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Zombies Are So Hot Right Now

Why is the best new show on television filmed here? Simple. Atlanta is the zombie capital of the world.

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!”

I love zombies, too.

This is not an embarrassing confession. It is not one that makes me so unique, either. I’ve loved zombies ever since I can remember, since I was a kid obsessed with horror and the apocalypse. Even back then, I was cognizant of the fact that they would keep coming—that the thing that made them scary was not only their undead appetites, but also that eventually nothing could stop them from getting me.

I approached AMC to be a zombie extra. They said no. This was a letdown. They didn’t explain why. Not even a digestible “You’re not thin enough,” or conciliatory “You’re too short, but thanks.” I wanted to do this very badly. How often does a show about zombies film in my town? I thought I’d be perfect.
 
When I was dating my wife, she used to talk about how many zombie movies I’d watched in her company; she described this like a war survivor coming home and speaking heroically at a parade. But she grew to like them, too. A couple of years ago, we dressed up like zombies for Halloween. Our eyes were black and our skin was the color of ash. We dragged our bodies like lepers through a costume party, won a prize. Zombies, she’d say, are a part of our lives. I think this is a pretty good description of the world we live in, in general. And I don’t mean that as a commentary on this Age of Fear. Literally, zombies are more popular than they’ve ever been.
 
Zombies are a part of our lives.
 
After one season, The Walking Dead has become very important not just to zombie fans, but to our city. On the night it debuted, Halloween last year, 5.3 million people watched. During the course of the season, more adults ages eighteen to forty-nine tuned in than have ever watched a program on a cable network—a show about zombies, a show that promised, like its graphic-novel progenitor, to advance the living dead/post-apocalyptic society narrative into something drawn-out, deeper, and perhaps beautiful. Those ratings were the biggest for AMC ever, way more than its flagship, Emmy darling Mad Men, and the biggest for any new show all year. It ran six episodes, and was renewed for thirteen this season. Atlanta’s skyline was all over the show; the city, throughout, was a stark and rather hopeless character. No one in the show has figured out what caused the world to end.
 
“Atlanta sounds like a good deal,” the main character, a sheriff’s deputy named Rick Grimes, says in the pilot, hopeful upon hearing a rumor that there’s an outpost here. Spoiler: It was not a good deal.
 
The first episode of the second season will premiere October 16 at 9 p.m., during AMC’s long-running “FearFest” Halloween programming. The show employs approximately 160 people, many of whom are local, and films most often within a thirty-mile radius extending from its studio in Senoia—just like Hollywood’s famous “Thirty-Mile Zone.”
 
The Walking Dead production offices and studios are stationed at Raleigh Studios Atlanta, in the woods of Senoia, a little town southeast of Peachtree City (where many of the cast and crew actually stay). Set back in woods, beyond a grass parking lot, up a hill, there are some shoe-box-shaped warehouses, the main studio office, the art department trailer, and several small, white, portable cast trailers. On the summer morning when I go, the first call is at 7:30 a.m. I see a cast member wearing a shower cap step out of his trailer and yawn into the sun. Gregory Nicotero, the Hollywood demigod behind the show’s zombie makeup, steps out of a parked Kia.
 
Beyond a clearing, with nothing but empty farmland stretching for miles, is the entrance to this particular day’s set. Atlantan Tom Luse, who is a line producer on the show, implores, “Wear bug spray.” His brow is prickled with sweat. The air is heavy, sticky. He’s just walked out of a soaring forest of oak and pine where they’re actually filming. “We have chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes. Any kind of bug you can think of. All the actors wear it.”
 
The heat has become something of a tiresome joke on the set. Darabont called Atlanta “Satan’s Jacuzzi.” Last year Andrew Lincoln, who plays Grimes, lost twelve pounds before filming and couldn’t put it back on because it was so hot.
 
“We’re rolling! Quiet, please!”
 
Six cast members stand in the trees, talking. A camera on dolly tracks moves with them through the forest. I take a seat next to Denise Huth, one of the producers. She is wearing a Tommy Bahama–type hat, staring at a tiny script with her name embossed in gray letters over the pages, looking into the TV screen in front of her during each take. Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer of the show, who worked on the movie Aliens, offers me a tuna salad sandwich. Someone walks by with a Windex bottle sloshing with fake blood.
 
The actors are occasionally spritzed to make them look even sweatier. As they move, twigs snap under their boots.
 
Nicotero brings a zombie on set: greasy hair, torn and bloodied sport coat, frayed pants. The fact that something gory might happen to it is really intriguing. But it doesn’t. The zombie doesn’t get what’s coming, as planned.
 
With the distant threat of rain, everything shuts down.
 
