Blu-ray review: ‘The Walking Dead: Season 1′

As a huge fan of both Frank Darabont and the “Walking Dead” comic by Robert Kirkman (I’ve been reading since issue #1 – which is tucked away in a box somewhere and apparently quite valuable now), I practically drooled when I heard Darabont would be in charge of bringing it to life via AMC, who had made a name for itself in recent years for producing quality television with some of the liberties afforded to them as a non-pay cable station (all the swears except for the F-bomb! Brief nudity! And most importantly for this particular series – gruesome violence!). So how did The Walking Dead turn out?
Well like all TV shows, some episodes fare better than others, but the abbreviated season (six episodes) makes the low points stick out a little more than they would on a regular 22 or even 13 episode run. On the other hand, that just makes the highlights all the more appreciated. Standouts like “Guts” (episode 2) and “Wildfire” (episode 5) look even better when you put them up against the Paul Haggis-level racial drama of “Vatos” (episode 4) or the misguided, rushed, and bafflingly action-starved season finale “TS-19” in back to back viewings. And of course, the pilot remains a grand achievement, with feature-film production value (and length! I’ve seen actual movies that are shorter) and a strong turn by Lennie James as Morgan, who I wish had returned in the season, but like his comic counterpart he has remained elusive.

And that’s another great thing about the show – they truly made it their own without totally betraying the source material. There are some major deviations from the comic, plus a bunch of new characters, but like the original they don’t seem to be in any rush to explain where the zombies came from, and even though Kirkman got a ton of shit for it at the time since it resembled 28 Days Later (issue #1 was written (but not published) prior to 28 Days‘ release, for the record), they recreate Rick’s initial entry into the zombified world quite faithfully. So there’s a good balance of fan-pleasing moments and new stuff that “fits” that fans can enjoy, and newcomers can go back and read the comics now without having everything spoiled. More importantly, all of the characters from the book are represented, and share some physical resemblance (particularly Dale/Jeffrey DeMunn) while also doing the far trickier job of bringing each character’s sensibilities and attitude to life despite some different plotting.

Watching them in quick succession also allowed me to enjoy certain elements that went over my head the first time around. For example, in “Guts” Rick tells Andrea how to take the safety off from her gun, something I had forgotten about 3-4 weeks later when “Wildfire” had a little callback to the moment. It’s not exactly Lost or 24 when it comes to the serial nature of the show – most episodes more or less work as a standalone viewing experience, but there is a consistency that lends itself nicely to back to back viewing (the one nice thing about the short season – you can watch the entire season in under 5 hours, in one sitting – it’s a long movie!).

Anchor Bay has supplied a generous supply of extras for this Blu-ray release, all of which are contained on disc 2 (the episodes are split up – 4 on disc 1, 2 on disc 2). None of the episodes have commentaries, which is a bit of a shame (Darabont, who directed the pilot and wrote a few episodes, is a terrific commentary guest), but there are detailed looks at each episode that run about 4-5 minutes each. In these, Darabont, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and the cast talk about key points in the episode, so I wouldn’t recommend viewing before you’ve seen that particular chapter, and it’s almost as good as a commentary; not as detailed obviously but it allows for insight from more participants. There are also a handful of featurettes (some of which I think aired on the website), including two terrific looks at Greg Nicotero and his team’s makeup process. In one, Nicotero discusses the creation of the “Bicycle Zombie” we see in the first episode, and then we see a 3 minute time-lapse sequence of the 4 hour process of putting the actress in the makeup (and the annihilation of an entire paper towel roll if you look at the background), and in the other him and one of his guys show you how to make a pretty good zombie makeup for Halloween using household and grocery store items (gelatin, oatmeal, food coloring, etc).

Then there are a few cutesy pieces with the actors talking about their characters or DeMunn showing us around his RV – skippable fluff for all but the die-hards. There’s also a half hour making of that you might as well skip if you plan to watch all the other stuff, since it’s sort of a Cliff’s Notes version of the supplement package as a whole, with clips that get used again in the episode-specific pieces. Sadly there are no deleted scenes, which I assumed there were plenty of given the rushed feeling of the finale (Dale and Andrea are seemingly very close but we hadn’t really been given any proof of that), and apart from a quick look at a Comic Con poster (an edited version of their panel is also included), there isn’t any “comic to film” comparison type stuff – I would have dug something like that.

Overall, however, it’s an above average and worthwhile supplemental package, and when you factor in the incredible transfer (looks a lot better than it did on AMC HD, that’s for sure) and low price (it can be found for less than 25 dollars at most outlets), it’s a no-brainer: this is a must-own set for fans of the show, and a very safe blind-buy if you missed it the first time around. Get on board before season 2 starts up later this year – join our suffering during the agonizing wait!

Show: 8/10
A/V: 9/10
Extras: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

Read BC’s ‘uncut’ review at Horror Movie A Day!