The Walking Dead: "Days Gone Bye"

I have a love-hate relationship with the undead. I love zombie movies, but they always give me the late-night wigguns. So I was both psyched and scared to watch the premiere of AMC's new powerhouse series The Walking Dead. The show premiered Halloween night – I sat down to watch it after my wife and daughter went asleep, giving myself permission to turn it off it got too freaky.

It did get freaky. But I didn't turn it off. Commence recap.

The first scene has our hero, Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes, walking down a lonely stretch of Georgia road past overturned, abandoned cars. He's carrying a rifle and a gas can. Whatever horrible thing that's supposed to happen has already happened, apparently. I already have the foreboding sensation I got reading the first chapter of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Great. Wigguns ahoy.

Within the first five minutes, Deputy Grimes is facing down a rasping, ravenous ghoul – who's also a little girl, clutching a teddy bear. She's hungry, feral and quick. Grimes has no choice but to raise his rifle and shoot her in the head, thanks, which we get to see in full-on Splattervision. Ok, AMC. So that's how it's going to be, is it?

After that delightful little prologue, we zoom back in time to a more idyllic, pre-zombie morning where there's still civilization. Grimes and his partner Shane Walsh are hanging out in their police car, shooting the shit about women. We learn that Grimes's marriage is in trouble. We also learn that Walsh is a sexist pig who claims women are too stupid to turn lights off when they leave a room. Both Grimes and Walsh are fairly slouchy cops in this first scene (great acting by Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal), which is key to remember later, when both are forced to become stand-up leaders of survivor groups after the Zombiepocalypse.

A call comes in on their radio about a high-speed chase, and they jump into action. One fast-paced showdown scene later, and Grimes has been shot by criminals and is in an ambulance heading to an emergency room.

Cut to a few weeks later. Grimes wakes up in a hospital room. The flowers by his bed have long since wilted, and everything is eerie. Wonderfully creepy scene with Grimes staggering through a deserted hospital looking for help. There's wreckage. There's blood smeared on the walls. There are a couple gnawed-away bodies around. And finally, there's a set of big metal double doors, boarded shut, with the words "Don't Open, Dead Inside" scrawled on them. Grimes approaches the doors, which start to rattle. Gah! In other words, this shit just got real.

I, of course, start to feel my skin crawl. My thumb is hovering over the FF button on my DVR remote. I stay brave, and Grimes stumbles out of the hospital. Unable to believe the fact that world ended while he was unconscious. This sequence feels slightly stolen from 28 Days Later, but it's so well-paced and beautifully shot that I'm cool with it.

Grimes, still in his hospital gown and staggering around sort of like a zombie himself, sees something moving in the park. He approaches, and realizes he's looking at half a zombie, missing everything from the torso down, laboring hard to pull itself along through the grass. It's got virtually no meat on its bones. Its face is disintegrating. Grimes is freaked at first, but what's so diabolical is that as I'm watching this disgusting zombie pull its legless self through the grass by its fingers, I start to feel bad. For the zombie. For the pathetic half-zombie trying hard to get... nowhere. An interesting moment.

More on half-zombie later. For now, Grimes stumbles on, and comes upon a man named Lennie and his son Duane who are holed up a house, low-profiling it while zombies constantly drift through the neighborhood. (It's awesome how zombies are seamlessly woven into the background of scenes, making them both creepy and mundane.) We get some backstory on Lennie and Duane – their wife/mom has been zombified, and she's still hanging around the neighborhood. In fact, she frequently climbs their porch steps and rattles the doorknob, because part of her mushy memory keeps pulling her back. Which of course is heartbreaking for Lennie and Duane. This is where we realize that this show is less about brain-eating zombies and more about the emotional core of its human characters, who have to relearn how to live after losing almost everything they loved most in the world.

