1 - The Walking Dead season 1 promo shot of Atlanta skyline (credit: AMC)
British actors David Morrissey and Andrew Lincoln fought to the death in the last episode of The Walking Dead, shot in the Deep South state of Georgia. When season 4 of the biggest show in cable television history resumes on 10th February on FOX, the surviving main characters, now scattered around rural Georgia after losing their prison base to zombie hordes, will have to search for each other and find a new home.
For fans of the show, set in a zombie apocalypse, the locations are much easier to seek out - Atlanta Movie Tours drives you straight to them. Celebrating two years in business in March, the company’s two Big Zombie Tours have taken over 5000 fans to the places where the undead previously shuffled along the streets of Atlanta and Senoia, better known as the fictional town of Woodbury to Walking Dead followers.
Dramatic scenes from season 1 were filmed in downtown Atlanta back in 2010. These sites are at the start of The Big Zombie Tour #1. Unusually cold winter weather didn’t stop eager Walking Dead fans from hopping on the company’s distinctive 30-seater bus when I took the trip in January. We met up at their office in Castleberry Hill, an artsy warehouse district in Atlanta where countless Hollywood movie scenes have been shot. The office itself is on a lot used as Queen Latifah’s salon in 2005 movie Beauty Shop and across the street a loading dock was used for scenes in 1989 Oscar-winner Driving Miss Daisy.
“Hollywood loves Castleberry Hill,” says Chaz, our guide for the next three hours, throwing in the occasional movie-related detail on the trip, which mostly focuses on The Walking Dead.
The first stop on the tour is Nelson Street Bridge just around the corner from the office. Chaz points out where scenes from upcoming movie The Hunger Games: Mockingjay were filmed, where Vin Diesel set up his trailer overlooking base camp for Fast & Furious 7 and where his co-star Paul Walker shot his last scenes before his tragic death in November.
“Rick Grimes rode across this bridge, making his symbolic entry into Atlanta in the pilot,” says Chaz of his personal favorite Walking Dead episode where Grimes, a deputy sheriff in Georgia, rides into town like something out of a Western but with an apocalyptic twist. The concrete bridge was cleaned up by The Hunger Games team when shooting here. It’s empty, closed and fenced off, looking a little bleak so it’s easy to imagine it in a post-apocalyptic scenario.
A couple of streets away, Chaz shows us where The Walking Dead’s Rick and Glenn first met, “and their bromance began,” he says, also describing how one downtown street was closed on a Saturday for the pilot episode.
2 - Big Zombie Tour #1 at Jackson Street Bridge, Atlanta (credit: Lee Howard)
The Zombie Tours guides live and breathe The Walking Dead. They’ve also stopped breathing and have been brought back to life again – as zombies, since all the tour guides are extras who have played ‘walkers’, as they’re known in this zombie apocalypse set in Georgia. Chaz has appeared a couple of times on the show. Tall and slim - or “scrawny,” he says - he’s perfect casting for a starving zombie once Greg Nicotero’s Emmy-winning make-up team has worked its magic. His companion on the bus tour, Gabby, played an extra too and stood in for Chandler Riggs, better known as young, trigger-happy Carl Grimes on the show. Stand-ins are better paid than extras, Gabby informs us, smiling, but Chaz counter attacks with news that he had the honor of being shot through the head by an arrow in season 2.
An insider’s perspective and good-humored anecdotes about The Walking Dead set elevate the tour. That makes it unique among similar movie location tours offered in cities like Miami, Los Angeles and New York, says Carrie Burns who started Atlanta Movie Tours with Patti Davis in March 2012. “We've done a little research and we've realized we are one of a few, if not the only tour that has guides that are on the shows and movies you're viewing and you’re going to locations with them,” adds Patti.
Part of the show’s success is its ability to shock and surprise each week. At any given moment a main character could fall prey to a walker and then Twitter lights up with online Walking Dead discussion. The show runs a strict policy to protect plot twists and turns. Everybody – zombie extras included – sign watertight Non Disclosure Agreements when they visit the set.
3 - Nelson Street Bridge, Atlanta, used in pilot episode (credit: Lee Howard)
On the Big Zombie Tours there are certain subjects guides won’t discuss, including any spoilers from the current season until the entire season has aired. Those on the tour, though, debate whatever they want between themselves. On my tour, the big questions were: will Rick’s daughter Judith survive when the show returns? Which main character will follow Hershel and The Governor to their grave?
Chaz and Gabby, however, are duty bound not to chime in on season 4; it’s company policy. “For us, it's a matter of respect for AMC, the show and the people who work for us,” says Patti. Although Atlanta Movie Tours works closely with movie industry companies to promote films, it has no affiliation with AMC, the channel that airs The Walking Dead in the USA. “Ultimately, we would like AMC to see us as a promotional vehicle,” says Carrie.
Carrie, who runs a web development company, and Patti, who worked in charter travel and is a lifestyle writer, met through a mutual friend five years ago. At a restaurant premiere they conceived the idea for Atlanta Movie Tours. A Castleberry Hill resident for 12 years, Carrie had seen a lot of movie and television productions being shot in the area.
“Carrie and I started talking about our mutual love for The Walking Dead,” says Patti. “Carrie started telling me about all the places she was taking people for the locations, when friends came into town. We said: ‘We need to do that for a living.' Within a few days we incorporated and had our first tour a couple of months later.”
