Somewhere on the impressive 140-acre studio space where ‘The Walking Dead’ is brought to life, is a small gravel lot that holds a special significance in the show’s history.
Not only was this the place where Father Gabriel’s church once stood, it was also the spot where Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) brutally murdered fan-favorite characters Glenn and Abraham using his barbed wire wrapped baseball bat, Lucille. Steven Yeun and Michael Cudlitz, the actors who played the characters, had been with the show since seasons one and four, respectively.
Series executive producer Tom Luse said of the space:
“I don’t know if we’ll shoot here again. This is hallowed ground. … Steven and Michael were personal and professional heroes to us.”
The premiere of season eight of ‘The Walking Dead’ will mark 100 episodes for the series, which is a goal few television shows ever attain. Paying homage to the show’s history will be a significant component of the monumental episode.
Greg Nicotero, who serves as executive producer, director, and special effects makeup maven, gave some information about the episode, saying:
“There are probably two or three sequences in the first episode that I was particularly excited about doing that people will instantly recognize. It’s sort of a thank-you letter for people who have been with us all along, and nodding to little things here and there. Some of them might be a little more obvious, and some of them might be super subtle.”
Nicotero promises that season will pick up the pace compared to past seasons. He explained:
“I would say this is by far the most propulsive season premiere we’ve ever done, in terms of setting the stage for knowing that we’re in the war. Our story arcs tend to play out over multiple episodes, and sometimes we disappear and find people. I think we’re accelerating our pace a little bit this season in terms of having some of those little moments conclude sooner instead of dragging it out over a long period of time. I think the show is going to have a tremendous amount of momentum this year.”
Nicotero came to ‘The Walking Dead’ after a career spent on zombie film classics like ‘Day of the Dead’ and horror franchises like ‘Halloween,’ ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ After eight seasons, he understands the challenge to constantly surprise and shock fans. Nicotero said:
“We’re always trying to keep it fresh and keep it a little different. It keeps my team and myself on our toes, and I like that. [Showrunner] Scott [Gimple] kind of jokingly says, ‘This season’s going to be different, and you should feel uncomfortable because it’s going to push us into places that will allow us to kind of breathe a little bit more.’ And I love that.”
Gimple is also feeling the pressure to deliver a 100th episode that will knock the socks off fans, though he says he’s used to it:
“There’s always an inordinate amount of pressure. Season four was my first as showrunner, so there’s pressure in that. Season five we ended [with] them in a train car. Something happened at the end of season six. So that might have put a little pressure on the premiere after that. This year, we have the 100th episode.”
Picture Gimple sitting at the head of a conference table in a screening room in one of the main buildings at Raleigh Studios. The walls behind and in front of him feature framed pictures of ‘Walking Dead’ characters who have been killed off over the years, identified as the ‘Grateful Dead’ by a sign on the wall. Among the dozens of photos are early season victims like Sophia and Shane alongside recent additions like Glenn and Abraham.
Respect for the departed cast mates can be felt throughout the set, particularly among the (surviving) cast and crew. Norman Reedus (Daryl) says it often takes new actors on the show time to adjust to the intensity of ‘Walking Dead’ fandom. He has said:
“It’s hard to have that thrown at you and not have it affect you in some way. I’m sure it happened to me as well. Once you take that for what it is and don’t let it get to you, it just makes you focus more. I’ve always said the old-school actors on this show are the best employees of this show because they’ve dealt with the fame and the money and the pressure. Now their only interest is making the best show possible.”
Don’t miss the 100th episode of ‘The Walking Dead,’ which premieres on AMC October 22.