The Walking Dead

When you absolutely, positively have to determine whether a zombie has devoured a missing girl, there's only one thing to do: Shoot it in the head and disembowel what's left of the flesh-eater's rotting corpse.

Yuck? Perhaps, but it's that kind of occasional carnage that has fans rabid for AMC's The Walking Dead. The zombie series continues to unearth big ratings as it ushers in a new age of horror and thriller series — and the accompanying gore — on TV. The trend began with Showtime's Dexter and the titular killer's plastic-wrapped human-carving station, as well as HBO's True Blood and its flesh-ripping, neck-biting vamps. Then came The Walking Dead, and more recently, FX's American Horror Story and NBC's Grimm, both of which have scared up sizable audiences.

TV's past thrillers, such as The Twilight Zone, relied more on psychological scares than gore. Horror is a polarizing genre, which is why the networks mostly avoided it. But times have changed, content standards have loosened, and cable is able to target a niche crowd that likes a little gristle in their TV diet.

The horror genre has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, as audiences grew accustomed to more graphic thrills via the popularity of movies like Saw, Paranormal Activity and The Human Centipede (some of which have been dubbed "torture porn" because of their graphic nature). Also, dark procedurals like CSI and Criminal Minds made it safe to show brutalized corpses in prime time, paving the way for some of the gruesome images on TV's horror explosion.

"CSI took it to another level in terms of exploring gore," says AMC programming senior vice president Joel Stillerman. "Our intent was never to highlight the gore," he adds of The Walking Dead. "We do it in a way that's organic to the story. People who love that stuff can geek out, and if you don't, you can cover your eyes. We know where the limits are and we know what flies and what doesn't. If we push it, we run a disclaimer."

But TV producers say they're still more interested in scaring audiences than grossing them out. Compared to the realism on TV's forensics and autopsy shows, the worlds of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are at least rooted in make-believe.

Fans of The Walking Dead know to expect the occasional blood and guts — like the time a zombie was sliced in half as it was pulled out of a well — which help balance quiet, more emotional moments in a story that at the core is about a family trying to survive an apocalypse. "There are certain conventions in the horror genre, and one is that dispatching zombies, or humans being attacked by zombies, will be fairly graphic," says executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. "If you aren't making a campy show, which we're not, it is something we're expected to deliver. After all, zombies are no longer alive, and the only way to 'kill' them is with a head shot."

Viewers don't appear to be turned off by the splatter. The Walking Dead's season premiere attracted the best adult 18-49 ratings ever for a cable drama. At FX, American Horror Story continues to grow its audience and was recently renewed for Season 2. FX programming executive vice president Nick Grad says American Horror Story is bringing in a large female audience that is more interested in the show's characters and its underlying theme — about a marriage in trouble — than its horror imagery (which includes a blood-thirsty demon baby). "We don't want to be gratuitous just for the sake of being gratuitous," he says. "If you're going to do something pretty extreme, there has to be a reason you're doing it."

Even though ABC's upcoming The River will contain gory elements, the show's producers say much of it will be blurred out. "We're not really fans of gore," says executive producer Michael Green. "There's a difference between horror and thriller, and we're more in the thriller camp."

That means audiences won't get a good glimpse of a gruesome dead body that The River's art department prepared for one episode — at least not yet. Just in case viewers demand more gore with their goose bumps, fellow exec producer Zack Estrin says they're mulling an uncensored DVD. After all, in Hollywood everyone's looking for that other kind of gross — profits.

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