The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

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Secrecy is kind of a thing for Kirkman. He kept his marriage from his parents for a while, too. "The month we got engaged, my parents decided to get a divorce," he says. "It didn't feel right to go, 'Oh, you're getting a divorce? That's funny, I'm getting married.' So we didn't tell them."

At around 14, Kirkman first saw George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Although zombie stories had existed for centuries, Romero's film established the modern archetype – the shambling, single-minded corpses that spread their virus by biting the living and could only be dispatched with a shot to the head. To watch it now, despite the low production values, is to see the template for what Kirkman, and later Darabont, would do with The Walking Dead.

"A story about vampires or werewolves is a story about people going through that transformation," says Kirkman. "But zombie stories are about human beings doing relatable things: protecting your family, finding food, building shelter." Zombies, too, provide a handy metaphor – for the brain-dead masses forever hungry to feed their selfish appetites; for the relentless pressures of the world weighing down on us; for nearly anything beyond our control that scares us to death.

Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, says Night of the Living Dead and later Romero films like Dawn of the Dead introduced a philosophy that underpins most good zombie fiction.

"Zombies are a mirror for our own weaknesses," he says. "When zombies are slow, stupid and easy to kill, how do they win? Their inherent weakness exposes our stupidity, our greed, our panic. It's like Hurricane Katrina. It was just water. But the story of Hurricane Katrina is a story of unbelievable human mistakes, and that's what an interesting zombie story is."

Kirkman loved zombie films, but had one problem with most: their endings. After 90 minutes or so of struggle and bloodshed, a couple of characters survive and walk off into the sunset. To him, that didn't feel like the end of the story, it felt like the beginning. "I started to think, 'What if one of those stories continued indefinitely?'" he says.

That question spawned The Walking Dead, the first issue of which appeared in 2003. The comic became an underground hit, and soon Kirkman was meeting with people interested in adapting it for film. None looked promising until Darabont called in 2005.

"He understood the comics," says Kirkman. "They weren't about gore or zombie scares. It was a realistic survival story about human beings."

Darabont – who declined to be interviewed for this story – wrote a pilot and spent several years trying to drum up interest. NBC signed on for a spell but never put the pilot into production. Other broadcast networks felt it was too violent. Premium cable passed. Darabont had basically given up on the project by the time Hurd – who'd gotten her start working for B-movie titan Roger Corman and later co-produced The Terminator and Aliens – called about it. Together they brought the show to AMC, which greenlighted it in 2009.

Expectations were modest. AMC was concerned about it getting pigeonholed as a genre piece. Early promos and ads emphasized Darabont's résumé, AMC's reputation for serialized dramas and that it wasn't really about zombies.

They needn't have worried. The pilot, which Darabont directed, is a gorgeous, warped, 67-minute fever dream that resembled nothing else on television. It premiered on Halloween 2010, with ratings that immediately made it AMC's most-watched show, besting the network's twin totems, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. From there, the phenomenon has only grown. Most of the cast and crew I spoke to explain the show's appeal by talking about the way the audience sees itself in the characters while also identifying with the broader feeling these days that societal breakdown isn't so far-fetched. That, and the nonstop action, suspense and well-executed gore. But there's also a sense that in stripping away civilization's niceties, The Walking Dead is tapping into its viewers' worst fears: Am I a shitty parent? Is my wife sleeping with my best friend? Do I value my own life more than that of those close to me? What does it mean to be human? And can I figure this all out before that gnarly-looking zombie sinks its teeth into my neck?

The show's relationship to Kirkman's comic makes for a particularly complex web of intrigue. While the TV version isn't married to the comic's plot, it employs many of the same characters and frequently follows the same basic outline. But some characters that have survived in the comic have already been offed on the show; others who succumbed quite quickly on the page have had longer runs on T V. The comic offers a detailed road map (not to mention storyboards) for the Walking Dead writers, but it's a road map they're free to throw out the window. So everyone on set lives in fear of leaking spoilers. During multiple scenes I watched being filmed, an assistant director mandated that the dozens of crew members put away their phones before filming could start.

"I watched Shane's death get spoiled," Kirkman says. "Two weeks before the show aired, photos of him in zombie makeup were all over the Internet." But like many seeming catastrophes with The Walking Dead, the impact was negligible.

"People were freaking out, like, 'It's going to ruin the show!'" Kirkman continues. "Ratings went up."

The Walking Dead is a story about survival, but in releasing a ravenous horde with purposefully unexplained origins on the human race, Kirkman was offering an implicit commentary on the world he was destroying. "A hundred years ago, we were living in houses we built, growing food we ate, interacting with our families," he says. "That's a life that makes sense. Now, we're doing jobs we don't enjoy to buy stuff we don't need. We've screwed things up.

"It's fun to look at The Walking Dead and see those things taken away," he adds. "A lot of people think the show is bleak and depressing, but I can see where it's going in the next 10 years, and I think about it optimistically. Maybe it's going to make us better people by the end of it."

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