It’s the same show, the same pilot only in black and white, but it’s also so much more. AMC’s colorless and bare presentation of Frank Darabont‘s masterful Walking Dead premiere takes full advantage of his unique visual sense and style and also recalls Night of the Living Dead.
In essence, this episode feels like it was made to be told without color thanks to Darabont’s classic sensibilities. Moments of tension and emotion are heightened, the silence feels more present, the darkness is darker, and the gory zombies are more humanized without color and graphic detail.
Examine Rick’s awakening and his escape from the hospital. Naturally, there are comparisons to 28 Days Later, but the black and white finish dims that a bit thanks to the enhanced creepiness of the flickering lights and shadows in the hospital corridor.
The stairwell, black from darkness and only occasionally lit up by a single match, is frightening because of the limited color palette and the whiteout effect when Rick opens the door, makes the outside world seem ethereal. It’s as if Rick is exiting hell and entering heaven in that moment, walking out of a nightmare and into a dream, but we know better and soon he does too.
Another masterful point in the pilot is the nearly five minute long struggle by Rick and Morgan (played by Lennie James) to humanely put down both the first moving horror that Rick has seen, and Morgan’s now un-dead wife.
Rick is apologetic and heartfelt as he stands over Bicycle Girl while Morgan shakes and struggles to shoot his wife. It’s gut wrenching, it’s tear inducing, and it is still one of the most affecting moments in the series’ brief history.
From those major moments, to smaller ones like the birds picking at a dead body in Atlanta and the moment Rick turns and discovers his first horde — with those outstanding closeups that seem like they were pulled right out of a classic zombie movie — the show shines brighter thanks to the spare majesty of black and white.
It would be foolish though, to give sole credit for the brilliance of this episode to the look of this retrofit. The pilot has always been, in my view, the strongest episode in the series’ history thanks to not just Darabont’s eye, but his skill as a writer and story teller.
As I said before, the lack of color humanizes the zombies, but it is also Darabont’s interest in them as more than a mindless monster that makes that a possibility. The palpable torture of Bicycle Girl, the struggle of Morgan’s un-dead wife to get back to what she knows as familiar, and the long jawed, Jim Carey-looking walker in Atlanta with his sense of near victory.
These zombies are more terrifying because we can see us within them and we can understand a fear that is based in what we could become more than a fear of being eaten. These zombies are gone now, replaced by a well crafted group of stock characters in what was both something truer to the comic and an anticipated de-evolution, what with the increasing numbness of the human cast of characters, but one that might have have been a bit slower had Darabont remained. That’s the bittersweet part of this episode — remembering Darabont’s skill in crafting this world from Robert Kirkman’s fantastic source material, and the fact that he will not ever be able to continue telling this story.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still an avid fan of the series and it’s amazing cast, but that first season represents the high water mark. Sure, the world is the same and the journey of these characters toward a more bleak future remains an utterly fascinating thing to behold, but without Darabont the show seems to have lost some of it’s soul, depth, and direction — three things on full display during last night’s lovely trip down memory lane.
I give the black and white version of The Walking Dead pilot episode, “Days Gone By” a perfect rating.