AMC’s The Walking Dead is probably THE most anticipated new show of 2010 (besides HBO’s Boardwalk Empire). Based on the popular comic book series by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead comes with the talent of show creator Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), a cast of strong – if not yet widely recognizable – actors, some great makeup effects and a unique synthesis of horror and drama.

The show is also boldly attempting to add itself to the roster of AMC programs which have gained significant critical and popular acclaim in recent years – Mad Men, Breaking Bad – which is an ambition that I don’t think many zombie apocalypse TV shows (or movies) share.

So does The Walking Dead live up to the hype surrounding it – and is it another fine achievement for AMC TV? To both questions: Yes. How does this show about the world being overrun by zombies manage to be what so many other similar offering from the horror sub-genre cannot? By keeping a fine-tuned human drama at the center of all the monster madness.

Episode Recap

In this pilot episode directed by Darabont and entitled “Days Gone Bye”, officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is a mild-mannered man from a small town in Georgia who gets gunned down in the line of duty. When Rick awakens in the hospital weeks later, he finds himself alone and corpses scattered everywhere – some of them dead, others not as dead as they should be. After stumbling home, Rick finds his house vacant and his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) seemingly fled from all the horror and carnage outside.

Rick soon runs into Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), two survivors who fill Rick in on the events and circumstances of the zombie apocalypse. Morgan informs Rick that Atlanta was the rallying point for survivors, and that if Rick wants to find his wife and son, that would be the place to look. Rick decides to head for Atlanta, unaware that the city has been overrun with “walkers.” When Rick arrives in the city, only the dead are waiting to greet him.

Review (Contains SPOILERS!)

“Days Gone Bye” was a great episode that made it crystal clear what The Walking Dead is all about: a balanced mixture of zombie horror and human drama. A lot of people who aren’t fans of the comic series are likely approaching this show with a wary sense of curiosity, wondering if it’s going to be a silly splatterfest of gore and jump scares, like so many other zombie apocalypse stories. However, few people today (outside of horror fans) remember that when George Romero made Dawn of the Dead in 1978, critics were impressed by that film’s ability to weave an insightful consumer culture subtext into its literal story about a group of survivors who hold up in a shopping mall to escape a legion of zombies. The zombies were not just a novelty, they were a metaphor; in that way, Dawn of the Dead was entertaining on levels that everyone – from the scholar to the layman – could enjoy.

Robert Kirkman took a different approach with his comic book series, and thankfully Darabont and the other Walking Dead showrunners have honed in on that core essence of Kirkman’s work and brought it, intact, to this TV series: namely that the title, “The Walking Dead” refers to the living as much as it does the zombies. This show examines that which is changed and exposed in those hearts still beating, as human beings are faced with hell on Earth.

This first episode hammered that theme home with a wonderful subplot about Morgan Jones. If you needed to find the human heart in all this zombie insanity, you needed look no further than Morgan and his internal struggle to let go of his wife (who was turned into a zombie) and do what is best for his son. As Morgan held that rifle aimed at his wife’s zombie face, you could feel the agony coursing through him, making his hand falter. More than feel it, you understood it: why even the hollow visage of a lost lover still has the power to move someone. We’ve seen such moments before in zombie lore, no doubt, but the strength of actor Lennie James gave it the emotional impact it needed to resonate.

Andrew Lincoln also did a wonderful job of introducing us to Rick Grimes and making him a character we can root for. From the very opening of the episode – Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal) discussing their different approaches to dealing with women – you instantly got the sense that Rick is a good guy. Sure, in the midst of this hell Rick will likely have to cross some dark moral thresholds and do some terrible things to survive – but at his core, it’s clear from the start that Rick is a thoughtful and compassionate version of the macho man archetype.

The scene where Rick returned to the park to send his condolences to that half-a-torso zombie woman was easily my favorite scene of the episode, followed closely by the opening encounter when Rick must set his humanity aside to shoot a little zombie girl in the face. Every zombie encounter Rick had foreshadowed the complexity of his character – I expect we’ll see a great arch for Rick over the course of this first season, and am now confident that Lincoln can shoulder any dramatic weight placed on his shoulders. The brief look we got at Rick’s wife Lori, partner Shane and the other survivors, immediately established some serious drama that will unfold all too soon.

Finally, the closing minutes of the episode served to remind us that even in the midst of all this juicy drama, there’s also plenty of thrilling zombie-horror action to get our blood pumping. Seeing Rick enter Atlanta and nearly get torn to shreds was gripping – when he was under that tank, surrounded on all sides by walkers, I nearly jumped out of my seat in panic, even though I knew good and well that he would survive. That final aerial shot of the zombies baring down on Rick in the tank was gorgeous, and really spoke volumes about just how far up crap creek this character (and any others he’ll meet) really are. Human drama + zombie thrills… I couldn’t ask for more.

All in all, I thought this initial episode of The Walking Dead was great, and have full confidence that the show will do for zombie-horror what The Sopranos did for mob drama and The Wire did for cops & robbers shows: elevate it to a level of prestige few thought possible for genre TV. I’ll be tuning in for the rest of the season – how about you?

UPDATE: To get you excited for the rest of The Walking Dead Season 1, check out this preview video below!

The Walking Dead airs on AMC Sundays (starting this Halloween) @ 10/9c