ATLANTA » Welcome to the Zombie Capital of the World.
That, at least, is what Atlanta magazine, the glossy monthly, has dubbed this Southern city.
It’s not only that “The Walking Dead,” the hit zombie show that began its second season on AMC last Sunday, is filmed and set here. Or that Atlanta holds some of the nation’s largest zombie film festivals, zombie parades and zombie haunted houses. Or that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that staid Atlanta-based federal agency, joined in the fun with a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse.
It is mainly that there are Atlantans like Kevin Galbraith, a 24-year-old Georgia State University student who is one of the 6,000 people who applied to be zombie extras on “The Walking Dead.” The pay is meager, the hours are long, the weather is steamy, and even their friends barely recognize them, staggering around in the background, coated in fake blood and corpse-gray paint. And only 200 will be chosen each season. “You have to be the sort of kid who grew up practicing your zombie walk in the mirror,” said Galbraith, a lanky, 115-pound horror fan who beat the odds and was cast in both seasons. “I feel more alive than ever when I’m dead.”
Horror is big business here. Hollywood films like 2009’s “Zombieland” and “Halloween II,” which were both filmed in Georgia, pump millions of dollars into the local economy.
Why Atlanta? There are many theories.
Robert Kirkman, the Kentucky native who wrote the graphic novel on which “The Walking Dead” is based, wanted the story set in a large Southern city. One of the largest annual gathering of zombies, DragonCon, a fantasy and science fiction convention, happened to be founded by an Atlanta resident. And this sprawling city, with swatches of foreclosed or abandoned property, is easy to make look spooky.
But government bureaucrats also played a role. In 2005, Georgia passed some of the nation’s most advantageous tax incentives for filmmakers. Since then, the money spent on filmmaking in Georgia — for everything from music videos to television commercials — has soared to $759 million from $132 million. Meanwhile, the blockbuster success of franchises like “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” has drawn studios to fantasy and science fiction.
“If you look at the TV being filmed in Atlanta now, you’ve got a werewolf show, a vampire show, a zombie show and a show about reincarnation,” said Tom Luse, a line producer for “The Walking Dead,” referring also to “Teen Wolf,” “Vampire Diaries” and “Drop Dead Diva.”
Not that other cities are rolling over and playing dead. Seattle also calls itself the country’s zombie capital because it is home to ZomBcon, the only convention devoted exclusively to zombies. The popular spoof “Shaun of the Dead” was filmed in London, where Brad Pitt is shooting portions of his new zombie movie “World War Z.” And Pittsburgh was home, in part, to the classics “Dawn of the Dead” and “Night of the Living Dead.”
“Atlanta’s claim is completely unfounded,” said Mark Menold, organizer of the Pittsburgh-based World Zombie Day celebration. “Atlanta might be the current home of a TV series. But really that series is nothing without the special effects work of a Pittsburgh native” — Greg Nicotero, a co-executive producer of “The Walking Dead.”
“The Walking Dead” is taking the monsters mainstream. The show, about a band of survivors fending off zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape, set a network record with an average 5 million viewers per episode, beating critics’ favorites like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
Steve Fennessy, the editor of Atlanta magazine, argues that Atlantans enjoy seeing their city in an alternate reality. There is the historic downtown neighborhood Five Points swarming with the undead. Here is the normally busy Freedom Parkway devoid of traffic.
Those Atlanta-specific details are missing from most films shot here, in which the city is a generic stand-in for “any city or every city,” he said. “In this show, Atlanta is very much its own character.”
On the set of “The Walking Dead,” which is wrapping up shooting for the second season on a cattle farm south of the city, the most important zombies — called “hero zombies” — are treated like stars. Galbraith is one of them: The first-time actor gets his own trailer, makeup crew and folding canvas chair.
Before one of his biggest scenes, he huddles over a camera monitor with Nicotero, the co-executive producer. He takes detailed advice on flailing and growling, and then on attacking a living character.
“That’s when we cut to you,” Nicotero told him. Opening and closing his hand, he said, “And you go, ‘Munch, munch, munch, munch.”’