'The Walking Dead's' zombie apocalypse evolves

The group continues to battles for survival in season two of AMC's "The Walking Dead."

Story highlights

  • Glen Mazzara is executive producer and showrunner for "The Walking Dead"
  • The popular serires returns Sunday night for its second season
  • Mazzara says he is constantly thinking about zombies in his spare time
  • He offers insights into how the show comes together
Should zombies rise up someday soon and take over the world because of an unidentified plague or virus that's caused the collapse of modern society as we know it, how would you react?
Such is the fundamental question of AMC's widely successful show "The Walking Dead," which returns this Sunday for its second season.
Based on Robert Kirkman's comic book, the series is one of the more odd yet complex dramas on television today. At its core, it's about survival and the psychological stress that spending every waking moment together has on a small group. But that could be said about all human beings in that surviving the world is something we do on a daily basis; the trick with "The Walking Dead" is that a pack of ravenous zombies could be lurking around the corner, ready to make you into dinner.
Viewers are consistently presented with questions of morality, instinct and terror, where plots are less about discovery -- there's no race for the cure -- and more about the struggle to exist.
CNN checked in with "The Walking Dead" showrunner/executive producer Glen Mazzara to see what's in store for season two, how the show finds its storytelling voice and just how they get that authentic zombie feel.
CNN: On average, how much are you thinking about zombies each day?
Mazzara: All of them. I wake up thinking about zombies. How do I keep them scary? What's new, what's different, what's fun that we can do with zombies?
CNN: How did this show become so popular on just a six-episode first season? What's the appeal?
Mazzara: It's visceral. There's an immediacy for anyone watching it, where they think, "what would I do?"
People buy into the idea that a plague could wipe out things. We've seen that, and it's in the zeitgeist now. It's playing on the everyman level where it's about the survivors and not about what happened to the collapse of government or infrastructure. You get in the car, and it runs out of gas, and then what? Meanwhile, you're being chased by zombies.
CNN: Remember the swine flu? That was a legit panic.
Mazzara: Yeah. It's like when you're watching a horror movie and the people move into a haunted house. And you're wondering, why didn't think just move out? Everything our survivors are doing, hopefully, strikes people as realistic. They're making decisions that ordinary people would make. And none of those decisions have very good consequences.
CNN: There's also weird psychological dynamics between the characters where they have to get along while also ensuring that they survive, they want to survive, and everyone around them survives too, because as far as they know, they're it.
Mazzara: Right. Our characters are definitely flawed. But they're stuck together because, hopefully, there's survival in numbers. It's an interesting dynamic that we're going to play out all season where people are deciding, are they better off with the group or without?
CNN: In a few of the articles that have come out, you mention the desire to showcase your own storytelling voice. What would that entail, exactly, for the viewer?
Mazzara: Part of what I hope to do this season is really focus on the character of Rick and his questions of leadership. Taking over a successful show, I'm facing my own questions of leadership, so that's easy to write. But I feel that the work I've done in the past, especially on "The Shield," where it was a very surprising, violent show, yet grounded work -- that's something I'm trying to bring to this piece as well.
Because it's a heightened reality, one where people are being chased by zombies, you have to be careful not to tip that line where it becomes unrealistic. You have to be grounded, and that's something we worked very hard on "The Shield" to achieve. At the same time, it can't be bleak. It has to be hopeful. Otherwise, it becomes too depressing.
The show this year has a lot of heart. It is about the moments of personal heartbreak between the characters; it's something I'm excited about and the other writers have bought into. It's something we see as an important part of the season.
CNN: For viewers, there's always this idea that a "walker" could appear and eat your face. How do you develop characters that are more than just "scared" but also still keep the viewer psychologically afraid?
Mazzara: Our characters do deal with it in different ways. Some do lose hope; some have a sense of humor; some rise to the challenge; some develop in a way that they couldn't in the pre-apocalyptic world. For example, Glenn or Andrea, when she comes into her own this season. They have new roles or opportunities available to them before the zombies took over. We're trying to explore it in a lot of different ways, where it's individual to each character.
CNN: Back to the zombies: Are there certain guidelines the actors have to follow to get that "authentic zombie feel"?
Mazzara: Greg Nicotero is our zombie king. He actually runs a zombie school, where he brings in extras and actors, where he teaches them all about zombies. Depending on how they do, he positions them in the shot. The better zombies get more makeup and are more up-front. Those zombies who are not as scary, they're more in the back of the shots or the edge of the frames. What's great about Greg is when the writers have questions like "would a zombie do this?" and we call Greg and talk through a lot of zombie science and zombie law. He's our resident expert.
CNN: Obviously they're hideous, but they all have a different lurch.
Mazzara: Yeah, I think that's how Greg is working with them. He spends a lot of time making sure each zombie can be featured. Also, if you think about it, every zombie is an individual who died. You want to make them individual.
CNN: As the show evolves over season two, what are some of the larger thematic issues you see playing out?
Mazzara: Rick's dilemma of trying to lead his group to a save haven and the romantic triangle between Lori, Shane and Rick. That really complicates life as everyone wrestles with what they know, what they think they know and what they don't know. And a question we want to handle is, what is life like for the children in this world? Do they represent hope, or are they just fodder for the zombies? That's the question: How much hope is there? We have a lot of themes we're juggling every episode.
CNN: You take out the phrase "post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland," and much of it could be applied to what's going on today.
Mazzara: That's the whole trick. That's something that sometimes our character's step back from the horror, and they realize that. How things have changed. Has there been any guarantee of hope and survival? Has it all been just an illusion? Is this the real world, where we're just in the doorway between life and death? It's interesting, and this is what we want to see our characters wrestle with. Our show revolves around character; it doesn't rely on revelation.
No one knows why the zombies took over, but it's not about finding the cure. It's about staying alive and figuring out what to do. Our concerns are immediate.
Season two of "The Walking Dead" premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. EST on AMC.