Andrew Lincoln, The Walking Dead

If you've seen any zombie film, the flesh-craving creatures of AMC's The Walking Dead aren't exactly novel.

That's not to say that makeup and special effects wizard Gregory Nicotero hasn't seriously outdone himself. Or that being caught on a city block surrounded by hundreds of soulless, hungry ghouls isn't terrifying. It's just that this story is about more than delivering a few scares.

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"The most compelling part of the series is how emotionally involved you become in these characters' lives," executive producer Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator, Aliens) tells TVGuide.com. "Even though I've read all the scripts and was there when it was shot, I still find myself becoming surprisingly emotional in almost every episode over something the characters are having to endure. To me, that is unexpected and remarkable."

That idea was paramount for Hurd's collaborator, writer-producer-director Frank Darabont, who tried for years to get an adaptation Robert Kirman's beloved series of comic books off the ground. It was Darabont's gift for emotional, character-driven storytelling that appealed to Kirkman.

"I had one guy pitch me super-zombies," Kirkman, who is an executive producer on the show and wrote one of the six Season 1 episodes, says with a laugh. "He thought it would be really cool if they could throw cars and stuff, and I was like, 'What are you talking about?' When Frank came along, it was a very quick, very simple conversation. I wanted something that has the emotion of The Shawshank Redemption and was a serious character study but also had zombies."

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That's all front and center in Darabont's 90-minute pilot. After being shot and slipping into a coma, Deputy Sherriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up in a deserted hospital in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. He soon finds another survivor (Lennie James) and his son, who fill in the gaps and send Rick toward Atlanta, where he hopes to find his own wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs) at a survivor's camp led by Rick's partner and best friend, Shane (John Bernthal).

But along the way, Rick meets a zombie who has lost the lower half of her body. Rick is rightly terrified at first, but before the episode is over, he looks at the zombie with compassion. "Leave it to Frank to find a way to find a redemptive, compassionate human spirit in the midst of a story about an undead apocalypse," Callies says.

But if you're looking for action and gore, there's plenty of that to go around. And like many of George A. Romero's classic zombie films, the horror works as an analogy to today's social climate. "Right now the world is a frightening place," Hurd says. "People are concerned about the global financial collapse. Every year, there's a hurricane like Katrina or an earthquake in Haiti or even the H1N1 flu epidemic. I think we really feel like we're a civilization on the brink. Through this series we can explore the notion of, if everything comes crumbling down, how are we going to survive? What are the new rules going to be?"

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So how does Rick Grimes fit into a TV landscape that caters to antiheroes? "There's a great quote, 'A hero is a man that does what he can,'" Lincoln says. "If that's the case, then Rick certainly is a hero. He's a guy that keeps getting pushed into situations and somehow keeps coming up with the goods."

But Rick's decisions may not always turn out to be so noble, making him and his fellow survivors a perfect fit for a network that also features morally ambiguous characters like Mad Men's Don Draper and Breaking Bad's Walter White.

"When he starts doing bad things for a good cause, you're so fully invested in what he's doing, that it's still very heroic," Kirkman says. "He is able to push those limits so that he is able to go the extra mile to sacrifice his humanity to save the people around him. It really becomes a case of him really giving himself over to this world and doing whatever it takes to keep everyone around him safe. And while it does seem like he's doing the wrong thing, I think there's nothing more heroic than that sacrifice."

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But the fight for survival perhaps poses a bigger question: Is a civilization devoid of basic humanity worth saving? Might we become just as soulless as the zombies?

"There are moments when we are behaving much more like animals than people," Callies says. "The changes that have been wrought in these people's bones and marrow and blood are so huge, they don't recognize it. I don't think they recognize themselves."

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

For more, watch our video interviews with Kirkman and Lincoln and Callies and Bernthal below: