Let’s get this out of the way early; the pilot episode of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead is an exercise in horror and suspenseful television-making which should not be missed by anyone who enjoys great character development, moody suspense or edge-of-your-seat tension, and proves essential viewing for fans of The Walking Dead.
Fear the Walking Dead opens with a scene dripping in suspense, throwing the viewer right in the bloody deep end. The episode opens on an obscure and ambiguous setting that will have even the most stalwart of horror fans’ blood pumping by the end of the opening cinematic.
Fear the Walking Dead follows the Clark family as they manoeuvre through the pitfalls of modern life; primarily those of step-family dynamics and the politics they engender, and the complications of a drug-addicted family member. The family member in question is Nick (Frank Dillane) and it is Nick who has an early encounter with a flesh-eating former girlfriend that kicks off the series. Nick manages to escape in a drug-addled haze before being hit by a car and hospitalised. Nick wakes in the hospital, unable to determine whether what he saw was real or imagined. His fractured psyche compels him to find out whether the butchery was real or just a nasty side-effect of the drugs and leads to some great character moments and a stellar performance from the little-known Dillane. The cast is filled out by the remaining members of Nick’s Family; mother Madison, sister Alecia and Madison’s lover Travis.
Special mention must be made of the sets the characters traverse in the pilot episode as they are some of the most imaginative the series has yet seen. The junkie church upon which Fear the Walking Dead opens is as sinister and scary a location as any of the Walking Dead‘s more memorable sites – the tunnels of the prison compound in season three are particularly of note –the church’s blood-soaked floorboards and piles of broken religious iconography give the scenes therein an extra level of menace. The L.A. river is given new malice as the setting for the episode’s denouement where skeleton graffitied walls add a nice touch to another great locale.
One of many touches Fear the Walking Dead uses to elevate itself from the zombie inspired rabble is its reference to cultural forebears to the carnage that is about to be unleashed. In his English class Travis teaches his students about the importance of survival skills through an analysis of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and yet another homage comes in the form of footage shot above an L.A. freeway which is eerily reminiscent of the reels of Rodney king being brutally beaten by police; only this time the victim continues to advance on the law enforcers even after they unload their clips into his staggering body.
What Fear the Walking Dead‘s pilot manages to nail so astutely is the problems of the modern family before the dead start eating the living. Flu-shots, family politics, drug addictions, good grades for college, run-ins with the law; everything pales in comparison with the very tangible zombie apocalypse about to take place on the streets of L.A. and the audience’s foreknowledge of what is waiting on the other side of a long night for these characters is a big part of what makes it such compelling viewing. The pilot episode is the epitome of the ‘slow-burn’ and people looking for buckets of gore shouldn’t feel cheated by the lack of brains, but optimistic; Fear the Walking Dead seems to be in the safe hands of some consummate storytellers, let’s hope they further deliver on the promise of the pilot episode with more great character moments and white-knuckle suspense in future instalments.