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Sunday, February 20, 2011

THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON -- DVD review by porfle


Doing a continuing series about a group of characters struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse is such a cool idea it's a wonder nobody's ever done it before.  Frank Darabont (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE) must've thought so too, so he and producer Gale Anne Hurd (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS) have adapted the graphic novel "The Walking Dead" into an AMC television series that should have horror fans lurching through the streets in undead ecstasy.

Anchor Bay's two-disc set THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON contains the initial six episodes, which use George Romero's 1968 classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (along with a large dash of Stephen King's "The Stand") as a launching point for a whole new saga.  Darabont's intent was to stick close to the Romero vibe, with shambling, non-athletic zombies and an emphasis on the (living) human conflicts occurring amidst the carnage.  No punches are pulled on either front, as the visuals are exceedingly graphic and the stories are filled with dramatic tension and surprises.

Andrew Lincoln stars as Rick Grimes, a lanky Atlanta, Georgia sheriff's deputy who awakens from a coma to find the world ravaged by an undead armageddon.  The first episode, "Days Gone Bye", is probably the all-out creepiest of the bunch--it's like the ultimate "Twilight Zone" episode, with a dazed Rick wandering through the ruins of his hometown which is littered with rotting, partially-devoured corpses.  The fact that a good number of them are walking around and trying to eat him adds to the nervous tension this episode bristles with.
 

Luckily, Rick hooks up with a guy named Morgan (London-born Lennie James, OUTLAW) and his young son, living in a barricaded house.  Morgan's dead wife is one of the zombies (known here as either "walkers" or "geeks") that surround the house, but he doesn't have the heart to put her down.  The scene in which she staggers up to the front door and stands there, seemingly aware that he's inside, reminded me of a similar eerie moment in the Richard Matheson adaptation THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. It finally dawned on me later that Vincent Price's character in that movie was also named Morgan.

"Guts" finds Rick in Atlanta, where his hopes that the "authorities" will have things under control are dashed when he's overrun by hundreds of walkers and barely escapes with his life in a thrillingly suspenseful sequence.  Here, he meets a group of survivors who take him to their encampment outside of town.  To his joyous surprise, his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl are there, along with his former partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), who is the group's leader.  Thinking Rick dead, the headstrong Shane has staked a claim on Lori and Carl which he's reluctant to relinquish, a situation that will lead to growing complications as the season progresses. 

"Tell It to the Frogs" and "Vatos" find Rick leading a group back to Atlanta to rescue Merle (genre fave Michael Rooker), a violent racist whom they'd been forced to leave handcuffed on a rooftop during their escape.  Merle's little brother Daryl (Norman Reedus, who played "Scud" in BLADE II) is another hothead with an anger management problem, which makes him an asset in their frequent bouts with the walkers but a big liability as a team player.  At one point, Rick and young pizza-delivery guy Glenn (Steven Yeun) must hack a corpse to pieces and cover themselves with gore in order to pass unmolested among the undead.  This is the one scene in the series that's so over-the-top it almost invites laughs as the two sneak around in their blood-encrusted overcoats with severed limbs hanging from around their necks.
 

"Wildfire" deals with the aftermath of a terrifying zombie attack on the encampment and brings up an issue from the Romero films--what to do with friends and loved ones who have been bitten and, once dead, are doomed to return.  Rick comes up with a plan to pack up and travel to a military base for protection, hoping that their scientists are close to a cure.  In "TS-19", the final episode of the season, the survivors' hopes are raised when they reach the installation but are soon dashed by new revelations.  Shane's obsession with Lori takes a dark turn, while suicidal despair infects various members of the group.  An explosive finale leaves their final fate as doubtful as ever.

Once I started watching THE WALKING DEAD it was like eating potato chips--I couldn't stop until I'd scarfed the whole thing.  True-blue George Romero stuff all the way, it explores all the fascinating avenues of the premise set forth in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its sequels with up-to-date effects, sharp writing, and the combined talent of some great filmmakers.  The estimable Darabont's enthusiasm for the project is one of its main assets, as is the incredible make-up artistry of Greg Nicotero and his team. 

While always in service to the story, the gore effects match or surpass just about anything we've seen on the big screen and are often jaw-dropping.  Delightfully hideous zombies chow down on their victims amidst gouts of blood and guts while the good guys blast, dismember, and behead them.  In one scene, an abused wife (Melissa McBride) makes sure her "walker" husband is good and dead by braining him repeatedly with a pickaxe until his head looks like a taco salad.  One of Rick's first "geek" encounters is with a female torso so desiccated that he, and we, are shocked to find it still horribly ambulatory.  Time after time, this cable-TV series serves up gore effects that might easily get a feature film stamped "X."


Production values are first rate, and scenes of zombies by the hundreds swarming through ravaged city streets have an epic quality that's impressive.  As for the cast, they're all on their best game.  In addition to those already mentioned, multitalented IronE Singleton is T-Dog, who clashes with brothers Daryl and Merle.  Laurie Holden (THE MIST, "The X-Files") and Emma Bell (FROZEN) play close-knit sisters Andrea and Amy, trying to protect each other as circumstances conspire to separate them.  Old-school character actor Jeffrey DeMunn has one of his best roles ever as the group's wise old sage, Dale.  As Rick, British actor Andrew Lincoln is a believable, non-glamorous lead who, with the right beard, might even make a convincing Abraham Lincoln.  After getting used to him in character, it's somewhat of a shock hearing him speak in his native accent in the bonus features.

The 2-disc DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras include the half-hour documentary "The Making of 'The Walking Dead'", six behind-the-scenes webisodes, a visit with graphic novel author Robert Kirkman, a look at the makeup effects, a Comic Con panel with cast and producers, a trailer, and other assorted featurettes. 

With more time to develop its characters and situations and some first-rate filmmakers at the helm, THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON makes a lot of the recent living-dead films seem anemic in comparison.  For fans of both hardcore zombie horror and riveting serial drama, this is the good stuff.


Street date 3-8-11

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