Waking the Dead

Cable networks are taking a stab at television’s nostalgia wave by resurrecting evil spirits and demonic children from iconic horror movies in an eff ort to scare up new viewers.

Network executives are betting that reviving decades- old stories of chainsaw-wielding exorcists (Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead), scary, masked millennial killers (MTV’s Scream) and adolescent antichrists (A&E’s Damien) will break through scripted television’s cluttered marketplace, attracting fans of the classic characters as well as new, younger viewers already attuned to the horror genre.

“Anything that can give you a leg up in this environment certainly helps,” A&E executive vice president and head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant said.

That network will launch a pair of new horror series this year, one based on the Frankenstein legend and the other on the 1970s horror flick The Omen.


In a climate where the terrorist threat and news of other random killings are sparking Americans’ fears, the horror genre provides an odd escape from reality.

No one can argue the continued success of the horror genre in today’s television marketplace. Shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead — the most watched series in cable history in total viewers and among adults 18-34 — as well as FX’s American Horror Story franchise, which just won Lady Gaga a Golden Globe for best actress in a miniseries — have made horror one of the most reliable genres in the industry.

“I think The Walking Dead certainly made putting a genre show on television cool,” Greg Nicotero, executive producer, director and special effects makeup supervisor of the series, said in an interview.

Before TWD — which returns to AMC for the second half of season six on Sunday, Feb. 14 — it was assumed a show featuring zombies would appeal only to zombie fans.

“What you always hope for is a TV show that transcends those boundaries, and Walking Dead has been able to do it,” Nicotero said. “And, very much like other moments in entertainment, the minute you show that you can do something that people didn’t believe could happen, everybody wants to do it.”

Even with horror’s appeal to today’s TV audiences, it’s still tough — even with gory shock value — to break through the clutter of an unprecedented competitive TV marketplace.

Last year, more than 400 scripted series were available to TV viewers, according to FX. That fact led network president John Landgraf to proclaim that there are too many shows on the air.

One way for a network to break through that clutter is to launch a new show based on an existing franchise with a built-in fan base, programmers said.

Ash vs. Evil Dead, a new series launched by Starz this past Halloween, revisits the 1981 Sam Raimi classic The Evil Dead. The sequel series is set 30 years after the original film, in which a group of humans, led by unconventional exorcist Ashley “Ash” Williams, destroyed an evil demon.

That demon has returned and so has Williams (again played by Bruce Campbell), who is tasked, along with several new characters, with taking it down once more.

“The fans wanted more story — they love the world and the characters and they can’t abide by the fact that the story has ended,” Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik said. “They’re looking for that continuation that keeps the world going and keeps their heroes functioning in a way they want to see them.”

Starz has already been picked up the series for a second season.

MTV this past June launched a new series based on Scream, the franchise that started with Wes Craven’s popular 1996 film.

The new series has stayed true to the original movie, in which a maniacal killer stalks unsuspecting college kids. But MTV gave the rebooted Scream a contemporary look and feel — and an identity of its own — by changing the iconic mask worn by the movie’s antagonist.

The result? The series slashed its way to 6 million viewers for its June 30 premiere in live-plus-3-day ratings and earned a second-season renewal from the network.

A&E will test the revival waters this spring with the launch of Damien, based on the 1976 supernatural film The Omen, which follows the exploits of a child who — unbeknownst to his adoptive parents — is the antichrist.


The series, headed by former The Walking Dead showrunner Glenn Mazzara, follows the now-adult Damien Thorn, played by Bradley James, as he begins to face his true identity. Viewer familiarity with the Damien character from The Omen brings a certain cache to the series before it even launches, Bryant said.

“When you have something iconic like The Omen and a name like Damien, it’s a high concept to start with,” Bryant said.

The show’s theme of the antichrist walking among us fits well with today’s fears of an uncertain future, she added. Such fears of a future filled with unexpected twists and turns have propelled shows like the zombie drama The Walking Dead.

A&E will also look to trade on the Frankenstein lore with the U.K.-produced series Frankenstein Chronicles. More of a crime series than a horror show, Frankenstein Chronicles plays off the classic movie’s theme of man’s desire to play God by creating life in the midst of death.

The series stars Sean Bean (Legends) as a detective investigating a series of crimes, offenses which may have been committed by a scientist seeking to bring back the dead.

“You have the Frankenstein name that just will pull some people out,” Bryant said. “It’s our job to do the marketing to make it seem like it’s not a monster [series], but Sean Bean being a crime investigator coming upon the macabre situation in which people are stitched together in the spirit of the Frankenstein lore.”

The network has already tasted success in the genre with its series Bates Motel, a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 horror flick Psycho.

Bates Motel, which stars Freddie Highmore as a young Norman Bates living with his overbearing mother (Vera Farmiga), will launch its fourth season this spring.

TNT will step into the fray when it brings back the horror series Tales From the Crypt, 20 years after HBO ended its seven-year run with the franchise.

TNT has tapped suspense/horror director and producer M. Night Shyamalan to produce new episodes of the anthology series, which will be part of a two-hour terror/ horror block launching this fall.

New episodes of Tales, based on the 1950s EC Comics series, will serve as an umbrella for the many shows within the block, TNT and TBS president Kevin Reilly said earlier this month at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. He wouldn’t say if the Crypt Keeper — the skeletal, corpselike figure who “hosted” the HBO series from 1989 to 1996 — would be revived as well.

Spanish-language network NBC Universo hopes to parlay Hispanic fandom of The Walking Dead with dubbed episodes from the series’s first three seasons starting Wednesday (Jan. 20).

The survival story has particular appeal to Hispanics, senior vice president of programming and production Bilai Joa Silar said.

“It has many elements that are relatable to the Hispanic viewer, including making sacrifices for family and a better life,” she said. “It also has a built-in, loyal fan base that, until now, has not been able to watch the show with Spanish dialogue.”


Reimagining a beloved horror franchise comes with the inherent risk of alienating core fans who loved the original project, executives said. A&E is trying to avoid that pitfall with Damien by inserting scenes from the 1976 film to secure the connection in viewers’ minds.

“There are Easter eggs within the series that if you know the film very well, you’ll get a little more, but I don’t think you need to know everything about the original to get into Damien,” she said. “We hope that some of the older people who know the iconic movie come in, but we’re hoping to appeal to younger viewers who don’t necessarily have the baked-in awareness.”

If done right, contemporary series based on classic horror franchises can go a long way toward thrilling viewers, Starz’s Zlotnick said.

“Franchises are valuable — they’ve always been valuable, from Sherlock Holmes to Jaws, and people have continued to adapt stories that really work,” he said. “If we can convert fans of a franchise into subscribers, it becomes a big business for us.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.