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TELEVISION REVIEW

More than gore

AMC’s new series ‘The Walking Dead’ brings new life to the zombie genre

Andrew Lincoln plays a man who wakes up from a coma in an empty hospital after a population of zombies has run amok. Andrew Lincoln plays a man who wakes up from a coma in an empty hospital after a population of zombies has run amok.
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 29, 2010

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They’re not sexy creatures, these zombies. Nope. There’s absolutely nothing alluring about them in AMC’s evocative, suspenseful new series “The Walking Dead.’’ Called simply “walkers,’’ they amble aimlessly in droves through the post-apocalyptic streets of Atlanta, bodies stiff with rigor mortis, skin hanging off their bloodied faces, mouths chomping pointlessly. They have vacant eyes, no souls.

I kind of pity them! As supernatural metaphor, they’re the lowest of the low — duller, even, than trolls. They represent death and decomposition, plain and simple, that’s all. The vampires of Anne Rice and “True Blood,’’ so seductive and hungry for warm blood, epitomize the nexus of sex and eternity. They’re fabulously Byronic. And werewolves — think Taylor Lautner of “Twilight,’’ Joe Manganiello of “True Blood’’ — stand for our animal selves. They’re hot.

But the zombies, they just blankly stalk the characters in “The Walking Dead’’ like dim, grim reapers, visions of where we’re all headed sooner or later. They’re miserable, limping, humorless embodiments of the futility that the living try to evade and deny every day. When one of the humans in “The Walking Dead’’ shoots or bashes in a zombie’s head, it’s partly an act of charity.

So it’s a great accomplishment that this new series, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., is so fully dynamic and engaging. Adapted by writer-director Frank Darabont from Robert Kirkman’s black-and-white comic-book series, “The Walking Dead’’ is a promising human story built over a sea of grunting corpses. It’s a scare-fest at points — who’s turning that doorknob?! — and it’s definitely extremely bloody, as zombie guts splatter all over the place like chunky borscht. The 90-minute premiere is a gory Halloween horror event, for sure.

But the show, as it begins to unfold more fully next week, takes full advantage of serial TV’s ability to intimately explore interpersonal character dramas. “The Walking Dead’’ ultimately focuses on the microcosm of the post-apocalyptic survivors near Atlanta, especially two cop friends, Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), and the woman between them, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). The walking dead function primarily as the ever-threatening backdrop, just as the island and its aggressive mysteries did to the crash survivors on “Lost.’’

The premiere, so strongly written and directed by Darabont, follows the experience of Rick, who wakes up from a coma in an empty hospital after a population of zombies have run amok. A laconic guy, he makes his way home and finds that his wife and son are gone. He hooks up with a father (beautifully played by Lennie James from “Jericho’’) and son, both of whom provide moving moments as they grieve their wife and mother. Rick then continues on to Atlanta in search of community and family. As the episode moves forward, Rick’s more primitive instincts sharpen, and by next week’s episode he’ll be smearing zombie guts all over himself to move undetected among the walkers and their sensitized noses.

Darabont, Kirkman, and executive producer Gale Anne Hurd (“Terminator,’’ “Aliens’’) are the most obvious creative forces behind “The Walking Dead,’’ with Darabont expertly building and releasing tension in a rhythm that perfectly suits TV. He delivers extended sequences that are riveting despite the small amounts of dialogue — note his strategic use of bunny slippers on a little-girl zombie in the first minutes of the premiere. Darabont also gives us a lot of opportunities to bond with his characters, something too many sci-fi TV shows (“The Event’’) fail to do. Without screaming or sobbing or schmaltz, the characters have moments when they convey a sympathetic sense of emotional devastation.

But there’s no underplaying the role of the set designers and makeup artists in the success of “The Walking Dead.’’ They have found a look that captures the stark desolation of an empty city at the end of the world, but that can become visceral and crowded in an instant — as Rick faces down an army of walkers, for example. The zombie makeup is gruesome, but not in the over-the-top way that might suit a one-off movie more than an ongoing series.

And there’s no underplaying the role of AMC, too, which is creating a distinctive brand out of very different series such as “Mad Men,’’ “Breaking Bad,’’ “Rubicon,’’ and now “The Walking Dead.’’ AMC makes sure that all of its shows breathe and move at a deliberate and challenging pace that is anathema to the networks. Also, AMC seems to require the kind of arresting visuals most often associated with the big screen.

I don’t imagine that the “Walking Dead’’ actors are going to reach the heights of AMC’s other casts. In the premiere, Lincoln makes Rick into little more than a stock action hero, and the British actor’s Southern accent is spotty. Fortunately, he becomes more charismatic by episode 2. And anyway, as a genre series, “The Walking Dead’’ may depend more on suspense, desolate atmosphere, and creative storytelling than fine acting. The show takes a nightmare generally told in movies and opens it up for the medium of TV. I’m optimistic that Darabont & Co. will continue to find ways to make the characters interestingly human as they dodge death’s slow, ruthless pursuit.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE WALKING DEAD

Starring: Andrew Lincoln,

Jon Bernthal, Michael Rooker, Sarah Wayne Callies

On: AMC

Time: Sunday, 10-11:30 p.m.