While George Romero has had trouble returning his own undead tales into relevant social commentary, Frank Darabont has no such issues with The Walking Dead. AMC’s latest series takes on the zombie genre with a plodding and intense look at humanity. We may be watching survivors of a zombie apocalypse, but we’re witnessing a brilliant examination of what makes us human.

This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Darabont’s directorial and writing work in film. With The Walking Dead, an adaptation of the popular graphic novel, Darabont has created a truly American story without the modern day irony. This is a true western, a story of a man’s die hard spirit, and an epic journey to rival anything done in the last ten years. Quite simply the first episode of the series is the best pilot since Lost’s introduction.

The opening scene shows our hero, small town Georgia police Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), as he comes face to face with a young girl who happens to be a zombie. No scares. No quick cut to make you jump in your seat. Just a look of sorrow and frustration on Rick’s face as he confirms the little girl is already dead on her feet. We then flash back to see how Rick came to be in the zombie world. I won’t give anything away, but it’s a simple variation on the main character awakening to the zombie apocalypse with no idea it ever happened.

Alone and confused Rick stumbles his way through the zombie infested streets to his home, where he finds his wife and son gone. Father and son survivors help Grimes in the new world, explaining a little about the “walking dead.” Giving him and the audience a much needed crash course on what’s happening, although little is explained on what caused the outbreak. When Rick hears of an emergency center in Atlanta he decides that’s where his family went. With little to no thought he heads to the big city.

This is a stupid move. And it’s important to note because while Rick is a natural leader, a trait that will be important later, he’s also a stubborn bastard. Seeing the world in a specific way he sets his mind on something and almost blindly goes on the hunt. That’s not to say he deliberately makes dumb decisions, only that those he does make are marred by a worldview that is unwavering.

Rick gets on a horse, and this leads to the most iconic imagery of the pilot. A lone lawman on a horse traveling down an empty highway towards Atlanta while on the other side is a traffic jam of cars that tried to escape. The slow pan up to show Grimes traveling in the wrong direction proves that Darabont understands the horror genre. It’s not about guts and gore; it’s all about the pace. The Walking Dead is packed with these subtle visual works: from the zombie wife of a survivor turning to look directly at the camera through a door’s peep hole, to an overhead view of zombie swarms choosing between two tasty targets. The world itself is utilized to great effect, as are the zombies. The lush vistas of the American countryside are showcased with visual flair, while simultaneously the refuse and remnants of human society litter the landscape.

And yes, guns are wielded quite frequently. For those who just want to see the undead receive headshots you’ll have your fun too. Although zombies allow for sociopolitical commentary, their method of destruction is far less elegant. But that’s OK because it permits The Walking Dead to also be about pure exhilarating mayhem and fun from time to time. When you’re telling an epic human tale it helps to juxtapose the intensity of emotion with some kick assery. Battlestar Galactica did it perfectly in its first season, and The Walking Dead looks to be following suit.

The Walking Dead is also about human society, and how it actually works when society crumbles. Do people really respect and care for one another, or are we all just monsters in some way? Rick and the other survivors he meets have to deal with this question every moment as sometimes the most dangerous person standing nearby is not the zombie at the gate but the gun toting redneck or former partner.

While many of the other survivors have no qualms about shooting every zombie they see, Rick still understands that these were once people. There’s a zombie woman that Grimes comes across who is cut in half and dragging herself across the ground. He later returns to her, now some distance from where she once was, and squats down. As she reaches for him, in a gesture that looks like a plea for help but is really just her grasping for a meal, we realize that there’s sadness to this scene. It’s not horrific and bloody, despite the woman’s bifurcated body. Rick looks at her and says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

It’s a statement on the decent thing to do by killing this zombie, and not just an excuse to go around shooting people in the head. Rick was in no danger, but he saw in her the woman she once was. And she, like all zombies, saw him as something to take and devour. This is what drives The Walking Dead; an examination of humanity in the eyes of the monsters.

The Walking Dead premieres Sunday, October 31 at 10:00pm ET on AMC with a 90 minute episode.

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