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Exclusive: A review of the pilot script for The Walking Dead TV series
Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Sunday, January 24, 2010
Is there such a thing as having too much dead people in your entertainment quota?
The answer to that question will only be known if AMC decides to give a greenlight to a TV series based on Robert Kirkman's ongoing comic book series about life after the zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead. If you haven't been paying attention, the 2000s saw the zombie finally rise to mainstream status with a horde of well-received movies in this monster genre: the Resident Evil films (with a fourth now in production); a remake of Dawn of the Dead; 28 Days Later and its sequel which gave the idea of a slow moving corpse a twist with its fast runners; zombie comedies Zombieland and Fido; and the return of the father of modern zombie cinema, George A. Romero, with two new ghoul films, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead (and there's a third forthcoming, Survival of the Dead.)
With all of that box office success one would think that television executives would be looking to cash in on the zombie hype and get a TV series on the air. Actually, one network did try: back in 2007 CBS ordered a pilot called Babylon Fields which could be best described as a drama set after the dead return from the grave. After viewing the pilot the network decided that the show didn't fit in with the network's fall schedule, and so a series was never ordered. So much for zombies on the tube, right?
Well, not really. Just like any good zombie it's hard to keep the idea of a zombie TV series dead and buried. Last summer the rights to Kirkman's Walking Dead were sold to AMC. Fans of the book may have felt somewhat reassured when it was also mentioned that Frank Darabont would be directing the pilot, as well as writing the pilot's screenplay and serving as an executive producer on the show. The director of The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic, The Green Mile and The Mist, Darabont was also a producer on a proposed sequel to The Thing, the 1982 John Carpenter movie. Unfortunately that four-hour mini-series never got further than the screenplay stage, but when I reviewed it last year, I found the script to be an outstanding idea for a continuation of The Thing. If Darabont could bring some of that quality found in the Thing mini-series sequel to The Walking Dead TV show, then AMC's Mad Men audience may be in for a real ride.
Only as recently as last week did AMC order a pilot to be made from Darabont's Walking Dead screenplay. If the cable network likes what they see then there'll be a Walking Dead TV series coming as soon as this fall or perhaps around the start of 2011. So, here is the big question: does Darabont's Walking Dead pilot have the necessary ingredients to be not just a decent horror TV series but a good drama?
The answer: Yes, it does.
Contained in Darabont's 60-page pilot script are all the elements to make the show a success. There's plenty of horror that happens in those 60 pages. The director's script covers the broad range of the zombie horror emotional spectrum, such as giving us moments of extreme gore (hey, any zombie TV show wouldn't be a zombie show if it didn't have folks being munched on!), moments of shock value (hey, you didn't think that there was a zombie hiding behind that car, did you?) and the moments that I believe are the best indicator that The Walking Dead TV series has what it takes to transcend the boundaries of being simply labelled a horror show, the psychological horror scenes. Those scenes are the hammers that you're going to remember and the ones that are going to propel this show to be viewed as something more important than just a scary show.
If you're familiar with the beginnings of the comic then you'll be on familiar ground when you watch the pilot episode, even though it would appear that Darabont isn't interested in making a direct adaptation of the comic book's origin story. Our hero is Officer Rick Grimes, a deputy for a small Georgia town outside of Atlanta. About 15 pages into our story Grimes is involved in a police incident where he receives a near-fatal injury. After being taken to the hospital and falling into a short coma, our law enforcement man awakens to find the hospital empty and the telltale signs that something very bad has gone down while he was out. The way that Darabont chooses to introduce Grimes to the post-zombie world is nearly identical to the opening moments of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later but it's forgivable; the impact of the changed world is that much more heightened with Grimes serving as our introduction to it.
From there Grimes tries to find his family, his wife Lori and their young son Carl. He returns to his home and finds the neighborhood deserted, his wife and son gone. Still not fully comprehending what's happened, Grimes is saved by another father and son who have taken up shelter in a neighbor's house. From these two survivors Grimes learns about the zombie plague and the rules of life: if you're bitten, if a zombie so much as scratches you, you become infected, you die and then you become a zombie yourself. We're also shown some of the rules of the game that the Walking Dead zombies adhere to: there are "walkers", the ones that slowly come up to you. The walkers are slow and a head shot will take them out. That said, there's a lot of walkers out there and if they decide to come at you at once, save that last bullet for yourself, you dig?
From his new neighbors Grimes is told that his family may have decided to head into Atlanta where the government was setting up a safety zone. With that info, Grimes heads off by himself and makes his way into the city. What happens in the next 20-or-so minutes is pretty intense for our hero and I want to leave it for Darabont to show to you.
I'm not sure if Darabont is the kind of guy that puts in camera effects into all of his screenplays but in his Walking Dead script there are a couple of places where he describes the visual tricks that he wants to do to heighten the surreal nature of a scene. There's a moment where Grimes is in a tough situation and has to fire a pistol at close quarters at a zombie. In the environment that he's in, Grimes is momentarily deafened by the blast. In Darabont's script, the description of what we the viewer should experience to communicate the deafness is in there. Reading that sort of scene as well as a few others like that made me more interested in seeing what Darabont's visual style is going to be in this show.
If you were a fan of the comic book before, now you know that the pilot's set-up of the Walking Dead story follows a similar arc as the comic's but it's not exact. I'd guess that about half to two-thirds of the first two issues are contained in the pilot episode but there's also new material. For instance, we now get to see the incident that brought Grimes to the hospital (the comic begins with him coming to in his deserted room) and there's some changes with what happens when he is in Atlanta that differ with the comic's depiction of events. [Editor's Note: the comic book does have a single page showing why Rick came to the hospital. See the comments section below for more explanation.] Darabont seems to know what he's doing and in the places where he chooses to include new material, with his changes/additions better serving the story and bring more characterization (at the beginning and middle) and intensity (at the end). In particular there was a new revelation concerning the plight of the other father that Grimes finds living in his old neighborhood that's not in the comic. This new material really underscored the sense of what kind of deep and unsettling world the survivors are now living in.
Darabont's also done a solid job of knowing what works from The Walking Dead and sometimes reproducing it exactly in his screenplay, such as the case with the bicycle Grimes comes across and the reaction of its former owner to the officer's arrival.
The Walking Dead pilot doesn't sell out its concept for the sake of finding a wider audience. This is a show set in a world where families have died and the survivors haven't had the time to cope with their losses, much less come to terms with civilization collapsing around them. Knowing the course that Kirkman's comic book takes and now after seeing how Darabont's chose to make the pilot more of a drama than a flat-out horror action show, AMC's Walking Dead has fantastic potential. The Walking Dead could even do for horror what the new Battlestar Galactica did for science fiction. Cross your fingers and hope that the show comes together as well as it did on the page.