EXCLUSIVE: Z Nation creator on The Walking Dead and why 'We had to earn our right to exist.'

Z Nation

It's not easy launching a new series when you're tackling the subject matter of the most popular show on television. However, creator Karl Schaefer believes his new show, Z Nation, which premieres on Syfy tonight at 10 p.m. ET, is more than worthy.

“If you're going to go through the apocalypse, would you rather be with the people on The Walking Dead, who are always kind of miserable and not having any fun, or our guys that are out to go kick some zombie ass?” asked Schaefer, who also executive-produces Z Nation.

“We have all kinds of zombies. People always argue about the rules of zombies and all of that, and we have that as well, but we really wanted to explore all the different ways a zombie virus could come about and the different ramifications of it. We have fast zombies, slow zombies, animal zombies ...,” he said. Yes, they even have baby zombies.

“Yeah, all mammals have it, essentially. It's underlying in all of us, and if you die for any reason -- we sort of go back to the original Romero rules -- that it's some sort of parasite that takes over your body once you die in order to further its life cycle. Part of its life cycle includes infecting brains. It drives the host, the dead host, to crack open skulls and infect brain matter as part of its entire life cycle,” he said.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the science of it and all of that, coming up with our rules, and then just tossing them aside if something's really cool and we want to do it. We're kind of a rule-breaking zombie show.”

The ultimate road trip

“As the show goes forward, and as our characters travel across America, they run into different pockets and see how different groups of people in different areas are dealing with the apocalypse in their own way and seeing how society tries to put itself back together,” said Schaefer.

The characters are trying to get Murphy, the one person who has survived a zombie attack, from New York to California, where the last functioning viral lab is waiting for his blood. And it's not going to be an easy journey. Beyond that, Murphy has a dark secret which just may threaten them all.

“He's going to be the guy that makes it all the way through to the end, because he's the hidden protagonist of the show,” said Schaefer. Keith Allan plays Murphy (Rise of the Zombies).

Z Nation is “about people under intense pressure. It's about empathy, in a strange way. And how they learn to, while they have to kill zombies, the whole notion of giving them mercy and trying to record who they are in case someday somebody needs to know what happened to the people that died and became zombies. [It's about] the traveling across the country and all the different subcultures and different ways that humanity tries to pull itself back together,” said Schaefer.

What's the worst thing that could happen?

So why, out of all the monsters, does he think zombies are the most popular?

“It's such a strange phenomenon that people are so into it. It's unbelievable, the amount of interest in zombies ... you can do incredible violence to zombies and nobody cares. That sort of cathartic release is part of the attraction to it. And part of it is, what's the worst thing that could happen? I think a zombie apocalypse is there in everybody's mind. It's a stand-in for our consciousness as to what's the worst thing that could happen. It's almost believable. If you turned on the news tomorrow and CNN had a report about thousands of living dead stampeding in New York City, you'd go, 'Yeah, that seems right. I expected that to happen.'” he said. “My theory is that our collective unconscious knows something bad is in our future.”

Now there's a happy thought.

As far as that OTHER show goes ...

“Initially it was just how do we differentiate ourselves from the excellent, very popular show that's already established,” said Schaefer.

The Walking Dead is “the most popular show on TV, I think. I can't really think of one that's bigger. So distinguishing ourselves from that. The fact that we're a very low-budget, run-and-gun version of that show. Making ourselves original and standing out, and playing out the mission that they're on and traveling the show. We're in a different state and location every episode, even though we're shooting it all up in Washington, in Spokane. So I think the main thing was just making it funny, original and not disappointing to an audience that has a real gold standard to compare it to. We had to earn our right to exist,” he said.

And Schaefer believes they have.

“I think everybody started out going, 'Oh, we're just going to do a zombie knockoff show.' But the sum of all the parts have really made it into something else. I think people are going to be really surprised in the end with just how cool and elaborate and how about something the show is every week,” he said.

“Our characters live in a real world where zombie movies existed. People call zombies 'zombies.' They're not dancing around. In The Walking Dead they sort of act like it was a complete surprise to everybody what they were ... our guys actually argue about the difference between Romero and Max Brooks' rules. They live in a world where The Walking Dead existed in their past," he said.

Z Nation premiers tonight on Syfy and starts Harold Perrineau (Lost) Tom Everett Scott (Beauty and the Beast), DJ Qualls (Supernatural), Michael Welch (Twilight), Kellita Smith (The Bernie Mac Show) Anastasia Baranova (The Darkness II) as Addy and Russell Hodgkinson (Big Fish).

Here's a look:

What do you think it's going to take for Z Nation to leave its mark in the zombie genre?

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