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Image: "Walking Dead"
TWD Productions  /  Courtesy of AMC
Watch out! The undead from AMC's "Walking Dead" are dragging their rotting bits onto your TV screen.
TODAY contributor
updated 10/27/2010 6:31:14 PM ET 2010-10-27T22:31:14

Classic zombies — like the ones in George Romero’s 1968 film “The Night of the Living Dead” — shamble. The zombies in 2002’s “28 Days Later,” they sprint.

That meant Zombie School was needed on the Atlanta-based set of AMC’s new apocalyptic zombie series, “The Walking Dead.”

“We wanted to make sure that the zombies that appear on the show are all on the same page,” explained producer Gale Ann Hurd. “So we showed (our extras) footage of zombies that were consistent with what we wanted on the show. And even though it was 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity, they still had fun. There’s just something about zombies that attracts people.”

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Ain’t it the truth. Zombies are — true to their mythological form — everywhere these days. AMC’s got “The Walking Dead,” created and written by Academy Award-nominee Frank Darabont, debuting at 10 p.m. on Halloween, while IFC’s British miniseries “Dead Set” premiered Oct. 25. Even Comedy Central’s “Ugly Americans,” which debuted in March, stars animated zombies.

Stay calm, but the culture has been zombified.

Look out! Zombies take to the streets

Yet, zombies are relatively new to television. Hurd believes “Walking’s” undead may be the first to have risen (at least, in non-animated form) in a prime-time TV series. “We wanted to break new ground,” she said — irony intact — “and deliver something people have never seen on TV.”

By which she means deliver a regular series in which zombies are ever present, if not exactly main characters. “Walking Dead” focuses on what happens to the world after the dead begin to rise, which leads to the downfall of civilization. The lead character, a police officer, wakes in the hospital to find himself alone except for the undead. When he escapes, it’s off to find his family and then figure out how to survive. The living humans are as much a risk as the dead ones, in many cases.

Slideshow: Creating 'Walking Dead's' zombies (on this page)

'The zombie movie that never ends'
“I’ve always been a fan of zombie movies, but I’m not usually a fan of how they end. I felt there was more story to be told,” said Robert Kirkman, whose long-running comic series was adapted for “Walking.” “So this way we get to look at how people crack under pressure or rise to the occasion — and the interaction of humans becomes almost as dangerous as interaction with zombies.

“I wanted to create the zombie movie that never ends,” he added, and so far he has. Kirkman’s comic series has been running since 2003 with no end in sight. “ ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Superman’ have been around for decades. I feel like I’m only just getting started.”

Which means there could be many, many seasons of “Walking,” should it take off. And if it does, zombies may start giving vampires a run for their money. But this is a different kind of monster storytelling: The bloodsucker heroes and villains of HBO's “True Blood” and The CW's “The Vampire Diaries,” for example, are walking, talking characters with feelings and emotions (if not souls). Not so the zombies of “Walking Dead.”

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And that may be a big reason why zombies haven’t made for riveting television on their own. Prior to this new spate of series, practically the only time zombies got the spotlight was in the 1960s ABC soap “Dark Shadows,” which was known for a monsteriffic cast that included vampires and zombies.

The unreasonableness of monsters
Zombie appeal has a long history, cropping up in literature around the 19th century. Freud even made reference to “the uncanny,” something that’s both familiar (like a human) and bizarre and unfamiliar (like an undead human coming after you) simultaneously. Haitian voodoo also makes use of zombies in rituals in which radical hypnosis plays a part.

But in modern times, zombies re-established a hold in the public’s braaaains with Romero’s “Living Dead,” a low-budget B picture that also alluded to the then-ongoing Vietnam War. People became fascinated as much with the concept of zombies as their metaphorical meanings, which often reflect anxieties of the time.

Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and author of “On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears,” suggests that part of the current appeal may tie into the unreasonableness of monsters — and terrorists.

“An enemy, in principle, you could talk to them and negotiate with them,” said Asma. “You can’t with monsters. They’re going to just keep coming. It’s not that a jihadist can’t be talked to, but it’s clear some of them can’t be negotiated with — and that represents a very fundamental human fear.”

'The gross factor'
So will the encroaching zombie assault send vampires back into their coffins? Darabont hopes so. He recently noted that zombies are “the anti-sparkle,” referring to “Twilight’s” neck-biters.

“Americans” executive producer David Stern has a suggestion — that it’s time for gender parity. “Not to be sexist, but vampires are for girls and zombies are for boys,” he said. “When we did a spoof on ‘Twilight,’ my primarily male staff had to take a lot of prodding to watch the movie before we could spoof it. But zombies — any time you show a zombie, men line up. The gross factor just appeals to men.”

