Based on the long running Image Comics series of the same name, written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore and then later Charlie Adlard, AMC's six part The Walking Dead had the daunting task of trying to bring a very popular and well written series to life on the small screen without alienating or upsetting a fairly fickle fan-base (it's a fact that horror fans and comic fans are pretty particular about details). The man who made it all happen, however, was none other than Frank Darabont, the same Frank Darabont responsible for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile as well as more traditional genre fare like The Mist and writing credits on The Fly II and A Nightmare On Elm Street III: Dream Warriors.
When the series begins, we meet a sheriff's deputy named Rick Grims (Andrew Lincoln) who is shot in the line of duty and falls into a coma, his life saved by his partner, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal). When he wakes up, the hospital is empty - he wanders around and soon realizes that the small town is littered with corpses, some of which have risen from the dead and are feasting on human flesh. Rick understandably heads to his home first but is broken hearted to learn that his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) aren't there, though there's enough evidence to support the idea that they weren't killed but fled. After meeting up with a man named Morgan (Lennie James) who, along with his son, are hiding out in the house next door he's brought up to speed. Something has happened and the dead have come back to life. The only way to keep them down is to shoot them in the brain or sever their heads. The government has supposedly set up a refugee center in Atlanta, which isn't too far away, but contact with the living has been sporadic at best.
Rick and Morgan go their separate ways and Rick decides to ride a horse into the big city where he soon learns that it's not a refugee center at all but a massive cesspool of blood and corpses, many of which are bent on eating him. He manages to catch up with a group of survivors lead by a young man named Glenn (Steven Yuen), but is bound and determined to find his wife and child, unaware that they're hanging out with a different group of survivors, including Shane, outside the city limits.
Heavily influenced by George A. Romero's pictures, The Walking Dead makes for pretty great viewing. Thanks to some well written and very believable characters, we're able to get drawn into this world and care about what happens. While this does lend itself to some moments of forced melodrama, for the most part the six episodes that make up the first season of the show are entertaining, exciting, sad, and scary - sometimes all at once. By giving the central characters their own unique personalities and back stories, we avoid the common problem of having the human characters become little more than zombie fodder, and are instead interesting and complex. This isn't a series with clear cut good and bad guys, rather, all involved are human and as such, flawed and prone not only to making mistakes but in achieving great acts of heroism as well. Darabont's scripts ensure we get quite a bit of both, and they don't skimp on the zombie action either.
As far as the production values go, a fair bit of CGI was used but thankfully most of the zombies are actual people in makeup and move just as you would want them to. They're a bit on the fast side, something that will likely annoy Romero purists, but aside from that they're both impressive and eerie, particularly en masse as they are quite frequently in this show. The film has a fair bit of blood and guts to it and some well executed action scenes, but the focus is on the human characters and their collective struggle to hold on to that humanity. There are power struggles that erupt within the groups, selfish (though sometimes understandable) acts of desperation and even some romance here and there, all of which serve to further the plot and grow the characters into more than just stereotypes.
Performances are strong from all of the principal cast members. Lincoln gets the most screen time and is the most impressive of the bunch, bringing Rick from a dazed and confused outpatient to the natural leader that ranking law enforcement officials tend to be. His cop persona can sometimes overshadow the family man he wants to be but under the circumstances, you not only accept it, but you expect it as well. Callies and Riggs are great in their supporting roles, with Callies' character in particular put in a position that makes you think 'what would I do if' whether you want to or not and playing her part with convincing inner conflict. Bernthal follows suit, and a supporting performance from Michael Rooker (he of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer fame) is a welcome addition to the series, as here he plays the type of character you just love to hate.
At only six episodes the series is over before it really starts, but Darabont has definitely put in place the building blocks for what promises to be a some truly exciting television. By focusing as much on the drama and humanity as on the horror, The Walking Dead ensures that you don't have to be a zombie fan to appreciate it, but rather, the series should appeal to anyone who appreciates great writing, interesting situations, good effects work, tensions, suspense and strong acting.
