Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on March 11th, 2011
“I guess if this is the first you’re hearing about it, I know how this must all sound.”
Unless you’ve been in a coma like the lead character of The Walking Dead, you’ve been hearing a lot about this AMC television series of late. It’s no wonder. I’m amazed that it’s taken so long to see a zombie television series. The show has incredible visuals. There’s a courtyard scene at the beginning of the pilot that is as impressive as anything you’ve seen in a movie. And when a character has to shoot a 6-year-old girl in the head, you understand instantly that this is going to be something unique.
George Romero created the modern Zombie movie in 1968 with his low-budget masterpiece The Night Of The Living Dead. While we can debate the direction the genre has gone in the last 40 years, it’s hard to argue that Romero defined the rules of the game with that first film and the series that followed. And while zombies have been populating the comic scene since the early days of Creepy and Eerie, it took the likes of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore to give us a compelling interpretation of the Romero zombie in the form of a comic book series. That vision is the foundation for the first effort to populate a television series with zombies as the ongoing antagonists. It took American Movie Classics to have the vision to allow this creative team to dream big and put it all on our television screens on a weekly basis. Now those first six episodes have come to Blu-ray thanks to Anchor Bay. It’s a small helping, to be sure. But it might just be what the doctor (Doctor Frankenstein, maybe) ordered to get us through the long months until the series returns for a full season order in October.
The series does not really attempt to tell us how or why there are zombies. We just know that one day they’re not here and the next they are. The story is actually developed quite cleverly. We follow two police officers. Rick (Lincoln) and Shane (Bernthal). They’re partners and get involved in a call that goes badly. Rick gets shot and ends up in a coma at the hospital. The next thing Rick, or we, know is that he finally wakes up to an abandoned hospital. There is carnage all around him. The walls are coated with blood, and there are bodies strewn all over the place. As Rick ventures outside, we discover that the devastation has spread to as far as the eye can see. The town is in ruins. As Rick makes his way through the town he discovers that there are zombies about. He learns that the only way to completely kill them is by a devastating blow to the brain. A well-placed bullet does the trick nicely. The subsequent episodes follow Rick as he makes his way to Atlanta, where he hears the CDC has created a sanctuary and is working on the problem. He also hopes to find his wife (Callies) and son (Riggs) who now believe he is dead and with a camp of survivors headed by Shane. She has been hooking up with Shane, who has become the family protector. Obviously, these guys are all in for an awkward reunion.
The first thing you should know about The Walking Dead is that it’s unlike any television series you have ever seen before. The images here are intense, and the crew has been given a blank check to create this vision without the burden of censors looking over their shoulders. There are plenty of blood-and-gore effects that rival any of the Hollywood zombie films you’ve seen in the last few years. The makeup effects are handled by the very capable hands of KNB and supervised personally by Greg Nicotero (the N from KNB). KNB isn’t treating this like a television production, and while I personally get tired of the cliché about making a movie each week, this one lives up to the hype. They aren’t doing anything different here than they would do for a big-budget film. The zombies look incredible, and the effects are completely first rate.
The next thing you should know is that the zombies themselves, while a crucial point of the show, are not really what makes this an outstanding series. The writers and show runners have done a great job of casting the show. This is an ensemble series where all of the actors and characters are compelling parts of the whole drama. This could be any kind of apocalyptic scenario and it would work just as well. The actors share wonderful chemistry, and each can carry a scene or an episode with little trouble. The dynamic between them is complicated, and the writers never reach for the easy gag or situation. Don’t get too comfortable, either. Any member of this crew is fair game, and not all of them will make it out of the six episodes alive. And while, yes, this is a show about zombies, I don’t believe you’ll hear that word used even once in the first season. They are called walkers most of the time. They provide some horror and action, but Frank Darabont and his crew never forget that this is a show about characters. It would be too easy to let the zombie gimmick carry the show. And, that would probably work…for a short while. This show has planted seeds that can make this a very good series for a very long time. Let’s hope that’s the case.
Here’s AMC’s description of the main characters: (with character links to the official site)
Rick Grimes is a sheriff’s deputy in a small Georgia town. Wounded in the line of duty, he is in a coma when the zombie apocalypse occurs. Awakening alone, he sets off in search of his wife, Lori, and young son, Carl, and along the way discovers what has happened to the world. Rick is an everyman — smart, calm, just, a good friend and father — but flawed. He sees most problems as black or white and will often stubbornly cling to his personal strong moral code, which results in not always making the best decisions. He has been partners and friends with Shane for a long time and he is used to, and has perhaps taken for granted, their easy camaraderie. Rick is a natural leader, someone his fellow survivors will turn to in crisis, confident in his guidance, even when he at times doubts himself. However, his overwhelming need to do the right thing and protect those who can’t protect themselves may pull him away from his family, causing cracks of tension within his marriage and in his relationship with his son.
Shane is Rick‘s partner in the sheriff’s department, and best friend since high school. When the apocalypse occurred, and with Rick stuck in a coma, Shane helped save Lori and Carl by getting them out of their small town and heading for Atlanta. He was the last to see Rick in the hospital and is tortured by his responsibility in leaving him there, but also knows he never would have been able to save Lori and Carl if he hadn’t left Rick. He made an impossible decision that he’ll never be able to fully justify, to himself or to Lori. Among the group of survivors, Shane has become the de facto leader, a position he enjoys. He always lived in Rick’s shadow and while he never consciously resented it, he’s relishing his newfound position of authority. However, when Shane’s leadership within the group is challenged, it pushes him over the edge, and he begins losing his temper and his control with increasing regularity, making him reckless, erratic and dangerous to everyone around him.
