'Walking Dead' Director Explains Why Conservatives and Liberals Love Zombies

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in Season 8, Episode 2 of "The Walking Dead" on AMC. AMC

Although The Walking Dead's ratings are lagging, its viewer demographics have remained as diverse as ever. American conservatives in the South, who gravitate toward shows like Duck Dynasty and Fast and Loud, watch The Walking Dead—but liberals tune in regularly, too. Speaking over the phone with Newsweek, director Greg Nicotero said he has a few theories about why the fear of zombies transcends our country's political divide.

"Our show asks you to contend with your own mortality, which is the one thing none of us are ever going to outsmart," Nicotero said. "You'll never trick it, you'll never figure it out, we're not gonna cure it, and there's no resolution but death. That unknown is terrifying for so many people, no matter who they are."

Nicotero's onto something here; The Walking Dead kills off its characters regularly, like Game of Thrones, though Walking Dead purports slightly more conservative values than HBO's fantasy drama, a salacious show which actor Ian McShane referred to as "tits and dragons." Partly because AMC's censors are tighter than HBO's, The Walking Dead uses sex as a way to bond monogamous couples and family units instead of as titillation or shock value. There aren't many sexual scenes in the zombie drama that will give you the willies if you, say, watch it with your parents or grandparents.

This shot between Rick and Michonne is about as graphic as romance on AMC's "The Walking Dead" gets, for the most part. AMC

There's obviously gore, but Nicotero said the team decided in Season 1 that violence involving zombies needed to look very different than human-on-human violence. The late George Romero, whom The Walking Dead memorialized in its Season 8 premiere, "used to talk about watching horror movies as riding a roller coaster. You know what you're getting in for, of course, but when the roller coaster really takes off, you have moments of elation, moments of sheer terror, and when it's over, you never feel more alive than you do when you're getting off the coaster," Nicotero said.

He said that moments of "utter horror" have to be used sparingly. For example, in Season 5, a young character named Noah (Tyler James Williams) was eaten alive by a pack of zombies that had him pinned against a glass revolving door. "It was probably the first time that anyone had ever been that close to someone killed by walkers. The revolving door really allowed Glenn [one of the main characters] to see first-hand how horrible it could be. When I designed that particular effect, I wanted it to be horrific because it had to have an impactful meaning for Glenn and the man he became."

Walking Dead zombies have dark, nearly black blood, in part to set them aside from human victims, and that's part of the careful tinkering Nicotero and the team do to keep the show scary, but not inhumanly disturbing. It was arguably a mistake for The Walking Dead to tread so far into torture porn when Season 7's premiere episode saw Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) murder two characters with a level of gore that fans had never experienced. After that gory episode, ratings began to tank.

Cooper Andrews as Jerry, another fan-beloved character on "The Walking Dead." AMC

Gore is just another piece of the ratings puzzle, though. The Walking Dead, according to Nicotero, uses the same ensemble cast structure as other bipartisan crowd-pleasing stories, packing the frame with characters of disparate backgrounds. He said The Walking Dead benefits from original showrunner Frank Darabont's vision. "The quality of [Robert Kirkman's] source material helps, but Frank's direction of our pilot helped, too. His script launched us, and because of Frank's history, he understood how to put a group of actors together and create this large world."

Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus as Rick and Daryl on "The Walking Dead." AMC

It was partly Darabont's decision to introduce Daryl Dixon, a character written specifically for actor Norman Reedus, and one who doesn't appear in Kirkman's comic books. Daryl's invention proved a masterful move, as he's since been accepted as the show's primary fan favorite character, his gruff exterior and love for tactical weaponry endearing him to conservatives. There's something endearing in Daryl's journey for progressives, as well; he began The Walking Dead calling Glenn, the show's only character of Asian descent, "Short Round" and making jokes about his driving, but after spending time with people of color (assumedly for the first time), Daryl started correcting his brother, Merle, on correct terminology. We've actually seen Daryl grow a great deal as the apocalypse has expanded his worldview and demanded he bond with Americans who don't look or act like him.

Khary Peyton as Ezekiel, in Season 8 Episode 3 of "The Walking Dead." AMC

The writing team will have to prove whether it can retain fan attention—the show's ratings are the lowest they've been since Season 3. Nicotero had only a few mysterious comments. "The show will definitely reinvent itself this season," he promised. "We don't want to give fans the same show season after season...we want viewers to feel that Season 8 is a slightly different show."

Nicotero said the team has done something extraordinary by introducing genre horror to a wide and captive audience. "We were one of the first teams out there to do this on television, the serial horror drama," Nicotero said, and he's right. No network has been able to recreate the wide appeal of The Walking Dead's pulpy horror series, though many are trying.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 on AMC.