A Brief History of Frank Darabont’s Journey Through Horror

Director, writer, and producer Frank Darabont is well-known for bringing several Stephen King stories to life, including The Green Mile, The Mist, and The Shawshank Redemption. His work garnered critical acclaim along with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, eventually leading to a collaboration with AMC to develop a comic book-based series called The Walking Dead. Here’s a look back at his horror screenwriting history and how it prepped him to build the foundation for the biggest zombie apocalypse TV series of all time.

The Horror P.A. Days

Darabont’s film career started a few years after graduation from high school in 1977. He worked at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and spent countless hours consuming free movies while also writing in his spare time.

In an interview on Post Mortem with Mick Garris, Darabont says he got his start as a production assistant for the 1981 slasher flick Hell Night. A production assistant is a tough entry-level job with lot of “gofer” work to help keep things running smoothly. But it’s also a great gateway to ask questions, make connections, and learn the ins and outs of how everything works. In fact, Darabont connected with Hell Night Executive Producer Charles Russell and they went on to make horror movie magic together.
The Screenwriting Saga

Russell and Darabont’s professional relationship led to the pair working on the script of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. By the late ’80s, Darabont had some writing and directing experience under his belt outside of the horror genre, but he hadn’t managed to achieve a wider level of success.

His work revising Wes Craven’s original script gave Darabont a chance to dive deeper into a genre he loved. Interestingly, A Nightmare on Elm Street subverted the common trope of killing Black characters, having not one but two Black men survive the horror. The franchise’s second film cast doubt on whether this movie would be a success but it defied critical and commercial expectations.

In a 1987 Nightmare of Elm Street interview with Darabont and Russell, it’s clear that Russell is the more verbose and experienced person. But, the clip reveals that they were behind bringing more fun, laughs, rules, and thrills to the Freddy and the franchise overall.

The Freddy success made Darabont an in-demand horror writer and afforded him and Russell a chance to pick back up with their remake of The Blob. The 1988 film didn’t mirror the success of their Freddy foray, and things didn’t get much better with critical pushback towards his follow-up horror effort The Fly II. However, those films were necessary stepping stones. They helped to sharpen Darabont’s skill of taking an established property and revamping the world with his creative eye.

The Horror Direction & Walking Dead connections

In his earlier years, Darabont had written and directed a non-horror Stephen King short that established his relationship with the prolific author. That connection paid off in more ways than one by allowing the creator to direct and write The Mist, a horror film based on Stephen King’s book of the same name. This film was over ten years post-Shawshank Redemption, a testament to Darabont’s unwavering affection for horror.

It proved to be an all around hit and unexpectedly cemented a foundation for The Walking Dead. The Mist starred several actors who would later be tapped to star in the initial ensemble cast for Darabont’s TV adaptation of the comic series: Laurie Holden (Andrea), Melissa McBride (Carol), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale), and Juan Gabrial Pareja (Morales). He also met makeup wizard Greg Nicotero, who would later become the man behind The Walking Dead’s gruesome looks.

Darabont revealed in a DVD interview for The Mist that he was inspired by Night of the Living Dead (he’s a major Romero fan) and a story about what people can do under extraordinary circumstances. Basically, the entire experience with The Mist was a nice setup for his next great claim to fame.

It’s no secret that the relationship between Frank Darabont and AMC ended in a convoluted legal mess. However, the success of The Walking Dead is certainly attributed to Darabont’s work as a showrunner in the series’ infancy. He developed and pitched the show around for several years until AMC gave the green light.

The show’s tone, world building, and vision belonged to Darabont, who wrote the pilot, co-wrote three episodes, and executive produced the six-episode first season. The comic was successful, but there was no guarantee that this success would translate over to TV viewers, so the show’s budget was slim. Darabont managed to take what he had and delivered a show that depicted the zombie apocalypse from an intense and fresh perspective. The Walking Dead broke TV viewership records before live-tweeting became common and scored an early season two renewal.

There have been many ups and down since those early days but there’s no denying that Darabont is a horror aficionado and played a role in bringing fans films from the genre—and beyond. Is he permanently done with horror? Probably not. Something tells us that he might come back one day.

Feature Image: Mick Garris Interviews

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