A little behind-the-scenes drama isn't going to stop AMC's zombie hit ''The Walking Dead'' from terrorizing viewers in season 2

By Dalton Ross
Updated September 23, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

The zombie revolution will be televised. And not just on AMC. It’s a sweltering June day in Atlanta as the heroes of The Walking Dead speed away from the just-exploded Centers for Disease Control. (Thanks to the wonders of CGI, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which doubled as the CDC for the show, still stands safely in the background.) As the caravan peels off Cobb Galleria Parkway, the Jeep belonging to Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), which was bringing up the rear, stalls and dies. Not good. Zombies, who have been lured to the area by the sound of the detonation, converge on the lone living human as he honks and waves frantically to the rest of the now-disappearing caravan. Really, really not good. Shane grabs his shotgun and exits the vehicle. The zombies — more than 30 of them — are practically on top of him now. The end looks near.

Suddenly, a helicopter flies overhead. A rescue chopper sent to deliver Shane from evil? Could this be the answer to all the survivors’ prayers?!? Hardly. Turns out it’s just a real-life Fox News aircraft dispatched to report on the melee below. And it is not alone. NBC and CBS affiliates are also on hand right outside the cordoned-off area to capture every moment of mayhem and madness, as is a throng of fans/curiosity seekers lined up across the street with camera phones recording all the action. ”We love you, zombies!” the partisan crowd yells out in unison from just past the barricades.

Welcome to season 2 filming on The Walking Dead, where instead of humans fleeing from ravenous zombies, it seems everyone wants to get as close as possible to the newest rock stars of the supernatural world. ”Last year, we had none of this,” notes exec producer Gale Anne Hurd of the scores of onlookers and news crews. ”No one cared about us at all.” What a difference becoming the highest-rated show among 18- to 49-year-olds in basic-cable history makes. After the drama averaged a total of 5.2 million viewers on AMC, including 6 million for the season 1 finale (for comparison, Mad Men‘s latest season-ender on the network earned 2.4 million viewers), it’s no wonder that fans are as bloodthirsty as the ghouls themselves for more. And more they shall receive. Unlike last year’s brief six-episode run, this year viewers will feast on a hearty 13 episodes, starting with the 90-minute premiere on Oct. 16. (The show will air for seven weeks, take a break, then return on Feb. 12, meaning we will unfortunately not be treated to A Very Zombie Christmas on Sunday, Dec. 25.)

However, not all of the attention surrounding season 2 has been welcome: Critics and fans alike were outraged this summer when exec producer Frank Darabont was dismissed as showrunner and replaced by his No. 2, Glen Mazzara (The Shield). No one among the cast, crew, or network will talk about why exactly Darabont was let go just days after he appeared at a Walking Dead panel at Comic-Con — ”That’s the type of thing that happens in air-conditioned rooms,” says actress Sarah Wayne Callies (Lori Grimes) about the network’s decision, ”and we don’t know anything about air-conditioning down here” — but AMC president Charlie Collier denies the change had anything to do with a disagreement over the network’s decision to cut budgets on a per-episode basis. ”No, no, no, it wasn’t budget-related at all,” insists Collier. Reports that the $30 million deal given to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner led to cost-cutting on The Walking Dead and the ouster of Darabont, adds Collier, are untrue: ”The two have nothing to do with each other.”

One thing is clear, though: The cast and fellow producers maintain a fervent affection and appreciation for their former leader. ”Look, it’s definitely not easy,” says Robert Kirkman, the creator of the comic book on which the drama is based, and an exec producer of the TV adaptation. ”Frank was a very big part of this show from the get-go, and it’s definitely not an overstatement for me to say he changed my life. I was a comic-book writer before this existed.” Even Mazzara — who saw the situation from the other side when he himself was moved off Starz’ Crash in 2009 — was conflicted about being elevated to the top spot when Darabont was let go. ”I did have a lot of mixed emotions,” he says. ”I was very happy being his number two and helping him execute his vision. So when I was made showrunner, not only was I then terrified about being the guy who could possibly mess up The Walking Dead, but I also felt bad for my friend.” Bernthal is especially blunt when he talks about how much Darabont has meant to the series — and still means. ”This will always be Frank’s show. This is Frank’s creation. Frank is the heart and soul, and as far as I’m concerned he always will be. That might piss some people off to hear, but Frank is all over this second season.”

So what will we be seeing in season 2 of ”Frank’s show”? Steely sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and company do make it out of Atlanta, even though Shane’s dramatic escape — which resulted in Bernthal puncturing his cornea in three places — ended up on the cutting-room floor. There is more trouble lurking out in the countryside, however, beginning with what just might be the series’ most gruesome scene yet. (Hint: Ever seen what the inside of a zombie looks like?) ”It’s Deliverance on acid,” says Lincoln of the rural season 2 setting. ”Rest assured there’s some freaky stuff.” Things certainly got freaky out in the woods for actor Steven Yeun, who plays pizza delivery guy Glenn. ”I found a tick on my very private area, and it was definitely loving the spot it was on,” laughs Yeun. ”It took a little bit to get off. [Pause] Everything I say is going to sound like some crazy sexual innuendo!”

A shocking (tickless) development at the end of the premiere will lead the group to the farm of Hershel Greene (played by Scott Wilson), a character from the comic book who — if the comic is any indication — may have some surprises hidden in his barn. Look for Hershel’s daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan) to become a love interest for Glenn. ”It’s cool to have a beacon of hope and light in this cavern of doom,” says Yeun. But relationship problems persist for the love triangle of Rick, his wife, Lori, and his best friend, Shane. ”When it comes to the triangle, you can’t pick two people who don’t love each other,” says Callies. ”I think Rick and Shane love each other every bit as much as Rick and Lori, and every bit as much as Lori and Shane. And what they all find independently is that trying to be the hero by taking burdens onto yourself, it’s just not working. It’s destroying us.”

Adds Lincoln, ”At the heart of season 2 is this idea: How do you survive? Do you cut your losses and forfeit your humanity, or is it not worth fighting for unless you can maintain your humanity? That debate is at the heart of the season with these two guys who are like brothers, but they’re like Cain and Abel sometimes.”

In the secrets-and-spoilers department, later this season we’ll find out what was whispered into Rick’s ear right before the CDC blew up. We’ll also see the one-handed and left-for-dead Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) at some point, but not Rick’s walkie-talkie buddy Morgan (Lennie James). And while readers of the comic book will be saddened to learn that vile villain the Governor won’t be making an appearance this go-round, producers hint that we may meet up with katana-sword-wielding fan favorite Michonne.

In the meantime, the cast and crew insist that even with the loss of Darabont, the quality of the show will not suffer. ”There’s been some real tough things that went down this season,” says Bernthal. ”But the one thing I can say is that everything from ‘Action!’ to ‘Cut!’ has been at a higher level than it was last season, and we are really going for it. I think it’s going to be a f—ing kick-ass season — and I’m not just saying that because it’s my job to sell the show. I believe it in my bones.” Here’s hoping they don’t get eaten along the way.