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The Globe and Mail

The Walking Dead: lots of gore, but good characters too

If you plan to live through an invasion of aliens or zombies, make sure you're in a hospital bed at the time. Don't take my word for it. Watch The Day of the Triffids, or 28 Days Later, or this week's DVD release of the first six episodes of the AMC cable series The Walking Dead (2010).

Dramatically, the hospital bed makes sense. The hero wakes up after the world has changed. Other survivors may know what's going on, but our guy has to piece the information together, and the viewer learns what he learns step by step.

In The Walking Dead, a deputy sheriff named Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakes from a coma to find that a virus has turned pretty much everyone into a flesh-eating zombie. How he managed to survive so long without dying or being eaten himself is not entirely clear, but there isn't much time for reflection when zombies keep turning up unexpectedly.

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A survivor in a neighbouring house explains the ground rules. "Bites kill you. The fever burns you out. But then after a while you come back." There are rumours of a sanctuary in Atlanta. Grimes holds out hope that his wife and child may have survived.

Writer-director Frank Darabont ( The Shawshank Redemption), a horror geek with a passion for George Romero's seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead, says he knew the first time he read Robert Kirkman's source comic book that he wanted to put it on film. He liked the "character-driven" approach. The series has received critical praise for its smart writing and for the actors who flesh out (if you'll pardon the expression) the various characters who must trust each other to survive.

Again, the dramatic potential is tremendous. These people are experiencing all the usual human emotions - love, hatred, jealousy, fear, resentment - while knowing they might be zombie chow before morning. It concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson said.

The zombies are zombies. Darabont insisted they not be dressed to suggest their previous occupations (no cheerleaders, no businessmen), and he made it a rule that none of them be allowed to walk faster than the first zombie seen in Romero's film. AMC, he says, encouraged him to slow the pace of the series to give the characters room to breathe. Well, some of the characters.

Those who like good drama but aren't sure about zombies should be warned that there are violent, gory deaths here. For instance, makeup and special effects produce a little zombie girl with her jaw missing and a zombie woman who has lost the lower half of her body but not the will to gnaw.

There are also images of pure majesty, as in a crane shot in the opening 67-minute episode (the others run 45 minutes). Grimes rides a horse along the deserted lane of a highway into town while, in the lane leading out of town, hundreds of cars sit motionless. Word of advice, by the way: Don't grow too attached to that horse.

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