with the flesh-hungry horde outside. Or when Morgan himself climbs to the second floor of the house where they've sought shelter, puts the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle on his wife's forehead, and, weeping, tries to will himself to put her out of her misery.
Darabont does scenes like this exceedingly well, infusing what could be melodrama in lesser hands with a brilliant, everyman sensibility that makes your heart absolutely shatter. Though it's often difficult and depressing to watch, "The Walking Dead: Days Gone By" is threaded through with scenes of such tender and amazing emotion, and that makes it all bearable. It's understandable, given that Darabont knows that country inside and out — how resilient the human spirit is, especially when our too-frail bodies and minds are pushed to the limit of what we can endure. It's a brilliant beginning to what promises to be an amazing series.
The next episode, "Guts," airs Sunday, Nov. 7, at 9 p.m. on AMC.