The moon has risen like a corpse from a tombstone and hangs gray above Newnan High School. During a break from eating people, zombies light cigarettes and sit on the grass. They lumber across a gymnasium parking lot that has been turned into a FEMA camp, past a television production tent with three screens and producers sitting in monogrammed chairs. They pass two dozen crew members, a long metal jib with a camera attached to its end, and gather near us, the living, in this phantasmagoric heat. The zombies have been moaning on camera, slouching and leering, baring their teeth. Contact lenses imbue a miserable hunger into their eyes. They wear tattered clothing, dried with fake blood and damp with sweat.
I have an urge to take out my iPhone and snap a picture. But a woman standing next to me—who’s driven almost two hours to be here—says a zombie pleaded with her that the fine would be $100,000 if any of them got caught posing for a fan shot. When more fans approach, the zombies recoil as if the onlookers are going to devour them.
The brick walls of a gymnasium tower over the asphalt of the parking lot. Earlier, the crew completely dressed the inside of the gym for an episode of The Walking Dead’s second season, which begins next month on AMC; the show is basically about what happens to decent people after they’re thrust into a zombie-infested society. Fictional trophy banners, custom-made at a sign shop in Senoia, waited to be hung from the rafters. The floor of the basketball court was lined with abandoned cots. Spilled on the court in apocalyptic haste were pillows and a moth-eaten teddy bear, empty cups and blankets.
Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and, up until late July, executive producer of this series, wrote Newnan High and its gym specifically into the script. Its long driveway curving down to the road, the old wooden bleachers in the gym, its brick facade—all evoked the nostalgic feel he was looking for.
In the gym parking lot, abandoned police cars, armored vehicles, ambulances, covered army trucks, overturned tables, and huge cardboard boxes give the impression of a human outpost here against the “walkers” and the “geeks”—nicknames for the zombies in the show.
Jon Bernthal, who plays the character Shane Walsh, a former police officer tortured by his feelings for the main character’s wife, comes across the road from the set and stands in front of a group of women and children. “You nervous?” Bernthal asks a little girl, leaning down to her. He’s wearing some kind of soiled, tight-fitting T-shirt and thick boots. “You afraid of zombies?”
Bernthal poses for pictures and signs autographs. He lets a couple kids hold his prop shotgun. There are at first about ten people watching; in an hour the number grows to around fifty. The woman who warned me about taking a zombie picture now really wants to get one with Shane. “He’s smoking hot,” she says, a few feet away from him. Her name is Rachel Grantham, and she lives in Smiths Station, Alabama, a few minutes from Columbus. She drove here with her three sons, Josh, Nathan, and Karsten, after her boyfriend heard this shoot was happening. Josh is fifteen and watched season one, six episodes, with his mother a few weeks ago. He collects zombie action figures. They’ve been here four hours and now have to decide whether their desperation to use the bathroom is worth leaving and maybe missing something.
“I love zombies,” Josh says. “I really want to see them get their heads blown off!”