Zombie meets family drama

Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis (both above) in Fear The Walking Dead.
Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis (both above) in Fear The Walking Dead.PHOTO: JUSTIN LUBIN/ AMC GLOBAL, AMC GLOBAL, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fear The Walking Dead has zombies but is set in a different place from The Walking Dead

Before a single episode has aired, zombie series Fear The Walking Dead is already a hit: Its cast had a taste of fan fervour at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July and the show was greenlit for two seasons out of the gate.

It helps, of course, that it is the companion series to ongoing horror drama hit The Walking Dead, which follows a group of survivors led by deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and their search for a safe haven.

The Season 5 premiere last October drew 17.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched series episode in cable history. It returns for a sixth season in October.

Fear The Walking Dead premieres in Singapore on Monday on AMC channel (Singtel TV Channel 322).

Dave Erickson, the show's co- creator, executive producer and showrunner, readily acknowledges the luxury of being able to tap into a huge existing fanbase.

"Considering there are probably seven people on the planet who haven't seen The Walking Dead, we're very much targeting this towards the fans and the audiences that already enjoy and love the show," he tells international media at a press event in Los Angeles to promote the show.

Set in LA and an earlier time period than The Walking Dead, it features a new cast, including Kim Dickens (Deadwood, 2004 to 2006) as high school guidance counsellor Madison; Maori actor Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, 2002) as Madison's English teacher boyfriend Travis; and Frank Dillane (Tom Riddle in Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, 2009) as Madison's junkie son Nick and Alycia Debnam-Carey (The 100, 2014) as her model student daughter Alicia.

Dickens, 50, says: "It's exciting to be, you know, invited into something that has such a loyal, mobilised fan base and just to be able to tell more stories under that tent is exciting for us."

At the same time, Fear is not about catering slavishly to viewers, the people behind the series are quick to add.

As Erickson puts it: "We couldn't write the season and the pilot anticipating, 'Okay, if we do this, is that embracing the audience? Or is that going to push the audience away?' Because I think that would have been a little bit stifling, creatively."

What differentiates the new show are the fact that it takes place before the events of The Walking Dead, it has a distinctive urban setting of LA and it is "a family drama first and foremost".

The timeline shift means that audiences are well ahead of the characters when it comes to figuring out what is going on. The term "walkers", to describe zombies, is not even in use at this point and they are eventually referred to as "the infected".

"They're sick, they're doing violent things, but the characters' default is not to say, oh, they're zombies. You know, this is not a George Romero world," says Erickson, referring to Romero, the writer-director behind a series of films about a zombie apocalypse, beginning with Night Of The Living Dead (1968).

Shifting the action to a place that is both physically and culturally very different from The Walking Dead's Atlanta is another way for Fear to "stand on its own", says executive producer David Alpert.

He adds, though, that this is not merely about differentiating the two series. "Different not for different's sake - different so that you're exploring the universe from a different angle."

By taking the zombie apocalypse and mashing it up with straight-on family drama, Curtis, 47, sees it as a sign of the show pushing the genre envelope.

He notes: "It comes from the horror world genre, but treating it as real, not as a gimmick, not as like kind of, oh, there go the zombies. It's like, oh my god, there goes my neighbour. I think there is something really wrong with them. How would you really deal with that?"

Meanwhile, there is plenty of drama on the family front.

Madison and her two children, as well as Travis with his ex-wife and son, are trying to get together when hell starts breaking loose.

This provided a way into the story for Dickens. "I come from a divorced home where both my parents remarried and it was all kinds of teenagers thrown together under two different houses. I mean, it was familiar to me in its humanity and heart and I just started from there. And I went to high school so I know what that was like."

In order to prep for Fear, she stayed away from The Walking Dead. "I watched a few episodes and then I was advised that I didn't need to know what that looks like. So being ill-prepared for the apocalypse just serves my character."

She was one of the few exceptions as many cast members were already bitten by The Walking Dead bug.

Mercedes Mason, 32, seen in TV shows such as dramedy Californication (2002 to 2014), exclaims: "I was a die-hard fan. I wanted to be on The Walking Dead. I wanted to be on Game Of Thrones. So, you kind of casually constantly nag your agents about this."

And Lorenzo James Henrie (Star Trek, 2009), 22, who plays Travis' son Christopher, says "the comic books are great".

The Walking Dead (2003 to present) is originally a comic book by Robert Kirkman, who is also one of the executive producers for the TV adaptation of the same name and is the creator, executive producer and writer of Fear.

If there is any pressure to live up to the success of the "mothership" - as the cast and producers refer to the earlier series - the actors are certainly doing a good job of not showing it.

Elizabeth Rodriguez (Orange Is The New Black, 2013 to present), 34, who plays Travis' ex-wife Lisa, says: "Once we do our job, there are so many other departments. You put it out into the world and they'll respond however they'll respond."

Mason sounds more confident that fans will embrace the new show.

"We're cohabitating, do you know what I mean? So, we're actually providing fans with a year full of The Walking Dead. There's nothing being taken away."

•Fear The Walking Dead premieres on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) on Monday at 9.10am (same-time telecast as the United States), with a repeat at 10pm on the same day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'Zombie meets family drama'. Print Edition | Subscribe