Throughout its nine seasons, The Walking Dead has been known just as much for its charismatic and over-the-top villains as it has for the zombie apocalypse it’s set in. With the newest big bad, though, those two things are blended together to create something pretty terrifying.
The Whisperers is a group within The Walking Dead that survives by wearing skin suits made from walkers and blending in with the undead as they roam what’s left of the country. It’s a storyline and group of characters pulled right from the pages of the Walking Dead comics and, as GameSpot learned during a visit to the AMC show’s set, adapting it for TV was no easy task.
It was a hot day in September when I headed outside of Atlanta, where the series films, to get my first look at the Whisperers. Along with other members of the press, we wandered through a big open field in the sweltering heat, walking by groups of extras and actors wearing zombie masks, rather than the typical makeup and prosthetics you see on the series.
As executive producer and visual effects Greg Nicotero explained to the press, though, these new masks are, in some ways, even more detailed than the makeup because the way the Whisperers are presented in the comics simply wouldn’t work on TV. “It’s tricky because the way they were drawn in the comic books, they were trying to emulate that sort of sagging skin, so they all looked melted,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want them to look melted and I don’t want it to look like Leatherface either.'”
The key, it turned out, was a bit of a cheat. “The trick is, you got to preserve kind of the bone structure of the skull, even though theoretically the bone structure wouldn’t be there because they’re flaying the skin off,” he continued. “But when you look at the masks, you can see that we maintained that kind of deep eye sockets, because I wanted the brow to stick out enough to put a shadow over the eyes, so when you look at the faces, everything’s in shadow so you get nothing there. I wanted to over-texture everything, so all the sculptures are really over-textured and really shriveled-looking and a lot of rot and decay.”
And, in practice, it’s hard to argue with Nicotero’s vision. As I sat on set and heard a member of the crew shout, “3…2…1…Whisperers!,” before calling action, it was disturbing to watch the new foes shuffle into frame on the monitors set up for viewing. As they whispered at each other in a guttural tone reminiscent of the show’s signature zombie moaning, it became difficult to distinguish those in skinsuits from the actual walkers.
And that difficulty, paired with the kind of depraved mind that would sew together pieces of rotting skin into a full-body suit are what makes this group so horrifying. “How many recent movies have had the masked killer that that’s what scares people is you can’t bargain with them because they’re soulless, they’re human-less?” Nicotero wonders. “And now we have a group of people that they’re wearing dead fucking skins, you know?” Nicotero says.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays on AMC.