'The Walking Dead' review: Zombies and series TV mix surprisingly well

andrew-lincoln2-walking-dead-320.jpgLike the zombies that populate it, "The Walking Dead" doesn't move especially fast. But even though things are at a slow burn throughout much of the show's first two episodes, there's a lot to soak up along the way.

Frank Darabont, the "Shawshank Redemption" director who developed the show and wrote and directed the series premiere (airing at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on AMC), infuses the show with a palpable sense of dread, and the fact that we know we're not getting out of this particular nightmare at the end of a couple hours mostly works in favor of the show. It's a great, gory and surprisingly emotional ride.

While there have been countless zombie movies in the last 40-plus years, there's never been a TV series about humans battling the undead hordes. "The Walking Dead," based on Robert Kirkman's comic book series, takes substantial time away from the action to focus on the few remaining live humans, and those moments of character development will be what helps sustain the show in between zombie confrontations.

The series focuses on Rick Grimes ( Andrew Lincoln, "Love Actually"), a Kentucky sheriff's deputy who's shot in the line of duty, goes into a coma at the hospital and wakes up a few weeks later to a world that's been overrun by zombies, called "walkers" by those who survive. The first 10 minutes or so of Rick's new life are mostly silent, save for the ambient sounds around him, and as he starts to absorb what has happened -- including the disappearance of his wife and son -- you're drawn into his confusion and grief. It's a fantastic sequence from Darabont.

Grimes encounters his first survivors in the form of Morgan Jones (guest star Lennie James) and Morgan's son Duane ( Adrian Kali Turner), survivors who explain the rules to him and, we soon learn, are facing their own sort of nightmare. Rick eventually moves on to Atlanta, where he's told there are refugee centers and CDC scientists working on a way to end the zombie plague.

If you've seen any kind of zombie movie in your life, you can guess how that turns out: The city is overrun by walkers, and Rick soon finds himself in a desperate situation. We also meet a few other survivors on the outskirts of the city; the second episode expands the human cast a little more and is much heavier on the action than the premiere.

In fact, it may tilt a little too heavily toward the action. Aside from one ingenious/disgusting gambit by Grimes to make a play for securing transportation, the second episode doesn't offer up much you haven't seen before. What makes the premiere so gripping, in addition to the way Darabont builds suspense, is its focus on Grimes trying to comprehend what he's experiencing ("Wake up!" he exhorts himself at one point). Zombies = bad isn't the most complex lesson to absorb, but we don't learn much about the other people we meet in episode two, and thus it feels more like a standard-issue zombie film.

That's something "The Walking Dead" can remedy going forward, though, because it has the other trappings of the zombie-apocalypse milieu down cold. The zombies are mostly old-school, "Night of the Living Dead"-type creatures, slow-moving (unless they smell food nearby) and generally slow-witted, and they look disgustingly great; Greg Nicotero ("Kill Bill," "From Dusk Till Dawn," "Army of Darkness") is responsible for the makeup effects. Darabont and second-episode director Michelle MacLaren ("Breaking Bad") also do an excellent job of creating the look of a world that humans have abandoned.

We also have to commend the show's sound team, both for the way it captures the emptiness of the world Rick Grimes wakes up to and for the way assorts sprays, spurts and squishes add to the gorier moments (of which there are many).

"The Walking Dead" will run for six episodes on AMC this fall. Based on what we've seen so far, there's no reason the first TV series about zombies couldn't keep going for a good while after that.

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Photo credit: AMC