Life with The Walking Dead
By Bethan Jones
The exhibition Living with The Walking Dead, runs from June 25, 2022–January 1, 2023 at Museum of the Moving Image.
The Walking Dead asks us how we could retain our humanity in a world overrun by the dead, what hope we could keep alive while struggling to survive against all odds, and what ultimately, is our reason for living. Over the course of 11 seasons—and multiple spin-off texts—The Walking Dead forces us to deal with both the philosophical and the practical questions of living through an apocalypse. Although zombies have featured in popular culture since the 1930s, the zombie originating in Haitian vodou culture as a human whose soul was stolen after death by a sorcerer who has then brought them back to life, it was in 1968 that zombies as we know them entered the public consciousness with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The film set the mold for what zombies were: shuffling corpses hungering for human flesh, often a metaphor for mindless consumerism. Although zombies have never really maintained the same popularity as vampires in mainstream media, generations of filmmakers have added to zombie lore, from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which abandons lumbering zombies in favor of frenzied attacks, to Ruben Fleischer’s comedy horror Zombieland, which became the top-grossing zombie film in history (a record soon broken by World War Z). Yet zombies rarely featured on television. It is perhaps surprising, then, that The Walking Dead premiered on AMC—a network known for prestige TV shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad—on Halloween 2010.
Zombies had become increasingly popular in other forms of media during the 2000s. Starting with 28 Days Later, the decade also saw three Resident Evil films; the remakes of Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and Day of the Dead; the comedy Shaun of the Dead; and Romero’s Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead. Popular video games like Call of Duty featured zombies, and scores of books, including World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, hit the shelves—as did, of course, the comic book series The Walking Dead. Scores of academics and critics have asked what led to the resurgence in the popularity of zombies in popular culture. Some pointed to the effect of 9/11 on the American consciousness. Kyle William Bishop suggested that society has changed markedly since the attack and “because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios depicted by zombie cinema, such images […] have all the more power to shock and terrify.” Others argue that the zombie reflects cultural anxieties about refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants attempting to enter western states, or that zombie films critique consumer capitalism. The Walking Dead does all this and more, which is perhaps one reason for its runaway success. But it also owes debts to the films that came before it, the changing nature of television production, and, of course, its legions of fans.
Bringing cinema back from the dead?
The Walking Dead TV series took some time to come to the screen. This is, in part, due to Robert Kirkman’s ability to vet all interested parties. He felt that “[t]aking a zombie story that never ends and turning it into a two-hour movie seemed to miss the point,” and it wasn’t until Frank Darabont, a producer, director, and screenwriter known for his film adaptations of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999), contacted Kirkman that a deal was struck. Although Darabont may not have seemed a likely suspect for producing a zombie series, he is a professed horror fan, having first watched Romero’s Night of the Living Dead at a midnight screening in 1974. He was also a screenwriter for various horror films including A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), The Blob (1988), and The Fly II (1989), and wrote and directed the character-driven science-fiction horror film The Mist (2007). Yet it still took another five years for The Walking Dead to be picked up by a network. The Walking Dead isn’t just horror—it’s hard-edged horror, highlighting the visceral, grisly, and violent forms of the genre and has posed a problem for networks which had often diluted horror shows by including elements from other genres. The Walking Dead, tied closely to the comic, was very steadfastly out-and-out horror and its novelty worked against it.
The eventual greenlighting of The Walking Dead owes a lot to what TV scholars call TV III, or post-digital television. Unlike the early days of TV, when viewers were restricted to a limited number of channels, post-digital television allows audience to choose from a range of subscription channels. Subscription channels like HBO aren’t bound by FCC regulations and target niche audiences interested in “quality” television. As academic Simon Brown has noted, HBO “push[ed] the boundaries of what was acceptable on television in terms of sex, violence, language, and subject matter.” HBO’s success also allowed for the creation of other subscription channels, including AMC. Originally launched as a premium channel offering uninterrupted classic Hollywood films, AMC turned to scripted television in the mid-2000s and used its original programming to complement its existing movie library. So, while shows like Mad Men could play alongside films by Alfred Hitchcock and Breaking Bad could be paired with antihero movies like Dirty Harry, The Walking Dead would augment AMC’s library of horror films. AMC already attracted a core of horror fans thanks to its Monsterfest horror marathon, followed by the gorier yet more popular Fearfest. By this point Gale Ann Hurd had been recruited to the series along with Darabont as executive producer. Another long-time zombie fan whose fandom goes back to Night of the Living Dead, Hurd was also a successful Hollywood producer having produced a number of box-office films including The Terminator and Aliens. Hurd suggested approaching AMC, who were instantly interested, in part because of the movie talent attached to the series.
In addition to Darabont and Hurd, Greg Nicotero was also onboard. A horror afficionado raised on a diet of Jaws, The Exorcist, and Dawn of the Dead, Nicotero entered the industry working under Tom Savini and helped on films by Romero before co-founding special effects makeup company KNB EFX Group, which had worked on Kill Bill, Sin City, and From Dusk Till Dawn. This experience on creating zombie makeup allowed Nicotero to push the envelope on The Walking Dead, creating a range of effects from decomposing zombies entwined in the roots of a tree to close-ups of brains being splattered from a gunshot wound to the head. Even Darabont was surprised at the license they were allowed, saying in the documentary The Making of “The Walking Dead”: “There’s some gruesome stuff in this. I’ve been surprised by what they’re letting us get away with. Even with the freedom that we were promised on AMC there are moment when I go, ‘Really? They’re going to let us do that?’ It hasn’t happened yet.”
Although Darabont was fired weeks into production on the second season of the show and replaced by Glen Mazzara, a controversial move among both cast members and fans, the inclusion of so many Hollywood veterans during Season One lent a sense of the cinematic to the series. While most TV shows are shot digitally now, a conscious choice was made to shoot on 16mm and 35mm film. (16mm was used until the COVID-19 pandemic meant the show had to switch to digital for the safety of cast and crew.) Director of photography Stephen Campbell, who passed away in 2021, explained that 16mm added a classic horror vibe to the show because of the additional grain in the film. Nicotero adds that when they looked at a zombie in the digital test the colors were too green, but when they looked at the 16mm “it seemed to capture what we were shooting for, which was the feel of Night of the Living Dead. It was a no-brainer.” Susan Goldberg, AMC’s director of production, also favored the 16mm explaining, “We have a high standard at AMC for what our shows look and feel like. We feel there is a certain elegance with film, and we think film adds a cinematic quality that fits with the rest of our programming. Feature films air before and after our original series, and we want smooth, elegant transitions.”
As well as shooting on 16mm, the crew worked with relatively lightweight cameras which allow camera operators to run around following the action, but movie conventions are also used in the tone and pace of filming, as director of photography Michael Satrazemis notes when talking about the Season Five finale, “Conquer.” In the episode, Sasha—a main character introduced during the prison arc in Season Three—lies down in a grave full of walkers; discussions between Satrazemis and Nicotero led to the scene being shot using a telescopic camera crane, which meant the camera could focus on Sasha in close-up as she lies down and pull away to reveal more of the scene. Satrazemis says, “That shot was very beautiful and there was no reason to cut to anything else, it could sit there. It became more and more powerful the higher the crane rose and pulled away from it. That speaks to the show’s overall aesthetic, which steers away from the sort of fast cuts and frantic handheld camerawork fashionable in the horror genre in favor of a more classic approach.” Of course, while the look of The Walking Dead lends it a tone in line with classic zombie films, it takes more than that to produce a successful series. The Walking Dead, at its heart, is about the characters.