On a humid summer's day the cast and crew of "The Walking Dead" are clustered under the leafy shade of trees that line a picturesque street in this small Southern town, about an hour's drive south of Atlanta. No one is covered in sweat or mud. An armored vehicle parked at the end of the block sits still and silent.
Perhaps strangest of all - there are no zombies.
It's important to expand your horizons even when it comes to the apocalypse. So while the "walkers" will remain the beating, dark heart of the hit AMC series when it returns for its third season Oct. 14, the show's creative forces are eager to give the small band of rugged survivors more to worry about than the zombie hordes. In the upcoming 16-episode run, it's a human threat, embodied most ominously by a new character known as the Governor, that awaits them.
"What we've done is open up the world so it's less about our characters trying to find a safe corner in which to hide," says show runner Glen Mazzara on the Georgia set. "I do think this year, the show feels more immediate and less theoretical. We're not really dealing with questions of hope, what it takes to survive in this world. We're doubling the threat, we have the zombies, we have the Governor."
In less than two years, "The Walking Dead" has jumped into a crowded pop culture pool of serial killers, vampires and dragons to become a darling of the horror/fantasy set while managing simultaneously to draw a broader audience that usually avoids genre entertainment. The series ranks as one of basic cable's highest-rated dramas and finished its second season with a ratings bang. It corralled an impressive 9 million viewers and set a record among younger viewers.
The show also has become a vital franchise for AMC, home to prestige dramas "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," which are winding down. In addition to an official magazine, video games and scores of blogs, the zombie series has inspired a live companion talk show called "The Talking Dead," where cast, crew, celebrity guests and fans recap episodes.
This summer at San Diego's Comic-Con International, the show invaded Petco Park, staging an elaborate obstacle course where people paid $70 to crawl, climb, dodge and run away from some 650 zombies. And just in time for Halloween, "The Walking Dead: Dead Inside" maze is this year's centerpiece for Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights at both its Southern California and Orlando locations.
The show's popularity owes in part to good timing, according to Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Lori Grimes, the wife of the main character Rick (Andrew Lincoln). Doomsday scenarios are in the zeitgeist now, she says.
"I think a lot of people are deeply afraid that our unmasterable impulses are about to take the reins," says Callies. "If this show had come out in the mid-'90s when everything was going really well and there was relative peace in the world and the economy was strong, I'm not entirely sure that we would be enjoying the success that we are."
Sporting a trucker's ball cap, Callies watches as the first scenes are shot in the fictional village of Woodbury, a place where people pretend the world never ended. The extras casually wander in and out of mom-and-pop shops while Laurie Holden, as the scrappy and resourceful Andrea, marvels at the civility of the locale.
The village's superficial perfection can be traced to the Governor (David Morrissey), a formidable law-and-order type who has erected walls around the city to keep residents safe from walkers. But his ambitions extend well beyond his small enclave.
"He's so narcissistic that he believes the zombie apocalypse is about him leaping onto the world stage," Mazzara says of the character. "He feels when humanity looks back 1,000 years from now and sees this as the dark ages, that there was an individual who kept the light on, and he wants to be that individual."
In the Robert Kirkman comic book that spawned "The Walking Dead," the Governor was a sadistic rapist who would force prisoners to battle zombies in an arena for sport. His cruelty had dire consequences for Rick and his people, yet the character touched a nerve with fans - so much so that last year Kirkman published a novel titled "The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor," an origin story of sorts and the first installment in a planned trilogy. A sequel, "The Road to Woodbury," is set for release on Oct. 16, timed with the return of the show.
Between takes, David Morrissey, the towering English actor who won the role of the villain, says he intends to play the Governor with more nuance than the character had in his ink-and-paper incarnations.
"He does need to have a complexity," says Morrissey, shedding the Southern dialect he'd just employed for the street scene. "If he was just an out and out baddie, I think you would hit a ceiling creatively very quickly. I think giving him these levels and colors and fears, hopefully that will give him more longevity."
The idea of adding Morrissey to the show's permanent ensemble would mark a split with Kirkman's text. Both Mazzara and the show's executive producer Gale Anne Hurd note that in the advanced life of the series, fealty to the comic book isn't necessarily their first priority.
"Sometimes we follow what's in the comic book, probably more often we don't," Hurd says.
"We're telling our version of the story," Mazzara adds.