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"The Walking Dead's" gut-wrenching drama

AMC series puts Atlanta at the center of the zombie apocalypse

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The zombie apocalypse has become a nearly inescapable fixture in pop culture, reaching its rotting hands to everyone from George Romero to Homer Simpson to Jane Austen. After a decade of zombie-mania, an undead epidemic seems almost like a plausible end for civilization. Global warming? Surely we'll fix that before things get too hot. Nuclear war? That's a baby boomer anxiety. Alien invasion? Totally far-fetched. But corpses rising from their graves to eat and/or infect the living? Stockpile canned goods and practice gunshots to the head, just in case.

Once consigned to schlocky but memorable grindhouse films, zombies have stormed the mainstream in films such as Zombieland. Now they're taking to the small screen with American Movie Classics' new, locally filmed series "The Walking Dead" (debuting at 10 p.m. Sun., Oct. 31). Even viewers normally indifferent to decomposing monsters are psyched about "The Walking Dead," thanks to its top-drawer credentials. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) adapted Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series for AMC, the home to arguably the two best dramas currently on television, "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."

Based on the 90-minute pilot and the second episode, "The Walking Dead" delivers shocks, intensity and braaaiiins, but Darabont's respectable efforts don't necessarily transcend a highly familiar genre.

AMC's best shows excel at using silence and deliberate pacing to build atmosphere, and "The Walking Dead's" introduction follows suit. Sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) runs out of gas and walks to a service station, passing wrecked, abandoned cars that increasingly hint at some kind of massive civil unrest. The near-absence of ambient noise and soundtrack music builds the suspense until we see our first living-impaired individual.

After the opening credits, the pilot flashes back a few weeks and finds Rick chatting in his squad car with his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal). Shane jokes about women's inability to turn off lights in a home, and his riff on utility bills and climate change touches on issues meaningless in a post-apocalyptic world. Rick's worries about his marital problems with his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), however, will become matters of life or death. The dialogue suggests that Darabont has picked up some bad habits after numerous big-screen adaptations of Stephen King books. It's the kind of conversation that sounds phony the more it tries to sound "folksy."

An injury in the line of duty puts Rick in a coma, from which he awakens much, much later. In a sequence highly reminiscent of 28 Days Later..., Rick finds the hospital deserted, the power out and a pair of creaking double doors chained shut and painted with the words "DON'T OPEN/DEAD INSIDE." He makes his way through the empty streets and, arriving at home, finds signs that his wife and son have left town.

Lincoln makes a likeable, upstanding lead, like Matthew Fox on "Lost's" first season, but Lennie James gives the best performance as Morgan Jones, a single dad and the first living person Rick encounters. James exudes humility and dignity without condescension, and his normalcy sells the crazy idea of undead "walkers" plaguing the Earth. He also upholds civilized values in modest ways. When his son describes a zombie as "That weren't no man," Morgan gives him a sharp look and says, "That wasn't a man." No reason we should neglect good grammar, just because it's the end of the world.

Morgan passes along a rumor that Atlanta has become a regional refugee shelter, so Rick heads for the ATL in search of his family. Trading his car for a horse, he rides down "Highway 85" like a Western hero. For local viewers, it's a hoot to see hordes of zombies on Forsyth and Marietta streets, the Gold Dome in the distance, and equally amusing to note false details, like a "Metro Local" bus. In a clever touch, loud noises attract zombies, so the more you shoot, the more you summon.

The second episode conveys a better sense of how "The Walking Dead" should unfold as a weekly series. Rick meets up with a small group of survivors, which serve as a microcosm of society, forced to make hard choices in the name of survival. At times, the show hinges on corny dilemmas: What does an ethnically mixed group do with the violent bigot in their midst? But "The Walking Dead" attains moments of unexpected poignancy, as well. Performing a mercy killing on a zombie can be a humane act, but being unable to shoot an undead loved one comes across as even more human.

If you thought "The Walking Dead's" home on basic cable would mean less on-screen viscera, brace yourself. The show doesn't rely on gore, but can be astoundingly graphic. One moment includes the line "We need more guts!" which has both figurative and literal interpretations. While watching that sequence, I said to the TV, "OK, Darabont, you can cut away now. Please cut away. You're not cutting away!"

Darabont proves faithful to the original graphic novel by Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, while fleshing out the character dynamics and exciting set pieces. Kirkman wrote the series to be like a George Romero zombie movie "without an ending," so as the survivors' predicament continues, their personalities increasingly buckle under the long-term pressures. A soap-operatic triangle promises to provide a major subplot for the six episodes that will comprise the show's first season.

AMC brings both measured characterization and countless gallons of stage blood to "The Walking Dead," giving the series considerable potential. Nevertheless, the show relies on a highly familiar premise we've seen many times, particularly in the Dawn of the Dead films. Showtime's "Dexter," for instance, explored a much fresher concept with its ethically murky but socially functional serial killer. "The Walking Dead's" second episode reveals a detail that sums up the show's basic problem: All zombies start to smell the same after awhile. Despite that fact, these "Dead" have a lot of life in them.

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