Zombie Nation recently got to visit to an American Steampunk store called “The Boiler Room.” Located in downtown Duluth, Ga., it’s not entirely unusual that we’d start our project here, since the entire zombie culture seems to be based in and around the city of Atlanta. It’s true for a number of reasons. Dragon*Con draws more than 50,000 fans of science fiction and fantasy to Atlanta each year, and Georgia embraces Hollywood’s obsession of an apocalyptic future. Not only does the film industry benefit from really sweet tax incentives, the state’s weather is perfect for zombie survival and you’ve already got the Center for Disease Control hidden nearby with millions of ways to wreck our entire way of life. Why couldn’t the zombie virus start here?
We know it’s sick, but have you ever wondered how a film simulates a decapitated head or someone’s brains painting the wall behind him? We have. The artists called them “gags,” and young artists like those working at The Boiler Room are figuring out how to make them better.
“The digital revolution has changed the effects business,” says Matt Silva, co-founder of Penny Dreadful Productions. “Film quality has always been good, but the ability to project it and transpose it has not. Effects looked more real back then because they weren’t covered up as well. Since Dawn of the Dead, the shock level keeps going down, while the quality of digital footage goes up. The quality of makeup, costumes and props has to keep up because high def reveals poor effects.”
We had to ask, “Is anything real used in makeup and effects?”
“When George Romero was creating films about zombies, he once simulated guts with week-old chitlin’,” Silva says. “It’s disgusting, and because of those films the industry has famously banned the use of chitlin’. When zombies were tearing and eating ‘Otis’ on The Walking Dead, the actors were eating barbeque pork.”
In producing a film, production units have to consider rules when creating special effects. Some of the networks have some very unusual rules that leave you wondering, Why? Fox, for example won’t show bathroom scenes. MTV will air a show with a knife being removed from a body, but not inserted. If a film has too much blood, the editorial department will have to cut some out or come up with an artistic solution such as turning excessively bloody scenes into black and white (remember Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2?). When filming zombies, KNB EFX Group and The Walking Dead Executive Producer Greg “The Blood Man” Nicotero worked around AMC’s rules against large quantities of brightly colored blood by developing a top-secret formula for crusty “zombie dark” blood. No other zombie film has access to it. If there’s too much blood in a scene on a TV network, it has to be darker.
We take details for granted when we watch a show, because the details are so well executed, they don’t interfere with our personal experience. We all know that blood seen onscreen isn’t made of real blood, but did you know that the special effects industry uses FDA-approved clays and powders to simulate dirt seen on an actor’s skin? Real dirt can carry staph and lead to an infection.
There are two types of zombies onscreen. There are actors who just stand in with some makeup to fill out a horde, and there are particular zombies with specific features that get close-ups and special time on camera. During our visit to The Boiler Room, a few of these hero zombies stopped by to answer our questions. In addition to appearances in other horror film projects, these real-life actors gave us the time of day to reveal what it takes to become undead on The Walking Dead.
“I’m known as ‘French Kiss Zombie,’” says Erin Bushko. “We [zombies] give each other names based on what we look like or what action scene we’re know for. I was the jawless zombie that was killed by one of ‘Daryl’s’ crossbow bolts. I worked on the first season, episode four, and took five hours in full makeup. Then I spent four hours wearing it. As I waited for my scene, people couldn’t stop staring at me. ‘TDog’ later said he was so grossed out that he couldn’t stand to eat his lunch after looking at me.”
Bushko obtained her degree in music theater after studying Shakespeare at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. She earned her way networking through jobs as an extra in films such as Zombieland. She says part of her attraction to zombie films is “not looking like yourself.”
Not all actors are school-trained theatrical artists. Christoph Vogt defected with his family from Poland, studied chemistry and computer science at the University of Georgia and entered the acting business through modeling. In The Walking Dead, he earned the name “Smelly Zombie” for his scene in the episode “The Smell of Death,” where he sniffs “Rick” and “Glenn,” who were covered in zombie blood to disguise against surrounding walkers.
“I didn’t have any acting experience,” says Vogt. “I got a call to show up for a casting call and thought I’d try for a role. As it turned out, I looked the part so well that they used the least amount of makeup to turn me into a zombie.”
Sadly, for hero zombies, the more you’re seen on camera or promotional materials, the less you are used. How a zombie was designed and how much time on camera one had will determine whether an actor gets invited back to portray a zombie a second time.
“Nicotero has brought back some characters from Season 1 who were good at taking directions and didn’t have restrictions with things like using contacts,” says Larry Mainland.
Mainland is new to acting and stuntwork, but he’s already appeared on a number of movies and television shows including Contagion, Level Up and The Three Stooges.
“I was ‘Grandpa Zombie,’” says Mainland. “My scene was the last on the first day of filming The Walking Dead and took only 10 minutes. The contacts drove my eyes nuts, and it was twilight, so I couldn’t see that well. Once they had led me to a car, it was 7:10 [p.m.]. The scene was a wrap at 7:20. The image of me getting out of the car went viral and led to a series of marketing opportunities for the show.”
Once the actors were selected, they were brought to Zombie School, conducted by Greg Nicotero himself. Nicotero instructed his zombie students to imagine how they died and consider how they came about their wounds. Each zombie needed to be unique.
“We never got a certificate, but we should have,” says Bushko. “There was a lot of choreography to learn, though we were free-moving. We had to complete a zombie obstacle course where you move through things. There would be 10 people in a group, and you’d have to learn 10 or 12 different ways to move around things. One girl had the ability to walk with her foot sideways, so that became her thing. At first, there were too many zombies with their heads cocked the same way, so we had to each learn a look and let that be [us]. Once you’ve made your zombie, you can’t change what you’re doing.”
“You had to accept the zombie rules,” Mainland added. “They don’t talk. They have sound and smell. When you hear something, you’re supposed to turn to the sound with your ears first, then the eyes catch on.”
In leaving The Boiler Room, we walked away feeling more aware of the art of zombie filmmaking and were impressed by the high level of professionalism that exists in the special effects industry. It’s a competitive group of people who all seem to know each other as they fight for union wages. Zombie Nation admires the fact that these undead creators and actors take their performances so seriously for the art of our entertainment.