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AMC Previews Walking Dead at NY Comic-Con

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The zombie girls sitting next to me were pissed off. In pallid makeup with artful angry gashes on their cheeks, they like the rest of us had stood in line for an hour or more to get into the IGN Theater at the Javits Center to see 6 1/2 minutes of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and they could barely see the big screens. “This is fucked!” one zombie said, and they stalked off.

I’d already seen the first two episodes of Walking Dead, so I wasn’t too concerned about my line of sight. But judging by the size and intensity of the crowd in the 3000-seat theater at New York Comic-Con Sunday (including, curiously, parents with kids who couldn’t have been over six or seven), the show will debut with a passionate core following.

The screeners AMC sent me are embargoed for review until October 18, but since they screened a big chunk of episode 2, I’m going to consider it fair game for discussion. (Go away now if you want to avoid spoilers.) One scene, from near the beginning of the second episode, finds protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in a tight spot, escaping from a mob of hundreds of “walkers” on a street in Atlanta; a second scene visited a group of survivors hiding out in the woods, after some type of biological outbreak destroyed civilization and turned most of their neighbors and families into animated corpses.

I’ll give the show an actual review later, but for now, suffice it to say that this is a zombie-apocalypse story that has the “apocalypse” part down. (Actually, though it’s far lighter on the battles and zombie carnage, I actually found the 90-minute pilot more harrowing, for its picture of the desolation and emotional devastation of the postapocalyptic world.) And appearing together on the panel afterward, director-producer Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman (author of the graphic novels the series is based on) said they have material to keep this world going for a long time. (“We’re going for The Simpsons’ record,” joked co-executive producer Gale Ann Hurd.)

Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) said that while he’s a longtime fan of zombie movies, he wasn’t interested in doing the genre in film, because it had been so heavily explored, whereas a serial TV show would allow him to approach the material from a fresh angle. Kirkman’s comics provide considerable source material and the story’s overall narrative structure, but he and Kirkman emphasized that the series should, and would, include new material that departed from the graphic novels. This, Darabont said, meant that fans of the comics—seemingly a big portion of this crowd—would find things to surprise them, but “if we step off the path, we can always step back onto it.”

The producers said they were at first skeptical that AMC, home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad (and later Rubicon) would want to do a horror series, but they pointed to AMC’s annual pre-Halloween Fearfest as a sign of its commitment to the genre. And on a network that make the often dark and violent Breaking Bad, Darabont said, they were pleasantly surprised that standards and practices gave them the leeway to shoot the series essentially as “an R-Rated movie.”

(Breaking Bad, more so even than Mad Men, seemed to be a particular touchstone for the producers. They praised it repeatedly and at one point Darabont joked about Walking Dead’s gore, “We’re going to make [Breaking Bad] look like a bunch of pussies.” He also noted that Walking Dead used the same casting staff as Breaking Bad, and they were the ones who suggested Andrew Lincoln as the southern-lawman lead, a choice Darabont was at first skeptical about: “The really cute British guy from Love Actually?”)

For his part, Kirkman, who also writes for the series, said that he enjoyed the chance to revisit the early stories of his characters (some of whom are long since dead in the books)—as well as to see them brought to life in rich detail. When Darabont mentioned that he’s shooting the series on Super 16 film, the crowd actually broke out into applause. “I’m glad people are clapping at that,” Kirkman said, “because when they told me, I was like, ‘What is that?’”

I’m going to skip over the contents of many of the questions at the panel because—this being a Comic-Con crowd heavy with fans of the comics—many of them concerned plot points from the books that are many episodes, if not seasons, off in the series. (And not having read the books, I could barely follow some of the references anyway—if you’re interested, though, here’s a more detailed writeup at IGN.) But Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption, got off a quip when talking about a future storyline that involves a ruthless strongman called The Governor and a community in a fortified jail. “I get to go back to prison!” he exclaimed.