Warning: many, many Walking Dead spoilers follow...
The Walking Dead is about a lot of things. It's about leadership, and variances in leadership styles; it's about making tough choices and sacrifices; it's about the human will to survive, despite all evidence that full-scale annihilation is not only possible, but probable - and imminent. Lest we forget, though, it's also about zombies! Glorious, gory zombies.
In compiling this list we were looking for zombies that were either iconic, a creative and/or technical feat, or represented a significant moment for the characters and/or plot. Considering the special make-up effects on this series are second to none, we found plenty that were all of the above.
The following is the result of our search. We're essentially assuming that you're caught up on the show if you're reading this list and have some context in terms of the characters and story. Reminder: there are spoilers!
Having said all of that, we invite you to take a look at our top 25 Walking Dead walkers and let us know what you think!
The Lonely Zombie
Fans of the horror genre are always looking for the zombie "hero shot": the close-up, blood and guts, gore on the floor image that really shows off the zombies. Ideally, these moments highlight a distinctive, or simply a particularly gross, aspect to the undead biter being presented. We have plenty of "hero shots" represented on this list, but there's something about the isolated "zombie in the distance" image that really adds to the sense of desolation in the series. It's a simple, but effective, way to quickly convey a feeling of loss and abject loneliness inherent in a world full of living, and dead, who have been robbed of their family, their identity, their humanity and their way.
Deputy Leon Basset
Despite the fact that Rick never much liked this "careless and dumb" man, he cared enough to put the Deputy out of his misery when he came upon his zombiefied corpse wandering outside of the King's County Sheriff's office in the pilot episode of the series, "Days Gone Bye." Basset was present when Rick was shot in the line of duty during the series' open. He's also one of his first fallen - sort of - friends, and one of the first, and only, zombies that Rick kills out of compassion.
Who's Your Flyboy?
The Walking Dead co-executive producer and special make-up effects supervisor Greg Nicotero is a long-time George A. Romero fan who got his start as a make-up effects artist on Romero's Day of the Dead. As a tip of the hat to Romero, and his iconic zombies, Nicotero designed one of the Season 3, episode 5, "Say the Word" walkers to look like "Flyboy" from Dawn of the Dead. The Flyboy-alike can be seen getting the business from Merle in the image below. The Nicotero-helmed episodes often feature distinctive or fan-favorite walkers.
Take a look at Romero's Flyboy for comparison:
Romero Double Take
Season 3, episode 15 "This Sorrowful Life" - also directed by Nicotero - featured another Romero tribute. This time the bald, plaid shirt-wearing "airport zombie" from Dawn of the Dead took center stage. Romero's original is a favorite for many horror fans, and even has its own action figure. Several Walking Dead viewers called out the homage in forums following the original airdate on Sunday, March 24, 2013. Take a look at Romero's creation below.
This one almost feels like a homage to the movie Jaws (there is a real Jaws Easter egg coming up shortly). Do you remember when Hooper gutted the Tiger shark looking for body parts in Jaws? He was searching for evidence that the shark had indeed killed the missing people in Spielberg's classic. Well, the autopsy zombie is a nice parallel to that sequence. Rick and Daryl gutted the walker in order to see if it had had Sophia for a bite of lunch when the little girl went missing in Season 2. The scene is both gruesome and technically well executed and certainly worth a mention.
In keeping with the Andrea dying theme, Milton deserves a mention for, effectively, killing her. It was a moment that a large portion of the viewing audience had been waiting for. It also highlighted the Governor's increasingly twisted mindset. As much as Milton had hoped that the man he knew as Philip would return, that human was proved to be long-dead when the Governor brutally knifed his friend in the gut declaring that, "In this world its kill or be killed...or be killed, and then kill." (Paraphrasing a bit, there.)
It was sad, but there was a dark poetry to the death. Milton's final experiment to determine if there is indeed a "spark" of life and humanity left in the biters was a first hand experience endeavor. The result: No trace of Milton was left, as Philip knew there would not be. Andrea was essentially given a death sentence by the man she would not kill (the Governor); which also had some symmetry to it. Milton was a great character, actually, and it was a shame to see him go. It felt as if there was a lot of potential for him to grow heading into Season 4. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Care to take a look at the bite again?
The Governor’s Head Tanks
The Governor lounging in his "man cave" - as Greg Nicotero calls it - is one of the creepier images on the show. The fish tanks full of zombie heads demonstrate, once again, the depths of his insanity, as well as his obsession with experimenting on the biters and discovering a cure. The scene is oddly reminiscent of Brando in Apocalypse Now. "The horror, the horror," indeed. Additionally, they serve as another example of just how stubborn and powerful the reanimating virus is. It absolutely, positively takes a head shot to stop it.
