SENOIA, Ga. — On a humid summer's day the cast and crew of “The Walking Dead" are clustered under the leafy shade of trees that line a picturesque street in this small Southern town, about an hour's drive south of Atlanta. No one is covered in sweat or mud. An armored vehicle parked at the end of the block sits still and silent.
Perhaps strangest of all — there are no zombies.
It's important to expand your horizons even when it comes to the apocalypse. So while the “walkers" will remain the beating, dark heart of the hit AMC series when it returns for its third season Oct. 14, the show's creative forces are eager to give the small band of rugged survivors more to worry about than the zombie hordes. In the upcoming 16-episode run, it's a human threat, embodied most ominously by a new character known as the Governor, that awaits them.
“What we've done is open up the world so it's less about our characters trying to find a safe corner in which to hide," says show runner Glen Mazzara on the Georgia set. “I do think this year, the show feels more immediate and less theoretical. We're not really dealing with questions of hope, what it takes to survive in this world. We're doubling the threat, we have the zombies, we have the Governor."
In less than two years, “The Walking Dead" has jumped into a crowded pop culture pool of serial killers, vampires and dragons to become a darling of the horror/ fantasy set while managing simultaneously to draw a broader audience that usually avoids genre entertainment. The series ranks as one of basic cable's highest-rated dramas and finished its second season with a ratings bang. It corralled an impressive 9 million viewers and set a record among younger viewers.
The show has also become a vital franchise for AMC, home to prestige dramas “Mad Men" and “Breaking Bad," which are winding down. In addition to an official magazine, video games and scores of blogs, the zombie series also has inspired a live companion talk show called “The Talking Dead," where cast, crew, celebrity guests and fans recap episodes.
The show's popularity owes in part to good timing, according to Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Lori Grimes, the wife of the main character Rick (Andrew Lincoln). Doomsday scenarios are in the zeitgeist now, she says.
“I think a lot of people are deeply afraid that our unmasterable impulses are about to take the reins," says Callies.
Between takes, David Morrissey, the towering English actor who won the role of the villain, says he intends to play the Governor with nuance.
“He does need to have a complexity," says Morrissey, shedding the Southern dialect he'd just employed for the street scene. “If he was just an out and out baddie, I think you would hit a ceiling creatively very quickly. I think giving him these levels and colors and fears, hopefully that will give him more longevity."