Depending on your perspective, zombies can be any number of things. To some, they’re cannibalistic monsters who are scary as hell. To others, they’re corny reminders of Hollywood’s lack of imagination. But theoretically speaking, zombies are as serious as any other global disaster. Governments shut down. Public services end. Millions of people flee their homes and mourn the loss of their loved ones even as their loved ones come back to life and try to eat them. Indeed, zombie apocalypse is emotionally shattering, morally complicated and deadly serious. Nobody knows this fact better than Oscar-nominated writer Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”), whose latest project “The Waking Dead” takes this principle to heart. The result? The most affecting, well executed zombie drama ever produced.

“The Walking Dead”

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First, an introduction for the uninitiated. Zombies are dead people who have come back to eat the living. They can only be stopped by destroying their brains and if they bite or scratch you, you’re done for – your painful death will be followed by your resurrection as a rotting carcass that craves human flesh. That’s all new information for our protagonist, small-town sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, “Love Actually”). After getting shot during a car chase and lapsing into a coma, he wakes up in his hospital bed, feeble, unattended and clueless.

From there, Grimes slowly makes his way through the dilapidated hospital in a series of scenes that establish both Lincoln’s skill as an actor and Darabont’s considerable prowess behind the camera. As Grimes stumbles, confused, through the corridors, Darabont tweaks the lighting and color palette to create a tense atmosphere of dread. Much of the hospital, including its walls, its ceilings and its lights, is a harsh, pristine white. Marred by dried blood, bullet holes and the occasional brutally mutilated corpse, those surfaces become a reminder of shattered tranquility, an eerie effect compounded by the ominous flickering of the fluorescent lights.

Lincoln makes sure to portray Grimes not as a typical action hero, but as an ordinary guy with whom we can identify. He combines the physical frailties of a recovering gunshot victim with the emotions of a man exposed to an unexplainable, repulsive new world. He shivers in his patient gown even as he sweats from a combination of fear and adrenaline, his face contorting in expressions ranging from surprise to dismay to disgust. When he sees his first zombie, a long-dead corpse dragging its entrails along as it crawls, he recoils in terror.

Eventually, he recovers his senses, but his priorities continue to match those of ordinary disaster victims – find out what happened, reunite his family and restore some semblance of ordinary life. As he goes about accomplishing these goals, he encounters the father and son duo of Morgan (Lennie James, “Snatch”) and Duane (Adrian Kali Turner, “FlashForward”), who share similar beliefs. Together, they anchor the show by portraying realistically human responses to adversity, saying Grace over meals, reminiscing about old times and treating a hot shower like a winning lottery ticket.

That’s not to say that the episode favors talk over action. Darabont constructs some of the most chilling, visually dazzling setpieces ever seen on television. Dead bodies in impeccably applied zombie makeup are presented in dozens of neatly stacked rows, representing the Army’s doomed attempt at containing catastrophe. The empty tanks and Humvees that decorate the abandoned city streets testify to military failure, as do the zombies that are seemingly everywhere. There’s the little girl who Grimes is forced to neutralize and the fellow police officer he euthanizes. And there’s Morgan’s wife, who comes in the night to scare Duane and break Morgan’s heart. Try as he might, Morgan can never bring himself to put her down. His tears of grief and frustration epitomize the edge that “The Waking Dead” has over the competition — its ability to poignantly analyze the human side of something as farfetched as a zombie apocalypse.

Hopefully, the series can keep this emotional edge sharp. We catch hints of petty drama from a group of survivors introduced in the episode’s closing minutes, which, along with a stale love triangle, push expectations for future episodes down a notch or two. Still, the series is off to an incredible start. Let’s hope nobody shoots it in the head anytime soon.

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