Frank Darabont brought a sense of the cinematic to The Walking Dead debut, Days Gone Bye. We look back at the first, essential episode.
Given it ended up running for over 170 episodes across eleven seasons during the entire span of the 2010s, it’s easy to forget just how striking the pilot episode of The Walking Dead actually was.
Frank Darabont, on writing and directing duties, introduces the post-apocalyptic world devised by Robert Kirkman in his long-running, hugely successful comic-book series, through an incredibly reduced prism. Everything is seen from the perspective of protagonist Rick Grimes, as played by British actor Andrew Lincoln, a sheriff in Atlanta shot in the line of duty only to awaken, weeks later, as the dead have risen up to claim the earth. ‘Days Gone Bye’ is an artful, arresting work from Darabont as he paints The Walking Dead, immediately, in the vein of a neo-Western as much as a dystopian horror. The pilot is an adept fusion of the two.
We first see Rick in his uniform, wandering the ruined world in search of fuel. He then encounters a zombie in the form of a sweet little girl, who picks up her doll before charging toward him. The girl isn’t Rick’s first zombie encounter, but she’s ours, and the shock of seeing him blow her head off is a visceral statement of intent. Darabont is unafraid to present a world where the hero will execute a child – undead or not. It remains a powerful opening.
Darabont was a huge fan of Night Of The Living Dead, George A Romero’s seminal 1968 film that introduced the world to the concept of the zombie apocalypse. Darabont later saw Kirkman’s comic (which began in 2003) when he visited a comic-book store in California in 2005, and he was immediately drawn to it, devouring the issues and pursuing the rights.
As he told HitFix, “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know how I could do something that’s different’ [from Night of the Living Dead] until the Kirkman material came into my hands, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s how it’s different. You do it as an extended saga. You do it for television, where it’s never been done before, and you do it with conviction and with as much art to it as you can […] AMC got it. And I have [Walking Dead producer] Gale [Anne Hurd] to thank for that. We’ve been friends for years, and she read the script.”
Darabont and Hurd both had serious pedigree. The former as writer and director on numerous well-known films, including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist (a taster for the bleakness we’ll see in The Walking Dead). The latter as producing partner (and, for a time, wife) of James Cameron on The Terminator and The Abyss. Both thought in a cinematic mindset as they joined a growing number of big screen producers and directors moving to prestige television.
Which is what The Walking Dead undoubtedly was in the six episodes it was granted for a first season, close to sight unseen. Hurd’s presence helped go out and sell the concept to AMC, with Darabont crediting her as instrumental to getting the show made, much as Hurd instinctively saw Kirkman’s comic at first as a movie. The cinematic aspirations of the series would ultimately be made clear in Days Gone Bye, which though highly faithful in structure to Kirkman’s comic (even down to the title), deliberately draws us into a world that is both intimate and expansive.
Darabont understands the value of silence or limited dialogue. Rick says very little, particularly in the first half of the pilot episode, as Darabont works to establish the post-apocalyptic world visually. The most dialogue-heavy scene, perhaps reflecting some of Kirkman’s dialogue on the page, comes in the early conversation, before the world goes to hell, between Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal), in which their friendship is established and they discuss the difference between men and women, giving us an insight into how Rick’s marriage is in trouble. Shane comes off as a misogynist right off the bat, while Rick is presented as quiet and remote. Shane presents the stereotype of women as nags, while Rick feels like he doesn’t understand his wife Lori’s frustration with him.
Says Rick, “The last thing she said this morning? ‘Sometimes I wonder if you even care about us at all.’ She said that in front of our kid. Imagine going to school with that in your head. The difference between men and women? I would never say something that cruel to her… and certainly not in front of Carl.”
Darabont works to position Rick as the strong, silent type. “One of the things I’ve discovered is that the more terse my dialogue for Rick is, the better the moment, the better the show, the better the scene,” Darabont once said. “It’s not that Andy Lincoln can’t deliver dialogue – he’s a very accomplished actor – but this particular character? It’s almost like the less he says, or the fewer words he uses to say what he’s saying, the better it is. So I’m constantly slashing his dialogue as much to the bone as I can.”
Lincoln is excellent in the role. Previously best known for Love, Actually, and on British television for well-known series Teachers and before it This Life, he’s one of numerous British actors who crossed the pond and successfully led a distinctly American series, playing an American – see Hugh Laurie in House as another example. Lincoln nails the Southern drawl and Rick’s rugged intensity, but also says a lot with very little. When he stumbles through the hospital after waking up, we’re right there with him.
We must talk about that sequence, actually, because it’s a brilliant means of establishing the world around Rick. We might have seen him kill a zombie already, but on waking, Darabont uses dead flowers as a motif for the passage of time and the new world around him. Silence pervades the scene, with Bear McCreary’s limited score only creeping in as Rick finds a score of wrapped up, dead bodies outside. A trashed hospital, devoid of staff, provides a haunting environment.
