The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

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Orman Reedus answers his trailer door at the studio's base camp, gripping a switchblade and wearing his Daryl Dixon uniform: dark, dirty, sleeveless button-down shirt, brown pants. Daryl was a backwoods survivalist before the zombie apocalypse, and, as such, a pretty useful guy to have around when civilization crumbled. Fan drawings of him paper Reedus' trailer walls, and on the desk is a gelatinous breast implant one woman sent. Reedus uses it as a phone cradle. He shows me a letter and accompanying nude crotch shot that arrived recently.

"I just read it. It's basically like, 'I love you. I'll wait for you. I'm doing anything to find you.'" He shakes his head. "Holy fuck."

The show engenders serious fanaticism, the most intense of which focuses on Reedus. He thinks people identify with Daryl as an underdog who needed the apocalypse to become his best self. Reedus plays Daryl with a brooding smokiness that seems to attract the unhinged. The week before, a 32-year-old Mississippi woman dragged her three kids on a road trip to find Reedus. She made it to Georgia, where she ran out of gas, was placed in a shelter with her family, ditched the kids, broke into a nearby house and was eventually arrested.

"I've been followed home over half a dozen times," he says, tossing his knife into the wood floor. "I've had somebody break into my backyard. A guy from the FBI is coming down here to talk about security."

There's a knock on the trailer door.

"Yo! Reedus, you've got visitors!"

It's Lincoln with Melissa McBride, who plays Carol, the steely widow who lost her daughter in Season Two. The three are the show's diminished old guard. Besides them, the only principals that remain from Season One are Yeun and Chandler Riggs – Rick's son Carl.

The cast members all talk repeatedly about "the culture of The Walking Dead," which is to say, the tight-knit atmosphere and no-bullshit attitude on set. Lincoln, Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies – who played Rick's wife, Lori – and others worked deliberately to develop this culture from Day One, but some of it's just down to the peculiar alchemy that happened when Darabont cast the show and set them to work on a story that dictated most of them wouldn't be around to see its conclusion. McBride says she actually got the call last season from then-showrunner Mazzara that Carol was to be killed.

"I said, 'It's really a shame because there's a lot to her,'" she says. She then explained to him what Carol still had to offer this hellish world. "I never heard words come out of my mouth so fast and so sure. I was defending my life. "I don't know if that had any impact on the decision to keep her alive," she continues, but she's still here.

The idea that nobody is safe binds the actors together in the same way it does the characters. Bernthal, who, as Shane, was killed in a Season Two showdown with Rick, says his final scene reinforced how special this job was.

"At the end of the night, the entire cast just held each other," he says. "I ain't gonna bullshit you, I was crying my eyes out. I told them, 'Stay strong. Keep squeezing all the bullshit out of this thing.'"

While it may be true The Walking Dead isn't only about zombies, at 5:45 a.m., in the makeup trailer on set, it kind of is. Bethany Murphy sits in a chair waiting to be transformed from an attractive young actress into a ghastly bag of molting flesh, or in the show's parlance for featured zombies, a hero. Murphy has played numerous walkers on the show, going back to the pilot: When Rick shuffles down the hospital hallway toward the double doors that read don't open/dead inside, those are Murphy's gnarled hands reaching through the doors toward him.

"I am on Walking Dead trading card Number 1," she says.

Murphy is one of three actors going through this morning's nearly two-hour makeup session, which requires a foam latex mask, rotting false teeth, an assortment of paints and glues, and – for Murphy – the "zombie conditioning treatment," i.e., globs of TRESemmé conditioner worked into her dark hair until it looks appropriately awful. Hands and legs are also painted, but the costume department generally keeps walkers from exposing too much skin to cut down on turnaround time (hence the predominance of long sleeves among the show's undead). Today, there are 16 heroes to cycle through, plus a handful of midground walkers who get elaborate paint jobs but no prosthetics, and several deep-background zombies, who only require a light dusting of death.

Occasionally, the script will specify something about a walker's appearance, but often the makeup artist just looks at the actor sitting in the chair and wings it. The zombies look horrifying, no doubt, but the real horror comes from the fact that even with the most gruesome of them, you can still clearly see the outlines of the humans they used to be. These are not simply monsters; these were once our neighbors, our friends and our family – a point driven home in Season Three by the otherwise sociopathic Governor, who hides away his zombie daughter and hopes for a cure that never comes.

A little before seven, Greg Nicotero bounds into the trailer, wearing a gray shirt with a picture of a zombie fighting a shark on it, a tribute to the obscure Italian film Zombi 2. Nicotero, an executive producer in charge of makeup, examines the three heroes and makes adjustments.

"As the show progresses, the zombies are decaying more and more," he says. "We always do the rotted-away lips because I've done research in terms of cadavers and corpses, and when the skin tightens, it pulls away. I always think about that stuff."

Nicotero grew up in Pittsburgh and got his start working with fellow Pittsburgh resident Romero on 1985's Day of the Dead. Since then, he's become an icon in his field, working on films like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. When Darabont was pitching AMC, the network's executives were concerned the scale of what he was attempting with the zombies wasn't financially feasible. Nicotero, who'd worked with Darabont on The Green Mile and 2007's The Mist, was his ace in the hole. Still, there's been an intermittent tug of war over the show's budget – which has made Nicotero's job a challenge.

"Would I love 10 more makeup artists?" he asks. "Hell, yeah! Would I love another unit that could just shoot close-ups of zombies? Sometimes we have that. But we've found a way of making a great show within the parameters of the money we have."

Budgets were undoubtedly a factor in Darabont's departure, but it was hardly the only tumult during his tenure. Just before Season One's finale aired, Darabont reportedly fired most of the writing staff, save Mazzara. (Producers at AMC contend they left of their own accord.) Darabont had written, co-written or rewritten every script to that point; several people told me most words uttered that season were his. Jeffrey DeMunn, who played the aging RV owner Dale, says some of the initial scripts "needed a lot of help. But then I would get the rewrite and it was extraordinary."

Despite great Season One ratings, AMC cut the budget-per-episode for Season Two by about $500,000, according to a former staffer. Kirkman says that the budget wasn't an issue, pointing out it was still "30 percent higher than most shows on television" – though allegedly less than half of the rumored cost of HBO's Game of Thrones. AMC president Charlie Collier has asserted that pilot episodes usually cost more money and the Season Two cuts were just the normal course of business. But according to Gregory Melton, the production designer for the first two seasons of the show and a longtime associate of Darabont's, these economic decisions had significant impact. Darabont had planned to open Season Two with a backstory explaining how Atlanta was overrun by walkers.

"It was going to be like Black Hawk Down, following an Army Ranger unit as the city succumbs to the zombie plague," says Melton. "That was thrown out due to cost," and instead, by Episode Two, the survivors are camped at Hershel's farm. Another former staffer on the show says the decision to keep the group at one location for most of the season was at least partly financial.

AMC has maintained that budget decisions were made with an eye on the show's long-term fiscal health, but Darabont wasn't buying it.

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