Two weeks later, I’m walking up to an abandoned house, somewhere close to Senoia. I’m here with Bill Gierhart, the director of an episode in season two; Mike Riley, the location manager; and Gregory Melton, production designer. This is a location scout. They all stand together, in this field stricken with weeds, studying the old house, trying to figure out how to do it justice. Melton spotted this place one day while coming around the bend. He stopped his rented SUV as though he’d just been presented a kind of revelation. He knew as soon as he saw it. He parked in the field, took out his cell phone, snapped a picture, sent it to Darabont, said, “This house has to be in The Walking Dead.” Darabont agreed with his childhood friend and wrote it into this episode. After measuring its dimensions, they are now trying to figure out how the characters will get inside; the windows and all but one door are completely boarded up.
 
It’s a Gothic house, with a red tin roof. Stone steps lead up to a lopsided porch. Melton thinks it must’ve been built in the 1880s. Over time the rust has turned the color of oxygenated blood and trickled all the way down the walls of asbestos siding. Two of the men in the group have flashlights; the others are using their cell phones as lights. “Shit, this is spooky,” one of them says as we enter the house from the porch. It’s pitch-black inside.
 
Light reveals a chair in a corner and some kind of soft floor cover peeled halfway back. Dust sparkles in the beams of light. The ancient floorboards groan beneath us. The hairs on my neck have prickled to attention.
 
“Someone broke in here, Greg. Someone’s thrown a brick through here, look.”
 
In one of the rooms, broken glass covers the floor.
 
This house is an example of the kinds of places the directors have been looking for—and have found—in our countryside. As part of the plot, the characters have moved to the woods. The directors need creepy. The woods are creepy. After this scout, they’re going to search for a creek, hopefully in a pristine, wooded area.
 
“There are lots of those here,” Melton says.

The geeks lurched into the city last summer, taking over seven square blocks Downtown. It was an event, for anyone who romanticizes civic transformation. The show got the okay to dress a chunk of Atlanta like it had been spun through the end of the world. From the start, that was one of the coolest things about The Walking Dead—the graphic novel was set partly in our Downtown area (merely because it was the closest big city to Cynthiana, Kentucky, where the writer, Robert Kirkman, went to high school), so they decided to film in Downtown Atlanta. It wasn’t another city dressed to look like ours; it was the real thing.
 
Mike Riley asked the businesspeople in the area if they would mind the inconvenience. Then he wrote them a letter. Then he went to city council meetings and, finally, negotiated with the GDOT. This all took about two months. One Friday night, the police shut the streets down around seven and a giant car carrier rumbled in toting wrecked cars and military Humvees. During a twelve-hour window before the first scene on Saturday morning, they dropped a sixty-ton tank at the intersection of Forsyth Street and Walton. The production crew spent the night in a kind of frenzy. The streets would reopen on Monday morning. People inside the buildings reached out of the windows and took pictures with their cell phones of the tank, hundreds of zombies surrounding it.
 
Spotting localities in the show has become a pastime for some Atlantans. The rooftop where T-Dog gets beaten by Merle and drops the key? That’s on top of a building owned by Norfolk Southern, at the corner of Spring and Nelson. The empty street headed toward the city, which Rick navigates on horseback on his way Downtown, a digital traffic jam to his left? That’s the view of the city from Freedom Parkway, now made iconic by the poster. The demolished hospital where Rick wakes up, bleary-eyed, in the pilot? Filmed at the offices of the Atlanta Mission on Bolton Road.
 
“We’ve gotten great cooperation from the city,” Melton says. “Last night, for instance, we shut down a state highway for the third time this season. GDOT detoured cars around us. This was in Hampton, State Route 20. The people here have been more cooperative than most other places. The people here are friendly and accommodating. They would never, for instance, shut down a freeway in L.A. for us. Never.”

Atlanta is the zombie capital of the world. Not only do we claim The Walking Dead, but for the past few years, every September, people in costume march from Downtown to Oakland Cemetery as part of the Zombie Walk Atlanta. In 2010 there were more than 1,000 walkers. A couple years ago, a local artist named Stan Woodard raised about $5,000 to host, for his own edification, what he called the Atlanta Zombie Symposium. This turned out to be a panel discussion at the Clary Theatre at Georgia Tech, a film festival at the Plaza Theatre, and a late-night dance/“Zombie Transformation Chamber” at the Graveyard Tavern. Around ninety people heard Emory and Tech professors and zombie cultural enthusiasts yak it up about zombie economies (financial institutions that are “dead, but don’t know it”), zombie insects, the history of zombies in Haiti.
 