Here's a bit of trivia: One of the tanks holds Ben Gardner’s head from Jaws. See? Promised you a nod to Jaws. Take a look at the image below of Spielberg with the original head and see if you can "where's Waldo" that business.
This grisly eating machine was portrayed by Nicotero himself in episode 3 of Season 1, "Tell it to the Frogs." He was memorably dispatched and helped to demonstrate one of our most beloved character's fundamental traits. Carl, still quite young and very frightened, came upon the walker in the woods chowing down on some deer meat (indicating that they would eat both dead and non-human flesh) and screamed for help. A panicked group rushed to attack the creature, ripping his head from his body. Daryl, just back from a squirrel hunt, wandered into the melee, just as the group was trying to contain the still-moving head, and walked directly to the deer-eating zombie and calmly put an arrow through his brain. And that's how you git er done, and why we love our Daryl.
She once had a name, an identity even, but not by the time that we meet her. The zombie who was once Jennifer Jones appeared on the very first episode of The Walking Dead, "Days Gone By." Rick meets Morgan Jones and his son Duane when he returns to his neighborhood after awakening in an abandoned hospital to a world gone mad. Morgan patched Rick up and told him about life post-infection as they hid out in a neighbor's house. A group of walkers shuffled past, and with them was Morgan's wife/Duane's mother Jennifer. Or what was left of her. The boy cried out for his mother, it was early days yet, and he believed maybe, just maybe, she was still in there somewhere. One interesting thing about Jennifer Jones is that she did seem strangely attracted to the house, bringing up the question of "the spark"? Was it possible that she "sensed" her family? This was also the first time that we heard about the "fever" that precedes death for those who had been bitten or affected. Rick eventually gives Morgan a rifle with an accurate scope. When he returned home, Morgan began to summarily eliminate the walkers roaming outside of his home, but each time he saw Jennifer's face in his cross-hairs he was unable to end her. We exit the episode not knowing if Morgan ever rose to the occasion.
It was looking pretty grim for Lori after the car crash in Season 2's "Triggerfinger." It just goes to show that even in a post-apocalyptic era, one must always make sure to have both eyes on the road - lest a zombie walk in front of your hood causing your car to flip. To refresh your memory: a pregnant Lori left the farm to look for Rick when she crashed her car. Yes, fans loved to hate Lori, but she did show some stamina and a good bit of ingenuity in getting herself out of this one. As we learn, an object thrust through the eye socket is a tried and true zombie slaying method.
The windshield zombie is really just one of those hero shot zombies, a moment for fans to pause, and witness some great effects and a nice bit of gross-out theater. Also, how freaky would it be to not only be trapped in a car, but have this guy trying to play kissy-face with you?
Little Girl Zombie From Season 1
This little girl was an iconic image from the show for a time, particularly during the first season. Rick was traveling down the highway, headed toward Atlanta when he saw this nightgown clad cutie with adorable little bunny slippers shuffling past. Thinking she was lost, Rick called out to her. When she turned, revealing herself to be an upright corpse, he dispatched her immediately. The moment was an indication of just how quickly Rick was adjusting to the nightmare he had awoken to, and just how cruel the world had become.
Watch Rick do what's necessary in the clip below:
Gas Mask Zombie
This is another zombie money shot that we can just love for it's own sake. This beauty showed up in the Season 3 premiere, "Seed," when Rick and the group were forced to confront a bunch of undead guards as they took over the prison - their new safe haven. The truth is that it's sick (sick as in, "ugh, nasty," and sick as in, "sweet, that's awesome!") to watch Rick pull this guy’s face right off. However, the scene also served as vivid illustration of just how much the group had changed since we last saw them, and how like a well honed and militant machine they had become. Also, to reiterate, sick.
Take a look at the gas mask zombie in all his splendor below:
Riot Gear Zombie
Now, some might say that gas mask zombie and riot gear zombie are one in the same. I contend that they are each distinct and memorable enough in appearance to warrant individual mentions. I, for some bizarre reason, prefer riot gear zombie; there's just something so sad about him/them. This one is creative, well executed and seems to capture a frozen moment in time. You can almost hear the echo of the chaos in the prison as they were all being turned. Also, he kind of looks like a dog cocking its head, which is nice.
This is another of the series' most iconic zombies. He appeared in Season 2's premiere episode, "What Lies Ahead," and nearly sent Andrea over the edge...or more so. Already borderline -- or full-on -- suicidal, Andrea was forced to confront and do away with this walker with the only tool available to her, a screwdriver. We've mentioned that objects through the eye socket is always a good idea.
