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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
I'm David Bianculli TV critic for FRESH AIR.
I remember when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" premiered on The WB, and I had to almost beg people not to dismiss it out of hand. The more I described it, the less worthwhile it sounded. There's this cute high-school girl, see, and she learns her destiny is to save the world from vampires and other evil demons. It's a vampire show, but not just a vampire show.
So here I am again - this time, not with vampires, but with zombies.
"The Walking Dead," which premieres Halloween night, is the newest series from the AMC network, which so far has given us "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Rubicon." And it comes with its own high pedigree. The premiere is written, directed and executive produced by Frank Darabont, of "The Shawshank Redemption." Another executive producer is Gale Anne Hurd, whose production credits include "The Terminator" and "Aliens." So she knows a lot about presenting tense, action-packed stories about relentless, seemingly unstoppable killers. And "The Walking Dead" is based on a long-running series of popular comics by Robert Kirkman. But now that I've said zombies and comics, I realize I'm digging my own grave here.
Except in a zombie drama, there are no graves, just dead bodies - ones with bullets in their heads, or no heads at all; and undead ones - staggering around in search of human brains and flesh; and the few remaining living people, who have to avoid the walking dead and eventually destroy them.
With sexy vampires all over TV and the movies, zombies are a harder sell. This new television series makes it work by heightening the realism. There's no creepy horror music upping the emotional ante here. For the most part, there's no music at all, just a quiet, eerie, frightening silence, as we follow one of the few remaining humans as he literally awakens to this scary new world.
Andrew Lincoln stars as Rick Grimes, a deputy sheriff from Kentucky who's shot in the line of duty. He falls into a coma, and when he wakes up in the hospital weeks later - his body emaciated and with a noticeable growth of beard - things aren't at all how they should be. There are no nurses to answer his calls for help. The clock in the room has stopped. The hospital is deserted, the hallways messy. He comes across a body, much of its flesh ripped off like a side of beef. And then he sees the padlocked doors with the spray-painted warning: Don't open. Dead inside.
As we keep following Rick, he makes his way through the hospital, outside, and back to his home - where his wife and child apparently have packed some things and fled. It's at that point, still very early in this 90-minute pilot, that Rick encounters the first other human survivors - a man and his son who have taken to hiding in a nearby house. Once they ascertain that Rick is human, they bring him inside, and the father fills him in. Andrew Lincoln plays Rick, the deputy sheriff. Lennie James plays Morgan, the father.
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Mr. LENNIE JAMES (Actor): (as Morgan) Hey Mister, do you even know what's going on?
Mr. ANDREW LINCOLN (Actor): (as Rick) I woke up today in the hospital. Came home. That's all I know.
Mr. JAMES: (as Morgan) But you know about the dead people, right?
Mr. LINCOLN: (as Rick) Yeah, I saw a lot of that - out on the loading docks, hauling trucks.
Mr. JAMES: (as Morgan) No. Not the ones they put down, the ones they didn't, the walkers. Like the one I shot today because he would have ripped into you, tried to eat you, taken some flesh at least. I guess if this is the first youre hearing of it, I know how it must sound.
Mr. LINCOLN: (as Rick) They're out there now in the street?
Mr. JAMES: (as Morgan) Yeah. They get more active after dark sometimes. Maybe it's the cool air or, you know, maybe it's just me firing that gun today. But we'll be fine, long as we stay quiet. Probably wander off by morning. Well, listen, one thing I do know, don't you get bit. I saw your bandage and that's what we were afraid of. Bites kill you. The fever burns you out. But then after a while, you come back.
BIANCULLI: A lot of what makes "The Walking Dead" so striking a series is how visual it is. It's beautiful and foreboding all at once, with lots of scares too potent to spoil. And whether finding terror in the open daylight of a family farm or the familiar settings of a city street, this TV show finds lots of ways to give you the creeps.
The special effects are convincing. The violence, rather than being cartoonishly overdone as in the "Spartacus" series, is powerful, credible, and often shockingly forceful. This is not a series for young children.
But because the characters are invested with such emotion, and the story unspools so empathetically, "The Walking Dead" is much, much better, and more truly dramatic, than you might expect. You watch this, and there are times when you think, what would I do in his place if this were happening to me?
My answer, way too often, is: I'd die. Your results may vary.
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BIANCULLI: You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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