Lori: Believing her husband Rick to be dead, Lori, along with her son Carl, goes with Shane towards Atlanta, counting on him to keep her and her son safe. Extremely compassionate and empathetic, Lori is the emotional center of the group of survivors. With their entire world in chaos, Lori will cling to her humanity and fight to maintain their decency and rituals, offering comfort to everyone as they face their individual tragedies. First and foremost, she is a fiercely protective mother, desperate to keep her son safe and extremely wary of anyone she doesn’t trust getting too close to him.
Andrea: A successful civil rights attorney living in Florida, Andrea was on a road trip with her younger sister Amy, headed back to Amy’s college when the zombie apocalypse occurred. They were stranded in Atlanta when they were rescued by Dale, and they’ve been living with him and the rest of the survivors at the camp ever since. Andrea is intelligent, cautious and extremely protective of her younger sister, with whom she has not always had the closest relationship. Never one to shy away from a challenge or a fight, Andrea is headstrong, opinionated and first and foremost interested in keeping Amy safe. They don’t know what has become of their parents, but Andrea has no real expectation of them being alive and will endeavor to stand strong as the only family Amy has left.
Dale had planned to spend his retirement traveling the country with his beloved wife Irma in their RV, but she passed away from cancer before their dream came to pass. Traveling on his own, he comes across Andrea and Amy when the apocalypse occurs and takes them in. His age, calm experience, and RV provide the nucleus around which the small community of survivors has formed. He is wise, sometimes profound and is the respected elder of the group, though is also rather feisty, not afraid to speak his mind and call others out for mistakes in judgment. Over time he, Andrea and Amy form their own little family unit and he finds spending time with them has helped bring him back to life in a way he never anticipated. Dale is a fairly self-sufficient man, and ever watchful of the changing dynamics among the survivor community.
Glenn meets Rick during one of his frequent forays into Atlanta to scavenge much-needed supplies to sustain the camp. He is keenly aware of the extreme danger of these missions, but because of his youth is willing to take the risk. He used to deliver pizzas for a living, and his knowledge of every shortcut in town proves extremely useful to the group’s scavenging needs. Young and resourceful, Glenn thinks on his feet and shows great compassion and humanity. Despite all the horrors he’s seen, he maintains a youthful enthusiasm for life and its unexpected pleasures. Glenn is an integral part of the camp, showing surprising depth and emotion when the group experiences devastating tragedy.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. The high-definition image presentation gives you the best possible view of the amazing production standards on this series. There is sharpness and detail enough to suck you right into this world. Sure, there are some CG elements that don’t quite look real, but these guys have kept the computer work to a minimum. Most of this is practical, so there is a texture and detail here that can’t fail to impress. Black levels are fair, but this show doesn’t hide in the dark very often. Most of what you see here happens in the cold light of day. It’s a brave choice, one that’s rewarded with this transfer. There is a fair amount of grain, but it only makes the image that much more alive.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 is just as impressive here. Again, this just doesn’t sound like a television show. It sounds like a feature film with a lot of money to spend on sound design. There’s far more sub activity than I was expecting. The film also does a great job with silence. There are effective uses of silence throughout. If ever a sound were visceral, this is it. You can hear the bone-crunching and squishing sounds of body parts being munched on. Dialog still punches through perfectly.
The only flaw on this release is the menu system. It is confusing and not very intuitive. At first it looks like there are two options, but one is just a text ad for Season Two. It does not go anywhere but looks like an option. Then the real extras are found in 2 subsections:
The Making Of Walking Dead: (29:53) HD Cast and crew offer the typical sound-bites. Frank Darabont drives the feature and gives us a ton of insight into the creation of the show. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes items here.
Inside The Walking Dead: HD There is a production diary for each episode. They last about five minutes each.
A Sneak Peak With Robert Kirkman: (4:51) HD You might expect this to be a look at the future, but it’s merely a set visit with Kirkman for what is already there.
Behind The Scenes Zombie Make-Up Tips: (6:45) HD KNB studios takes Nicotero’s cuz and makes him up as a zombie with stuff you can buy yourself.
Conversation Panel With Producers: (11:32) HD Highlights from a Comic Con Q&A.
Zombie School: (2:59) HD Teaching extras to act like zombies.
Bicycle Girl: (5:06) HD One of the coolest effects on the pilot was a woman zombie with her lower half missing. This feature gives you a look at how it was done.
On Set With Robert Kirkman: (3:47) HD Another set tour with Kirkman.
If you’ve been reading the comic and think you know where the story is going, don’t be so sure. While the series is guided by Robert Kirkman being an active member of the production crew, everyone associated with the series understands that it has to make its own mark. So far it has handily done that. There are times when the story will follow the comic quite faithfully. There are others where you’re going to be taken for a sudden sharp turn in a totally unexpected direction. One episode completely ventures from the book and provides us a look at the last surviving scientist at the CDC. It’s enough to satisfy the original fans but retain the fresh and clever appeal that this show has kept, at least for these first six episodes. It remains to be seen if the show can maintain these standards for a longer season run, and for years to come. The talent is certainly there. This is going to be one explosive Blu-ray in your collection. But be careful when you take this case home. If you’re at all squeamish, “Don’t open. Dead inside.”
Click on images for full size