“Something that jumped out from the symposium is that a lot of students and people didn’t know that zombies predated movies like Night of the Living Dead,” says Woodard. “That zombies are from voodoo. The history of the zombie film goes back to [the 1930s], with Revolt of the Zombies.”
 
In 2006 there was a great indie flick filmed here called The Signal. Fans debate whether it’s a zombie film, but I think it is. It’s about an electronic transmission mysteriously sent to our cell phones, TVs, and electronic devices, turning humans into mindless, dead-eyed killers—zombies. Some of Zombieland, with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, was shot in Newnan. Last year Shane Morton, a makeup artist and horror aficionado, created the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, which he intended to use to obliterate the notion of a regular haunted house. He found an abandoned truck stop out by the Starlight Six Drive-In and hired unemployed zombie extras from The Walking Dead to populate it in October. He charged $20 to send people through.
 
This past May, the CDC (which was destroyed in the last episode of The Walking Dead; the exterior scenes were actually filmed at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre) spent $87 on a blog about hurricane season, wrapped in the humorous bow of preparation for a zombie apocalypse. Thanks to Twitter, traffic for the blog shut down its server. That $87 turned into a $3.3 million publicity value, said a media analysis group that crunched the numbers. The disaster preparedness task force members now jokingly refer to themselves as the Zombie Task Force, and this month, on the coattails of that blog, they’re selling T-shirts and posters on the CDC website—with the zombie logo they paid some of that $87 for—as part of an actual zombie campaign.
 
“Zombies are so popular here because there’s a huge horror film contingency, for whatever reason,” says Jonathan Rej, who owns the Plaza Theatre and helps run the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse. “DragonCon [our sci-fi/horror version of Comic-Con] is huge; we show a lot of splatter theater at the Plaza; the Buried Alive Film Fest, it’s just starting to take off; the Drive-In has the Monster Bash every year. There are just a lot of independent filmmakers here, and a lot of fans. The creative people who live here are obsessed with the dark side of things. People get it here.”

Before the first season began filming last year, a woman named Rachelle White went to AMC’s Zombie School. White, who lives near Midtown, had worked at Six Flags and was also a dancer and a contortionist and a model. At Zombie School, she learned how to walk like a zombie, to moan like one, to hold her arms like one, to maneuver her mouth like one, to see as a zombie sees, with a lack of depth perception; she even learned how to think like a zombie, too—which is to say, to not think at all.
 
There were zombie obstacle courses at Zombie School. White was instructed to, for instance, walk into a room with a table and chairs, shuffle up to the table, and continue forward until she completely fell over it, told to run into the table as a zombie would, as though she did not realize it was even there. She was asked to show just how far she could twist her feet, arms, and neck around. By the time school was out, she’d been cast as one of the main zombies for the first season of The Walking Dead. White played the part of maybe a dozen different zombies in the show, wearing wigs, prosthetics, contacts, makeup, blood, and a mouthpiece that barely allowed her to eat through a straw; this also meant that she worked twelve-hour days, five days a week, for almost three months. She was a zombie chasing Rick Grimes to that tank Downtown; she was a zombie in the woods; she was a zombie outside of the fictional CDC; and she was a zombie that eventually got a bullet through its head.
 
She was also an “A Zombie.” An Alpha Zombie. “The groups of zombies go like this,” she says. “A and B and C groups: alpha, beta, kappa zombies. That depends on what you do. I had some friends who were in other groups. The B Zombies often just wear masks. The C Zombies are just mostly wearing fake blood and makeup.” The standard pay for a Kappa Zombie in The Walking Dead is $58 for eight hours. The A group, White’s group—the most ghoulish and important—raked in $130 over twelve.

Here are some local stories I heard.
 
. . . At the Redneck Gourmet in downtown Senoia, there’s an old wooden Yater surfboard encased in glass on a wall. The first time Frank Darabont entered the restaurant and ordered a Philly cheese steak, he saw the board and pressed his face to the glass. At the bottom of the case, there is a plaque that explains it was used in the movie Apocalypse Now. Darabont turned to Melton: “This is a sign. There’s a reason we’re filming here!” The Redneck Gourmet became his favorite restaurant . . .
 
. . . Last year, Melton searched for the RV that would eventually become the character Dale’s omnipresent Winnebago Chieftain, a vehicle that serves as almost a talisman for the characters of the show. They’ve escaped death in it, found refuge in it. Melton had always loved old Winnebagos; he was looking for an early-to-mid-seventies version. He found one owned by a Georgia couple. They bought it in ’73, had customized it upon purchase, their names written on the side. Now they were in their late eighties. Melton made them an offer to drive it out of their lives, and they accepted. When the crew drove the RV away, the man and woman wept as they watched. Melton and Darabont didn’t want to dishonor the couple by taking their names off the side. So they merely designed a plate and put the characters’ names over it. The original names are still there . . .
 
