The Walking Dead's New Smart Zombies Are Rooted in the Show's First Episodes

A new walker variant means new problems on the final season of The Walking Dead. "I've heard stories of walkers that can climb walls and open doors. I was never sure if they were just stories," said Aaron (Ross Marquand) in the show's San Diego Comic-Con trailer, revealing what appeared to be zombies with brraaiinnss. But before The Walking Dead ends with its last episodes, premiering October 2 on AMC, the zombie drama is going back to the beginning: by bringing back "smart" walkers not seen on the flagship since its first season. 

"There's a reason why he's saying those particular words," showrunner Angela Kang teased in an interview with EW about Aaron's ominous dialogue. "And it will cause some massive problems for our people."

The trailer showed just that: a walker climbing a fence and a turning doorknob. "We've seen that on the show before," noted AMC's Walking Dead Universe chief content officer and executive producer Scott M. Gimple, referring to walkers who exhibited more human-like behavior in the show's earliest episodes. 

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(Photo: AMC Studios)

In one, a little girl walker picks up a bloodied teddy bear before Morgan's (Lennie James) reanimated wife tries opening the door to their family home. In another, flesh-hungry walkers scale a gate and smash a department store window with a rock to get inside. 

"It has escaped discussion on the show. You can see in the trailer, there's some different behavior, but this isn't any sort of reinvention," Gimple said. "It's addressing something that is inside the show already. The calls are coming from inside the house."

Director and executive producer Greg Nicotero, who has served as The Walking Dead's special makeup effects guru since 2010, explained the inconsistencies in walker behavior: producers were still working out which kind of walkers were roaming in the live-action adaptation of creator Robert Kirkman's comic book. 

"The truth is we hadn't really figured out yet what the rules for the zombies were. They were also a bit faster in the first episode when they chased Rick down the street on his horse," said Nicotero of the pilot from then-showrunner Frank Darabont, whose walker rules did not live on in later seasons. "There's another scene where Glenn and Rick are being chased down the alley and they start climbing up a fire escape. And there are walkers climbing up behind them. We were still figuring it out. But we decided that it was an opportunity."

As for why these walkers seemingly disappeared for 12 years, Nicotero explained, "We sort of played into that as if there might be certain walkers in certain regions that might have different abilities that we really haven't seen before. We're kind of playing into the idea that some of these are out there and they're just encountering them now."

Over on The Walking Dead: World Beyond, CDC virologist Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich) — a character also not seen since the first season of The Walking Dead — coined the term "variant cohorts" for French walkers who appeared to be faster and stronger than regular roamers. According to Gimple, that's less to do with The Walking Dead and more of a problem for Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who will find himself in France in his solo spinoff series taking place after the flagship series ends. 

"These are very distinct environments and very distinct landscapes," Gimple said of France and Ohio, where the Commonwealth is located on The Walking Dead. "[The World Beyond coda] was out in Europe. But we know someone who's going to be out there, so he might have his hands full."

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The Walking Dead: The Last Episodes begin October 2 on AMC and with a two-episode premiere on AMC+. 

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