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The Walking Dead Season 1 Zombie That's More Important Than You Think

Think it's easy to play a zombie? Think again. Convincingly nailing that combination of a shambling walk, raspy groan, and snappy jaw takes practice, and back in the early years of The Walking Dead, the show actually put its extras through a so-called Zombie School to show them the ropes. Zombie actors that have proven especially capable of portraying the undead have, throughout the show's run, been gifted with big moments — I.E., getting to kill major characters — and by now, the production has a pretty seasoned cast of walkers to rely on.

Every once in a while, though, a surprisingly recognizable face turns up behind some gory makeup. Such is the case with the so-called "Tank Zombie" featured at the very end of the first episode, "Days Gone By." He was, if you remember, the dead soldier found inside that tank in downtown Atlanta, where Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) takes refuge. Naturally, Tank Zombie's attempt to devour the show's star leaves him on the wrong end of Rick's gun, but as you rewatch the episode today, you might pause for a moment, trying to figure out why that chiseled gray jawline looks so familiar. 

In fact, the actor's name is Sam Witwer. Here's where you've seen him before — and how, surprisingly enough, his character almost played a bigger role in The Walking Dead

Does Sam Witwer look familiar? He should

Sam Witwer hasn't become a household name (yet) but these days, he's regarded quite well in geek circles, due to having played notable roles in a long number of popular TV shows. Bit parts aside — and he's had a lot of those, appearing in everything from Angel to NCIS — perhaps the first place that sci-fi fans might recognize him is from the cult favorite 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, where he played the Raptor ECO Alex Quartararo, better known by his call sign, Crashdown. While not one of the stars, Crashdown was nonetheless a fairly prominent figure in the show's action scenes, who survived for two seasons before being shot in the back by Dr. Baltar (James Callis). 

One of Witwer's biggest roles arrived a few years later, when he starred in Smallville as David Bloome, whom in the series is portrayed as the human alter-ego of the monstrous Doomsday. Yes, that Doomsday. Since then, he has also appeared as Mr. Hyde on Once Upon a Time, Rupert Chipping on Riverdale, and Ben Lockwood (AKA Agent Liberty) on Supergirl. As if that weren't enough geek cred for one performer, he has also become widely recognized as the preferred voice actor for Darth Maul, having voiced the Sith Lord in everything from Star Wars Rebels to that surprise appearance in Solo.

Witwer's short-lived Tank Zombie gig came about a year after his Smallville role, but to be clear, it wasn't intended as a one-shot. In fact, if The Walking Dead's original showrunner, Frank Darabont, had stayed aboard for season 2, Witwer would've had a meatier Walking Dead part ahead of him.

How Sam Witwer would've appeared in season 2 of The Walking Dead

Tank Zombie, it seems, was not intended as a one-time thing ... even if he did die (a second time) shortly after trying to chow down on Rick Grimes. 

In a 2012 interview with Paranormal Pop Culture, Witwer spilled the beans on his Walking Dead involvement. Witwer, it seems, was cast in the show based on having previously worked with Frank Darabont on The Mist (2007), and had Darabont stayed on the show — the messy breakup between Darabont and AMC is a whole other story — the plan was to feature Witwer's soldier as the protagonist in a special flashback episode, showing how society fell during Rick's coma. As he tells it, "[Darabont] said to me, 'Look, I think it would be really cool to tell a prequel story about how Atlanta fell, do Black Hawk Down, but with zombies, have a few main characters pass through, but the lead will be you. You're a soldier and all these horrible things happen, and the chain of command breaks down, and, eventually, you have to take out your superior officer. Then, eventually, in the end, you get bit.' He's pitching me this. 'You're crawling and you crawl into this tank and you have a grenade and you're going to blow yourself up, but you set the grenade next to you and you die. Then, we reprise the scene from the pilot, where Rick gets in the tank and there's a zombie there.'"

Darabont confirmed this story soon afterward, clarifying that he intended to have this episode open season 2, showing the destruction of Atlanta through the eyes of the military. "The idea was to do this with a very focused 'you are there' documentary feel. Not going all shaky-cam, but still making it a bit rawer and grainier than the rest of the show [...] what starts as a no-brainer scenario goes from 'the city is being secured' to 'holy s—, we've lost control, the world is ending.'" 

The episode would have also featured cameos from established Walking Dead players like Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Andrea (Laurie Holden). Sadly, as phenomenal as this episode sounds, it's unlikely to ever happen now. That said, knowing all this does give Tank Zombie a great deal more pathos.