Oh yes, there will be blood. AMC has made some pretty impressive headway in the television world in recent years, going from primarily broadcasting old movies to competing with the cutting edge of dramatic television on channels like HBO, Showtime and FX. And while “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” broke ground in terms of language and sex, their next series The Walking Dead promises to bring the gore in a big, big way. And from what we saw during our recent visit to the Atlanta set, this may well be the bloodiest show ever seen on television.
When the first zombie image from set circulated last month, portraying the rotting corpse of a woman reaching out towards camera, the collective hearts of zombie fans across the nation went aflutter. Courtesy of FX maestro Greg Nicotero, the work looks as good as anything we’ve seen on a big budget feature production. But Robert Kirkman, who created the original comic, tells us the image only shows half of what we’ll ultimately see on the show. “Just wait until you see below the waste,” explains a giddy Kirkman. “Below the waste, 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-since 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 show 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 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 in early June, 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 on set will actually make it to air, but Darabont, producer Gale Ann Hurd and the rest of the team we spoke to on set 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 their Fearfest this October.