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The cast and producers of The Walking Dead were scheduled to take the stage at Comic-Con’s Hall H in San Diego on Friday afternoon to preview the season 8 of AMC’s hit zombie drama. But the panel took on a somber, reverential tone before any talk of the new episodes could commence as the TWD team paid tribute to 33-year-old stuntman John Bernecker, who died July 12 at an Atlanta hospital after falling 30 feet onto a concrete floor during a fight scene on the set, and, later, the godfather of the zombie film, George A. Romero, who died last week.
Production on season 8 was shut down for several days after the fatality, with the cast returning to work at the beginning of this week. Cast members expressed their condolences on social media, and executive producer Scott M. Gimple said in a statement, “Our production is heartbroken by the tragic loss of John Bernecker.”
At the Fear the Walking Dead panel that took place right before The Walking Dead session, Talking Dead host/moderator Chris Hardwick opened the proceedings with a moment of silence for Bernecker. And at the Walking Dead panel, instead of Hardwick moderating as usual, the producers and cast appeared on stage and Gimple began by saying, “We want to start out today by telling you about John Bernecker. John was a stunt performer. You’ve probably seen his work before — you just didn’t know it.” He rattled off his credits which include Looper, This Is the End, Hunger Games, 22 Jump Street, Get Out, Logan, and Black Panther.
“John passed away this week after he was injured doing something he loved — helping tell stories that excite, entertain, and give people escape,” he continued. “John was someone beloved in the stunt community, someone who trained other people and helped them break into the business. He was living his dream, and he helped other people do the same thing.”
“We didn’t really know if we should do this panel, but we wanted to be here for you,” Gimple shared before introducing the season 8 trailer.
After the trailer was enthusiastically received, the floor was opened to questions, one of which was about the impact of legendary horror director Romero, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 77. (Romero was discussed at length during the Fear the Walking Dead panel earlier.)
Walking Dead executive producer/guru Robert Kirkman talked about falling in love with Romero’s work with Night of the Living Dead, which he saw unedited on network TV in the ’90s. “Just to go on that ride for the first time, to see what it is a zombie story can be,” he said, “the fact that it just starts as this little story about a brother and sister going to the graveyard and there’s things coming after them, and there’s monsters, leading all the way to in the insanely poignant ending that is just so moving. I was instantly in love with the genre and instantly in love with the man as a filmmaker. Watching those movies takes me back to that time every time, immediately, so I couldn’t be more upset about that loss.”
During the Fear the Walking Dead panel, executive producer Greg Nicotero, who worked closely with Romero over the years, starting with Day of the Dead, praised Romero, saying, “Everyone here owes a debt to one man, George Romero. None of us would be here if not for this guy. He really broke boundaries in the ’60s with stories that had social commentary. He used zombie apocalypse to say things about what was going on in the world. And he opened the doors for hundreds and hundreds of makeup artists.”
At the Walking Dead panel, Nicotero shared a fun memory of his friendship with Romero. “It’s pretty amazing the people that he’s inspired,” he said, recalling how he took Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Edgar Wright, and Simon Pegg to the Pittsburgh premiere of 2005’s Land of the Dead. Before the premiere, they visited the cemetery where Romero films Night of the Living Dead and the mall where he shot Dawn of the Dead. “I have photos of Quentin and Robert and I doing zombie walks in the middle of the Monroeville Mall,” shares Nicotero. “So we go to the screening and we’re talking to George, and Robert Rodriguez says, ‘Oh my god, we just went to the Monroeville Mall and we saw where you shot Dawn of the Dead,’ and he’s like, ‘Grow up! What’s the matter with you guys?’ And we were all like, ‘No, you don’t understand… We have to go to these places the movies that meant so much to us…’ It’s a sad time for all of us, but he’s given us so much and that’s the legacy that he leaves.”
Most of the Q&A had a lighter tone, with the producers and cast riffing off fan questions. Gimple answered a query about whether the show would ever explore a different part of the world by saying “it’s something that we want to see” before joking, “We’re looking for Walking Dead: The Serengeti, Walking Dead: Death Valley. “Look for the Walking Dead: Sweden,” noted Kirkman.
Responding to a question from a fan who wondered if there was a good line in the show that didn’t air because of the FCC, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a.k.a Negan, quipped, “We are allowed seven s—s, one goddamn, and zero f—s.” Morgan also joked about the worst part of playing the character: Wearing a leather jacket in 120-degree heat.
English actor Andrew Lincoln, a.k.a. Rick, was ribbed for the way that he pronounces his son’s name, Carl. (Cuhrl!) Lennie James, who plays Morgan, also asked the audience if they were the familiar with the drinking game in which one drinks every time that Rick says, “Carl!” (Drinking game not recommended.)
Season 8 of The Walking Dead kicks off Oct. 22, and the first trailer can be seen right here.