AMC pumps life into zombie genre with “The Walking Dead”

By Stacey Harrison

Let’s face it, the words “zombie apocalypse” aren’t often associated with quality drama.

Despite the respect paid to the works of Night of the Living Dead auteur George A. Romero, who never fails to infuse sharp social commentary and allegory into the genre he essentially created, it’s more often than not the terrain for hackneyed horror flicks filled with excessive gore and scantily clad coeds. For every Dawn of the Dead that brings credibility, there’s a Zombie Strippers lurking to take it all away. As for its TV prospects, the horror genre overall has not gained much traction, and zombies are no exception.

That all changes with The Walking Dead, an audacious new six-episode series that seeks to take its place alongside AMC’s impressive batch of original programming, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad and the recently launched Rubicon. The undertaking gets instant credibility with the involvement of executive producers like Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), who also serves as a writer and director.

I caught up with self-professed “zombie nut” Darabont and members of the cast and crew at Comic-Con this summer in San Diego, where they got to see firsthand the rabid anticipation awaiting the show, as thousands gathered — and many more were turned away — for a panel that featured a Q&A along with a five-minute preview of what’s in store.

Darabont says he has “always wanted to play in the TV sandbox.” One day a few years back he walked into a Burbank, Calif., comic-book store just looking for a good read, and picked up Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. After only a few pages, he knew he was leaving with a potential new project.

“It’s the venue to tell a zombie story that I’d been looking for,” Darabont says. “So many zombie movies have been made, and made very well, that I did not see the point of trying to figure that out. Robert had done something that was going to be an expanded saga following a group of people — very character-driven stuff — which is the stuff I dig the most. I loved the idea of doing something a little bold for television that reaches back into the genre that I love, but is a very character-driven thing.”

Kirkman, who has been brought on as an executive producer and writer for the series, says TV is the perfect medium for his story, which he envisioned as “the zombie movie that never ends.” First published in 2003, the series is now nearing its 80th issue.

“I never really expected it to be adapted at all,” Kirkman says. “But to see it happen in such a great way with so many excellent people involved, to see AMC really get behind it, and push the limits as far as what they’re going to be showing, it’s remarkable. You hear horror stories about adaptations, but every step of the way has been perfect. It’s really bizarre. I feel blessed.”

A large part of why Kirkman has found the process so painless has been his willingness to stray from the story, which Darabont says he has done mainly by addition and not subtraction.

“The breadcrumbs left by Mr. Kirkman are extremely good ones,” he says. “The path is a very, very strong template. But I’ve also said — and Robert’s been great about this, and in fact has even encouraged it — to take every interesting detour we feel like taking. We’re still following what Robert has done, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t bring every other good idea to the table and expand the narrative, veer off the path, as long as we veer back onto it. What that’s leading to is a lot of really cool ideas that I think will really surprise the hardcore fans of the comic who really know every page of this thing. There’s a lot of stuff happening that they won’t see coming, which I think is really cool. And yet, the stuff they do know will be there, too.”

The Survivors

Imagine one day you wake up to find that the world has ended. That’s the situation facing Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a small-town Georgia sheriff’s deputy who gets shot in the line of duty and wakes up in a hospital populated by ravenous zombies. As he fights his way through a landscape filled with the decaying, slow-moving creatures — also known as Walkers — he hopes against hope that his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and young son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), are still alive.

Eventually, Rick does find his family among a group of survivors that also includes his fellow cop and best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal). In Rick’s absence, Shane has become a protector for Lori and Carl, and while the reunion is joyful, some tension arises as everyone attempts to resume their former roles. Callies likens it to a Camelot-style relationship similar to the one between King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere.

That’s just one of the bits of character-driven intrigue that make sure The Walking Dead has plenty of drama to offset any zombie fatigue. Other survivors include retiree Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), sisters Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Amy (Emma Bell), and loner Glenn (Steven Yeun). Other cast members include Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus.

For Lincoln, a proper British bloke playing a salt-of-the-earth Southerner, getting into character for Rick hasn’t been as challenging as it might seem from the outside.

“He feels like an Everyman,” Lincoln says. “I really relate. It doesn’t feel like this impenetrable superhero. There’s a great quote [by French novelist Romain Rolland] that I’ve really held on to, which is, ‘A hero is a man who does what he can.’ That is really what I keep in mind when I’m playing [Rick], is that I want the audience, the general viewer, to ask themselves, ‘How would I react?’ … He’s pushed into a corner and he somehow comes up with the goods.”

Blood And Guts

Don’t let all this drama talk fool you, though. Like any good zombie story, The Walking Dead delivers the gore.

Greg Nicotero has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for makeup and effects for many years. To say he knows zombies is an understatement, having gotten his start working with no less than Romero himself on 1985’s Day of the Dead. He hasn’t had much occasion to bring his skills to TV, with its more restrictive attitude toward horror-style effects, but he says AMC has not censored his work in the least.

“We have not pulled any punches, nor have we been asked to,” he says, noting that he and Darabont have tried to make the show’s zombies true representations of what is seen in the comic. “The way the zombies are drawn is very specific. You always see the flesh shrunken away from the lips, you always see teeth, you always see the straggly hair and screwed-up eyes. We really used that as our guide.”

If it’s as effective to the viewer as it has been to the cast, Nicotero can consider it a job well done. Callies, who classifies herself as a horror neophyte, remarks that she has lost several nights of sleep thanks to Nicotero’s work.

There is also the matter of following the so-called zombie rules. Romero’s zombies were for the most part slow and mindless, and recent departures from that model by other filmmakers have drawn scorn from some genre purists.

Darabont says he has no use for the fast-vs.-slow zombie debate, but does add, “We’re using Night of the Living Dead as our Book of Genesis” — meaning that while the human characters will run for their lives, they won’t necessarily need to.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays beginning Oct. 31, as part of AMC’s annual Fearfest. For our review, click here.

Fun Facts:

—      Makeup supervisor Greg Nicotero worked on another project called The Walking Dead in 1995, but that one was a Vietnam War drama.

—     Before finding prestige as the director of The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont got his start in horror movies, penning the scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Blob and The Fly II.

—      Charlie Adlard, who illustrates The Walking Dead comic series, will appear as a zombie in one of the episodes.

Photo: © TWD productions LLC Credit: Scott Garfield

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