if you watch
What: “The Walking Dead”
When: Tonight at 9
By Kelli Skye Fadroski
The Orange County Register (TNS)
The season seven premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is set to be the biggest television event of the fall as fans impatiently wait and widely 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, which 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 make-up and also one of the executive producers and directors, said of directing the first episode of the new season during an interview in his office at the KNB EFX warehouse in Chatsworth, Calif., over the summer.
“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 was in the thick of filming and even directing a few episodes of “The Walking Dead” in Georgia back in June, but made time to return to Los Angeles for the opening of Universal Studios Hollywood’s permanent walk-through “The Walking Dead” Attraction, which he co-produced with Halloween Horror Nights creative director John Murdy and his crew. Nicotero said he never could have dreamed that the little show he fell in love with would garner such a massive following, let alone lend itself to be made into a full-time attraction at a major theme park.
“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!’”
Of course, 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.”
He stopped by a towering shelf that holds more than 300 different molds and showed a binder that contains photos of what each of those zombie face molds looks like once complete. He even has a zombie prosthetic molded after himself, which he has worn on occasion as he appeared as a walker in several episodes throughout the series. There is also an entire room filled with serving-style trays lined with a variety of wounds, everything from bullets, slashes and bites, that are prepped and ready to be applied to the actors.
In another room, a couple of guys were carving out kneeling body molds as sculptures of Glenn Rhee’s and Carl Grimes’ faces sat, ready to be prepped on a nearby shelf. The crew was elaborately recreating the final scene in season six, during which all of the characters are kneeling before Negan, to be used at the San Diego Comic-Con.
“We do sculptures of every actor on the show, and every time when I tell them, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a face cast for Comic-Con, they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure you are! I know you’re going to kill me off,’” Nicotero said with a laugh.
Nicotero’s office is covered, floor to ceiling, with some of his favorite posters and poseable figures, while the actual fully sculpted mold of Hershel Greene’s bloody, severed head and the zombie-bitten bust of T-Dog sit out in the open and proudly on display. There’s a stunning collection of memorabilia spread throughout the building, including tons of framed snapshots from movie sets, as well as life-size figures of Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, the mother from “Psycho” sitting quietly in her rocking chair and a trio of super realistic figures from one of Nicotero’s all-time favorite films, “Jaws,” with spot on replicas of the characters played by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.
“Every opportunity I have to talk about ‘Jaws,’ I take it,” Nicotero added.
Though he said that there aren’t many sunny days left ahead for those characters who have survived on “The Walking Dead,” he said he’s not sure exactly how it will all eventually be wrapped up.
“Whenever the show ends, I’ll just go back to Universal Studios and sit in the corner of the attraction and call ‘action!’” he said with a smile. “Listen, it’s strange, but we’ve talked about it [the actors and crew] and the audience is curious as to what will happen. I also wonder what it will be like when it’s over and what all of our lives will be like after ‘The Walking Dead.’”