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The Walking Dead's pilot is a cinematic vision of what could have been
Like the walkers themselves, AMC’s The Walking Dead has proven a hard show to kill over the years. It's cycled through showrunners, lead actors, highs, and lows alike since its premiere in 2010 and still soldiers on to its recently announced Season 11 finale. Any TV show that remains on the air for a decade is inevitably going to change over the course of that run. Still, it’s almost astonishing to look at the origin point of The Walking Dead, still one of the most popular television shows in the world today, in comparison to the current state of the show.
Today the show’s reputation is that of, well, a genre television show. It’s far more likely to be thought of as being synonymous with something like the Arrowverse rather than peak TV darlings like Succession or Breaking Bad. This isn’t a slight, mind you. It’s simply to note that there seem to be two very different schools of television being produced today, and that The Walking Dead firmly belongs in one category. It’s worth noting because that wasn’t always the case. When the show first aired, its aspirations seemed sky-high, largely thanks to a pilot that still stands out as an exceptional piece of television 10 years after it premiered on Halloween in 2010.
Produced at the height of a decade-long zombie craze, the biggest name attached to The Walking Dead when it was originally announced wasn’t any of its now-big-name actors or Robert Kirkman, the now-world-famous creator behind the hit comic series on which the show is based. It was Frank Darabont, a director best known for one of the more widely beloved films ever made, The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont made his name over the years helming some of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, from the aforementioned Shawshank to The Green Mile and finally taking on one of the writer’s horror stories, The Mist. He also served as a writer on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Tales From the Crypt, earning his horror bona fides early on in his career.
Relatively fresh off of The Mist, which had been met with critical acclaim, Darabont’s name being attached to the show boded incredibly well. The comic was — and remained through its recently-ended run — an incredibly bleak, nihilistic read, and it seemed that the guy responsible for the ending of The Mist would be the perfect fit to shepherd the story to screen.
Not to skip ahead to the end, but Darabont’s tenure on the show (like many showrunners to come) ended up being short-lived. He left the show sometime during production of the second season due to (rumored) disagreements over AMC wanting a season double the length of the first one but with a drastically reduced budget. Since then there have been multiple lawsuits between the director and the network, the bad blood between the two still boiling to this day.
However, the fact remains that there is no The Walking Dead without Darabont. Not only was his work on the first season at large vital in establishing where the show would go down the line, but his directorial work on the pilot is almost single-handedly responsible for turning the show into the cultural phenomenon it became.
Today the show is very much television. But the show’s pilot has genuinely cinematic aspirations, from its scope to its pacing to the visual language it utilizes. While far from devoid of action, the pilot — which clocks in at 90 minutes (with commercials) — is a far more quiet, tense, and at times meditative experience than the show eventually became.
Darabont’s pilot thrives on silence. There are significant chunks of the run time in which nobody speaks and instead, we’re shown the world of the walkers through the eyes of its newest entrant: series protagonist Rick Grimes. With that silence comes an eeriness — we are, after all, seeing a world forever changed and in the infancy of its new form. There’s a rawness to it all, an uncanny terror in seeing the empty highway outside of Atlanta, in the remnants of the hospital in which Rick was being kept after getting shot. Darabont prioritizes that tension over cheap thrills or jump scares, and it makes the moments of higher intensity (aka The Zombie Bits) all the more exhilarating when they finally hit.
More than anything though, Darabont manages to really hone in on the tragedy of walkers. He’s far from the first to really grapple with the actuality of what it would be like to be surrounded by the walking corpses of your former friends and family, but he does so with indiscriminate empathy.
There’s a scene in the pilot that stands out as the sort of thing that made it so special in the moment and also what the show strayed from as it continued. Earlier in the episode, Rick comes across a walker — a woman, the bottom half of her body severed, guts spilling out and yet somehow still alive. As he makes his way to Atlanta, he comes across her once more, still crawling across a clearing, still clinging to life — if you can even call what she’s experiencing life.
Darabont intercuts this with the episode's other main character, Morgan, perched in the upstairs window of his home, feeling he may finally have found the courage to put the walker who was once his wife out of her misery (and it does have to be misery, right?). As Morgan fires off rounds into random, scattered walkers to garner his wife’s attention, Rick kneels next to the woman. There’s pity in his eyes, pity for the life she once led and for the state she’s now been forced to exist in for god knows how long. Rick, knowing good and well that she can’t understand him, says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” He then lifts his gun and fires a round through her skull, ending the struggle. Rick walks off as Morgan tries to make himself pull the trigger — but he’s unable. He’s not ready. Maybe one day he will be.
From the framing to the pacing to the editing, it’s the work of a director who knows what he’s doing and one who wants to elicit a genuine emotional response from his audience. The show, even in its best moments as the years went on, never quite reached the peak Darabont achieves in that scene. It’s exceptional stuff and had the show stayed true to the sort of thesis statement its pilot argues — that zombies are not pieces of faceless hordes but rather each a small individual tragedy worth recognizing — maybe we’d be talking about it a bit differently as this 10-year anniversary approaches. Nevertheless, The Walking Dead's pilot remains a near-perfect object, one worth revisiting this Halloween season whether you’re a longtime fan, a lapsed viewer, or never caught it to begin with.