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Zombie comic comes to life on AMC's 'Walking Dead'

Dale Roe
The zombie infestation forces survivors, including Officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, center) to utilize basic skills for survival, which also has a society-leveling effect.

Bringing a popular zombie comic to AMC isn't exactly a wait for it no-brainer.

The flesh-craving denizens of "The Walking Dead," director Frank Darabont's ("The Green Mile") limited, live-action series based on Robert Kirkman's 7-year-old and still-popular graphic novel of the same name, seem worlds away from the flesh-craving Don Draper. And if this fall's "Rubicon," a slower-moving-than-a-zombie political conspiracy thriller, was a mild stretch for the home of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," then "The Walking Dead," premiering Sunday, Oct. 31, at 9 p.m., is a taffy pull.

But producer Gale Ann Hurd insists that "The Walking Dead" fits in perfectly with AMC's shows, which all deal with strong and troubled main characters in an environment where they've got something to hide. Darabont, quoted in promotional materials for the series, says he hopes "The Walking Dead" does for zombies what "Mad Men" has done for advertising.

I'm not sure what that means; I don't know what, if anything, "Mad Men" has done for advertising (except pummel us with those awful '60s-style commercials that break up the show). I think what the director really wants is to do for AMC what "Mad Men" has done for AMC: bring it a decent number of eyeballs, some critical acclaim and a lot of pop culture buzz.

The buzz is there. A mesmerizing trailer showing the violence and devastation of the zombie apocalypse ironically set to the tune of the Walker Brothers' 1966 hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" got a lot of attention online. Then, in September, an amazing, animated opening title sequence created by Daniel M. Kanemoto, a fan of the original comic, went viral (the Kanemoto version, by the way, blows away the show's actual opening credits).

I found myself a bit disappointed in the pilot. Not being a comic book fan (not that there's anything wrong with that), I'm unfamiliar with the source material. Extrapolating from the trailer, I thought I was in for some explicit gore and good, dark humor. "The Walking Dead" is gory, all right. A scene in the second episode finds a band of survivors chopping up a freshly dead (but not yet undead) body, coating themselves with its blood and wearing its entrails around their necks like meaty bolo ties in order to navigate the lumbering monster horde.

But there's precious little humor — dark or otherwise — to be found. The series is downright grim in its earnestness.

It starts out promisingly, with a high-speed chase landing a comatose small-town policeman, Rick Grimes (British actor Andrew Lincoln), in the hospital. Grimes eventually comes out of his coma, and the slow onset of horror as he spies a vase of wilted flowers and comes to realize that the hospital is abandoned and littered with dead bodies — some banging on the other side of a chained door — is compelling.

In fact, most of the first episode, including Grimes' run-in with a team of father-and-son survivors, is good stuff. The officer heads to his home, only to discover that his own wife and child are missing. But Grimes' single-minded search for his family soon reveals the true nature of "The Walking Dead" — it's a relationship drama with zombies.

Darabont has called the creatures "an appendage" to the human drama in the story. "I always like to say that if you take the walking dead out of the equation, are you still telling a good story?" he asks in the promo materials. "We're not making it just about the zombies or the effect of the horror of the moment. We're digging a lot deeper than that and striving to keep the characters and their experiences at the forefront because I think that makes for the best television."

Kirkman seems happy with the adaptation. "There are scenes that are ... straight out of the comic, and I think that fans are going to be thrilled," he says in the promo materials. "But at the same time, Frank is vastly improving the material, expanding the narrative and taking detours that I completely encourage."

Darabont has made changes, adding characters and altering the look of the survivors' camp. Still, he is staying true to the spirit of Kirkman's work and to the rules of zombiedom laid out by horror filmmaker George Romero in 1968's "Night of the Living Dead." That film, which he first saw as a child, fostered Darabont's life-long love of horror and science fiction. He calls it "the Book of Genesis" and heads back to it whenever there's a question about zombie lore or behavior.

The director believes the metaphorical nature of zombie stories will draw a large audience — for something so fantastical, he claims, the set-up is grounded in shared experience.

"As a concept, you can take it as a metaphor for any disaster," he explains. "You can take it as a metaphor for being in a war zone. You could take it as a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina. You can take it as a metaphor for anything that will shut things down and leave you on your own."

"In our case, it's a zombie apocalypse that is stripping people down to their basics and examining the human condition," Hurd adds, "where everything we have no longer exists."

And it turns out that a zombie infestation is the great equalizer.

"Chances are it's not the lawyers who are going to do real well once you've got to camp for a living," says Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Rick's wife, Lori. "The CEO of a multinational bank is all of a sudden worth only his ability to build a fire, to make shelter, to defend his family. There's a leveling to the societal playing field that I think is really interesting."

Now why would the American public, post-economic stimulus plan, want to see bank CEOs running from the undead?

Maybe "The Walking Dead" will pull big numbers after all.

'The Walking Dead': 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31 on AMC