While The Walking Dead will be the first zombies to shamble onto primetime television, that honor nearly went to another series that came close to making CBS's 2007 schedule. Writer Jeff Otto digs up the pilot and offers a look back at what almost was.
After years lumbering through the megaplexes, zombies are finally coming to television. But these aren't the mindless, flesh craving zombies of olden times. No, these zombies are thinking, feeling human beings, albeit with pale, peeling skin and in desperate need of a shower.
On a warm sunny day just like any other, the deceased residents of Babylon, Long Island are returning to their loved ones, hoping to pick up their lives right where they left off. After shopping for groceries, Shirley Wunch (Kathy Baker) and her daughter Janine (Amber Tamlyn) return home to find abusive, drunken Ernie (Jamey Sheridan), sipping a beer while watching sports, just like old times. "Am I the luckiest son of a bitch you've ever seen or what?" he says with an evil grin. Meanwhile, Detective Carl Tiptree (Ray Stevenson) gets a call from his sister asking him to come over immediately. He finds his happy-go-lucky brother in law Dick (Adam LeFevre), who died of cancer nearly a decade prior, amicably greeting him at the door. Even Tiptree will have a brush with death when his wife Rebecca, who took her own life, shows up at home for a liplock.
Part comedy, part drama, these TV zombies crave human companionship, not flesh. They're just humble folks back from the grave hoping to return to life as they left it.
The show is Babylon Fields and the year is 2007. CBS had pumped approximately seven million bucks into developing and shooting the pilot, which at the time was generating fare buzz. Indications were strong that these zombies would come to life, per se, on the small screen. That was, at least, until CBS abruptly pulled the plug before ever airing the pilot.
Created by Michael Atkinson along with co-writer Gerald Cuesta, Atkinson based the storyline on his upbringing in a small Long Island town and his issues growing up with a father that was "a ruinous alcoholic and a vile jerk to boot," Atkinson says in his "Zombiology" blog posting for Lost Magazine. The writer upped the ante and made the father abusive (Sheridan's character, Ernie), playing with the idea of what he would do if his own father returned from the dead. Cuesta suggested they take it even further, asking "what if everyone came back?" Cuesta's brother, Michael, would direct the pilot.
The high concept plot-line turned out to be too much for the traditionally conservative network, especially amidst concerns over the glimpses of necrophilia. Tiptree is seen in a smooching his dead wife and Dick at one point mentions he and his wife Martha (who are shown cuddling in bed) have been like newlyweds. Since his return, he's been "ready to go, like all the time," he tells his neighbor Ernie. One imagines network sensors furiously scribbling disapproving notes in disgust at that one.
"Babylon Fields was about zombies - walking, talking, joking, screwing zombies," says an unapologetic Atkinson, who says certain aspects of the pilot's storyline were forced upon him so that it "be set on familiar terrain." A such, Stevenson's cop character was brought aboard and the side plot that Ernie, also a former cop, was murdered by an axe to the head. His wife and daughter, less than subtle red herrings in the murder, apparently told friends and neighbors that he ran off to Daytona with a stripper.
Right around the same time, NBC was discussing an undead vehicle of their own, hoping to adapt Robert Kirkman's long-running Walking Dead comic with the help of Frank Darabont. A longtime zombie aficionado, Darabont was unwilling to pull punches and NBC would balk at his blood-soaked vision. "They were very excited about the idea of doing a zombie show until I handed them a zombie script where zombies were actually doing zombie shit," Darabont laughs.
But the dismissal would be a blessing in disguise for Dead. A few years later, producer Gale Ann Hurd joined the effort, introducing Kirkman, Darabont and The Walking Dead to AMC, hoping to place Dead's hero Rick Grimes alongside AMC staples Don Draper and Walter White. "I knew that Frank had initially developed it for NBC, which to me seemed like an odd pairing for this," says Hurd. AMC, unlike NBC or CBS, wasn't so concerned with the blood or the sex so long as it served the storyline and characters. "AMC has an in-house standards and practices executive who's watching all of our dailies," says Hurd. "The only thing is you can't say fuck."
Aside from featuring zombies as a central conceit, Babylon Fields and The Walking Dead share few similarities, particularly when it comes to their undead. Darabont's zombies are more traditional, citing the zombies of Romero's Night of the Living Dead cemetery sequence as the reference point. They are slow and single-minded, ever in search of human flesh as nourishment.
Atkinson, who professes not to be a particular zombie movie fan (though he also sings the praises of Romero's original), wasn't interested in traditional zombies when he sold his pilot (originally conceived as a novel) to CBS.
"We all spun huge and marvelous webs of projected fantasy about how the show could evolve, how it would say things about contemporary life," Atkinson tells Lost Magazine. "For us the living dead idea was a metaphor factory, in full production. For everyone else, it seems, it's just a first-person-shooter Xbox game."
The oddball show (which can be viewed below) feels like an episode of one of my favorite ‘80s series, Amazing Stories. It's intriguing on a certain level, but hard to picture the concept sustaining an entire season or multiple seasons, for that matter. It isn't terribly shocking that CBS pulled the plug after the pilot. The surprising part is that CBS ever attempted something this daring in the first place. It is interesting to ponder what might have become of Babylon had it found a more fitting home, such as HBO, who was interested in the early stages.
Three years later, zombies are finally coming to TV. Unlike the one and out scenario Atkinson found himself in with Babylon, AMC has given Dead's zombies a little breathing room, shooting six episodes before airing a single one. The pilot episode, directed by Darabont, will premiere on Halloween.
So will The Walking Dead pave the way for zombies on television the way Buffy gave way to scores of television vampires? Perhaps a more high concept variation like Babylon can be revisited should Kirkman's vision sustain on TV the way it has in comics (currently up to issue # 78).
Check out the Babylon Fields pilot below and let us know what you think. Do you think this would have compared to (or been better than) The Walking Dead?
The Walking Dead debuts Sunday, October 31st, 2010.