The Walking Dead was shot mostly on 16mm film, so expect a fair bit of grain in the presentation (thankfully the powers that be chose not to scrub it out). The quality of the 1.78.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation is strong throughout offers nice depth and detail, much better than standard definition could have provided, but sometimes appears a bit on the soft side when compared to other HD presentations. This appears to have been an intentional decision on the part of Darbont and his team and in the context of the series' sense of impending doom and apocalyptic despair, it actually works quite well. Color reproduction has a nice, natural feel to it and though the series tends to rely more on earth tones and drab interiors there are bright spots where it pops, such as the green of the plant life or the warmth of a light in a dimly lit room. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts to note save for a couple of darker spots where some minor bits block up, nor are there any issues with heavy edge enhancement to complain about. Things shape up quite well here, really, and the series looks very good.
The same high praise can also be levied to the series' English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, which comes with optional subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. Pretty damn close to perfect, this mix offers fantastic bass response and a really tight lower end, which you'll notice when you feel the impact from every bullet fired and every punch thrown. There's some great surround activity present throughout the six episodes that make up this first season, be it the moan of a zombie in the rear channels, a bullet zipping from left to right or some insects buzzing around near a still corpse. Directionality is tight and well placed and the excellent quality of this mix really enhances the viewing experience the way a good lossless mix should. Dialogue is perfectly balanced and the series' instrumental score is mixed in perfectly to compliment the action, drama and horror without burying any of the effects or dialogue. The quality of the sound in this set is very impressive indeed.
The first disc in the set doesn't contain anything extra outside of menus and episode selection but the second disc does contain some pretty interesting stuff starting with The Making Of The Walking Dead, which is a half hour documentary in which Darabont is joined by the principal cast and crewmembers who are interviewed about their experiences making the first season of the show. Darabont expresses his admiration of the source material and goes into a fair bit of detail about the themes and ideas that he tried to get across while the cast and crew express their admiration for one another and for the series as a finished product.
From there we get a series of shorter featurettes, including a half a dozen episode specific segments that fall under the Inside The Walking Dead umbrella. They're fairly brief but they do serve to give us a quick look at putting together some of the more memorable bits from each of the six episodes. A Sneak Peek With Robert Kirkman is a five minute is just kind of a generic look at the series as a whole hosted by the man who wrote the comic that the series was based on, while Behind The Scenes Zombie Make Up Tips is a fun seven minute segment in which FX guru Greg Nicotero gives us the inside scoop on how to make great zombie make up effects in the comfort and safety of our own homes.
The eleven minute Convention Panel puts Darabont, Kirkman and some other team members in front of a fairly enthusiastic Comic Con audience to field questions about bringing this series from panel to screen, while Bicycle Girl is a five minute examination of how one of the more memorable zombies to appear in the series was brought to undead life. On Set With Robert Kirkman lets the author of the comic book take us around the set for a look at just how much went into getting the sets right for the series, Hanging With Steve Yeun is a four minute talk with the man who plays Glenn in the show about his experiences on the series, and Inside Dale's RV is a three and a half minute peek into the RV set that's guided by actor Jeffrey Demunn. Leading man Andrew Lincoln also gets his four minutes in the sun with an On Set With Andrew Lincoln featurette where he talks about bringing his cop character to life, his co-stars, and about the series in general.
Rounding out the extras is a one minute trailer for the series, a three minute Zombie School bit in which we see how extras were trained to act as zombies for the show, animated menus, episode selection, a play all option for each disc, and chapter stops for each episode. All of the extra features in the set are presented in high definition, which is a nice touch, and the Blu-ray case fits nicely inside a cardboard slip case and contains an insert promoting the original comic book series. The extras that are here are pretty good, but we really could have used a commentary from Darabont, Kirkman and Lincoln if not over each of the six episodes at least over the lengthy pilot - there's enough meat on this series' bones to have warranted that much.
The Walking Dead: The Complete First Series could have used a bit more love in the supplements department but is otherwise a first rate effort from Anchor Bay. The transfers are very strong and the audio fantastic, while the series itself is gripping, tense, dramatic, exciting, and yes, even scary at times. The show does venture into melodrama now and then, to a fault even, but it certainly gets a whole lot more right than wrong and winds up an impressive watch from start to finish. The second season has been announced and thirteen new episodes are on their way - until then, this set comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.