The Walking Dead

With its putrid zombie hoard, The Walking Dead is the ultimate Halloween gift for fans of gore: There are splattered heads, swarming flies and enough tattered, rotting flesh to make most watch through splayed fingers. But peel back just a thin layer of the decaying skin and you'll find the heart of AMC's newest drama is entirely human — racing 90 beats a minute, pumping furiously to stay alive. "There's us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together, not apart," says deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln).

"It's a story that anyone can relate to," explains Robert Kirkman, author of the acclaimed comic-book series on which the show is based. "The zombies are representative of disaster, but the focus is on the people — everything they go through."

Rick Grimes is an Everyman with everything: a wife, a son and best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), who gives him marital advice over burgers. Just a normal guy in a normal world — until a shootout lands him in a coma. When he wakes, it's all gone, and only empty buildings and rows of bodies remain. "We enter this world through his eyes and follow him as he realizes what's happened," says executive producer Gale Ann Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens). Slashing and shooting his way through the carnivorous corpses, Rick searches for his loved ones. "The only thing I am now is a man looking for his family," he says. "Anyone who gets in the way of that is gonna lose." "This is the story of human survival — in any kind of apocalypse," Hurd says. "What is human nature when everything's been stripped away and there's nothing left?"

Except, of course, for the undead — slowly shambling, disturbing collections of gray flesh and rags designed by makeup guru and consulting producer Greg Nicotero, whose credits include the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror, The Hills Have Eyes and HBO's The Pacific, for which he recently won an Emmy.

After castings in Atlanta, where the show is filmed, Nicotero and his crew applied contact lenses, dentures, prosthetics and dried dark blood — using as many as 150 extras in a day. The zombies even got their own backstories. "We decided how that person died. Were they bitten and turned? Or did they get shot and come back?" Nicotero says. They even trained the extras at "zombie school." "It was a blast!" Hurd says. "'Professor' Nicotero put together footage and we showed what we were looking for: not sprinters and not funny. We take it seriously."

As does AMC, which is becoming the home for intense dramas with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. "AMC hasn't ever said, 'Can you do that off screen?' This isn't an 'off screen' series," says a grateful Hurd. "They haven't given us one note to make things less graphic." In fact, she says they were open to the project from the beginning. "I called them and they already knew about it!" That was good news for creator and director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), a longtime fan of the source material. "I walked into the comic-book store and saw the book five years ago," he says. "I was expecting something facile, and instead I got something deep."

And he's bringing all the depth and complexity to the screen. "You get an unflinching look at all that is good and all that is bad in humanity," says Lincoln. The question is, how much good is left? Probably not a ton: "The humans can be more frightening than the zombies," Hurd notes.

Of those scary humans, there's Andrea (Laurie Holden), a civil rights attorney who almost shoots Rick at first sight for endangering her group; Morgan (Lennie James), who, to protect his son, holds a knife to Rick's throat; and Shane, who's willing to let friends die rather than risk a rescue. It's every man for himself in zombieville, and all are desperate, including Rick's wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). Thinking her husband is dead, Mrs. Grimes clings to his best friend. "There's a need to affirm humanity, and then there's the fallout," says Callies — as if the end of the world wasn't enough drama without a love triangle.

It's not all bleak, however, even with a brutal body count. There's Rick's courage, Andrea's passion and Morgan's paternal love. "This isn't a successful survival story, but it is an impassioned survival story," Callies says. Even Lori and Shane's adultery makes perfect sense in the show's apocalyptic context — it's a natural yearning, that irresistible need for warmth and comfort and sex. What could be more human than that?

The Walking Dead premieres Sunday at 10/9c, on AMC.

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