Tuned In: "The Walking Dead" -- AMC brings zombies back to life

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Zombies are the new vampires.

Even Hollywood trends run their course and while the "Twilight" movies, "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries" show no signs of abating, zombies are coming on strong, particularly in the well-made, engrossing (and gross) premiere episode of AMC's "The Walking Dead"(10 tonight).

It's not the first zombie TV project, but it may be the best.

Tonight's 90-minute pilot was written and directed by feature film director Frank Darabont, best known for making "The Shawshank Redemption." It's based on the graphic novel of the same name written by Robert Kirkman, Pittsburgh native Greg Nicotero serves as a consulting producer and his company, KNB FX, provides the makeup and visual effects that bring the zombies to dead life.

This six-episode series begins shortly after deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakes from a coma he lapsed into after being shot in the line of duty. He finds himself in an empty hospital with dozens of bodies wrapped in sheets in the hospital parking lot.

Slowly Grimes begins to understand what's happened: A fever, transmitted by biting and blood, causes victims to die -- and later come back to life as goo-slobbering, shambling zombies called "walkers."

Grimes is introduced to the new zombie world order by a surviving local resident (Lennie James, "Jericho") and his son. They tell Grimes that survivors have gathered in Atlanta, so that's where Grimes heads in hopes of finding his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies, "Prison Break") and son. (The show has some of the feel of past post-apocalyptic series like "Jericho" and the British import "Survivors.")

"The Walking Dead" comes after several zombie shows that were either developed or produced.

In 2007 CBS made the pilot "Babylon Fields," which did not get picked up as a series but achieved some notoriety when it went viral on the Internet (you can find it by doing a search at http://video.google.com). If even CBS considers putting a zombie show on the air, you know there's something in the zeitgeist.

In "Babylon Fields" the zombies were sentient -- speaking, bringing comfort to loved ones who were thrilled to have them back in their lives -- and a far cry from traditional movie zombies, the kind embraced in IFC's dark comedy "Dead Set."

IFC aired the five episodes of this British import this past week and replays them back-to-back today beginning at 7:30 p.m. In this zombie story, the British "Big Brother" house is the setting for a zombie invasion -- perfect for zombie aficionados who dream of seeing reality show stars die bloody, horrible deaths.

The "Dead Set" zombies move quickly, but the series offers an homage to George Romero in its premiere hour when one of the "Big Brother" contestants quotes "Night of the Living Dead": "I'm coming to get you, Barbara!" he says, joking around before he learns that zombies are no longer fiction.

Save for the occasional humorous aside, there's little joking in "The Walking Dead," which is more of a straight-ahead adventure with lots of blood in loving, slow-motion close-ups of zombies being shot in the head at point-blank range. "The Walking Dead" is preceded by a "viewer discretion" warning for good reason.

But there is more to the show than simple zombie attacks. The premiere begins with a pre-zombie-apocalypse flashback of Grimes and his sheriff's department partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), discussing relationship issues that will come to play in a post-zombie world as Grimes searches for his family. That search for human connection becomes an overriding theme of "The Walking Dead" and might even mirror the lack of connections in our zombie-free but disconnected-by-social-media modern world.

Mr. Lincoln, a British actor seen in the film "Love Actually," makes a welcome addition to American prime time. His portrayal of Grimes is both upstanding and vulnerable with a sense of more complex thoughtfulness than we often see in prime time.

As writer/director, Mr. Darabont brings his humanistic touch to this zombie story that elevates it from a typical us vs. them tale. Visually, tonight's premiere has the look of a feature film as Mr. Darabont uses creepy close-ups -- a door handle turning as a zombie tries to enter a house; Grimes' eye as he watches through the door -- and long stretches of silence to create an unsettling mood that's wholly appropriate for a series called "The Walking Dead."

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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