Looking back, Andrew Lincoln can only laugh. But on an infernally hot morning last summer in Atlanta, when the star of AMC’s zombie survival saga The Walking Dead found himself hacking up a corpse and smearing his sweat-drippy body with its pulpy entrails, the 37-year-old classically trained British thespian really did find it all rather disturbing. “I remember thinking, ‘Please! This is not what I signed up for!’ ” says Lincoln of the audacious moment from the second episode, in which his heroic lawman, Rick Grimes, hatches a plan to escape the zombie horde by trying to look—and smell—like one of them. The wickedly bleak work was so exhausting and unsettling that the actor says he improvised the line that effectively stops the scene (“We need more guts”) only because he wanted the scene to end. Not that it got any better the next day, when Lincoln and young costar Steven Yeun had to zombie-walk through downtown Atlanta with intestines and severed feet draped over their shoulders. “Afterward,” Lincoln says, “Steven asks me, ‘Is this normal for Hollywood?’ And I said, ‘Far from normal, my friend. Far from normal.’ ”
To be clear, no real persons alive or undead were harmed in the filming of that scene. (Your fake-guts recipe: faux blood, Vaseline, K-Y jelly. Mix and enjoy!) To be even more clear, The Walking Dead— developed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Frank Darabont from an acclaimed comic book by writer Robert Kirkman—is a monster smash, one that’s being hailed as the year’s best new series. Debuting on Halloween to record-breaking ratings for a basic-cable drama, this great and gory end-of-the-world epic has stunned industry observers by holding strong, averaging 5 million viewers a week—more than twice the average of AMC’s now-second biggest hit, Mad Men. The network has already ordered a 13-episode second season that may not arrive until next fall. That may sound like an interminable wait for fans (call them Undeadheads), especially since the first season concludes on Dec. 5 after only six episodes. Then again, Halloween does seem like the most wonderful time of the year for a zombie saga. In the words of exec producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator): “Why mess with a good thing?”
Please: Don’t. While it’s way easy to define The Walking Dead by its outrageous horror-genre violence and viscera (never has a TV series more indulged a blood-splattering head shot), what makes it a cut above is its brainy envisioning of a terrifying apocalyptic meltdown that leaves human characters struggling for physical and spiritual survival by snaring them in one moral quagmire after another. Your beloved spouse is now a zombie. Do you put her down or wait in hope for a cure? A member of your community needs to be rescued. He’s also a vile racist. Is he worth the bullets and manpower to save? What is the value of a human life? Who makes the rules when the world breaks down? Into the maelstrom rides Rick Grimes, an idealistic Southern sheriff’s deputy who awakens from a coma to discover civilization has imploded because of an inexplicable pandemic that has turned human beings into shambling cannibals. After a harrowing search, Rick reunites with wife Lori (Prison Break’s Sarah Wayne Callies) and young son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and joins a camp of survivors led by best friend and partner Shane (Jon Bernthal). The final two episodes of the season will see the survivors trek to the Centers for Disease Control. “The end of the season brings our characters—and the audience— to key questions,” says Darabont. “Are there answers? Is there hope? Is there any structure or authority or government working on our behalf?” Pause. “That’s a pretty legitimate question even without a zombie apocalypse.”
As Darabont prepped the pilot and developed scripts with other writers, he and Nicotero fleshed out their vision for the show’s flesh-chewing revenants, known in the series as “walkers” or “geeks.” They took their visual cues from the comic book’s zombies: long necks, pronounced teeth, faces gaunt from starvation. Each zombie bears marks of an individual history; a deereating zombie in episode 3, played by Nicotero himself, had hideous facial lacerations—machete wounds, he explains, from an offscreen skirmish. The zombies of The Walking Dead are victims of tragedy, not metaphors for social satire—hence you’ll never see cheeky caricatures like Politician Zombie or TV Newsman Zombie or Glee Club Zombie. “We didn’t want them to become a parody of anything, or even themselves,” says Nicotero. “Our ambition was to make the audience actually feel and care for the zombie, not merely be frightened by it.”
The actors who play The Walking Dead’s not-undead characters all tell variations of the same story about becoming involved in the series. “I got an e-mail outlining the project,” says Lincoln. “The first thing I read was ‘AMC.’ I went, ‘Great! I’ve been waiting for an AMC opportunity!’ Then it said ‘The Walking Dead.’ Terrific title. Then the names. ‘Frank Darabont.’ ‘Gale Anne Hurd.’ Great. And then it said ‘Zombie survival horror.’ I think I actually did a literal double take. I was like, ‘Really?!’ I was a bit reticent. It was only the next day, when they sent me this top secret script, that it really dawned on me what the show had a chance to do, and I got very excited.”
Darabont had never heard of Lincoln (perhaps best known to American audiences as the Guy Who Was in Love With Keira Knightley in Love Actually) when the casting directors suggested him for Rick Grimes. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m looking for a cross between Gary Cooper and Sam Shepard and you’re giving me the Love Actually guy?’ ” Darabont says he became a convert after flying Lincoln out to Los Angeles and filming an audition with Bernthal in the garage of his house. “What’s weird for me now,” says Darabont, “is that whenever I hear him talk with his English accent, I’m like, ‘Where’s Rick? Stop pretending you’re British!’ ”
But before he begins hashing out next season, Darabont says he’d like to figure how the series will ultimately end. That’s an ironic concern, considering The Walking Dead was conceived as the never-ending zombie saga. That may work in comics, but not so much in the category of serialized television that The Walking Dead occupies, where viewers can grow weary and even cynical about stories if they sense they lack “master plan” direction or purpose. (Just ask Team Lost.) Darabont gets this—and he’s working on it. “My next big conversation with Robert, now that we’ve gotten through the first six, will be: ‘What is your endgame, Robert? I can’t believe I have not asked you this!’ I kinda wanna know Robert’s idea, for my own sanity and purposes,” says Darabont. “I’ll let you know what he tells me.” No worries. We’re not in a rush for The Walking Dead to die anytime soon.