Nicotero, Greg (post-Land of the Dead)


Greg Nicotero’s first makeup gig was twenty years ago on Day of the Dead. Now, five hundred movies later, and as the “N” in the famous KNB EFX Group, he’s returned to head the makeup effects for George Romero’s latest zombie opus Land of the Dead. Greg was kind enough to sit down with the FX Workshed‘s Evil Andy to discuss smart zombies, undead babes and the finer points behind KNB’s creation of some of the gnarliest zombies cinema’s ever seen.

Evil Andy: Let’s start with the obvious question on everyone’s mind. What’s it like to come full circle from starting out working on Day of the Dead twenty years ago to heading up makeup for Land of the Dead?

Greg Nicotero: It was unbelievable. The fact that literally twenty years ago almost to the day I was sitting in Savini’s basement having my head cast to play a generic soldier, versus casting my head to play a featured zombie in the new movie was great. For me it was so exciting and so gratifying. I need to preface this by telling George how much I consider him, Tom Savini and Christine [Romero] as the people that opened this door of opportunity for me. So to have a chance to repay that debt was amazing. George sent me a copy of the script when it was Dead Reckoning back in 2001. I had always budgeted the film and assumed we were going to shoot in Pittsburgh and that it was going to be a smaller budget thing. So, for me, it was an opportunity to repay George and Chris for giving me the opportunity twenty years ago, and five hundred movies later!

EA: Was there ever any chance that someone other than KNB going to handle the makeup effects for Land of the Dead?

GN: You mean Savini?

EA: Or any other shop? Did it go through a regular bidding process, or was KNB always attached?

GN: No, they never talked to anyone else. There’s a lot of speculation surrounding why Tom wasn’t involved, and the thing a lot of people don’t realize is that Tom’s a director now. I thought it was intriguing that people were saying ‘How can they do a zombie movie without Savini?’ Tom was there without a doubt in spirit, and it was never meant to be a slight on Tom. It was always a question of, what can Tom bring to the table, and of course we decided that we should have Tom come out and play a part. And George seemed happy with that, and Tom was certainly happy with that, and there was never any ‘I can’t believe we’re not using Savini for the effects!’ That never really even came up.

EA: Did you manage to get Tom to help out on a gag just for old time’s sake?

GN: Tom came out for one day, and he was so excited to just be a zombie, he loved his makeup. It amazes me to this day that with as many films as Tom has been involved with, his level of enthusiasm remains, and is still infectious. He showed up closer to the end of the shoot, and we had all been working twenty-hour days, and Tom was like a breath of fresh air. I was shooting photographs and video of George directing Tom, and Tom had his contact lenses in so he couldn’t see that well, and made sure to tell him that I was documenting the moment. And of course I made sure Tom didn’t post any pictures of his zombie makeup. I said listen, this is something people are going to be excited about, and we need to keep this under wraps.

EA: Tom’s reprising his role as Blade the biker, but this time zombified, Is there anything you can tell us, to give just a teaser of what his makeup involves?

GN: We really wanted to do something special for Tom. That was something that I came up with, saying, wouldn’t it be cool if…since the whole idea is that when Peter shot him on the balcony, he just hit him on the neck or shoulder, you don’t see exactly where he gets shot, and he landed in the fountain and got a little bloated and puffy and then came out of the fountain as a zombie. Initially, George didn’t like the idea of tying the movies together. That’s something he’s never done, each of the movies stands on its own. There’s not really any reference from Night to Dawn and Dawn to Day. Then he thought about it a bit more and realized that was something we should put in specifically for the fans. We didn’t want to make Tom unrecognizable, otherwise what’s the point? I’ve never met a guy more aware of the fans than George. He’s always wants to make sure the fans that see the film get what they’re plunking their money down for.

This is George’s biggest budget ever, and he’s told a much bigger story, and had a much bigger vision. It reminded me of the original ‘Day of the Dead’ script in certain aspects. Imagine me as a kid eighteen years old, reading ‘Day of the Dead,’ since it was the first job I was hired on. I remember reading it and being completed enthralled with the story, the characters, the way the zombies are portrayed, I was really excited to see that George kept aspects of the original ‘Day’ script that was never shot, in regards to the portrayal of the zombies. It’s so much more about how society has progressed; the majority is now in power, but you still have the rich guys that run everything and you have the subservient people underneath them. For me this was always a story that I’ve been in love with for twenty years, and a chance to work with George again after so long.

EA: How did you feel about not making Land of the Dead in Pittsburgh?

