Of all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do and accomplish in my career working within the horror industry, the one I am most grateful for was the opportunity to not only meet but befriend a true living legend in our industry … George A. Romero. Simply put, the man is my idol, and even though we’ve grown close, I still get the butterflies every now and then. It was in September of last year that the phone call came.
“Yeah, Steve, it’s George. I’ve got this new thing happening, and I know that there’s no possible way that I could cast you as part of the living, so how would you like to come up and be a zombie for me?”
Let me be clear. If you are ever lucky enough to get this phone call or even an e-mail, you do not say no. You pick up the phone, go on the PC, hire a team of carrier pigeons, erect a giant slingshot … you do whatever you have to do to get to the set and pray that you’re one of the few lucky enough to feed.
Weeks passed like years, but finally it was October, and my lucky fat ass was on the set.
In true excited fanboy holy shit is this really happening form, I arrived before just about anyone else. I decided to use this time to get acquainted with my surroundings. I snapped I don’t even have any clue how many photos. I wandered about a blood-soaked barn. It was apparent that bad things happened in there due to the amount of blood on the ground. I was elated. After an hour or so George got to the set, and I hugged, kissed, and thanked him like you wouldn’t believe. This was quickly becoming a dream come true. You all know exactly what I’m talking about and exactly how I felt inside.
Pretty soon another familiar face showed up — Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures was also to become a zombie for the master. Mike and I go way back, and just as he did on Diary of the Dead, he was already compiling materials for the DVD and Blu-ray of what would come to be known as Survival of the Dead. Mind you, at this point the movie didn’t even have a title. Mike and I would become inseparable during our time together on the shoot, and to prove it, we took the prerequisite “Facebook Picture”!
We were standing around talking when the call came. They needed us in make-up. Holy shit. My first stop was wardrobe. After poking around a bit, I saw it. A red plaid shirt. What fan out there hasn’t wanted to be the ever famous Plaid Zombie from Dawn? Couple the shirt with the fact that I am bald, and boom, I’m already halfway there. Since Survival was to be the second entry (just like Dawn of the Dead was) in a new Dead franchise, it seemed fitting that it had its own plaid zombie. Now dressed, off to the make-up chair I went.
I was greeted by three absolute madmen whom I love dearly. François Dagenais, Damon Bishop, and the man who would make me dead, Sean Sansom. When it comes to F/X, these guys are talent personified. The make-up trailer was like home, man. There were body parts everywhere, and Tool was blasting on the stereo. Life, or in this case death, was good.
I sat down in Sean’s chair and was pretty blunt. “Listen, dude. I’m a good friend of George, but more so than that, this is my dream come true. I don’t want to be grey-guy, and I especially don’t want to be blood-smudge-guy. I’m bald; you can put shit anywhere you want on my head. Please torture me. Thanks.” Sean laughed and got down to business.
About a half an hour later I was fully zombified. Words cannot express my joy. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. Within a few minutes I was on set and ready to do whatever. Before we got down to anything, though, I had to do what dozens of my dead cohorts had done before me … get a picture with George while in full zombie regalia.
I shambled around, did some background stuff, and was fully content. Being a zombie for Romero was amazing. But for me what was even better was taking the time to see the man direct first-hand. It was like watching Picasso paint. George always knows exactly what he wants. This dude has a crystal clear vision, and when you’re on set, whether you are a production assistant or the lead, all you want to do is give him your all, and he always takes a moment to let you know he’s grateful for that.
The night ended, and I was literally floating. But little did I know the best was yet to come.
Fast-forward a day or so, and I am back in the make-up chair with Sean, and he looks absolutely depressed. “Hey, Steve, I’ve got some bad news for you. We’re slammed with making up dozens of zombies so we have no time but to do just a little bit of color on you for this one.” Yep. I was going to be grey-guy, but what the hell, man? I had the experience. At this point even though I was a little let down as this was so much fun, nothing was gonna bring me down from my high.
Within minutes Sean started busting out all sorts of appliances and looked at me with this huge ass grin — “I’m just fucking with you, man! You’re getting the works tonight! You should have seen your face!” He, Damon, and Felsher, who was in the seat next to me being made up, got a big laugh at my expense. Too funny.
Now I was curious, though. The works? For what? I’m totally happy being background guy. Would I actually get a bit of screen time? Again … holy shit.
By the time Sean was done, I was completely and totally blown away by my make-up. This was it, man. Beyond what I could have imagined. I was hideous. It was glorious. Dig it!