Then comes the sign on the door: ‘DON’T OPEN. DEAD INSIDE’. Two zombie hands creep through the gap, behind them blackness, as we hear the low moan of the undead. The imagery is pure horror, and Lincoln’s reaction is suitably terrified. We understand Rick’s driving desire to reach his wife Lori and son Carl, and feel his pain as he fears they’re dead, but Darabont’s deliberate escalation of the zombie threat is key to why Days Gone Bye works. We’re not treated to zombie hordes from the outset; Darabont guides us toward them, back toward the city.
Watching the series finale, Rest On Peace, it’s remarkable to note that not one of the credited regular cast from the pilot episode featured in it. Iconic mainstays of the series such as Daryl or Carol eventually arrive, but not even they feature in a pilot that focuses on Rick’s journey out of the hospital bed, back in uniform and on his horse, and ultimately to what looks like certain doom in a tank. Few series had such a radical cast turnover, even across eleven years. Which makes it even more surprising that we see Morgan Jones, as played by Lennie James, right at the beginning.
I’ll talk about Morgan in a later article, but he is, for most of The Walking Dead, a significantly different character than the man we see here. He plays an important function in this pilot as a means of exposition, but he also represents the secure fatherhood that Rick fears he’s lost, detached as he is from his family, given Morgan has a son, Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), not much older than Carl. (Incidentally, it’s amusing to see how many unintentional nods to the future of the show there are in this debut episode – be it Duane waving a baseball bat – later immortalised as the villainous Negan’s weapon of choice – or one of the first things Rick stumbling on after leaving hospital being a helicopter.)
The term ‘walker’, which becomes the eponymous moniker for Rick’s developing group of the years, is one he gets from Morgan and Duane. They help establish the rules: that walkers often come out more after dark; excessive noises draw them; that if you’re bitten, you die and then come back. These rules will evolve as the series progresses, but most remain mainstays. Yet Darabont foregrounds these horrors by the tragic nature of Morgan and Duane’s situation – visited regularly by their lost mother, whose zombie walks up to their door every night, as if a residual awareness exists within her.
They watch her turn the doorknob, which is another frightening piece of imagery, even if this early on the series suggests an ability and intention with zombies that it will largely erase for plot expediency. Even this early on, Darabont understands that the juxtaposition between hope and horror is key to The Walking Dead. Rick remains filled with hope that he will find his family alive.
It’s interesting that the first walker Rick ends up killing is an old police colleague, Leon (Linds Edwards), who we saw earlier in the roadblock where Rick ended up shot, cracking wise and being put in his place by Rick. “Didn’t think much of him. Careless and dumb, but – can’t leave him like this.” That’s Rick’s rationale to a tee. He’s capable. He expects people to be capable. But he’s merciful and honourable. It’s why he bonds with Morgan, understanding his need to train Duane with the rifle, to protect him. Our hearts break when Morgan is unable to pull the trigger and finally kill his undead wife.
The city of Atlanta becomes key to the climax as Rick rides toward where Morgan told him a survival camp was being developed, plus the Center For Disease Control’s response to fight the threat. He finally makes contact with the camp containing Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Shane’s familiar face. It’s a neat way to bring in many of the primary cast, who we’ll see across the rest of the season, including Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Amy (Emma Bell). We see that Lori, believing Rick dead, has become involved with Shane.
A question I’ve always had is whether Shane intentionally left Rick to die in the hospital, either because he was sleeping with Lori beforehand or wanted to. Shane later claims he tried to go back and rescue him, but there seems a more specific intention, and it ripples under his interaction with Lori, which mirrors how Rick described his dynamic with her in their earlier conversation: “I make you feel like sometimes you wanna slap me upside the head. I’ll tell you what, girl. You feel that need, you go right ahead. I’m right here.” He has become Rick to her.
The episode’s final scenes are a superb approximation of The Walking Dead. We’re given the memorable image of Rick riding a horse up the deserted highway with Atlanta in the distance. It’s pure western in composition. And finally, he faces the horde. Those seeking shelter became the undead. Atlanta is no safe haven – it’s a den riddled with zombies. A tank becomes his only refuge. He considers suicide. Then comes hope in the voice of series regular Glenn (Steven Yeun), which begins Rick’s journey back to his family, to Shane, and a very long voyage.
Comparisons have been made between both Days Gone Bye, Kirkman’s original comic, and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which opened just a year before. Both open with a character emerging from a coma into a post-apocalyptic world. But it perhaps speaks more to the primal nature of stories such as this. The Walking Dead had inspirations and touchstones much like anything else, but it defiantly over twelve years became its own beast, now influencing other series such as The Last Of Us. The Walking Dead is by now a touchstone in the zombie apocalypse genre – and one that audiences will surely keep coming back to for years to come.
The evolution of The Walking Dead, meanwhile, happens more quickly than might be expected, with changes both in front of the camera and also behind the scenes. But that’s a story for another article.
You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via Linktr.ee here.
Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.