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Which may help beef up AMC’s male demographic in viewers, but there’s just as good a chance that women will want to tune in for the emotional resonance behind the other half of “Walking’s” end-of-the-world story, which includes women warriors and tough-as-nails mothers defending their cubs.

Story: The living dead will never die

Still, Kirkman definitely agrees that zombies remain grossly fascinating as objects of study. “Zombies are much truer to themes of horror,” he said. “A lot of the time, vampires are very human and they’re attractive, or cool — but zombies are just horrible.”

Horrible, but also fun, something few vampires ever are. “You can dress up as a vampire and bare your teeth and show your fangs,” said Hurd, “but it’s not as much fun as shambling along, dragging your feet, arms dangling.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion” and was bitten by the zombie bug long enough to write "Can't Keep a Dead Man Down" for Well Told Tales' Podcast.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: TV's top 10 monster shows

  • Image: "Walking Dead" zombie
    Scott Garfield  /  TWD productions LLC
    "Walking Dead" is about to introduce zombies to cable.

    The boob tube is about to get to a bit scarier with AMC’s zombie apocalypse thriller, “The Walking Dead,” set to premiere Halloween night. But before that new group of ghouls grabs all the attention, television’s classic and current monster mashes deserve a little credit.

    After all, while “Walking Dead” has plenty of pre-premiere buzz, it still has some big, filthy, misshapen shoes to fill if it wants to follow in the footsteps of the top monster shows.

  • 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

    As the name of the show suggests, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” often revolved around the nuisance of one particular type of monster infestation. Of course, as any ardent follower of cheerleader-turned-demon-killer Buffy Summers knows, vamps were just one of the many beastly problems plaguing Sunnydale.

    Over the course of “Buffy’s” seven seasons, the slayer faced multiple impending apocalypses brought forth by all manner of horned creeps and ancient evils. The fact that the same old routine never got old and was even worthy of a spin-off ("Angel," starring David Boreanaz) and a continuing comic-book adventure just goes to show how entertaining life on the Hellmouth really was.

  • 'The Addams Family'

    The creepy and kooky “Addams Family” marked one of television’s earliest efforts to merge monsters, humor and family life. The 1960s series about a group of wealthy and exceedingly eccentric relations ran at the same time as its only real challenger, “The Munsters,” but the Addams clan brought bigger laughs per half-hour than their blue-collar counterparts — or at least bigger laughs from witty dialogue.

    There were considerably fewer guffaws from head-banging slapstick than the competition provided. And let’s face it. If monsters aren’t going to be particularly scary, it helps if they’re funny. If they’re going to be funny, it helps if they’re high-brow.

  • 'The X-Files'

    For a sci-fi series wrapped around alien investigations, government conspiracies and the interpersonal relationship of a couple of feds, “The X-Files” sure packed plenty of wacky frights. Among the list of boogeyman-worthy candidates were a telekinetic ghost, a parasite-injecting Flukeman, robotic cockroaches, an insect man (plus his personal company of zombies), one man-eating fungus and of course, the Great Mutato, who wasn’t so much a monster as a mutant who loved Cher, but still.

    With a list like that, if judging by pound-for-monstrous-pound alone, “The X-Files” could easily take top TV ogre honors.

  • 'True Blood'

    The first pick from the still-on-the-air category is Bon Temps-based vamp and more drama “True Blood.” Much like “Buffy” and practically every other popular fang-gang story, vampires are the main attraction, but they’re not the only threat.

    Werewolves, werepanthers and shapeshifters (witches coming next season!) also shake things up. Even so, all the best scenes tend to involve the resident bloodsuckers. And the very best scene featured one spine-chilling and spine-yanking member of vampire royalty. Truth is, even if the King of Mississippi, aka Russell Edgington, were the lone monster man, “True Blood” would still make the list.

  • 'The Twilight Zone'

    In “a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination,” “The Twilight Zone” set the standard for sci-fi-horror anthology shows to come. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night program. Psychological suspense in the form of always-apt short stories was the common theme, but that’s not to say monsters didn’t play a part in the terror.

    Whether their presence turned out to be the final plot twist or the whole story, big baddies were often in the mix — a point not lost on one-time gremlin-gunner William Shatner.

  • 'Aaahh!!! Real Monsters'

    Ickis, Oblina and Krumm may have only been monsters-in-training, but they were every bit as entertaining as the fully formed variety on Nickelodeon’s 1990s kids’ cartoon “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.”

    The series, which ran for four seasons, followed the three tiny terrors as they learned to finely hone their human-scaring skills. While school life meant the trio often faced the sort of problems more relevant to the typical tyke than beast, it was tempered by the fact that they were almost always taking aim at their kid equivalents.

