“The Walking Dead” returned Sunday night with an episode titled “30 Days Without an Accident,” the first installment of season 4 of the hit AMC zombie series, written by new showrunner Scott M. Gimple and directed by executive producer and special effects makeup expert Greg Nicotero.
The episode alternated between quieter character moments and one simply amazing zombie spectacle sequence that had walkers raining down on our favorite survivors through a hole in the ceiling during a supply run. Of course, the hour ended with a strong indication that the prison is no longer going to be the secure outpost that Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes and his people have endeavored to make it, with disease threatening to disrupt the relative tranquility of life inside the walls.
Late last week, Hero Complex spoke to Nicotero about his work on the episode, including that epic set piece, and about what fans can expect in the coming weeks.
Check out the second installment in our two-part interview below, and click here to read what else Nicotero had to say.
Hero Complex: After last season, your fellow executive producer Gale Anne Hurd mentioned that the walkers would again move to the forefront of the story as a key threat. I think we have a better sense now of what she meant by that.
GN: The danger lies within. At the end of first episode, when Patrick succumbs from this unknown disease and hemorrhages and then you see the closeup of his eyes opening and he’s got hemorrhaged eyes but they’re walker eyes, we know we’re dealing with a whole other threat — the potential of a disease that can kill you before you even have an opportunity to tell anybody that you’re sick. That puts a ticking time bomb right in the middle of cell block C.
HC: When you hear about developments in the storyline of that nature, does the makeup guy in you rejoice?
GN: The makeup guy in me rejoiced because we got a chance to do a little variation on the zombies. Even in the first episode, when Rick’s at the fence and he sees that one walker with blood pouring out of his eyes, we’re getting a little preview. Then, later, at the end of the episode when you see Patrick dead on the ground, you’re like, OK, there was a walker outside the fence that died from the same thing and bled out. It gives you a little more of a global scale of what we’re going to be up against. It’s funny because we’ve never really defined whether it’s a mutation of the walker virus or it’s just like the Spanish flu … or whatever, where it’s just people that are sick but don’t have the ability to take simple antibiotics to clear something up.
HC: How much fun was it to film that set piece inside the store?
GN: It was a blast. The way Scott writes, I saw that scene in my head from the minute that I read it. I sat down and storyboarded all the shots. I flew to Georgia a week early to prep because nobody was really 100% sure how we were going to pull that off. [Production designer Graham] “Grace” Walker built that fantastic set, and between him and [special effects supervisor] Darrell Pritchett, we were rigging stunt guys and dummies into the ceiling and dropping them into the floor. That sequence is a symphony of collaboration. We shot that entire scene in 2 1/2 days. On any big-budget movie, that would have been weeks of shooting. We shot it in 2 1/2 days.
HC: That sequence felt very George Romero to me.
GN: I wanted it to be shocking, and each of those characters gets a moment to fend for themselves. Sasha stabs a guy in the chest with a pool cue and then shoves it up through his chin and it comes out his eye. Bob is trapped underneath the wine cabinet while the walkers are crawling around. I really wanted that scene to be visceral and to be raw. It really is the only big action scene in that episode, so we really needed to set it up that the audience knew, OK, this is what we’ve got in store for us in season 4.
HC: The zombie hanging from the ceiling by his entrails was kind of amazing.
GN: Everyone tells me how disgusting and gory that is, and I was like, “Really?” It’s not gory to me.
HC: Is it possible your view on what’s gory might be somewhat different from the average person’s?
GN: There is a very slim chance that I may not be looking at that realistically, yes.
HC: How many of those zombie gags were included in the original script? Are they intentionally left vague on the page and then you come in and say, “Hey, I have an idea. How about we have a zombie suspended by his entrails from the ceiling?”
GN: There weren’t really a lot of those on the page. The walker that falls through the ceiling and then his face is cracked open and he’s crawling toward Bob and Bob reaches up and pulls part of his head off — those things were sort of hinted at in the script. When I read it, I was like, “No, no, no.” My original idea was that he was going to stick his hand into the crack and literally tear the zombie’s brain out. The gag I was saying with Sasha stabbing the pool cue up through the [zombie's body], those were all gags that I came up with that I pitched to Scott and he put them in there. The stuff with Zack was all in the script, but it was a bit of a free for all — kind of like when you shoot “From Dusk to Dawn” and they all start turning into vampires and the script said, “All hell breaks loose.” Sort of choreographing the “all hell breaks loose” part of it [is my job].
HC: Is the fact that there were so many effects in this episode one of the reasons you were the right person to direct it?
GN: I think that probably had something to do with it. I directed six episodes of “The Walking Dead” so far through the whole series, and they’ve given me bigger and bigger challenges. The shootout with the Governor and Merle in that fight at the end of [episode] 15 [last season] was equally as complicated. The only difference is we didn’t have zombies raining down from the sky. The other thing I bring to the table is I know these characters. I know Rick Grimes, I know Daryl Dixon, I know the characters and I know the actors, and the actors trust me. They knew the show would be in good hands with me directing the premiere.
HC: I love that we got to see Michonne smile.
GN: I love that, too. Even Sasha, getting a chance to get some of her personality and some of Tyreese’s personality — we really didn’t get much of an opportunity to know them last year. They were there, but we never really got a sense of who they were. I feel like in episode 1 we learned more about Sasha and Tyreese then we did all of season 3.
HC: Please answer this question with the greatest specificity possible. What can viewers expect in Season 4?
GN: It’s going to be a roller-coaster ride. The beauty of it is the threat that we establish in the end of the first episode becomes more and more prevalent. We set up this community in the prison and then we instantly make it unsafe. It’s going to affect everybody, and it’s going to pull people in different directions in terms of how each of them handles the fact that everything they’ve worked to keep safe is now that safe anymore.
Rick — who has put his gun down in favor of raising his children because he doesn’t want his children to turn into monsters — is going to be taxed through the entire season. How is he going to handle those outside forces that are going to force him at some point to even pick up the gun or not pick up the gun? I was talking with someone the other day and they loved the idea of Rick not being Dirty Harry. I thought that was a really daring choice for Scott Gimple to make, to take the hero of the show and disarm him and turn him into a farmer. I thought that was a fascinating choice. Now people will be wondering, “What is it about Rick Grimes now? How is he going to survive? Now that there’s this new threat inside the prison, how is he going to safeguard people?”
I'm ready for stuff and thangs to happen.