Review: The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season

Ah, zombies. It's a word that either gets your blood pumping or you skin crawling, or maybe it does both. Regardless, I come to praise The Walking Dead, not bury it - far, far from the latter, in fact. The Walking Dead is great of-the-zeitgeist television, an electrifying series that combines gut-wrenching character drama, beautiful on-location shooting, letter-perfect surround sound, and spot-on zombie viscera galore. Watch it any which way you can to bask in all of its gory glory, but I can tell you that it's one of the best Blu-ray collections you'll ever see and hear.

The Walking Dead is based on the ongoing monthly comic-book series of the same name, and it mostly holds true to creator Robert Kirkman's apocalyptic epic. (I've been reading the book for over 6 years now and recently re-read the series via the hardback collections, so I can vet that firsthand.) Kirkman makes a telling statement in an interview during the "Making Of" bonus featurette, one that's a key to this series' raison d'etre - he wanted to see what happens "after the movie ends." In other words, how do people survive in a zombified world once an initial conflict is vanquished, or rather, "handled?" How long can they keep going? Can they keep going? Should they keep going?

The show's execution benefits from the dream-team marriage between executive producer/writer Kirkman and executive producer/director/writer Frank Darabont, an A-lister (helmsman of The Shawshank Redemption - need I say any more?) who's a passionate champion of this material. Darabont's own vision, as he outlines in that "Making Of" doc, is one that takes an adult, serialized, long-term, mature approach. The zombies have to be utterly convincing, no question, but he says the characters must resonate so "the more you care they're not bitten."

AMC contracted for six episodes - or, six "movies," if you think about it - and that relatively conservative number led to the creation of a seamless season. Every second counts, everything is perpetually at stake, agonizing decisions are made repeatedly, and no secondary stories pad things or slow them down. This is how you do top-drawer serial drama, folks.

The zombies are as creepy and chilling as they must be, and that's very much due to the expertise of makeup designer/effects wiz Greg Nicotero. Some of the bonus materials show you how he and the KNB EFX Group get it done, but actually seeing the mindless hordes in action - how they feverishly attack the fallen horse in Episode 1, their sheer infestation of the Atlanta streets and attack on the department store in Episode 2 - really drives home how authentically grisly they are. (Yes, George Romero's original 1968 zombie blueprint Night of the Living Dead is a clearly acknowledged inspiration.)

And oh, how GRUESOME they are! Take the crawling zombie code-named "Bicycle Girl" from Episode 1. Half of her body is missing and the entrails and other innards are filled in via computer animation, and the close-ups on her rotting face show the detail work of the makeup masters. Or consider the chalk-white-faced little girl in the pre-title sequence of Episode 1, whom I'll call "Joanie Hex" to give you an idea what she looks like (you get to see so much more of her braces, let's put it that way). If the zombies weren't believable re: their facial and body decay, tattered clothing, and lumbering gaits, the show would fail outright.

As to the look of the series itself, Darabont and crew's shooting in Atlanta during last summer's brutal heatwave comes through completely onscreen, adding to the overall feeling of despair. If the characters sweat, it's because the actors themselves are really sweating. When our hero Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leans over a walkie-talkie, droplets pool, then trickle off his nose. Close-ups on his hands and those of his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) show there's actual dirt and grime underneath their not-too-manicured fingernails. Nobody looks Hollywood-pampered here.

While there's a deliberate grayish pallor over the proceedings, nature appears beautiful when it should, as it does when sisters Amy (Emma Bell) and Andrea (Laurie Holden) share a moment fishing from a Wenonah canoe in the Aim-toothpaste-blue water in the quarry at the outset of Episode 4.

Sonically speaking, the two-disc set of The Walking Dead deploys one of the best, most consistent 5.1 sound designs I've experienced. (This one's in Dolby TrueHD 5.1.) As most of the action takes place outdoors, we get the constant, never-ending twitter of nature whether the characters are in camp, in the woods, in the quarry, or on the move - birds, flies, dragonflies, you name it. And when I say never-ending, I mean it. Your surrounds are never at rest (nor should they be). The few occasions that things shift to the indoors, like they do at the CDC in Episode 6, the sound design adjusts so you get a real sense of being in that particular space. Witness the echoes of the cavernous, cold, blueish room known as Zone 5 as characters speak, wine bottles are thrown, or axes are thrust against impenetrable doors; or from down in a sub-basement level full of generators humming their last gasps toward oblivion.

And when the action gets heavy, you FEEL it. The helicopter Rick sees - or thinks he sees - during his initial sojourn into the heart of Atlanta threads and sheds the subwoofer channel. When Glenn (Steven Yeun) tears down the open road out of Atlanta in the hotwired, Hemi-powered red Dodge Challenger RT at the end of Episode 2, you hear it roar right on past you - and you share in his glee in opening it up! Right after Shane (Jon Bernthal) fires upon the zombies as they assault the camp in Episode 4, you practically flinch and duck at the reverb and recoil. And a grenade causes glass to shatter all around you in the denouement of Episode 6 right before the CDC implodes - the latter scene being enough of a full-channel onslaught to satisfy all you low-end lovers out there.

As for extras, there's some great new material in the Bonus Features section on Disc 2, including the aforementioned "Making Of" doc and a good bit of the Dead team on a panel at the 2010 Comic-Con. The Extra Footage section consists of 5-minute segments that appeared on the show's website concurrent to when the eps first aired on AMC last fall. Good stuff for sure, but I really would've liked more new material here.

Does that mean commentary tracks could have added something to this extras package? Possibly, but one could argue that the "Making Of" doc and the six "Inside" mini-featurettes essentially serve that purpose. My suggestion for next season's collection: Do a writers/directors/actors roundtable that would give further insight into the creative process. (See what Kurt Sutter and his gang did on the Sons of Anarchy Season 2 collection as an example.)

BTW, one weird thing regarding the menus - every other time I popped in the first disc, the titling on the lower right side above the menu scroll said "Season 1 Disc 0"; other times, it said "Season 1 Disc 1." See the two screen grabs I snapped below as evidence! Bizarre, right?

In the "Making Of" extra, the series was referred to as "The Twilight Zone of our generation." I'd also add that it's the "next-gen Lost" while we're at it. But, really, it's simply The Walking Dead, and you should get your hands on it right NOW and feed your hunger for a fantastic A/V experience. And do it before THEY get their hands and teeth on YOU.