The Walking Dead executive producer Denise Huth recalls television networks were "afraid" to make the live-action zombie drama before it was picked up at AMC, becoming the channel's biggest hit and spawning a multi-show franchise. Developed for television by The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist filmmaker Frank Darabont, who served as showrunner as well as executive producer alongside Terminator producer Gale Anne Hurd, The Walking Dead went without a pulse for some five years before landing at AMC. The then-home to prestigious TV shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC would find its biggest commercial hit when The Walking Dead premiered on television on Halloween night 2010.
"I first became involved with The Walking Dead way back in 2005. I worked for Frank Darabont, and he told me about this comic book that he found in a comic book store," Huth recounts in an interview to air during The Walking Dead Season 1: Beginnings marathon on AMC. "And as he was telling me the story, I remember saying, 'That's a television show.' It just had all the great elements of a serialized drama."
Inspired by the 2003 comic book from creator Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore, The Walking Dead starts with sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes waking up from a coma early in the zombie apocalypse. A desperate search for his family turns into a story of survival when Rick, now the leader of a group of other survivors, must face threats both living and dead in a world gone "bye."
"It kicked around for about five years before AMC was finally brave enough to say 'yes' and actually put it on the air," Huth says. "It was one of those things that hadn't been done before."
The show mostly filmed outdoors, requiring few sets, and that first season "sort of broke every rule of what television is supposed to look like."
In 2016, Hurd recalled Darabont approaching NBC with an early version of his script. The network home of Law & Order asked if the show could be a procedural, following two protagonists who would "solve a zombie crime of the week." According to Hurd, NBC executives asked, "Do there have to be zombies?"
"I think everybody recognized it was good, but I think they were afraid that this was going to be possibly an over-expensive show," Huth says. Heavy makeup effects, multiple outdoor locations, and often large amounts of zombie extras were reasons to be fearful of The Walking Dead, with some potential buyers worrying that "the audience wouldn't be there."
"It was a gamble. We certainly couldn't say to anybody, 'This is gonna be a huge hit!' We were just praying five people would watch," she admits with a laugh. "It's hard to begrudge everybody who said no, but it is satisfying now to look back on it."
The show's first season, led by Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes, brought together Sarah Wayne Callies, Jon Bernthal, Steven Yeun, Norman Reedus, IronE Singleton, and Michael Rooker, alongside Darabont favorites Melissa McBride, Laurie Holden, and Jeffrey DeMunn.
"That whole first season just felt like this really cool summer camp that we all got to go to and run around Atlanta and dress people up as zombies," Huth says. "It was this amazing dream come true of shooting this little project that didn't belong to anybody else yet, it was just ours. It was this cool thing that we got to make over the summer."
Huth adds, "Maybe nobody would watch it, and maybe nobody would care, and maybe we'd never get to come back and make another one. So we had just a lot of fun with it and a lot of enthusiasm for the absurdity of what we were doing in so many ways. It was a blast. We had the best time."
By the time of its third season, The Walking Dead became the first cable series in television history to top every show of the Fall broadcast season in the coveted adult 18-49 rating. The show has since spawned two spinoffs, Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond, and will later launch its first feature film trilogy centered on Lincoln's Rick Grimes.
The Walking Dead Season 10 finale, "A Certain Doom," premieres Sunday, October 4 on AMC. For all things TWD, follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter.