Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman talks up AMC series, zombies as modern monsters
This story on AMC's return Sunday of The Walking Dead will run in our Latitudes section Sunday, but I had to cut it down severely. So I'm giving you the Full Monty here for weekend reading. Enjoy...
For fans of AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, it may have been the TV series’ most crucial moment.
Ex-cop Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) had a rifle in his hand, backing up onetime partner Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as the two looked out for walking corpses and game animals in the woods. Walsh, who had a secret affair with Grimes’ wife, hefted the rifle, clearly considering “accidentally” shooting his friend.
Seconds later, another friend approached and the moment passed. But in the brutally explicit graphic novel on which the AMC series is based, there’s a different outcome: as Walsh confronts his pal with the weapon, Grimes’ 7-year-old son kills him with a pistol, saving his father while proving that life in a post-apocalyptic world packed with flesh-eating zombies erases traditional morality pretty quickly.
Even a TV series which this season shows Grimes disemboweling a zombie in painstaking, gory detail -- to tell if it had eaten a missing child – has some boundaries.
And that’s okay for Robert Kirkman, the creator of the Walking Dead graphic novel and an executive producer/writer on the TV series.
“It’s like the TV series is in an alternate dimension, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Kirkman, who still says he is “absolutely floored” by how popular last year’s six-episode debut season turned out. “If it was just the comic book adapted directly, I would be completely bored with the show by now.”
To be sure, there’s plenty of gore in AMC’s Walking Dead for fans of the genre. Last year, one man sawed his hand off to escape the slouching hordes; this season, zombies are dispatched with screwdrivers in the eyes, rocks against their heads and machetes across their necks, black blood spouting with disturbing realism.
But the graphic novel’s brutal truths about humans are more muted on TV, where they rarely meet people pushed to evil extremes. Even the gang bangers they confronted last season turned out to be protecting a senior citizens center packed with those too sick or old to leave.
In print, the ragtag group of living survivors Grimes leads discover that the biggest danger in a world filled with zombies isn’t always the undead; it’s the people trying to survive them. From cannibals willing to eat a living prisoner piece by piece to a brutal, violent rapist and leader called The Governor, people in the Walking Dead graphic novels often fall short of the heroism seen in your typical disaster movie.
“That’s something we didn’t have room for in the first season,” said Kirkman, who notes the show’s 13-episode second season will allow more time for the survivors to meet humans who aren’t so saintly. “You get the sense from the comic series that zombies are a threat; but to a certain extent, they’re a manageable threat. What you really need to be scared of in this world is other humans – because you can never predict human behavior.”
(SPOILERS AHEAD - READ ON only if you don't mind learning a few plot points)
As the show’s second season opens tonight, Grimes is leading 11 survivors from the Centers of Disease control, where a despondent scientist triggered a massive explosion. Traveling in a caravan to Fort Bragg in Kentucky, they encounter a new type of zombie behavior and new threats to the two children among their group.
Along the way, they land at a farm owned by Hershel, a godfearing doctor quite familiar to fans of the graphic novel (one disappointment: in the first two episodes given to critics, we don’t yet discover whether the Hershel on TV has the same stuff hidden in his barn as the Hershel in the graphic novel.)
What we do see, are fractures among the survivors. Andrea, a woman who wanted to kill herself by staying inside the CDC explosion, grows to resent fellow survivor Carl, who persuaded her to leave and stay alive. Walsh develops plans to leave the group, unable to bear his feelings for Grimes’ wife Laurie.
And a massive crisis tests Grimes’ leadership, pushing some survivors to hate him even as they depend on his decisiveness to survive.
“Zombie stories, more than any kind of monster story, forces the creative talent to focus intently on the human drama,” said Kirkman. “Because zombies have no personality, they have no motives, they’re just an unrelenting force. Stories like the Walking Dead end up being more about protecting your children or working well with others…That’s the universal appeal of a survival story.”
The Zombie As a Modern Monster
As supernatural bogeymen go, flesh eating zombies may be our most modern monster.
First seen in legends among Haitian and African peoples, the zombie was a corpse brought to life by the witchcraft of African shaman (hence, the 1932 Bela Lugosi horror film White Zombie).
It wasn’t until 1968, when filmmaker George Romero re-imagined the zombie as a walking corpse – often animated by a virus -- craving a meal of human flesh in his classic movie The Night of the Living Dead, that the modern zombie was born.
“It’s the personification of a deadly virus…it’s inherently modern,” said Matt Mogk, an author with a master’s degree from New York University’s film school who founded the sorta-serious Zombie Research Society; a group of writers, academics and enthusiasts puzzling out what might happen if a zombie plague actually occurred.
“In the same way in Japan, after World War II, they created Godzilla – this monster to symbolize all their fears about their modern society, zombies do that for our culture now,” said Mogk, whose new book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, traces the history of the monster and quizzes Homeland Security experts on survival strategies.
And while creatures such as vampires and werewolves have had more than a century to percolate in pop culture, zombies are just getting their due as stars of the modern horror show.
As the author of zombie-themed satires such as The Art of Zombie Warfare and The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead, author Scott Kenemore has noticed a common thread among some fans.
“They’re already into violence and they’re stockpiling weapon and have a bunker..some of these fans are already into survivalism,” he said. “They connect with people who are scared of the economy and think dystopian things will happen. This community is into zombies because they see it as an extension of what they’re already into.”
So it makes sense that The Walking Dead’s zombies, animated by an aggressive virus which can claim the living from a single bite, have found popularity in country fighting two wars at once and weathering a brutal recession.
Mogk admits, as a guy who has spent years puzzling what a “real-life” zombie outbreak might look like, there’s elements of The Walking Dead which niggle at his brain.
How do these survivors find enough gas to run a wagon train of cars and a motorcycle? Why are they surprised in some scenes by decaying zombies which must stink like months-old corpses? Why don’t the survivors find protection in donning tough clothing and silent weapons like cross bows? (the loud noise from guns can draw other zombies in a herd)
Most importantly, why don’t the living survivors in AMC’s Walking Dead series act like people who are fighting for their lives every moment? Why are they so, well, polite?
“The response I get from fans is, ‘Thank God (the series) isn’t horrible,’” said Mogk, who ultimately shrugs off his own criticisms. “Zombies, they kind of get no respect. They’re not sexy, they’re not brooding, they don’t have personality. Even a year before the Walking Dead came out, if you were to tell anyone there would be a zombie show on TV, no one would believe it.”
Keeping the Walking Dead's quality
Kirkman knows that, hard as it was to turn his Blitzkrieg of a graphic novel into a successful TV show, he’s now got a much harder task.
Keeping it that way.
These days, his chief task seems to be assuring fans that the surprise ouster of executive producer Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, the Shawshank Redemption), engineered days after he appeared at the popular Comic Con festival, wont affect the second season’s quality.
“I’m largely unaware of the particulars of what happened,” said Kirkman, who added that he learned of Darabont’s ouster the same way many fans did; from press accounts of his firing. “The cast and crew has rallied…to make this season the best possible season of television we can deliver.”
In some ways, Kirkman is the poster child for creative freedom, publishing his Walking Dead graphic novel through a company – Image Comics – which allows creators to keep the full rights to their creations. Which meant Kirkman could stay involved as the TV show was made, ensuring AMC’s series remained consistent with his vision.
“I hope I’m not the poster boy for anything, because I don’t think I’d look that good on a poster,” cracked the rotund writer. “But the important thing to note is I’m not that intelligent and I don’t feel like I’m that talented. This kind of thing could happen to anybody who works really hard, makes the right moves and keeps their head about them when things are taking off.”