Just down the road from a tiny country church in rural Georgia, the apocalypse has already arrived.
A band of scrappy survivors is fighting the undead, camping in the woods in hopes of outrunning the hordes of zombies roaming the world. Few of them have made it, and at any moment they could be eaten alive and turned into one of the monsters that haunt them day and night.
It's just another day on the set of "The Walking Dead," the hit AMC series that starts its second season Sunday (9 p.m. EDT) with 13 horrifying new episodes. Based on the popular comic book of the same name by writer Robert Kirkman, the show is about life after the zombie apocalypse.
Last season introduced Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff's deputy played by British actor Andrew Lincoln, who woke up from a coma in the hospital to find his town overrun by flesh-eating monsters and his wife and son missing. He eventually stumbles upon his family, along with his best friend Shane Walsh (played by Jon Bernthal) and other survivors, at a campground outside the city.
"The show is not about how gory we can make it," said co-executive producer Greg Nicotero, the show's special effects makeup guru who also directs this season. "We want it to be shocking. We want to remind the audience of the world we're in — that world is brutal and savage and raw. But it's also about survival."
As always, the show follows the first rule of the zombie genre: No one on the show has ever heard of a zombie, calling them "walkers" instead. They spend each episode learning the tricks of surviving the undead: avoiding loud noises that will draw their attention, using rotting carcasses to mask the smell of the living and finding creative new ways to kill the monsters stalking them.
"Dead" began six months of filming in and around Atlanta in June, boasting plots full of hair-raising new zombie encounters and heart-stopping action. The first season — which was just six episodes — ended with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta blowing up and leaving the group with little hope of finding a cure to the virus that creates the zombies.
The new season opens with the survivors, led by Rick and Shane, heading off to Fort Benning, Ga., but getting snagged along the way as a member of the group disappears and another is injured. Enter new character Hershel, a farmer, and his family and friends, to help the group as they look for respite from the hell that has become their new reality.
The show has been plagued by rumors of tension after the abrupt departure of showrunner Frank Darabont, who has an executive producer credit this season, and news of budget trimming for the hefty production. But that hasn't slowed the crew, which has worked into the wee hours of the morning many days to capture the intensity of the roller-coaster plot.
And the show's avid fans aren't disappearing. A series of brief "webisodes" creating a back story for a zombie seen in the first season got more than 2 million hits within days of being posted recently on AMC's website.
The AMC drama drew more than 5.3 million viewers on its Halloween premiere last year, and got just as many viewers for the following week — not to mention sales of Kirkman's award-winning graphic novel, drawn by artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, have steadily increased since the show was announced last year.
Bernthal, who like many of the actors worked with a dialect coach to capture the classic Georgia drawl, said he signed onto the project after reading the pilot's detailed description of the world the show would create.
"It painted a picture that was so vivid and so compelling," said Bernthal, sporting a shaved head and latex "dirt" covering his knuckles. "I'd never read anything like that before. Although there wasn't much of Shane in the pilot, I just want to be part of this show and a part of this world."
The set is just as strange: Zombies in full makeup munching on snacks around the craft services table; plastic bags full of animal guts from a local butcher; crew members spattering fake blood — made of corn syrup and food coloring — over actors before shooting a scene; a giant light on a crane sitting next to an aging barn in the middle of a quaint cow pasture; crew members asking, "Where's the zombie?" when it's time for the next scene.
For actors such as Robert "IronE" Singleton, who plays T-Dog, the show is a chance to work in his hometown. Singleton grew up in the housing projects of west Atlanta just down the road from the quarry featured in the first season.
"This is my old stomping ground,'" said Singleton, who played a menacing thug in last year's award-winning movie "The Blind Side," also filmed in Atlanta. "It was an emotional moment for me. I remember when I was around guys like the guy from 'The Blind Side.' Here I am making movies right in my backyard. It's just surreal."
His success is partly owed to Georgia's growing reputation as a mini-Hollywood with such movies as the current remake of "Footloose" and the upcoming "What to Expect When You're Expecting," as well as TV shows such as the CW's "The Vampire Diaries" and USA's "Necessary Roughness." And then there's actor-producer-writer Tyler Perry, who opened his multimillion-dollar TV and film studio in southwest Atlanta in 2008. The state gives millions in tax breaks to film and TV projects, which has catapulted Georgia to the top five among U.S. states for productions.
Thanks to Nicotero and his team, "Dead" has made a name for itself in special effects makeup, winning an Emmy this year for outstanding prosthetic makeup for a series, miniseries, movie or a special.
AMC couldn't have chosen a better special effects makeup wizard than Nicotero, who began his career under horror flick director and writer George A. Romero with 1985's zombie classic "Day of the Dead." Nicotero went on to do special effects makeup for everything from "Dances With Wolves" to a spate of Quentin Tarantino films, including "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglourious Basterds," but his career in zombie films has made him something of an expert in the undead.
Nicotero's craft of special effects makeup — rather than using computer-generated effects or characters — gives the show an even eerier feeling as the human aspects of each zombie shine through, reminding viewers that the creepy monsters were once people. Some zombies may be in a scene for just a few seconds but can take up to three hours of makeup to be transformed into the undead.
"I always tell my crew, 'Make them dirty so I can smell it,'" said Eulyn Womble, the costume designer who takes lighters and scissors to clothing to create the tattered zombie look. "I want to look at them and smell how gross and old and dirty they are, and how rotten their flesh is."
Dorie Turner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner .