Getting your gore fix used to mean a trip to the theater or at least a movie rental. But TV isn’t what it used be with shows like “Dexter” and “True Blood” splattering plenty of colored corn syrup on a weekly basis. On basic cable, however, it’s been a bit of a different story. Though shows like “The Shield”, “Nip/Tuck” and “Breaking Bad” pushed boundaries on language, sexual content and violence, they were far from horror. Sure, “Buffy”, “Tales from the Darkside” or “Friday the 13th” were okay, but they weren’t exactly balls-to-the-wall horror either. When AMC debuts its new series “The Walking Dead” during the annual Fearfest this October, the aim is to push the bounds of blood, guts and all-out gore to a whole new level.
Based on the long-running comic by Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” is an epic zombie tale in the tradition of the Romero greats. And this is no half-assed approach. The show is created by Frank Darabont, who is also directing the pilot. Greg Nicotero, who’s worked alongside genre greats like Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Romero himself, is supervising the makeup. And Gale Ann Hurd, with credits like Aliens and T2 on her resume, is no slouch either. Needless to say, we were pretty intrigued when we were offered a chance to check out things first-hand on our visit to the Atlanta sets in June.
When the first zombie image from set circulated last month, portraying the rotting corpse of a woman reaching out towards the camera, we got a hell of a lot more excited. The creepy image was way beyond anything we’ve seen on television before. When we told Kirkman this shortly after arriving on set, he only grinned widely. “Just wait until you see below the waist,” he laughed. “Below the waist she’s just a pelvis with a dragging femur. She’s just dragging herself around, and it is just horrendous looking.”
“The Walking Dead”’s director, Frank Darabont, may be best known for dramatic work like Shawshank Redemption, but he’s a horror geek from way back who has long dreamed of getting his hands on some zombies. A lifelong Romero fan, Darabont promises that the series will hold little back in comparison to a horror feature. “We can’t say ‘fuck’,” says Darabont with a laugh. “I don’t know that if I were doing a feature, I’d be doing anything differently. You can’t say fuck, but you can shoot a zombie in the head at point-blank range. I love this business.”
Darabont has been trying to produce “The Walking Dead” for five-plus years. At one point the show was being developed for NBC. “They were very excited about the idea of doing a zombie show until I handed them a zombie script where zombies were actually doing zombie shit,” says Darabont. “It’s one of those things where the network says, ‘Oh yeah, we want to stretch the envelope’ until they realize that they’re actually looking at a stretched envelope, and they go, ‘Woah, no, let’s do CSI some more.’”
“I’m certainly not trying to rip them down, but they’re a network, and we could never have done this show the way it needed to be done there.”
Along with makeup legend and zombie aficionado Greg Nicotero, who is often seen on set hauling large buckets of fake blood, Darabont is setting out to test the bounds of television gore. “Yesterday Greg was up past his elbows. He was just absolutely covered with blood.”
The two worked together previously on 2007’s The Mist. “The real hardcore geek stuff that we grew up loving, we haven’t really gotten a chance to do that much,” says Darabont. “We’re having the time of our lives together.”
Nicotero says Darabont’s enthusiasm is contagious: “We did the first take, and Frank was like, ‘It’s zombie day, it’s zombie day!’ Frank really loves the genre and is so passionate about it.”
The day before our visit Nicotero prepped 150 zombies for the biggest shooting day so far. “It’s funny because I thought when we did Land of the Dead, we had 60 zombies a night. It was just brutal. And then of course our 150 day in our summer heat [here].”
During our visit the Atlanta sets were hitting record temperatures well over 100 degrees with the humidity index. Darabont, who could often be spotted on set with a towel on his head, described it as a sauna. “You don’t get used to the heat,” says the director. “I’ve never had clothes stick to me like this in my life.” Luckily the fun of the production seems to overwhelm the brutal heat.
Just outside the Atlanta Zoo, the day’s shoot was at an unassuming house in downtown Atlanta. The scene takes place early in the story when Rick (Andrew Lincoln) first comes home from the hospital. He finds his house abandoned and heads outside for a moment of reflection. A little boy (Adrian Kali Turner) sneaks up behind Rick and, mistaking him for a zombie, knocks him unconscious with a shovel. “Dad!” the boy screams. “I got the sonba bitch!”
A tall, lanky zombie in a tattered, dirty black suit approaches, and the father (Lennie James) steps in and shoots him dead with a pistol. The scene is more of a set-up of things to come rather than the larger set pieces shot the day before.
For anyone still feeling skeptical about the level of gore AMC will permit on TV, Kirkman admits even he’s been shocked. “The stuff that AMC is going to put on air is crazy,” he says. “They keep showing me things, and I’m like, you’re not doing that.”
During the previous day’s shoot Rick wanders into an abandoned downtown Atlanta looking for signs of life. Instead, he comes across a mob of hungry zombies. He manages to escape, but his horse isn’t so fortunate. “They rip a horse open, and there’s just spaghetti coming out,” says Kirkman. “They actually have things that you see.”
“It was fantastic,” Nicotero says of the horse scene. “You see the pale, discolored hands going in and then coming out red.”
As further evidence we are shown pictures of the horse disembowelment. The shots are, in a word, brutal. In one overhead image a crowd of zombies devour the horse as a pool of blood forms around them. In the appetizing close-up the zombies tear innards out of the horse and prepare for the feast, blood covering their hands and mouths.
We were shown a few additional images, such as a shadowy staircase shot of Rick after he first wakes up in the hospital. The image showcases the gritty, dark look of the series, which is being shot on Super 16mm film stock. Aside from the horse shots, the other gory image is of a dead nurse that looks to have been one zombie’s late night snack. Her body is totally massacred, blood streaked and splattered all around her, a dark pool around her corpse. Some of her ribs are exposed, and all that remains of one leg is a bloody stump. Did I mention they showed us these images right after lunch?
After a single day on set we are sufficiently impressed with what we’ve seen, if even a little shocked. Sure, we’re a little skeptical as to whether all the gooey gory goodness we saw will actually make it to air, but Darabont, producer Gale Ann Hurd and the rest of the team we spoke to insisted that what you see is what you get. They intend to push the envelope to the limit. And hey, we’d love to see them get away with it.
We’ll have more from the set of “The Walking Dead” coming soon. The series will premiere on AMC as part of Fearfest this October.
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