The group was forced to stop on the way to Fort Benning when they came upon a massive pile-up on the highway. When a horde of zombies roamed by, they all attempted to "play possum." Andrea wasn't quite possum-like enough when the RV/soon-to-be screwdriver zombie came in to investigate what her intestines might taste like. She was already shaken and angry with Dale for saving her rather than letting her die when she wanted to at the CDC. This scene illustrated that Andrea still had some fight in her, as well as a desire to live and die on her own terms.
Take a look at the now-infamous screwdriver kill below:
Ah, and here is the cause of Andrea's despondency. Amy was a short-lived featured player on the show, and the first real core member of the group to go. Her death demonstrated that as much as they may feel momentarily safe, they really never are. The survivors were enjoying a feast during Season 1, episode 4, "Vatos" when they suddenly came under attack and became the feast. Amy paid the price for momentarily moving away from the herd when she went to use the RV restroom. When she emerged, she was immediately bitten. Her death let the audience know that just about anyone was up for grabs, and that loved ones were going to have to take out loved ones when called upon. Amy's sister Andrea went into a tailspin after the girl died and came back to life in her arms, forcing Andrea to shoot walker Amy at close range.
Inside Episode 105 The Walking Dead: Wildfire
It's interesting, thus far, when the fanbase has called for a character's death, the show has elected not to show it. We saw Dale, Shane and the above mentioned Amy go, but not Andrea or Lori. We only saw the before and/or aftermaths of those events and the post-death portion didn't even include a body. The Lori-eater offered the only evidence that Rick's wife/Carl's mother was well and truly gone. Sure we saw that macabre c-section and heard Carl's subsequent gunshot, but we didn't see him take the head shot after she died in childbirth. The gluttonous zombie that, we believe, gorged on her recently dead flesh was not only just plain gross, but also served as the catalyst for the onset of Rick's meltdown - a major plot-point in Season 3. I will say that it seemed odd that one walker was able to eat an entire human, but hey, maybe he was ambitious.
Penny Blake: Daddy's Little Girl
Just imagine bath time.
Okay, Penny's just freaktastic. Well, she's really your standard issue walker, but Governor daddy's bizarre hair-brushing cuddle sessions with her account for some of the most creeptacular, skin-crawling moments on the series. It's odd, because she represents his one soft spot, the one reason he has to have any measure of compassion and that we are given to have any measure of sympathy for him.
Penny existed as the Governor's sole motivation to value life in any way. He created Woodbury to find a way to bring her back to life and to give her a home once he had done so. His contention during his final confrontation with Milton was that if he'd been more of a monster, earlier, she'd still be living. Everything else he does is an attempt to make up for the cost of his past, the irrevocable mistake of his previous softness. Again, just like Carl. Once Michonne introduced Penny to Mr. Sharp n' Effective (her sword) the Governor had no reason to restrain his rage, nor his inner demons. He truly had nothing left to tie him to his former, more human life.
In general, the Governor as a character inherently poses the following questions to the audience: "What's the point of being alive if this is what survival looks like? If you are just as souless as the walkers trudging around aimlessly?"
Here is where Michonne meets Penny. It doesn't go well...
The consequences of Carl's decision to leave this zombie lingering in the mud, his failure to either take him out or tell the others about him, still reverberate at this point in the series. The Dale-killer, or swamp zombie, appeared in Season 2, episode 11, "Judge, Jury, Executioner." Carl discovered him while walking in the woods and pulled his gun, but did not pull the trigger. Later, after he had freed himself, the zombie came upon Dale and ripped his intestines out, and with Rick unable to do it, Daryl had to step in and put Dale out of his misery.
When confronted by his father in the Season 3 finale about shooting the Woodbury soldier, Carl cited his mistake with the swamp zombie as one he would not repeat again. Translation: Carl is now determined to ruthlessly eliminate any potential threat before they can harm him or his...An attitude that is a mirror of the Governor's.
This one still hurts. Sophia represented hope in some ways, and when she was discovered in that barn, the loss of it. Carol's little girl went missing after running into the woods when the group was overcome by the zombie herd on the highway in Season 2, episode 1, "What Lies Ahead." Several episodes were spent on the search for Sophia, with the two key leaders of the group (Shane and Rick) taking a different stance on the wisdom of continuing to spend time, and risk lives, on what may be a fruitless effort. The midseason finale, "Pretty Much Dead Anyway," revealed that Sophia had become a walker - a devastating loss for everyone, a tragic failure on Rick's part and a breaking point for Shane. Shane had repeatedly insisted that they should call off the search, which he felt was pointless. In Shane's mind, Rick's refusal to make the hard decisions was putting everyone at risk, and Sophia emerging from that barn was, effectively, the final nail in the coffin on Rick and Shane's already tenuous friendship. We should note that Shane had already essentially become a murderer, and was for all intents and purposes a lost cause. The great thing about the series is that, as messed-up as Shane was, he still had a point about Rick's choices.
