‘The Walking Dead’ Turns 10: Inside the Making of the AMC Hit

The Walking Dead Season 1 Poster

It’s only right that a show as scary, gory, and traumatizing as The Walking Dead would have premiered on Halloween night. Sure enough, this October 31st marks the AMC drama’s 10th anniversary, so we’re flashing back to our first bite of the show, the pilot “Days Gone Bye.”

Developed by writer-director Frank Darabont of The Shawshank Redemption fame, The Walking Dead is a faithful adaptation of the Robert Kirkman comic series of the same name. Despite Kirkman’s treasure trove of storytelling and Darabont’s passion for the source material, though, The Walking Dead spent years in development hell before AMC reanimated the project in 2010.

The origin of the TV show “was me walking into a comic book shop in Burbank and seeing the first trade edition” of the comic series, Darabont told HitFix in 2010. “It had to be about five years ago. Being that I’ve always had ‘the love of zombies gene,’ I of course grabbed it, took it home and read it, and immediately started pursuing the rights to it. I thought it would make a great TV show. I loved what Kirkman was doing, I saw immediately what he was getting at. And I loved the idea of an extended, ongoing, serialized dramatic presentation set in the zombie apocalypse.”

But getting the story to the small screen was no small feat, especially because NBC passed on the project early on. “They were very excited about the idea of doing a zombie show until I handed them a zombie script where zombies were actually doing zombie shit,” Darabont explained to reporters during a 2010 set visit, per Bloody Disgusting. “It’s one of those things where the network says, ‘Oh yeah, we want to stretch the envelope,’ until they realize that they’re actually looking at a stretched envelope, and they go, ‘Woah, no, let’s do CSI some more.’ I’m certainly not trying to rip them down, but they’re a network, and we could never have done this show the way it needed to be done there.”

Frustrated, Darabont wandered away to direct his big-screen adaptation of the Stephen King novella The Mist, but he always had The Walking Dead in the back of his mind. “He told me early on, ‘Don’t worry, man. I’m going to get this thing made. I really care about this. I really love it,’” Kirkman recalled in an interview with Pads & Panels. “And you don’t know a guy. You’re from Kentucky and you’re meeting Hollywood people. I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, all right, buddy. That’s real nice of you to say, but I know how things work. You’re probably just blowing smoke up my ass.’ But to Frank’s credit, he’s never really steered me wrong. He’s always come through on his promises.”

Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman

Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman (Michael Buckner/Getty Images for AMC)

Along the way, veteran Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd joined the project. “I’d heard about it,” Hurd told reporters during the set visit, per Dread Central. “When I first read the book, I thought, ‘This would be a great film,’ and boy, was I wrong. It’s a much better TV series. Fast forward, I knew that Frank had initially developed it for NBC, which to me seemed like an odd pairing for this. Then I heard it wasn’t going forward at NBC, so I talked to Frank.”

Finally, the project landed at AMC—a network known for its envelope-pushing—and AMC brass ordered a pilot in January 2010. “The stuff that AMC is going to put on air is crazy,” Kirkman said during the set visit. “They keep showing me things and I’m like, ‘You’re not doing that.’ They rip a horse open and there’s just spaghetti coming out. They actually have things that you see.”

Darabont’s script for the pilot impressed Kirkman with its fidelity to the printed-page version of The Walking Dead. “Reading that pilot was just a revelation,” Kirkman told reporters. “It’s extremely faithful. There are things that are so much like the comic, I can’t really remember the nuance of what’s different and what’s not from the comic.”

Jon Bernthal was one of the first actors cast, landing the role of Shane Walsh at a time when Elementary star Jonny Lee Miller was a reported frontrunner for the lead part of Rick Grimes. “[It was] pilot season, and I read everything that was out there,” Bernthal later told reporters. “I still remember the day that I got this script. I told my agent that I’d be thrilled to be an extra in this, it’s so good.”

In April 2010, The Walking Dead found its leading man in Andrew Lincoln, a British actor perhaps best known at the time for playing a lovelorn romantic in the 2003 Christmas movie Love, Actually. “Andrew Lincoln, wow—what an amazing find this guy is,” Kirkman said at the time, per The Hollywood Reporter. “Writing Rick Grimes month after month in the comic series, I had no idea he was an actual living breathing human being, and yet here he is. I couldn’t be more thrilled with how this show is coming together.”

And come together it did. After a two-month shoot under sweltering Atlanta heat between May and July 2010, the Walking Dead pilot premiered on AMC on Halloween night, with “Days Gone Bye” ranking as the most-watched series premiere in AMC history and the most-watched cable show of the year among 18-to-49-year-old viewers. As then-AMC President Charlies Collier said at the time, “It’s a good day to be dead.”

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