Spoilers for Sunday night’s The Walking Dead are below.
Over the past five seasons and change, The Walking Dead has done a great job of tossing in pop culture references that aren’t immediately obvious. And while those usually come in the form of zombie movie homages, this past weekend’s episode had a moment that hearkened back to one of the scariest movies of all time: Alien. And it all involved those gross-as-shit walkers that were introduced in all their horrifying glory.
You’ll recall when Aaron and Maggie are walking around down in the sewers in an attempt to make it out into the world outside Alexandria to try and find Glenn, they stumble upon that one pipe with the rotted-but-agile walkers that rise from the muck. Here’s how executive producer and effects mastermind Greg Nicotero explained the bit, according to TV Insider.
I stole a shot out of Alien. When that walker lifts its head up, I wanted it to be like the first time the alien lifts its head and you see the tongue come out. You're mesmerized by it, so while you're staring at it, all of a sudden the second walker bolts out of the pile. The way we shot that was definitely a [director] Ridley Scott homage.
It was indeed a great moment in the episode. The brain is just getting used to seeing that first sickening bastard, and just when it looks like Maggie is going to brain it, the other walker comes flying out of the dark. Apparently there was something in this sewer water that allowed these specific zombies to pick up “staying hidden and quiet until just the right moment” as an adaptive trait. Whatever the reality of walker evolution is, these devolved cretins made for one of the series’ best gross-out moments.
Much like parts of Alien, also, this moment utilized suspense that gave way to killer special effects. Granted, the chestburster scene didn’t get quite as nasty as Maggie pushing her hands through that one zombie’s shoulder, but the juxtaposition of techniques is still there.
The scene’s more recognizable reference also involved these grody walkers, as their sunken eyes and heavily decayed looks were inspired by Tarman, one of the Triombie types from Dan O’Bannon’s stellar The Return of the Living Dead. Nicotero got his career working on George Romero’s Day of the Dead in 1985, the same year as Return, which was co-written by John Russo, who co-wrote Night of the Living Dead with Romero. It’s a small world in zombie cinema. Now let’s just get Ridley Scott in the sub-genre at some point.