The season seven premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on Oct. 23 is set to be one of the biggest television events of the fall as fans impatiently wait and speculate on the fate of one of the show’s beloved characters.
Back in April, the season six finale was a 90-minute nail-biter that ended in yet another cliffhanger as viewers were finally introduced to the group’s latest nemesis, Negan. It’s certain that one of Sheriff Rick Grimes’ crew has met his or her tragic end via a barb wire-bound baseball bat nicknamed Lucille.
“It was a rough episode,” Greg Nicotero, the show’s head of special effects and makeup and also one of the executive producers and directors, said of directing the first episode of the new season.
“Our story is dark, man. There’s not a lot of, like, ‘Yay!’ left in our world anymore, so it is really dark and kind of where the show needed to go. I love the idea that no matter how well our characters think they know what’s coming next, there’s no way they can predict it. To me, it’s fascinating and captivating and you know, yeah, people are going to be (upset).”
Nicotero said he never could have dreamed that the little show he fell in love with would garner such a massive following.
“I knew the show was something I would watch because I’m a fan of the genre,” he said. “The thing that ‘The Walking Dead’ has been able to do is transcend those traditional boundaries by appealing to a much broader group of people. I’ve had a grandmother and a granddaughter come up to me and say ‘Oh my God, we love your show we watch it together.’ It has oddly become a family bonding experience to watch ‘The Walking Dead’ communally.”
He also fully understands the next day buzz and water cooler talk around the office or the fiery outcries on social media after an episode airs, as he and his crew are also big fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“I watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ and I love every minute of it, and to me that’s how ‘The Walking Dead’ fans watch our show, every Sunday night,” he said. “It’s about being taken on a journey, and sometimes that journey takes you to some (messed) up places. It’s emotional sometimes, even for us that work on the show. Filming that first episode, yeah, it’s definitely not always a pleasant thing. People get so passionate about it because it’s like watching a movie, but having 80 hours to tell the story. You can see a movie and someone dies and you’re like ‘Oh, I knew him for an hour and a half and he’s dead and that sucks,’ but if you’ve known someone for 60 hours and they die, you’re like ‘Son of a (gun)! I loved that guy or girl, or whatever!’”
Nicotero and his crew at KNB EFX have worked on hundreds of television shows and feature films, but their warehouse is where all of the walkers come to life for “The Walking Dead.” There are numerous work stations filled with animatronic figures and puppets being put together and gory, fleshy silicon masks being carefully constructed. Nicotero, who was a pre-med student before he went full-time into special effects, pointed out the accurate anatomy of a variety of zombie heads that line a particular shelf.
As a man on his crew delicately hand-painted veins onto an eyeball, Nicotero reached over and grabbed a handful of zombie dentures that had just been finished, each set more rotten and grotesque than the last.
“Teeth are important,” he noted. “A lot of care is put into them since they are the primary weapon of zombies.”