Not every comic-to-screen adaptation can be Iron Man or The Dark Knight, as we’ve learned this year from the box-office failures of movies like Kick-Ass, Jonah Hex, The Losers, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But can Frank Darabont and AMC’s new serialized zombie drama The Walking Dead—based on Robert Kirkman’s cult comic (and premiering on Halloween night)—beat the recent curse? Below, seven reasons we think it might.
1. It’s not a movie. Since Kirkman published the first issue of The Walking Dead in 2003, he’s been approached “four or five times” by producers keen to adapt his monthly comic-book series—about a small-town Kentucky cop who wakes from a coma to find his family missing and the world overrun by zombies—into a film. “Taking a zombie story that never ends and turning it into a two-hour movie seemed to miss the point,” he says. Episodic TV, though, is a natural fit for Dead’s slow-burning character drama and may even allow for more-nuanced storytelling than the original books: “The pilot for the show is the first issue of the comic and some of the second,” says Kirkman. “But there may be a time when eight pages get stretched out into an episode.”
2. Zombies (unlike vampires) have yet to overrun TV. They’ve been running amok on the big screen since 1932’s Béla Lugosi–starring White Zombie (and especially since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), but zombies have never starred in their own American TV series. “Networks weren’t ready to do a show about monsters who eat people and can’t be stopped unless you bash their brains in,” Kirkman says. But now that AMC has changed all that, Kirkman thinks the undead have a natural advantage: “Unlike vampires, it’s hard to put zombies into a boring soap opera.”
3. Frank Darabont gets the source material. Don’t worry, nerds: Walking Dead’s executive producer is one of you. The show is a passion project for the Shawshank Redemption director, who became interested after walking into a Burbank, California, comic shop five years ago and leaving with the first six issues of Dead. “I loved the character-driven approach—it’s less about the zombies than the human beings,” says Darabont, who directed the pilot. “I read it in one night and the next day started pursuing the rights.”
“It’s funny to me that Frank is such a sci-fi and horror nut,” Kirkman says. “His house is filled with nerdy crap, like the War of the Worlds spaceship prop in his basement.”
4. For real American, go British. London-born Walking Dead star Andrew Lincoln (who plays cop Rick Grimes) is best known to Americans as the guy who declared his love for Keira Knightley on cue cards in Love Actually—not the most obvious qualification for killing zombies. “He was charming in that movie, but not really the Gary Cooper–Sam Shepard type guy I was looking for,” says Darabont. An audition changed his mind: “He was Rick Grimes from the moment he opened his mouth. There’s something quintessentially American about what he does onscreen. How does an Englishman do that? He’s a spectacular actor.” But, jokes Kirkman, “He had to use cue cards.”
5. It’s faithful to the comic … “Everything you love about the comic—all the characters, all the big scenes—will be in the show,” promises Kirkman.
6. … But not too faithful! “The show won’t be boring if you’ve read all the books,” Kirkman says. “Tons of new stuff will be added.” The author insisted that the TV show avoid the too-reverent, panel-to-screen gimmickry that sucked the life out of adaptations like last year’s Watchmen. (“I wanted it to look like a TV show, not a comic—no bizarre CGI stuff, like 300.”) Also, unlike the graphic novel, the show will be in color: “If we’d shot in black-and-white, people would flip past it thinking it was an old movie,” Kirkman says.
7. There will be blood. Nobody said the zombie apocalypse would be pretty—but The Walking Dead just might be the grossest show in TV history: Rotting corpses are graphically disemboweled, shot at close range, and crawl through the streets dragging legless torsos behind them. Dead was originally in development at NBC, but Darabont says that when he turned in the pilot script, “They said ‘We can’t do this! It’s horrifying!’ ” AMC, on the other hand, “never once told us to tone things down,” says Greg Nicotero, the show’s special-effects makeup designer. “ ‘Oh, you want to blow somebody’s head off and have their brains splattered everywhere? No problem!’ ” Perhaps the ultimate endorsement came from Darabont’s friend Stephen King: “He watched the first two episodes and told me, ‘Oh my God, you grossed even me out.’ ”