When Heath Ledger first flashed that smudged red crack of a smile as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," the expectations for superhero movies were forever changed – out with schlock and camp, in with serious themes, gritty action and Oscar-caliber acting.
When the world gets a first look at "The Walking Dead," AMC's post apocalyptic zombie-filled TV series debuting on Halloween night, the same will happen for the horror genre – especially as it applies to TV.
From its source material (Robert Kirkman's ongoing graphic novel of the same name) to Frank Darabont's writing/direction and Greg Nicotero's makeup supervision, the show feels weightier and more real than anything before it.
HBO's "True Blood" is sexy and stylish, but still with the stench of camp. The CW's "The Vampire Diaries" is too pretty to be taken seriously. And "Zombieland," the latest zombie flick to make a splash, was cool and funny -- another silly zombie spoof.
But "The Walking Dead"'s pilot episode, beautifully filmed, lingering on inspired acting performances and carefully crafted, believable dialogue, is character-driven enough for nonbelievers – yet gory and startling enough for true horror fans.
"We're doing something that's never been done before," Steven Yeun, 26, who plays former pizza delivery boy Glenn, told The Wrap. "It's not just the fact that this is about zombies. With this show, we've seen emotions I've never thought to go to: guttural, internal emotion pouring out, what you see in real life."
The six-episode arc largely follows Kirkman's graphic novel, centered on Georgia sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes. But where the graphic novel speeds along after Grimes wakes in the hospital – alone – the show’s slowed-down pace allows for a more detailed, gut-punching personal journey, with each emotion registering in shadow and light on British actor Andrew Lincoln's hollow-eyed face.
Even the horror itself has been made into something more than just horrible: A scene in the very beginning of the comic, when Grimes sees a skeletal zombie in the grass, stretches into visceral, close-up horror in the TV show, with the legless, female zombie crawling and helplessly gurgling, a disturbing mix of veiny flesh and rotting gums.
It’s a sight to pity as much as fear.
"That is the first zombie we really get a close look at in the show. She's both threatening and sympathetic," veteran makeup supervisor Nicotero told TheWrap. "Rick really is moved. That puts the zombies in a completely different place than ever before."
Nicotero, whose resume includes Darabont's "The Green Mile" as well as several George Romero zombie flicks including 1985's "Day of the Dead,” coached more than 150 wannabe extras in a special zombie school a few days before the series' two-and-a-half-month summer shoot in Atlanta.
The show's walking corpses don't look drowned in ketchup, nor are they relegated to caricature status; rather, there’s a certain humanity and sadness in them.
Kirkman, 31, also an executive producer and writer on the show based on his graphic novel, said he felt envious of the Darabont-helmed pilot.
The look and writing, he said, feel movie-worthy.
"It's kind of frustrating for me, with the pilot episode, where I think, 'Why didn't I do it that way in the comic?'" Kirkman told The Wrap.
"I'm encouraging Frank and the writers to veer off the path in the comic books as they deem necessary,” he added. “I trust them. It's a really cool thing for someone to take your work and elevate it."
As with Don Draper on "Mad Men" and Walter White on "Breaking Bad,” Rick Grimes joins an elite list of strong yet reluctant anti-hero types heading up Emmy-winning AMC dramas.
It may be a good thing, then, that Darabont's initial pilot script for NBC fell through, leaving the risk-taking AMC to step in.
"The show really fits the programming on AMC. They deal with shades of gray," said executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. "You're not going to engage in the show if the characters aren't compelling. Would it be worth being a television series even if the zombies didn't exist? Yes. "
Still, those zombies better pay off for AMC, which for the first time is developing and producing from start to finish (a partnership with Fox International Channels means "The Walking Dead" will be launched in 120 countries).
“It's a genre that travels well, it's a genre that does quite a bit at the box office,” said AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier. “It's source material that sets a road map for us. Hopefully the finish is not for a long, long time."
And if any horror-themed show had a chance to change the tone of the exploding genre, “The Walking Dead” is it.
Sure, "True Blood" has its bloody, buzzed-about Rolling Stone cover, and "The Vampire Diaries" just landed a pouty TV Guide cover spread.
So much fluff, when compared to “The Walking Dead’s” creative chops and Darabont's cred.
"We're very well aware of the trends. The impetus of this was the writing," Collier said. "Ours is a survival story, human drama. It's not camp. Unlike some of the ways the story has been told in the vampire dramas, this is a story at its soul a tale of adversity. Would you lead or follow? It does all go back to that classic element of storytelling."
However gritty, compelling and human, the show won't be greenlit, though, without a close look at the ratings.
Kirkman joked that he wanted 30 seasons. Hurd said she "was dead set" on a second.
"We're going to do what we always do, and let a few episodes play out," Collier said. "Often, it's after an entire season. In this case, it's six weeks.”
But even if “The Walking Dead” is DOA, the horror genre will never be the same.