On the sprawling 140-acre studio space of “The Walking Dead” outside Atlanta, there’s a small gravel lot that holds a special significance in the show’s history.
Not only was it where Father Gabriel’s church once stood, but it was also the spot where Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the villain introduced in the season six finale, brutally murdered fan-favorite characters Glenn and Abraham. Steven Yeun and Michael Cudlitz, the actors who played the beloved characters, had been with the show since season one and four, respectively.
“I don’t know if we’ll shoot here again,” says series executive producer Tom Luse. “This is hallowed ground. … Steven and Michael were personal and professional heroes to us.”
The season eight premiere of “The Walking Dead” on Oct. 22 will also be the series’ 100th episode, a milestone few television shows ever achieve. Paying homage to that history will be a significant component of the episode.
“There are probably two or three sequences in the first episode that I was particularly excited about doing that people will instantly recognize,” says Greg Nicotero, who serves as executive producer, director and special effects makeup maven. “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 eight is going to significantly pick up the pace compared with past seasons.
“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,” he says. “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’s time on “The Walking Dead” came 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,” but his passion for the series is still palpable, even eight seasons in. He recognizes the challenge to constantly surprise viewers.
“We’re always trying to keep it fresh and keep it a little different,” he says. “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’s also feeling the pressure of delivering a standout 100th episode — but he says he’s used to it. “There’s always an inordinate amount of pressure,” he says. “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,” he says with a laugh (referring to those brutal murders), “so that might have put a little pressure on the premiere after that. This year, we have the 100th episode.”
Gimple’s sitting at the head of a conference table set up in a screening room in one of the main buildings at Raleigh Studios. Lining the walls both behind and in front of him are 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.
The respect for departed cast mates permeates the set, particularly among the (surviving) cast and crew. Star Norman Reedus (Daryl) says it often takes new actors on the show time to adjust to the intensity of “Walking Dead” fandom.
“It’s hard to have that thrown at you and not have it affect you in some way,” he says. “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.”