Making of the Barn Scene: Inside The Walking Dead:
Speaking of! Visually, Shane was a subtle zombie as he was so recently dead, but he represented a major turning point in the series; one that had been a long time coming. The final confrontation between Rick and Shane brought out a ruthlessness in the former that was needed for everyone's survival. Sure, the Ricktatorship was not perfect, but for a time, it kept them breathing and, mostly, sentient. He needed to kill Shane, not Shane the zombie, but Shane the man, in order to demonstrate to himself that he really would do anything to keep himself and those he loved safe. Prior to that moment, that was just theory. For a minute it seemed as if Rick would roll over and die, but he just doesn't have that in him, not really. That final fight revealed an essential aspect of Rick's nature to us, the audience, as well as to himself. Like most of us, Rick didn't know what he was capable of - until he did. This was a game-changer for Carl as well. Still raw from his failure with the Dale-killer, Carl was tested. He passed survival-on-hell-on-Earth when he shot the man who had been his protector through the head. Also, the Shane zombie exemplified the depth of the contagion and proved that they would all indeed rise - no matter how they died.
When Norman Reedus was asked to describe Daryl's feelings about his brother Merle, he said, "He's like a cobra, but he's my cobra." One of the show's central conceits is that we all have a monster within. When Shane died and arose as one of the undead, he looked like the monster we knew he had already become. The metaphor that the virus represents is the idea that we are all infected, we all have the potential to be a monster. The question is: will we succumb?
The trials of the post-zombie-Apocalypse world bring out the absolute worst in some, but they brought out the best in Daryl. His connection to the group, and the fact that other's were relying on him made him a better man. Some would say the best. His Achilles heel, though, was of course his brother Merle. They'd only had each other to rely on, all of their lives, so as cruel and calculating - and racist - as Merle was, it took everything in Daryl to say good-bye to him. The tragedy of it was that just as Merle was able to redeem himself, Daryl lost him for good. The scene where Daryl finds his brother as a zombie was one of the most heartbreaking and emotionally evocative on the series to date. It also represents a huge shift for Daryl, though it has yet to fully play out.
The zombie in the well is one of the most elaborate, gross and memorable of the series. Aside from the just plain cool effects work on this one, he also served as a litmus test for Glenns' reckless abandon. The team was looking for the source of their water issues in Season 2, episode 4, "Cherokee Rose," when they came across this bloated mass of zombie goo hanging in their well. Again, it served as a testament of just how resilient the virus is and illustrated, once again, that there is no clear, clean, untouched bastion of purity. Everything is infected, and everyone...everywhere.
A moment of silence for the passing of the zombie in a well, if you please.
Michonne's pets may be my favorite walkers on the series. I wrestled with giving them the number one spot, but ultimately felt that the winner had earned her space. I do love them, though. First, they are incredibly well-conceived and executed visually. They're just cool. The pets as accessories add so much to her character without her having to say a word - though I was as pleased as anyone when she finally began speaking in full sentences! They give us insight into her character’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. They also tell us that she is not one to surrender her power easily. She has taken it back, and not only rendered them innocuous and powerless over her, but made them her unwilling allies. Simply put: totally bad-ass. The only words she ever speaks about the once-men who became her pets are just about as chilling as it gets: "They were never human."
The pets also let us know that the walkers - when given the Michonne defanging - can be used as mobile “zombie off”.
Michonne's pets inside the walking dead:
The first cut is the deepest.
Perhaps The Walking Dead's most iconic zombie, Bicycle Girl also represents the first zombie that Rick encounters, and a significant "mercy kill." The gruesome nature of her torn body is not one that quickly leaves the imagination. When Rick returned to put her down, the viewer experienced a palpable sense of relief on her behalf. However, we were left wondering how she'd come to that fate in the first place; a question that The Walking Dead was happy to answer. Bicycle Girl inspired the show's first web series in which Greg Nicotero traces her origins (in the outbreak) through her tragic end.
Take a look at Bicycle Girl when she was still human, and named Hannah.
The Walking Dead Webisode #1 - A New Day:
Fun trivia: They used this guy, and his features, to establish the look of the show, including, the zombies, marketing, and digital reference for body movements.