When 10.9 million people tuned in for the Season Three debut of AMC's The Walking Dead on October 14th, it became the most watched episode of a cable drama in history. But one key person didn't even set his DVR. "I don't watch the show," says Andrew Lincoln, who stars as Rick Grimes, the small-town Georgia sheriff's deputy who leads the show's ragtag band of survivors during the zombie apocalypse. "I haven't watched myself act for a few years now. I don't enjoy it."
Lincoln's abstention notwithstanding, The Walking Dead has become a juggernaut – elbowing out vampires to become pop culture's reigning undead champ. But according to showrunner Glen Mazzara, The Walking Dead's hordes of reanimated "walkers" are incidental to the story he's telling. "The show isn't about zombies," he says. "It's about survival – against a savage world, we have only ourselves and each other to protect us."
During its first two seasons, The Walking Dead toed the line between pulpy creature feature – zombies are gruesomely dispatched with gunshots to the brain, crowbars through the face and skull-crushing hatchet blows – and heady end-times parable about the very nature of humanity. "The zombies are this nameless, shuffling, unrelenting surge of something that scares the shit out of you," says Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Grimes' wife, Lori. "So if your mortgage is twice the value of your house, they tap into that fear. If you fear the Earth is becoming a polluted wasteland, the zombies become a metaphor for that."
Metaphor or not, The Walking Dead takes its zombies seriously. They're designed by Emmy-winning special-effects guru Greg Nicotero, and the extras who play them attend a special "zombie school" to make sure their movements don't get "too Frankenstein," says Lincoln.
The zombies also ensure a high in-show body count, which keeps the cast on edge. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I read the last five pages first," says Callies. In response, the cast has also developed a ritual to bid farewell to the dearly departed. "We've evolved a set of 'death dinners,'" says Callies. "It gives everyone a chance to get properly sauced and say, 'We're going to miss the hell out of you.' Since the show has gotten more heat, we now have to disguise it as a birthday party so the waitstaff doesn't spill spoilers."
As Season Three begins, Mazzara is most pumped for all the things The Walking Dead still has in front of it. "Last season was a preface for the main story we're about to tell," he says. "Season Two, they were looking for help. Now the question is, 'What do we need to survive when no help is coming?' It's game on."
This story is from the November 8th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.