On a humid day, the cast and crew of The Walking Dead are clustered under trees in a small town about an hour's drive from Atlanta. No one is covered in sweat or mud and, strangest of all, there are no zombies.
It's important to expand your horizons even when it comes to the apocalypse. So while the ''walkers'' will remain the dark, beating heart of the third season, the show's creative forces are eager to give their survivors more to worry about. In this 16-episode run, which began last week on Foxtel, it's a human threat, embodied most ominously by a new character known as the Governor, that awaits them.
''What we've done is open up the world so it's less about our characters trying to find a safe corner in which to hide,'' the showrunner, Glen Mazzara, says. ''Ido think this year the show feels more immediate and less theoretical. We're not really dealing with questions of hope, what it takes to survive in this world. We're doubling the threat – we have the zombies, we have the Governor.''
In less than two years, The Walking Dead has become a darling of the horror-fantasy set while managing simultaneously to draw a broad audience.
Its popularity owes a lot to timing, says Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Lori Grimes, wife of main character Rick (Andrew Lincoln).
''I think a lot of people are deeply afraid that our unmasterable impulses are about to take the reins,'' Callies says.
''If this show had come out in the mid-'90s when everything was going really well and there was relative peace in the world and the economy was strong, I'm not entirely sure that we would be enjoying the success that we are.''
Callies watches as the first scenes are shot in the fictional village of Woodbury, a place where people pretend the world never ended. Extras casually wander in and out of shops while the scrappy and resourceful Andrea (Laurie Holden) marvels at the civility of the locale. The village's superficial perfection can be traced to the Governor (David Morrissey), a formidable law-and-order type who has erected walls around the city to keep residents safe from walkers. But his ambitions extend well beyond his small enclave.
''He's so narcissistic he believes the zombie apocalypse is about him leaping on to the world stage,'' Mazzara says. ''He feels when humanity looks back 1000years from now and sees this as the dark ages, that there was an individual who kept the light on, and he wants to be that individual.''
In the Robert Kirkman comic book series that spawned the show, the Governor was a sadistic rapist who would force prisoners to battle zombies for sport. His cruelty had dire consequences for Rick and his people, yet the character touched a nerve with fans.
Between takes, Morrissey says he intends to play the Governor with more nuance than the comic book character. ''He does need to have a complexity,'' he says, shedding the southern dialect for his native English accent. ''If he was just an out-and-out baddie, I think you would hit a ceiling creatively very quickly. Ithink giving him these levels and colours and fears, hopefully that will give him more longevity.''
Adding Morrissey to the show's permanent ensemble marks a split with Kirkman's text. Mazzara and executive producer Gale Anne Hurd note that in the advanced life of the series, fealty to the comic book isn't their first priority.
''Sometimes we follow what's in the comic book, probably more often we don't,'' Hurd says.
''We're telling our version of the story,'' Mazzara adds.
This season marks Mazzara's first full year at the helm of the show – he took over last year after creator Frank Darabont abruptly quit amid rumours of budget cuts, though Darabont reportedly had an acrimonious relationship with AMC executives. Some viewers grumbled about the pace of the second season, much of which took place on a rural farmstead. Mazzara defends the slow burn as a necessary build-up to a heartbreaking plot twist.
He also has an ace up his sleeve in Michonne (Danai Gurira). If the Governor is the Darth Vader of The Walking Dead, Michonne might be its feminist Han Solo. The katana-wielding warrior woman – glimpsed in the final moments of last season's finale – is beloved by fans of Kirkman's comic. Gurira, who was born in the US but raised in Zimbabwe, fell in love with her, too.
Gurira says she sees Michonne as a woman who has lived through tremendous trauma yet refuses to be victimised by it. ''I was attracted to that experience of women who had gone through certain things,'' she says. ''Who do they become and how do they empower themselves in a world that is actually working towards their destruction? What are they capable of? How do they re-create themselves to become empowered in a highly disempowered environment?''
Nearly every member of the cast and crew is guarded about the show's direction in the third season, fearing anything said might ripple across the web and spoil the surprise. Michael Rooker, whose leering Merle Dixon returns this season, is particularly cagey.
''Merle was in the Bahamas, daiquiris, sunning himself, chilling out,'' he says, chuckling, of his character's recent whereabouts.
It's possible only Mazzara knows what the future holds. He began drawing up a road map late last year and put together a 15-page outline for the show's writers. Supervising filming of the season's third episode, he has a gleeful air about him. As the director calls ''action'', the Governor makes a show of allowing the new arrivals to get the lay of the town while Andrea and Michonne look to each other in sisterly solidarity.
Standing a few feet away, Mazzara points out that the women are trying to determine, after so much time on the run, whether they want to remain in Woodbury. ''They think they have a choice,'' he says.
Los Angeles Times