Nightmare Factory (2011)
Written and directed by Donna Davies
If you’ve seen a movie in the past twenty years, you’ve seen the work of Greg Nicotero and his team at KNB EFX Group. Their work spans twenty plus years, providing makeup effects, special effects, animatronics, and so much more for movies spanning every genre imaginable. Documentarian Donna Davies, known for her work on Pretty Bloody: The Women of Horror and Starz Presents Zombie Mania, returns to showcasing the world of horror with an engaging look at KNB EFX Group and the increasingly important role of special effects in film.
Nightmare Factory follows KNB EFX Group and its meteoric rise as one of the premier special effects companies. While the film covers the history of special effects and the team as a whole, the primary focus is on Greg Nicotero, his training, and his role as one of the most sought after special effects artists in the business.
This is made clear in the opening scene, which sees actor Elijah Wood meeting with Nicotero to inquire about a potential collaboration with Wood’s recently announced horror production company. A tour around his factory shows the sheer grandiosity of his operation, working not just with his partner, Howard Berger ("K", Robert Kurtzman, left the team in 2002), but with an entire team of skilled special effects artists, engineers, makeup artists, and more.
From there we’re given a look at how Nicotero went from an aspiring doctor like his father to the master of effects who has worked on films such as Day of the Dead and Evil Dead, as well as the hit TV series "The Walking Dead." The subject matter is approached humorously, with interviews and on-set footage interspersed with Nicotero’s own personal footage of forming KNB and working in LA in the Eighties and Nineties.
As the film moves, we’re given a first-hand look at just what goes into being a special effects artist in the industry, from the sheer scope of what they actually do (it’s more than just gore effects and makeup) to how they work on set. It’s impressive and inspiring to see just how important their role in crafting the final product is, as they serve not just as the creators of the zombies, but as directors, cinematographers, actors, and everything in between. One of the most exciting aspects of the film is a brief look at how practical effects artists work in tandem with visual effects artists, combining the often maligned CGI and hand-crafted puppets and makeup to make some incredibly believable effects that simply come alive on the screen.
Despite the level of insight, the film is slightly jumbled, with one part shifting the focus from effects to a sequence of Nicotero and Co. discussing heavy metal fashion. This is partly to inform their role as young men in their twenties living in LA, but it manages to come off as an unneeded segue that does more to reveal their role in cultivating the popularity of the mullet rather than their role as up-and-coming effects artists. It’s interesting, but unnecessary.
Despite its flaws and sporadically amateur veneer, Davies paints a unique picture of the world of special effects and their importance in cinema. She gives us an intimate account of how special effects have shaped movies over time, proving that they are every bit as important in realizing the director’s creative vision as the director himself.
4 out of 5