How "The Walking Dead" Brings New Life to Zombies - Without CGI

In the beginning was Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 granddaddy of modern zombie movies that spawned a generation of zombie flicks and followers. On Halloween, two of that movie's more ardent fans –- writer/director Frank Darabont and producer Gale Anne Hurd –- will unleash their take on the genre in AMC’s The Walking Dead, a thriller series based on the Eisner Award-winning comic book series by Robert Kirkman.

The story follows a group of survivors, lead by police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who band together in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The show’s first full scenes will debut during an Oct. 10 panel at the New York Comic-Con.

"Zombies have always been a big deal to me, even back in the day when that branded you a weirdo, before it became culturally acceptable, mainstream zeitgeist stuff," says Darabont, who earned Oscar nominations for The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. "What’s innovative about this series is the extended and serialized human drama that’s going on. It’s not so much about the zombies, it’s about the characters - this group of human beings who are trying to survive, and come to terms with what’s happened and with one another."

But unleashing the undead in a marketplace that's already saturated with zombies--from the Resident Evil: Afterlife movie to the Left 4 Dead video game expansion which debuted this week--presented something of a challenge. That's why Darabont chose to use a mix of old and new make-up and prosthetic techniques to make the show stand out visually. "We’re not doing CGI monsters. This is an old school zombie show. I’m taking the concept from what I’m calling the Book of Genesis -- the original Night of the Living Dead," he says. "This is the classic zombie, the kind I’ve always loved, and I don’t see a need to reinvent something that’s held up so long."

For the look of the zombies, Darabont tapped Oscar-winning special effects artist (and zombie specialist) Gregory Nicotero to amplify the comic illustrations’ gaunt, drawn-out faces. And when shooting, he opted for film over video.

"This series cries out for a more analog feel visually," says Darabont. "I also wanted to shoot very quickly, and with multiple cameras. So we’re shooting 16mm -- super 16 -- which uses a little bit more of the frame and still gives you that analog bit of grain in the image. There’s a warmth to it that’s more relatable than something shot on high-def.”

Using CGI more sparingly, the director is able to reach back to some unexpected influences. "Remember Forrest Gump, when Gary Sinise’s character loses his legs?," he says. "We have a variation on that theme with the very first zombie our main character sees when he wakes up and leaves the hospital. We use traditional make-up effects, combined with some digital visual trickery, to make the creature you’re seeing far more horrible than it would otherwise be. It all goes back to Gary Sinise and his missing legs. You draw inspiration and technique from wherever you can. There’s no reason to renounce any given technology that could be an asset your production."

Darabont stumbled across The Walking Dead, published by Image Comics, in 2005 at his local comic book shop House of Secrets in Burbank, California. "I love zombies, so I grabbed it immediately," he laughs. "I wasn’t even halfway through it, when I thought, 'Wow, this would be a very cool television series.' The next day, I called my agent and said 'can we look into the rights?'"

From the beginning, Darabont and Kirkman agreed that television, rather than film, would enable a deeper exploration of characters and storylines. The series languished in development at NBC, where Darabont had an overall deal, until he approached Hurd last year.

A longtime friend, and a producer on James Cameron movies such as The Terminator, Aliens, and T2: Judgment Day, Hurd also happens to be a zombie enthusiast. "From the very first time I saw Night of the Living Dead, I was hooked!" she laughs. They took Walking Dead to AMC -- the cable network behind Mad Men and Breaking Bad -- largely because of its popular October Fearfest marathon of horror films.

Beyond the resurgence of vampires and zombies in film and TV, Hurd also feels the comic series' intimate stories will resonate in today’s uncertain times. "Ultimately, when you strip it away, it’s about human survival," she says. "The zombies are fairly predictable. But how are the humans going to react? What will they do, who will they sacrifice, who will they protect, who do you or I become in the face of that kind of privation and fear? I think we feel that way now. You don’t have the innocence that we felt in the 50s and 60s, and you don’t feel the sense of freedom that you had in the 70s. The world is something we’ve ceased to understand."

 

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