The Walking Dead’s Greg Nicotero Talks About Zombie Makeup and Zombie School

By
Photo: Albert L. Ortega/2014 Albert L. Ortega

The Grammys may be on Sunday night, but that’s not going to stop The Walking Dead. The postapocalyptic ratings powerhouse returns from its mid-season hiatus Sunday with another episode directed by Greg Nicotero, who also serves as co-executive producer and special makeup effects designer for the show. Nicotero spoke with John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new arts and entertainment show “The Frame” while he was on set filming the current season. They talked about zombie school, a scene that never made it to air, and how The Walking Dead is like The Cosby Show. (Read part of Horn and Nicotero's interview below, and subscribe to “The Frame” at iTunes or Stitcher.)

Where are you right now, Greg?
I am in a lovely town called Senoia, which is about 45 minutes south of Atlanta, Georgia. We’ve been filming here at this studio for the last three seasons.

And you’re just back from the forest? Where have you been this morning?
I was out in the woods yesterday filming zombies and filming some pickup scenes for a couple episodes. It’s always fun on the set of The Walking Dead.

Always fun among so much mayhem. The season-five debut of the show beat everything on television, including Sunday Night Football. You’re solely responsible for that, right?
I don’t know if I would say solely responsible. I directed the episode. Our illustrious showrunner, Scott Gimple, wrote it and did an amazing, amazing job on the script. So we’ve been fortunate to have some great stories and some great performers and some great action and emotion.

If you guys sit around the table and say, “I cannot believe this show is doing this well” — maybe you don’t say that, but if you were to sit around the table and say, “What is going on with this show? Why are people responding to it?,” what are your theories about why it is so popular?
Well, you know, there was a convention here last weekend that was put on that was solely based on The Walking Dead and there were 20,000 fans that came to celebrate the show. And aside from some of the obvious things like Andy Lincoln, Norman Reedus, and Steven Yeun, there’s something for everyone to gravitate to. They love the characters. Each character is relatable in a different instance. The stories of survival are compelling. We get to play in the horror world with our zombies and make these gruesome monsters every week, so the show really does have something for everyone. What always fascinates me is people came up to me and said, "The Walking Dead has brought our family together."

Kind of the way that people used to watch The Cosby Show?
Yes! This is The Cosby Show without zombies, or with zombies. It’s fascinating to me that it has become a communal experience. People really do love watching the show together. I hear from grandparents and parents and children who spend Sunday night together watching the show and experiencing the show together. The grandparents love it because they love the great stories, the parents love it because they love the characters, and the kids respond to the scary genre. So it really is one of those shows that has been able to transcend age barriers.

You’re doing makeup at a time when a lot of filmmakers and some TV directors are using visual effects, computer effects, to create makeup effects. How important is it to you that you are doing stuff that we’ll call “in-camera,” that there are no camera tricks, that this is actual, practical makeup at a time when so many other people are using digital tricks to create those looks?
Well, my position always is this: You provide your director and your producers with the tools that they need to tell the story, and Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd right out of the gate were very specific about how they wanted the zombies to be portrayed. And we have always kept it practical because we feel that it’s more realistic. Not to take away from the great visual-effects team that we have, because they do a fantastic job on the show as well, but The Walking Dead celebrates the practical aspect of makeup effects and has put it in the forefront of today’s pop culture.

The big question always is, how did they do that? So with The Walking Dead, being able to transform people into walking corpses every Sunday night just continues to perpetuate that desire to learn more about our business in terms of telling stories, in terms of writing and directing. And it’s something that’s exciting and we love doing it.

So, let’s say I’m not a radio host. I’m an aspiring actor and I want to play a zombie on your show. What kind of boot camp or training do I have to go through to make it?
Well, you know, every season we hold auditions for future walkers, and we have affectionately termed it Zombie School. So they will come to Zombie School and they will audition for me. I usually do 20 or 30 people per class and I spend an entire day auditioning people, putting them through some exercises in terms of how fast they walk, what their character is, what their personality is, explain to them that in many instances, their performance can make or break a scene. If you have somebody that’s in a scene that does not look like they’re authentically performing, it could take the audience out of the scene.

Now, I got to stop you there: How do you know what an authentic zombie is supposed to do or behave?
Authentic to the rules of our world. Like, if we have someone in the background who’s walking like Frankenstein, that doesn’t look to portray the rules that we have built in our show.

So what separates a winner from a loser in your zombie school?
I would say a winner is somebody who brings a lot of character to their performance. There’s probably a dozen or so performers that we use on a regular basis and we do different makeups on them all the time and they bring the characters to life. I mean, this goes all the way back to Boris Karloff and Frankenstein. You know, you feel the character under the makeup and that made Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi famous, because they were able to portray those characters with sympathy and with anger and with pathos and it was something that every great monster needs.

When we shot season one and Rick goes into the park and finds the half walker girl crawling along the ground and he kneels next to her and he pulls the gun out and he says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” There is emotion. It’s not just a monster, but he looks at her and we feel sympathy. We feel a sense of loss. We also have to feel terror and a threat, so it’s not as easy as it look. I mean, everybody thinks, Oh, I want to be a zombie on the show, but there’s acting skills involved. It’s not just somebody who just decided one day that they wanted to be a zombie on the show. It doesn’t work that way.

As season after season happens, you can’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but what do you try to do as time goes by in terms of your designs?
Well, I’m always very aware with every season to continue to make the walkers look visually different. As time passes, the elements take their toll — sun, rain, weather. I always think about when it’s Halloween time and you have a pumpkin on your front porch and within two months that pumpkin has rotted into a puddle of goo because of the sun. So we take that into account every single season where more and more skin decomposes, more and more bone structure and skeletal traits are visible. Sometimes the teeth are broken now and sometimes their beards and their hair grows a little bit longer. Sometimes limbs are missing. So every season we really do try to keep them visually exciting, visually interesting.

When you are getting ready for a season, you’re starting to order all of your materials, I suspect one of your biggest orders is probably for fake blood. How many gallons do you have to have on hand as you’re about to start shooting a season?
Well, we make all the blood in-house, and we also provide the blood for the art department and for wardrobe and for makeup, so we go through hundreds of gallons. Because even seeing zombie blood on the ground, if you shoot a scene where there are 20 dead walkers on the ground, you got to put blood around all of them.

Let me ask you this last question: Have you ever created a design — some sort of makeup, some sort of prosthetic — that has either grossed you out or your filmmakers have looked at and said, “There’s no way. We have to dial this back.”
Nope. We have yet to get a note from either the filmmakers — oh, sorry. I will correct myself. There was one gag that we did last year that Scott Gimple felt maybe we went a little too far and it was a moment where there was a bunch of walkers up against the fence. It was episode two of season four and the pressure behind this one person at the fence was so great that it basically pushed the walker through the cyclone fence, so there was a little crisscross as the face pushed through and the head exploded. I actually believe that we trimmed it for the air. We showed it at the wrap party on the gag reel and everybody clapped and applauded and loved it, and I said, “See, Scott, we should have never cut that down.” It was a crowd-pleaser.

And has anyone ever tried to prank you on set by throwing some body part in your suitcase or your lunch box?
No, I’m usually the prankster.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For the full version, you can listen here.