Grimes bonds with them for a bit before deciding to move on. He's convinced that his own wife and son are still alive. There are rumors that the CDC has a victim shelter in Atlanta, and they could be there. Lennie isn't quite ready to make the move, so Grimes leaves them. Um... I'm sorry, why do they stay in a house surrounded by a neighborhood Rotary Club of the Undead? Instead of traveling with a deputy sheriff who has lots of guns? Hard to say. Something about the fact that the mom zombie (mombie!) is still shuffling around, and the dad just doesn't have the stones to put a bullet in her head yet. I question their survival imperatives.

Side story: Remember Grimes' partner Walsh? Sexist and sort of a douche? We learn that he's the de facto leader of a small survivor group hiding out in the woods, living in tents. He's suddenly a stand-up guy because he has to be – and one of the members of this not-so-merry band is Grimes' wife Lori. Remember now, in the beginning, we learned that the Grimeses were having a wee bit o' marital trouble. Turns out that after surviving the Zombiepocalypse, Grimes's buddy Walsh and his wife Lori are hooking up! Gettin' down with it! Doing a little horizontal mambo! So that's going to be an awkward situation if they all bump into each other at the next company party. I dig what this implies about the direction of the show itself: how relevant are our rules of morality and propriety after the end of the world? What's the point of fidelity when you've got dead people walk around, snacking on brains? New world, new rules.

I have to mention one more thing: before Grimes leaves town, he goes back to the park where he saw that mangled half-zombie. Which is pretty easy to find, since it hasn't made great progress. It's still doggedly trying to get somewhere, clutching fingers, rasping breath, all of it. This time, Grimes approaches, kneels by the disgusting, retching thing, and looks at it with pity in his eyes. "I'm sorry this happened to you," he says to it. The thing looks up and I swear for just a second it has puppy dog eyes, pathetic and sad. When the zombie slowly reaches out for Grimes, the deputy does the humane thing and blasts its head off. I'm sitting here dumbstruck by the poignancy of it, seriously. This human moment feels like it's illustrating something important about the series itself.

Grimes finds a horse and rides into Atlanta on an empty freeway. Meanwhile, the survivors led by Walsh and Lori are talking about how they should go out and post signs for other survivors warning them not to go to Atlanta, since the CDC's survivor center is not so much. Foreshadowing!

Grimes wanders around deserted, downtown Atlanta for a bit, encountering the occasional zombie here and there. We're forced to remember something Lennie said to Grimes earlier: don't be fooled by the Walkers. They may not be much one at time, but when they're in a group, and hungry... whoa momma.

Which Grimes discovers when he and his horse turn a corner and are suddenly confronted with hundreds of zombies, whose heads all turn towards him at the same time. I actually hear myself say "Holy Shit" out loud.

Panic. Awesome chase scene. Grimes gallops off on his horse, but there's nowhere to go. He's surrounded by a flash mob of zombies. Part of me really wanted them to all jerk upright and start doing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance. If nothing else, it would diffuse the freaking tension.

Grimes is pulled off his horse, and scrambles away as a group of zombies rips the horse open and begins to devour it oh yes people that happened GAH.

Grimes tries to run away, but can't. He crawls under a car, but they follow. At the last minute, he managed to climb into an abandoned tank in the middle of the street and seal himself in. He's clearly aware of exactly how screwed he is, and I'm thinking, wait, this is supposed to be a series, right? How's he going to stay alive for future episodes? When there's a crackling on the tank's CB, and a smartass-sounding voice says, "You in the tank. Feeling cozy in there?"

Huh? Awesome.

And then it's the last shot of the episode: an overhead view, looking down on the tank covered with zombies, all clawing to get in. We pull back and see that the streets are filled with the undead. We got one guy, trapped in a tank, beneath a blanket of monsters.


I'm in. Yes, it's creepy and stark and we're definitely going to see buckets of viscera, internal organs, and exploding zombie heads. But we're also going to get some very human stories. For the characters of The Walking Dead, there's hope after the end of the world.

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