LOS ANGELES -- In the first five minutes of the third-season premiere of "The Walking Dead," former sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes and his battered and beaten band of zombie apocalypse survivors remain completely speechless. It's a hauntingly stark opening for the popular AMC undead drama that no one's been quiet about since it first debuted.
"We meet them after eight months," said Andrew Lincoln, the actor who portrays Rick, sitting alongside Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Rick's feisty wife, Lori. "There's a huge rift between Rick and Lori. They're desperate. They're more desperate than they've ever been, so much so that in the teaser, no one says a word, and everything is kind of sad."
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Everything hasn't been sad for the cast and crew of "The Walking Dead," which has risen from surprising cult hit to unstoppable zombie brand. "The Walking Dead," which is based on the comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, has transformed into a full-fledged franchise featuring a horde of video games, costumes, toys, books and theme park attractions.
With just a pair of eight-episode seasons, "The Walking Dead" series amassed a huge following, becoming must-scream-TV on Sunday nights. The show's second-season finale, which featured the survivors fleeing a farm after being barraged by waves of zombies, corralled 9 million viewers -- a basic-cable record among younger audiences.
The success is often lost on the cast, who shoot on location in rural Georgia, away from the ego-enhancing realm of Hollywood. They're reminded of the popularity when confronted by thousands of fans at San Diego's Comic-Con or motivated by the "gasoline" that is fan letters and photos posted inside a makeshift shrine erected in the trailer of actor Norman Reedus (Daryl).
"It's a solid pocket we stay in," said Steven Yeun, who plays nimble Glenn. "I got a glimpse of it today when I was sitting in the hotel room. I looked out from the balcony, and I'm like, 'Where am I?!' We just came from shooting a terrible, gnarly scene in the middle of the woods -- just yelling and guttural stuff -- and now all of a sudden I'm at the Four Seasons."
The third season, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. CST, finds the survivors coming across the too-good-to-be-true town of Woodbury, a zombie-free enclave that's led by a cutthroat character dubbed the Governor. British actor David Morrissey, who was cast as the iconic villain from the comics earlier this year, is downplaying the Governor's "MUHAHAHA!" ruthlessness.
"I think, creatively, you'd hit a ceiling very quickly if you did that in the TV show," said Morrissey. "You have to give him complexity. You have to give him a sense of motivation and why he's doing these things."
The new season will also feature katana-wielding fan-favorite Michonne, who saved straggler Andrea at the end of last season with her chained-up zombie sidekicks in tow. Michonne actress Danai Gurira said the character's interpersonal relationships with the other survivors will send her on "a bit of a different journey" than the Michonne of the comics.
However, the action in this season's first two episodes is focused squarely on the prison glimpsed at the end of last season after Rick and son Carl took down a zombified version of Rick's best friend, Shane, who continually clashed with his buddy about how to exist in a world where "walkers" -- the show's preferred term for zombies -- seem to lurk around every corner.
After making it through the winter, the survivors attempt to transform the well-secured prison into their new homestead. Callies, whose Lori is further along in her pregnancy this season, said the addition of Woodbury and the prison adds a new dimension to the storytelling, especially now that the characters are accustom to taking down walkers.
"There's a sense of what it would've been like if Shane had run the show from the beginning," said Callies. "It's two mature visions of what this world can look like now: one with Rick's group; one with the Governor's group. They stand in stark contrast to one another, and you get a real clear sense of what each leader's decisions have cost their people."
Kirkman, who serves as an executive producer on the show, promised the third season, which will be split in half, will feature some surprises that even the most die-hard "Walking Dead" fans won't see coming. (The series has continually veered from the source material, whether it's drawing out story lines or killing off characters earlier than in the comics.)
"We challenge each other," said show runner Glen Mazzara. "We ask each other questions. If something feels too big, not plausible or like a jump-the-shark moment, we have to figure out how to do it."
"The Walking Dead" masterminds are also pushing their realistic take on the zombie apocalypse into other avenues: an episodic game from Telltale Games based on the comic; a first-person shooter game due from Activision focusing on Daryl, who doesn't appear in the comics; and mazes at Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights in California and Florida.
How much "Walking Dead" is too much?
"I turned down the perfume," joked Kirkman, who authored two Woodbury-centric "Walking Dead" novels. "I look at it like, 'If it's cool, that's fine.'"