. . . IronE Singleton drove to L.A. a few years ago dreaming to make it big, but he did not. He came home after a few months of getting nowhere and opened a costume shop in Dallas, Georgia, and then worked at a Subway, and then as the mascot with the huge baseball head at Atlanta Braves games. He grew up in the Perry Homes housing project in Atlanta, had studied theater at UGA. He could not even get an agent, halfway into his thirties. He pawned the lens of his DVX100 video camera and also his car and raised enough money to rent the 14th Street Playhouse for a few nights, where he performed a one-man show he’d been writing for ten years, called IronE . . . The Resurrected. He chose that name as a play upon the word irony, and to have something to break the ice during a conversation. The show was the story of his life, told through spoken word, rap, and dramatization. Many, many people did not show up to see it. A few did. In the wake of this performance, a local agent contacted him, inquired if he’d like representation. He was able to get a reading in front of the director of a movie called The Blind Side. This one thing changed his entire life. In The Walking Dead, he plays the role of “T-Dog,” a blue-collar guy who’s trying to survive . . .

Mothers are dead. Children are dead. Grandmothers and girlfriends are as dead as squirrels on the highway. In the world of the zombie apocalypse, decorum has pretty much bitten the dust, too. Everything is magnified and complicated, the notions of good and evil, right and wrong. The living are pretty much screwed.
 
Hence the title. The Walking Dead are us.
 
Why do people love this?
 
“Everyone is obsessed with the apocalypse,” says Shane Morton. “Everyone’s talking about financial collapses and wars and has a fear that we’re all about to die. The zombie craze is taking off now just like after WWI and WWII, all those films that were so nihilistic; there was no hope, people were so zombified from the wars. We’ve had huge movements in horror because of our culture. Books like The Walking Dead and World War Z are a reflection of how people are feeling right now.”
 
Max Brooks, who wrote World War Z, which was a New York Times bestselling book about a global zombie war, says, “Zombies are a safe way to explore an apocalyptic society. If you see a movie that has to do with true things—nuclear war, for instance, or swine flu—those are too real. Zombies aren’t.”
 
Zombies do have real origins in Africa and Haiti, in the stories of witchcraft and mind control, but these are not the “zombies” I think about, when I think of them. A “zombie” is a modern thing, birthed by George Romero in a movie he cowrote and filmed in 1968. Darabont referred to Night of the Living Dead as “the Book of Genesis,” and specifically implored that none of the zombies in The Walking Dead move any faster than the very first zombie who ever chased Barbra through that Pennsylvania cemetery. When we dressed up as zombies for Halloween—when I have nightmares about zombies—these are the visions I see.
 
In the daylight, after a rain, I am standing in front of a giant Queen Anne Victorian, surrounded by mud. Someone on set asked me if I wanted to see “the most important thing” in the infant history of the show. He is talking about Hershel’s Farm.
 
“This is everything,” he says. “This is why we’re here.”
 
We drive for what seems like two miles behind the studios on a gravel road. There is nothing, anywhere—and then that big white house, through the trees.
 
The house is the centerpiece of this expanse of land, with a barn and a tractor and recognizable vehicles from the show parked at its periphery, by the trees. It is an amazing old house, big as a plantation, with a green roof and multiple brick chimneys. It is, right now, the heart of The Walking Dead. It has the appearance of both something safe and something horrible, like the house in The Amityville Horror.
 
The guy I’m riding with tells a story about how the people who owned it decided to move it and hauled it out to this land. Cicadas scream from the trees. If you saw the house on TV, this would look like Georgia; there are rocking chairs on the porch, which stretches around its entire front. In the show, they’ll probably be sitting there drinking tea. Crew members walk in and out of the house. Huge coils of wire run from inside into the woods, tied together, to some unseen power source.
 
Everything seems quiet now, and serene, which is why the people in the show have decided to hole up there.
 
But tonight, it’ll get dark.
 
And the woods will fill with the dead.
 
One evening a couple years ago, I watched Night of the Living Dead for the first time in a while. I was alone. I watched it in complete darkness and then went to bed.
 
But my eyes were stuck open and I stared at places in the ceiling of my apartment bedroom where the wet paint had slowly dripped down and dried. I fell asleep, and awoke with sweat pooled around my back and forehead.
 
I had a dream. Basically, the zombies somehow got up to the twenty-eighth floor, pounded on the door, eventually smashed through the dead bolt, and then came into my apartment. I watched them rip my body in half and feast on my entrails, moaning.
 
They just kept coming.
 
It scared the hell out of me.