    Also, Krumm carried his eyeballs around in his hands, which is an undeniably cool and monsterish thing to do.

  • 'Tales From the Crypt'

    Picking up where “The Twilight Zone,” “Night Gallery” and “Tales from the Darkside” left off, HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt” carried on the tradition of the made-for-TV horror anthology.

    Not every episode was a top-monster-show winner, but that’s the nature of stand-alone stories and guest talent. Judging the series as a whole, there were enough scary hits to more than make up for the cheesy misses. Besides, the opening sequence alone counts as one of television’s classic undead clips.

  • 'Ugly Americans'

    Those who can’t wait for “The Walking Dead” premiere to get their zombie on (as well as their demon and assorted frankenbeasts), can turn to “Ugly Americans” in the meantime.

    This Comedy Central cartoon covers all the gory bases as it chronicles the life of Mark Lilly, a mild-mannered social worker trying to ease the pains of monster integration. It’s a tough job, given that most of the demon crowd would rather bring about the end of days than hang out with humans.

  • 'Supernatural'

    Now in its sixth season and showing no signs of fading away, “Supernatural” tells the story of the easy-on-the-eyes Winchester brothers. Well, more to the point, it’s the tale of a couple of good-looking guys who also happen to hunt and battle demons, spirits and other monstery whatzits on a regular basis.

    While “Supernatural” doesn’t rank as an instant classic like some of the best-of picks, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama of the second-generation ghostbusters story.

    Also, if it hasn’t been mentioned yet, those Winchester boys sure are attractive.

  • 'The Walking Dead'

    Huh? What? Yeah, that’s right. “The Walking Dead” hasn’t even started yet, and it makes the list of TV’s top monster shows anyway. Why? Oh, it could have something to do with can’t-be-beat source material, in the form of Robert Kirkman’s ongoing comic-book serial of the same name. Or it could be because the few minutes already available in the form of one sneak peak look amazing.

    Story: 'Walking Dead's' zombies are rising for TV dominance

    Actually the real reason is a combination of all of that added to one important point: The monster genre grades on a curve. A show doesn’t have to be an all-time great to be pretty darned good by comparison. Remember, for every “Buffy,” there was a “Monster Squad” (starring “Love Boat” actor-turned-politician Fred Grandy). For every “X-Files,” there was a cringe-worthy “Munster’s Today.”

    Put in a real effort, as creators of “The Walking Dead” seem to have done, then the quality of the ghoulish show is almost a given.

    Ree Hines wishes the bigwigs in charge of planning Halloween night series premieres would remember that you can’t watch TV and trick-or-treat at the same time. There’s candy out there, folks! Follow @ReeHines on Twitter and tell her what your DVR will be set for this Halloween.

Photos: Creating 'Walking Dead's' zombies

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  1. Tools of the trade

    The extras who play the zombies on AMC's "The Walking Dead" didn't just have to go to Zombie School to learn how to shuffle and drag their legs, they had to wear heavy makeup to complete the look. Here's a peek at the work of makeup designer Greg Nicotero and his team, courtesy of AMC. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Layer by layer

    Turning into a zombie isn't easy work. AMC reveals that the actors had to endure hours in the makeup chairs. On top of that, the featured zombies often had to wear special prosthetics, contacts and dentures. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Think thin

    “Our zombies are tall, thin, and very gaunt looking and half the battle is finding great faces; faces that have a lot of character in them,” Nicotero said. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Different looks

    Nicotero said that when a zombie actor came back for another day on set, the actor would see a different makeup artist each time. "If we had a repeat zombie we’d send them to different chairs so a different member of the team worked on them each time in order to switch up the looks a bit," he said. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Zombie No. 372

    On the days when hundreds of zombies were required, Nicotero and his team had to get to work at the crack of dawn to make the actors look gory. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Levels of decay

    Nicotero said that there was much debate over how decomposed the zombies should look. The decision? Keep it varied. "We decided to keep it visually interesting," he said, "to hand-pick our zombies and to keep some of the makeups more ‘fresh’ looking, some in an accentuated state of decomposition and some in a complete state of decay." This makes it possible to show zombie degredation should the series become a success. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lights!

    Without the constant cover of darkness, Nicotero and his team had to make sure the zombies looked good running around the city during the day. "The makeup (has) to stand up to pretty tough scrutiny," he said. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Touch-up, please

    Filming in Atlanta means plenty of hot weather. Nicotero said that because of the temperature, one of the challenges was keeping the zombies looking appropriately nasty, which meant he and his staff "were always running around doing touch-ups." (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Final product

    “I don’t know that there’s anywhere in the world that you’ll find a better zombie,” said writer and director Frank Darabont. (TWD Productions / Courtesy of AMC) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Zombies invade New York, London


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