iZombie's Rob Thomas + Diane Ruggiero-Wright on building the perfect zombie show

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Jul 28, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT (Updated)

The iZombie DC/Vertigo comic book created by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred was a trippy and strange detour from the typical zombie affair. So how would it translate to television under the CW umbrella, which has recently opened up new avenues of science fiction and genre television?

They hope iZombie will feature the next great woman of sass in genre television, following the path paved by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. So who better to run the show than Mars co-creators Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright? They appeared at Comic-Con International along with cast members Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, David Anders, Robert Buckley and Rahul Kohli to show a brief 15-minute preview of the series to fans were wondering, "How different is it going to be?"

"I'm a big fan of the comic, and I love it, and it's funny because Chris Roberson wrote it as a TV show in mind," Ruggiero-Wright said. "But I don't know how you translate Ellie the 1960's ghosts or Spot the were-terrier without a ton of money. I don't know how you do that effectively. There's so much in the show that's inspired (by the comic), but it's subtle. Izombie is more the feeling of a young woman being torn between being dead and alive, who is she and what is life like now and her struggle."

All of the principal cast members have been changed or tweaked but are grounded in the real world. The name of the female protagonist, Gwen, has been changed to Liv, and instead of being a gravedigger she's a young med student until she becomes a zombie. After transfering her residency to the coroner's office -- giving her access to brains -- Liv now works with homicide detectives and medical examiners, giving The CW a new age procedural, framed by genre, as Liv tries to silence the voices in her head.

"There's a lot of procedurals, some that feature psychics or photographic memories," Ruggiero-Wright continued. "But for a person to physically take in memories and have a personal insight, and feel closer to them is something new in a way. What's unique to our show, is when she eats brains, she takes on their personality traits and abilities. In one episode she takes on the brain of a sociopath, another a seductive artist. 

"In the pilot, she's a kleptomaniac but she can also speak Romanian (as a result of eating brains). If she ate a mechanic's brain, she'd suddenly know that carburetor is broken by the sound of it. It's not like Quantum Leap, she's not jumping into other people. She takes on abilities, but she doesn't become that person."

Rules are a big part of supernatural TV shows. Where are they broken, where are they maintained, which ones do an interesting spin on them? iZombie has its own, but the main one is that zombies who continue to eat brains can and will function as normal.

"But if they become hungry," Thomas explained. "They become 'Romeros,' which are more of the traditional zombies that fall apart and become brain dead. A long time without brains, she'll start to devolve." In what is likely to be an unwritten rule of most episodes, Liv will get something good from the brain, and something bad from the brain.

Procedurals are obviously nothing new, and the zombie craze has effectively infiltrated mainstream media thanks to the success of The Walking Dead and In the Flesh, as well as infiltrating other genre shows like Supernatural and Being Human. So where does iZombie find its place among them?

"We're not going to out-Walking Dead the Walking Dead," said Thomas. "Both of us like really writing dramas with lots of levity, something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Warm Bodies; oddly it's going to be a zombie show with heart and humor."

Liv will experience the memories through flashes and a handheld, first-person perspective, accompanied by going through the eye into the brain, in what they hope will be a cool visual. Thomas also hopes that they'll have enough of a budget to do an honorary nod to the comic and art of Mike Allred.

"We want to do it in a cool way," Thomas said. "We're opening each of our acts in freeze frames that look like comic book panels. I also want him to do our main title sequence." But we want him to draw panels in his style with all of our characters in this 25-second comic book moment, I'd love to pay homage to him."

On top of juggling what life is like as a zombie, Liv is helping a rookie homicide detective named Clive (Goodwin). Complicating her life is her ex-fiancee, Major (Buckley), who is angling to get her back and other zombies like the overarching antagonist in season one, Blaine (Anders), who understand what they need to do to survive. Unlike Liv, who does it begrudgingly, Blaine welcomes eating brains and absorbing memories. 

"Even though the brain leaves her, the experience doesn't leave her," Ruggiero-Wright explained. "It's like we're building the perfect person, because in one episode Liv is able to do these things, they become a part of the character. So you're building an extremely experienced person by the end of this with more than just her life issues. It's just a rich character."