Faithful blog reader:
As you may recall, I was fortunate enough to have been a zombie extra for the pilot episode of AMC Network's The Walking Dead.
I have wanted to tell about my experiences, because I had so much fun, but also, with the Dead Week upon us (defined as the celebration of Issue #100 of the comic book, plus the coming of San Diego Comic-Con). So here, in three parts, is my Diary of a Zombie: My Experiences as a Zombie on the Set of The Walking Dead. Parts One and Two will run Thursday, July 12th. Part three will run Friday, July 13th (get it? Friday the 13th!).
To say that I am a fan of the zombie genre is to say that the Grand Canyon is a pretty rock formation. I am a massive zombie fan. As far back as I can recall, the idea of the undead walking has had a great allure to me. I never liked those early, 1940s-era zombie films, though. White Zombie and the others, with their voodoo mystique, really did not do it for me.
What did do it for me was a 1950’s film, Creature With the Atom Brain. It had Richard Denning. It had a Nazi mad scientist in a cool lab. It had gangsters. It had dead cops walking! It had everything a kid with a fertile imagination would want.
But, as so many others have said over the years, the reinvention of the zombie mythos, served up ghoulishly by George A. Romero, was the coup de grace. I actually saw Dawn of the Dead before I saw Night of the Living Dead. I was in Connecticut with my then-girlfriend, and Dawn had just come out. I became a Romero fan right then and there, for life.
I had the great good fortune to meet Mr. Romero, back in the late 1970s, at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He was brought in to lecture and after the event was over, I introduced myself and asked him, among other things, why his protagonists were always black men. I was fascinated and impressed that Romero would cast such good young black actors in those pivotal roles. He shrugged and said, essentially, that he had no answer. I respected that, and I know his answer to that question today is much more thought-out and refined, and countless articles and blogs have been written about that question. I still like his personal response to me the best.
Zombie fans will go to great lengths to find material to watch and read. We are a very forgiving lot, and we will sit through absolute drivel to try and find diamonds in the rough. And those diamonds are rare: Shock Waves, filmed around Miami with underwater Nazi zombies; the Fulci Italian zombie movies, always enjoyable; and a few others. But there have been quite a few stinkers too! My video library is stocked with zombie cinema that did not quite make the cut.
I also used to collect comic books when I was a kid. I had to sell off quite a collection when my family moved in 1970. I tried to restart those collections twice in the 1980s, but it was not until I read Watchmen two years ago (in preparation for watching the movie) that I dove headfirst back into comics.
And that was when I found The Walking Dead. It truly was comics love at first sight. “The zombie movie that never ends,” as creator and writer Robert Kirkman calls it. I started reading where many people now begin their collections: the Walking Dead Compendium, a gargantuan, 1100-page softcover behemoth covering the first (and most pivotal) 48 issues of the comic.
It was brilliant. It was a revelation. And, like all great zombie fiction (whether written or filmed), it is all about the survivors – not the zombies – that makes great zombie entertainment. And Kirkman makes us care about survivors like no other. He makes us like them, and then he kills them!
Shortly afterward, I learned of the planned adaptation of the comic books to television.
And so it was that, one morning in May of 2010, my deputy CIO, Lauren Perlman, came into my office at the House of Representatives.
“A good friend of mine just got hired as an important member of the crew for a new series AMC was shooting,” she said. “Something called: ‘ The Walking Dead’.”
“THE WALKING DEAD?!?!?!” I shouted. “THE WALKING DEAD?” I said, “Lauren, I have got to be a zombie on that show!”
Roughly two weeks later, I got a call from Patrick of Extras Casting Atlanta, the go-to casting agency for television and film production in Georgia. Think Zombieland. The Crazies. X-Men: First Class. And The Walking Dead. Patrick called to get my email address so they could forward the information on where to report for sign-in, along with my date and “call time” when I was due on the set. My shoot was for the weekend of June 12th and 13th, 2010. That was perfect, as it did not interfere with my day job as CIO (that’s head geek) for the Florida House of Representatives.
As you might imagine, Lauren is now set for life.
I had never been in a movie before. My filmmaking experience was confined to watching the filming of a scene for the Chuck Norris film Invasion USA back in the 1980s. However, because of my different positions over the years in my “day jobs” within politics and government, most recently as an expert in pandemic preparedness (imagine that), I have appeared on television roughly a hundred times. I have been on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, CBS News, ABC News, and way too many local newscasts to even try to count. That gave me an appreciation for what I was about to do.
So I entered the situation with a completely blank canvas upon which to paint my recollections and to learn and absorb as much as I could during the two days I was there.
I decided to rent a hotel room as physically close to the shoot as possible. Even before the casting company had sent my confirming email with map, I had been able to scope out the details of the shoot on the Internet. I chose the closest hotel to the shoot itself – well, the closest hotel that was not going to cost me an arm and a leg (har!). That hotel wound up being two blocks from the set as the crow flew, but with the street closures, it still took me about 5 minutes to drive there.
I arrived in Atlanta that Friday night. The drive was problematic, as I ran over a shredded recap tread going northbound on I-75, about an hour south of Atlanta. After pulling off the interstate to inspect the situation, I kept going and pulled into a Truett’s parking lot in the southern suburbs of Atlanta to eat and to make repairs. The plastic shield underneath the oil pan had been knocked almost completely loose, hanging by a grommet. Also, one of my fog lights had been pushed in about an inch, but was still functional. I made emergency repairs, ate at Truett’s (Chick fil-A’s fancier sibling), and pushed onward.
After checking into the hotel, I decided to take a walk. I got as far as a burned-out bus, guarded by two policemen. My anticipation grew. Only my fatigue from the six-hour drive enabled me to sleep that night.