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“I was always thought I’d be a subgenre geek for the rest of my life. Apparently now, we’re riding the crest of some sort of cultural wave. Who knew?” says Frank Darabont, seemingly just as astonished as the rest of us that this Sunday evening—appropriately enough, Halloween night—an honest-to-goodness television series (and a great one at that) focusing on the undead will hit basic cable when THE WALKING DEAD premieres on AMC at 10 p.m./9 Central (see review here).
“I am so surprised that zombies have become as popular as they have,” Darabont, executive producer and pilot director of THE WALKING DEAD, continues. “Back when the only magazine was Famous Monsters, you had to be a real geek to even know what a flesheating zombie was. Now, it’s like grandma goes to the Barnes & Noble and buys the ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE joke book for her grandchildren. It has become so mainstream, and honestly, most of it has happened since I first read Robert’s [Kirkman, creator of the original WALKING DEAD comic] thing. It has literally, in the last four years, exploded into this mainstream thing in a way that really blows my mind. I really wasn’t expecting it.”
Thankfully, THE WALKING DEAD (both incarnations) isn’t easily lumped in with most of the humorous, postmodern and fun-loving takes on the undead currently oversaturating pop culture. With a respect for the genre and the stakes it can raise, Darabont, fellow executive producer Gale Anne Hurd and AMC decided to bring the ghouls back to their essence in adapting the massively praised comic—which is to say, terrifying and socially charged. “The great thing here is that we’re able to take them seriously,” Hurd explains. “We’re not sending them up. They’re not funny and they’re not sexy like vampires. There’s humor, but it’s not ZOMBIELAND—which I loved, but ultimately any series on AMC has to be about the characters and their journey. It has to be about what they find out about themselves and about other people who may be keeping secrets from them. If you think about what’s on AMC, there’s a lot about secrets; it’s often about moral ambiguity, and in terms of programming, this fits in very well with that.”
AMC seems to think so too, and after taking chances on serious adult content in the likes of MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD, they’ve been nothing but immensely supportive of everything THE WALKING DEAD is. And, as much the series emphasizes character development and emotional resonance, it’s still very much concerned with the undead. As Hurd beautifully puts it, “Zombies eat people; they kill and eat people. And you’ll see, we do not shy away from gore at all. If you look at AMC, and I’m a huge fan of BREAKING BAD, it’s very intense. There are sequences in BREAKING BAD where I really go, ‘Did that guy just get his head blown apart?’
“And what really made us feel comfortable was [the network’s annual] Fearfest,” she continues. “If you look at the programming in Fearfest—classic horror and genre films—many of them air completely uncut. Before we even proceeded, we looked at what kind of imagery we would be able to put on screen, and we’ve never felt there was any kind of compromising. In fact, we’ve now submitted five of the six episodes to AMC and we’ve never gotten one note about toning down the violence or graphic gore—not one.”
It’s well known that the U.S. has always been a little more accepting of violence than sex, however, and Kirkman is just as frank in his portrayal of sensuality as he is brutality on the page—and some are curious about the tackling of such subjects. “I don’t think we ever looked at this from the point of view of, ‘What can we keep? What has to go?’ Because that’s not the way to make the best series,” Hurd points out. “I think you start and you say, ‘What is the best version for television of this series?’ We haven’t even gotten to those aspects yet. Yes, there will be relationships in the show. I don’t think there will be a level of nudity, because I don’t think that’s the way Frank perceives things as a filmmaker to begin with. I don’t believe, if you look at his body of work, that that’s an area he would exploit.”
What Darabont will happily exploit and investigate, though, is the zombies’ political and social parallelism to our own lives. “I think Robert Kirkman started writing and it came out in 2003,” Hurd reasons, “but at the same time, when you think about it, any zombie apocalypse is going to correlate with other kinds of apocalypse, whether you look at the images of Haiti, or after the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina.”
While it’s true the initial WALKING DEAD comics issues did pre-date some of the woes we face as a country today, Darabont echoes Hurd’s statement of a timelessness in utilizing the undead in a globally observant way. “The metaphor that zombies provide has become very pointed,” he says, “and not to sound sociological—I don’t want to come off like a professor here, pontificating—but I think there is a millennial dread that is creeping in. Even stupid people these days are starting to catch on to the fact that this civilization we’ve crafted is unsustainable. We are overpopulated, we are overtaxing our resources and we are overpolluting our planet, and it’s all going to f**king come crashing down. We’re all dead men walking.
“The financial crisis isn’t a surprise,” he continues. “It’s been [going on] since Ronald Reagan started deregulating shit, and every asshole who got into that office after him kept deregulating shit. You have to be a moron not to understand that there’s going to be a crash someday. It came as absolutely no surprise to me. You just have to be paying attention. BP, big oil spill, what a surprise! What I hate are these f**kwits: ‘Oh, who could’ve seen it coming?’ I’m so tired of idiots saying that. Anybody could’ve seen it coming; in fact, they were telling us for decades that all it would take was a force five hurricane and New Orleans would go down, because we hadn’t invested in the infrastructure of protecting that city. We were still using 19th-century technology, big bags of sand, to protect New Orleans. Everybody could see it coming.
“The stuff that’s going to be happening, we can see it coming. We’re not doing shit about it, and this is where zombies come into it; it’s the reminder that death is nipping at our heels and we’re just not… We’re the little pigs who’ve built our houses not of brick, but of straw. This is why I think it’s a very potent metaphor today.”
It would probably be unfair to suggest that the tone and characters of THE WALKING DEAD are lighter and more hopeful than the director. Truthfully—and also bravely and honestly—the series reflects Darabont’s sentiments in its overcast color scheme and heavy despair. “You’re confronted with people who’ve had everything in their lives stripped away,” Hurd says. “The person you were yesterday, except in very unique instances, you’re going to be someone different that next day. We get to strip people down to their very bases, and sometimes what they find out about themselves is pretty shocking—what people will do to survive. And that’s where the great drama in THE WALKING DEAD comes from, that human nature can certainly be a lot more unpredictable and frightening than zombies.”
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