You cannot kill off The Walking Dead. Over the past seven years, this viscerally exciting zombie apocalypse drama has proved an invincible worldwide hit.
Now shown in 120 countries and the recipient of 52 awards, The Walking Dead can reasonably claim to be the most popular TV drama in the world. You just can’t keep a good zombie down.
The legions of fans – “Dead Heads” – congregating outside the upscale central London hotel holding the world premiere of the latest instalment of The Walking Dead on Friday night are testimony to the undying popularity of the show.
The programme’s huge profile is emphasised by the fact that it has inspired numerous affectionate parodies, such as stand-up comedian Dan Willis’s show The Beginner’s Guide to Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse.
A large part of the show’s success undoubtedly lies in its ability to scare the living daylights out of its viewers. The drama is set in a ravaged wilderness where zombies now hold sway over the tiny band of surviving humans.
The Walking Dead focuses on the life or death struggle between Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes (played by British actor Andrew Lincoln) and his demonic opponent, the terrifying Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who blithely dispatches his enemies with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire that he calls Lucille. Very boldly, the programme is not afraid to dispose of its best-loved characters without batting an eyelid.
They can be randomly killed by the armies of zombies (known in the show as “walkers”) now roaming the earth or by their fellow human beings, who in many ways are far more dangerous.
Like Mad Max, the show depicts a post-apocalyptic world where people are quite prepared to fight to the death for the most valuable currencies: firearms, fuel and food. The Walking Dead can be gruesomely gory, but it’s never less than completely compelling.
Based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard and developed by The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, The Walking Dead has also thrived because it has kept those surprises to itself. The show, which is filmed in temperatures of up to 110 degrees in the environs of Atlanta, Georgia, is extremely adept at concealing spoilers.
As Greg Nicotero, the director and executive producer of the show, puts it: “Of course, I could tell you what is going to happen, but why would I? It’s so much more fun to watch it.”
Which explains why the auditorium at the world premiere screening is patrolled by security guards with night-vision goggles to prevent audience members from taking photos or tweeting about the show.
The screening is also introduced by an executive with the jokey warning that if we are caught surreptitiously trying to film the episode, which goes out on Fox at 9pm on Monday, “the security guards will beat you with their own version of Lucille!”. Yes, the show’s sense of humour is that dark.
In an entertaining joint interview after the screening, the executive producer and main cast members outline why there is so much life in The Walking Dead.
They begin by considering the fact that the show’s armies of aficionados like nothing better than detecting contemporary parallels in the story. For instance, are the zombies a metaphor for the followers of President Trump and is the dwindling band of resisting human beings emblematic of his opposition?
Lincoln, who has come a very long way since starring as the hapless Egg in This Life, the groundbreaking 1990s BBC2 drama about young lawyers, is wary of imposing extraneous meanings on The Walking Dead. “Oh, the zombies are very real,” he declares with a wry grin. “They may be parables for you guys, but I have to kill these things. Otherwise they’ll bite me and I won’t have a job anymore.
“You guys can sit safely in your front rooms getting metaphorical on my ass, but I’m sweating out there in the Atlanta heat covered in blood trying to get rid of them. I’m not thinking, ‘This is a parable for so-and-so’. I’m not thinking anything apart from braining them.”
Lincoln tries to explain the deathless success of The Walking Dead. “That’s the million-dollar question – in fact, it is more than a million now, it’s more like the gazillion-dollar question. What’s that movie? Brewster’s Millions? That doesn’t mean anything now! The $64,000 question? Get out of here!”
The actor, who also had a lead role in Richard Curtis’s 2003 movie Love Actually, adds: “I think people have the same reaction I had to the very first script. It’s an extraordinary landscape that the characters inhabit. It’s thrilling, it’s scary, it’s brutal.
“Every day these characters are facing life-or-death decisions. When everything else is gone, you find out who you really are. We all want to know how we’d react in that situation.”
The cast admit they are unsettled by the fact that any one of them could be bumped off with one flourish of a writer’s pen. A man who has confessed that he opens each script with a deep sense of apprehension, Lincoln laughs that the thing that has astonished him most about the seventh season of The Walking Dead is that “my boots are still attached to my feet”.
The actors reveal that after seven years together the departure of one of their close-knit group has a major impact on them. Norman Reedus, who portrays Daryl, a teak-tough survivalist and Rick’s right-hand man in The Walking Dead, says that when one of their colleagues leaves the show, “it sucks”.
Reedus recollects the effect on the cast of the exit of Steven Yeun, whose character Glenn Rhee was brutally murdered by Negan at the beginning of the seventh season. “We were so close. Andrew and I were with Steven in Costa Rica when he proposed to his wife. When Glenn got whacked, everyone was blubbering. Steven was the only one who wasn’t. He’s such a stand-up guy. It’s such a tight family that when someone leaves, it hurts.”
Seth Gilliam, who plays Father Gabriel, acknowledges that the actors are often on tenterhooks about their future in The Walking Dead. “It’s two weeks’ notice for us. It’s like working in a gas station – although you don’t get your head cut off when you leave a job at a gas station.”
The actors are often the last to know about the impending departure. Nicotero discloses that up until the last moment the actor Michael Cudlitz had no clue that his character, Abraham, was about to be savagely killed by Negan. “Michael came up to me and said, ‘I love this show. I never want to leave it’. And I told him, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going anywhere’. And then literally two hours later, the showrunner, Scott Gimple, informed me, ‘Abraham is going to die.’”
The actors also underline the sheer harshness of making The Walking Dead in such punishing heat. Lincoln says that when he began shooting season seven, he was immediately reminded just how difficult the process is. “Pretty much the first day I felt it. Within about 20 minutes, I was in pain and said, ‘Ah, this is familiar. I must be home’.”
Nicotero expresses his particular admiration for the supporting artists playing the “sand walkers” in an earlier episode. They were a band of zombies who were buried underneath the sand in heat that exceeded 100 degrees. The extras had to breathe through a tube which came out of their sleeves. “That was really tough,” says the executive producer. “They had to wear cooling suits like racing drivers, so they didn’t overheat. We had 30 zombies on the first day of filming and only 12 on the second. I imagine they thought, ‘Stuff that, I’ll go and work in Subway instead. It will be way cooler’.”
Finally, in this show laden with death – the clue is in the title – how would the actors like their characters to depart? Gilliam says: “I would like to go in a fight to the death with Negan. At the end of it, we would fall into a bloody, homoerotic heap. I’ve clearly thought about that far too much, haven’t I?”
Reedus opts for something more peaceful. “I want to walk off into the woods with a puppy like The Outlaw Josey Wales. Everyone would say, ‘Whatever happened to that guy?’”
For his part, Ross Marquand, who portrays Aaron, another member of Rick’s group, is going for something more humorous. “I would like a very comical death. I would like to walk backwards and step on a rake, which would kill me. I think that would be a great way to go!”
The Walking Dead is on Fox on Monday 6 March at 9pmReuse content