Their early tours started on a nearby street but now they have an office, which they opened on Nelson Street in April 2013. Appropriately enough, it’s right near Walker Street. The office sells merchandise including zombie-fied t-shirts custom made by The Walking Dead’s costume designer Eulyn Womble; limited edition signed art posters of Walking Dead star David Morrissey and The Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence; and almost life-size cardboard cut-outs of The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus.
At the back of the store Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler cut-outs embrace – ready for Atlanta Movie Tours’ new Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind tour based on the author’s life in Atlanta and events from the book and movie classic – another phenomenon set in Georgia that’s populated by British actors.
There’s also an Atlanta Film Sites Tour, stopping at locations associated with many movies including Anchorman 2, Dumb and Dumber 2 and the second Hunger Games movie. Hearing this list, it’s beginning to sound like Atlanta is THE place to make a movie sequel. The generous state tax incentive for productions in Georgia certainly helps make what some call the ‘Hollywood of the South’ a financially attractive option. Carrie points out that, in the past, Atlanta has doubled for many American cities, such as both St Louis and Denver in Identity Thief. But there are movies where Atlanta plays itself, a movie “love letter to Atlanta,” says Patti. As an example, in 2011, The Change-Up made good use of Turner Field baseball stadium and What to Expect When You’re Expecting did the same with Piedmont Park a year later.
Back on The Big Zombie Tours bus, Chaz mentions that he’s appeared in over 35 productions, including The Change-Up, The Three Stooges and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He keeps us entertained with a Walking Dead quiz as we drive north to Cobb County to see where season 1 ended with a bang, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre doubling for Atlanta’s CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
There are plenty of photo opportunities on the tour as we hop and off the bus passing by buildings that doubled as King County Sheriff’s Department where Rick Grimes was deputy and the hospital where he awoke from a coma, finding himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Nearby, Chaz points out where season 1’s production offices operated and where Greg Nicotero ran ‘zombie school’, auditioning extras like himself to play the undead, flesh-eating creatures.
4 – The Walking Dead pilot episode, Rick Grimes emerges from hospital (credit: Scott Garfield / AMC)
Now, zombie school is run down in Senoia, an hour’s south of Atlanta. A couple of years before The Walking Dead launched, this small town had just a handful of stores. Now it’s thriving with new additions like The Woodbury Shoppe, a suggested stop on the Big Zombie Tour #2. The second tour, on a Sunday, is a little more expensive than the first one because it has access to more private locations, such as the zombie arena where Dixon brothers Daryl and Merle were forced to fight each other and inside the barn where The Governor met Rick for the first time - two intense scenes from season 3.
On the Big Zombie Tour #1, there’s a break at the elegantly cool Warhorse Coffee Joint, part of the Goat Farm arts complex that has played host to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the episode Vatos on The Walking Dead’s debut season. On one tour, guests were lucky enough to catch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire filming there. “That was a big day for us,” says Patti, back at the office.
Patti admits to being more impressed by celebrities than Carrie. “I like the movies but I like behind the scenes,” says Carrie. “I don't go goo-goo over them - they are people, they are like us, they just happen to be on a big screen!” “Not me, I'm a big fan!” laughs Patti. “We thought we were fans of The Walking Dead when we first started this, and we are fans but we didn't realize to what depth these people love the show.”
Guests from Australia, Germany, China, Japan, UK and other countries have taken their tours and seen the city’s sights along the way. “They're coming to tour the United States and they make a special trip to Atlanta to do our tours,” explains Patti, who, like Carrie, is originally from Florida.
And those on the tour band together for a last photo opportunity at the final stop, with a quintessential backdrop of Atlanta’s skyline. Taken from Jackson Street Bridge, it’s the image from The Walking Dead’s season 1 poster campaign. Again, this is where Rick Grimes rides toward the city on deserted freeway lanes.
5 - The Walking Dead episode: Vatos shot at The Goat Farm, Atlanta (credit: Scott Garfield / AMC)
Having come full circle, it’s back to the office to pick up some merchandise. I ask Patti what’s the most popular item. “I think that’s our very own ‘I Survived the Big Zombie Tour’ t-shirt,” she says.
We discuss whether or not Atlanta is truly the zombie capital of the world now, thanks to its horror genre ties including Dragon Con, Zombieland, The Walking Dead and an increasing number of charity zombie runs in and around the city. Pittsburgh, however, is where director George A. Romero revolutionized the zombie genre with movies such as Day of the Dead, the film that gave The Walking Dead’s Greg Nicotero his career break back in 1985.
Patti nails it (and buries it for it good?) “I think Pittsburgh is a little miffed that Atlanta grabbed the Zombie Capital of the World title - that's where Night of the Living Dead started. They’re like the granddaddy and we are the cool uncle!”
Big Zombie Tour #1 starts at Atlanta Movie Tours’ office at 327 Nelson Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30313. Your car’s GPS might direct you to the wrong end of Nelson Street so try the intersection of Nelson Street SW and, of course, Walker Street SW.
Tel: 855 255 FILM (3456).
The 3-hour Big Zombie Tour #1 usually operates twice on a Saturday, at 10am and 2pm, priced at $45. The 3-hour Big Zombie Tour #2 begins in Senoia, usually on Sundays at 10am and 2pm, priced at $65. Check full tour options on the Atlanta Movie Tours calendar.
Part B of The Walking Dead season 4 starts on 10th February at 9pm on FOX