By this time Mike was dead and all messed up too, and together again we posed for the now dead prerequisite “Facebook Picture”!
We got to the set, and let me tell you it was FREEZING out. The hot chocolate lady from the Honey Wagon was our only savior. Mike, bless his heart, was to be involved in a major scene, and I was so stoked for him. After all his years in the biz, he deserved the upcoming spotlight. Besides that, he makes a damned scary zombie, too. Hours passed, and we both did nothing. Finally I was called to the scene.
From here on out there may be a couple of spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m gonna do my very best to avoid them. If you’re uber-paranoid, just skip ahead to the pretty pictures. They speak for themselves.
They put me in a stable with dozens of other zombies including Mike, where we stood for what seemed like forever. Everyone’s spirits were totally high, though, and as the hours ticked away, we all learned a valuable lesson. At 4:00 AM everything is a cock joke. Thankfully no laughing zombies were caught on screen.
The scene was this: The lock is shot off the stable fence, allowing us to roam free and begin the killing. Once free the moment I had been anticipating my whole life was here: George A. Romero was now directing me! “Come right into the camera, Steve. Hit your mark, then turn to the right, and keep walking,” yelled George from the sideline in video village. We did this like six times, each time with different things going on. The actors were shooting blanks at us from M16s and other assorted weapons. Stuntmen feigning headshots were dropping all around us. You can’t imagine how LOUD the gunfire was. To say it was exhilarating is like the understatement of the century.
The scene wrapped, and everyone was ecstatic. About an hour passed, and Mike was getting ready for his big scene when over walked Romero. “Okay, Steve. This is it,” said George. “This is what?” I asked. He looked at me, laughed, and said, “This is the main kill of the movie. The feast. I need you to come through that fence, establish yourself amongst the zombies, dig into the body, tear out the spine, and help rip the body in half.” All I could answer was, “Ummm … what?” Then he added, “Oh, and by the way, we only have one body so that means we have one chance to get it right!”
And once more … Holy shit.
Turns out that I was going to be starring with Mike in the big scene. I had absolutely no clue this was going to happen. Yet, I suspect from everyone else’s faces they did. To get to share this moment with my good friend and fellow zombie nerd Mike Felsher was the perfect way for this experience to end.
The call was in. We were to take our places. I started jumping in place and stretching. I was gearing up and was going to give this moment every ounce of energy that I had. George yelled, “You ready, Steve?” I screamed, back, “NOW NOW! LET’S DO THIS FUCKING THING NOW!”
I landed on my spot perfectly on top of the actor. I had to weight down the prosthetic body with my right elbow so it wouldn’t pop up, dig in, find the spine, then tear with my left hand. There were two other zombies pulling the legs so that as soon as the body was broken they could drag the appendages away. Mike was in front of me digging in from the other side. The actor was screaming! We wrestled with the innards of the dummy for a while until I located the spine. Once it was in-hand, I started tugging on that thing for all it was worth. There was just one problem … no matter what any of us did or how hard we pulled, this body was NOT coming apart. I would later speak to François about this, and he told me that it was super reinforced to be very sturdy. They didn’t want the body to break apart as easily as it had in other Romero zombie movies. This was information we could have used earlier! It was nerve-wracking! We had only one shot, and this thing would not come apart. No one wanted to let George down so we just went at it like you wouldn’t believe. Finally after about four minutes the body separated. “Steve, take a bite!” George yelled. I reared my head back and sunk my teeth in. Dream fulfilled.
When it was over, we stood up and everyone on the set applauded. We were covered in fake blood, and in my case real blood, too, as I was pulling so hard on that spine, my hands were cut. Immediately the blood literally started freezing on our hands, and that was indescribable pain, but it didn’t matter. We were all so happy. The crew came at us with hot towels, and that went a long way to relieving the freezing problem.
George came out to me and asked, “Holy shit, man! Are you okay?!” I dropped to my knees in front of him, hugged his legs, and just kept repeating over and over again … “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you”. I welled up immediately, and I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t get a little teary-eyed just now writing about this … the greatest moment of my entire life.
I’m sure I speak for Mike also when I say we hope we did you guys proud. I’ll leave you with several more photos.
Magnet has released George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (reviews here and here) here in the US via VOD, XBOX Live, Playstation Network, and Amazon, and then you can dig on it in theatres as it begins its limited theatrical run on May 28th.
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