For a while, it seemed as if director Frank Darabont was going to become something like Stephen King's in-house movie director. He launched his career with the now beloved prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, moved to the Oscar-nominated prison drama The Green Mile and ended up with the people-imprisoned-in-a-supermarket movie The Mist, all based on stories by King. A self-admitted horror and sci-fi geek (ask him about the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and War of the Worlds posters in his dining room), Darabont's latest project is The Walking Dead, a zombie apocalypse series based on the Robert Kirkman comics, which debuts on AMC on Halloween night. Darabont spoke to TIME about horror movies, why the undead don't run and the weirdness of having grisly zombies on the same network as Mad Men.
There are so many zombie movies out there. Were there specific ones that influenced The Walking Dead?
Well, the Book of Genesis really is Night of the Living Dead, which I'm kind of shocked to realize is a classic now. That just makes me old, I suppose. It didn't feel like a classic when I first saw it. It was a very disreputable film, spoken of in whispers. It was one of those things you had to catch at a midnight screening, if anything. Without that original film from 1968, there wouldn't be a Walking Dead the whole zombie thing wouldn't even exist.
What from that movie stands out for you?
I think people who haven't seen the movie, or who haven't seen it in a while, may not credit it for being as character-driven as it is. But Night of the Living Dead is a very character-driven piece. And it was, by the way, other than [those with] Sidney Poitier, maybe, the only movie of its time that had a black male as its lead, which was pretty groundbreaking stuff in its day. Consider 1968, consider the strife that was going on at the time. That was a pretty bold move on their part. I always admired that.
Did you purposefully try to stay away from zombie books and movies so that you wouldn't be tainted by the ideas of others?
Being the old-school guy that I am, I wanted to tell a great tale that subscribed to [creator Robert] Kirkman's work and the original George Romero conception of this world. That's the world we're in. I did stay away from watching any zombie movies or reading any zombie fiction during this time because I really didn't want to be influenced. I wanted to have as much free thought going into it as possible. And hopefully that will help lend a texture to The Walking Dead that allows it to be its own thing rather than borrowing a page from someone else's book. Of course, there's been so much of it throughout the years now that I suppose some comparisons are inevitable. And that's O.K. If there are comparisons to be drawn, we'll just call it homage.
When it comes to comparing zombie movies these days, it seems like whether a zombie shambles or runs is the thing that people talk about more than anything else. It's such a minute detail, but people are so hung up over it.
Never underestimate the ability of certain Internet dwellers to take something minute and turn it into a mountain. My feeling was always, with Walking Dead again, wanting to go back to the original Romero mythos is that they shouldn't ever run faster than the first zombie we see in Night of the Living Dead. He gets up a pretty good head of steam, but he's no Olympic sprinter.
One of the things that struck me about the first episode of Walking Dead was how much silence there was. I hadn't seen a movie or a TV show in such a long time that was so comfortable with quiet. I was reminded of The Exorcist. The sound design in that movie is just ridiculously good.
The Exorcist is amazing because it recognizes that silences can be as powerful as sound effects. I found that it's always been a bit of a struggle when dealing with sound to convince the sound guys that, yes, I am looking for silent stretches, I am looking for silences because that is part of the music of the film. And particularly nowadays, these fellas are always leaned upon to not have those silences. The movies that I grew up with weren't afraid of those silences, whether it was a Kubrick film talk about a movie that handles silence like 2001 or The Exorcist. I remember the best scare in that movie I remember the entire audience jumping three feet in the air was after this long stretch of really quiet stuff, suddenly the phone rings, really loudly. I love playing with stuff like that.
Given the other movies you've made The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are you purposefully going to stay away from the scenes later in the Walking Dead comic series set in prison?
[Laughs.] No! I can't wait to get to the prison, actually. Because there's just so much good, rich storytelling there. That's when it gets really dark and intense and heated. There's some sort of recidivism in my career. I just keep going back to prison. It's inevitable somehow that I wind up in some prison setting. But there you go. You gotta embrace it and go with it. It's like when Stephen King called me up and told me he was writing another prison story with The Green Mile. I said, "Well, I'm not looking to go back to prison particularly. It depends on the story." Of course, when I read the story, it was brilliant and I had to go back to prison. You follow where the best story leads. If that means I'm behind bars again, so be it.
It's kind of crazy that AMC, the home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, would do a horror show like The Walking Dead. What do you think it says that this show actually exists on a network as good as AMC is now?
It absolutely blows my mind that zombies, which, for decades, was this subgenre of horror that appealed to a core group of geeks like me, has gotten so much mainstream acceptance in the last five years. All these years, all these decades, I was part of this little group of people with a very specialized interest, and suddenly this obscure thing has blossomed into grandmothers walking into Barnes and Noble and buying zombie books for their grandkids. It's a very strange feeling. I've been busy on this production for a year, and I poke my head up and, all of a sudden, zombies are everywhere.