GN: I still wish we could have shot ‘Land of the Dead’ in Pittsburgh. It’s funny because I’ve been quoted as saying that Pittsburgh breeds the best zombie actors on the planet. When you live in Pittsburgh and drive past Evans City, or the Monroeville Mall, or Wampum Mines, it creates these people that really think being a zombie in a George Romero movie is a big deal. This was the opportunity to make their mark in zombie movie history, and there were a lot of people including George and myself that were a little sad that we couldn’t shoot ‘Land of the Dead’ in Pittsburgh.

EA: How many zombies did you have on any given night?

GN: With ‘Land of the Dead’ we were cranking out zombie makeups from three in the afternoon until eight in the morning. Our first two nights of shooting we had one hundred and fifty zombies in the pool.

EA: What can we expect in terms of rating on Land of the Dead?

GN: There was lots of concern about rating, This is the first film that George has ever released that has a rating. He was always conscious of rating. I actually called Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and asked them about the shot in ‘Sean of the Dead’ where David gets his body torn apart, the homage to Rhodes, to see if they had ratings issues with that scene. They didn’t but the difference is the tone of that film, because it’s not about tearing people apart, it’s a black comedy. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t get ourselves in a situation where we shoot a gag and then realize we can’t use it because it’s too bloody. Ultimately all this stuff will be on the DVD, but you have to be aware of the ratings stuff.

EA: On the topic of the DVD, I want to put out an official request that we get to see some in-depth behind the scenes makeup stuff.

GN: I gave the DVD producer about six hours of footage, not just the stuff I shot on set, but all the test stuff in the studio. From the first prototype test head, all the way to the tests for the reshoots.

EA: Great, now hopefully they decide to include that footage for the fans! How many major set piece gags can we expect to see in Land of the Dead?

GN: Well, look at the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake. There were two or three gags in that movie, there weren’t a lot of gags. It was more about the zombies running around. The girl bites the guy in the neck, the one zombie gets the spear through the chin, the girl who gets chainsawed, and the guy who gets his head blown off in the store. That’s four gags, George kept saying that we just need six or seven really great gags that people will be talking about when they walk out of the theatre. I think we have that in the first fifteen minutes!

EA: Awesome! Let’s talk about some of the zombies now. Each of the previous films had its own set of iconic zombies, like Bub and Doctor Tongue. What kind of iconic zombies can we expect to see?

GN: Big Daddy is our main featured zombie. But we actually follow a group of zombies through the entire movie. As the film progresses and more and more zombies are picked up and following Big Daddy towards the city you start to see more characters. We have a butcher zombie who carries around a meat cleaver. We have a zombie that’s the tambourine player in a quartet and walks around with a tambourine stuck on his hand. There’s a teenage couple zombie, that gives the impression that one of them turned into a zombie while they were making out, and the other one has a big giant bite out of his neck. There’s a bunch of featured zombies, similar to ‘Dawn of the Dead’ where you see the nurse zombie, or the business suit zombie. Big Daddy picks up these featured zombies as he follows Dead Reckoning into the city. They become pretty important characters as the movie progresses, they’re not just walking around. There’s another zombie we call the number nine zombie because she was a softball player, with a number nine jersey. The idea was that you would only see half her face and she would be attractive, and then when she turns towards camera, you reveal that the other half of her face has been torn away, even revealing her teeth.

EA: That’s the recent Fango cover?

GN: Ya.

EA: The way that particular effect is achieved is pretty interesting, can you explain it a bit?

GN: Jennifer Baxter played that zombie. She flew down to Los Angeles, and when we cast her face we created a dental plumper that pushed her lower lip down, and her upper lip on her right side up a little bit. It basically flattened her lips on the right side. On her lifecast we had an indentation there. We created dentures that rode along her teeth, and outside her teeth, and along the flat lip. We essentially created a false jaw line that rode on the outside of her lip. Then what you do is cover the edge of the dentures with a prosthetic, so you get the depth of torn skin around it. As an extra added bit, we added a couple tendrils of flesh from the upper lip to the lower lip right at the corner of her mouth. So it looks like part of the flesh was chewed away, but there are little bits of sinew that are still attached. It was really about getting the depth. She’s supposed to be more fresh than the other zombies. The butcher zombie is pretty rotted, and Big Daddy is partially rotted, but the number nine zombie is fresh in comparison. The idea always was that we wanted to see the non-zombiefied part of her face first. They were really specific about that. They cast Jennifer because she’s a very beautiful woman, and they didn’t want her to be too ugly. They wanted her to be attractive to a point, because it makes it worse when you see the horrible zombie version on the other half of her face.

EA: What about the main zombie, Big Daddy’s makeup?

GN: With Big Daddy we did four or five different designs. Initially we started out really subtle with his makeup, using just slight cheek pieces and doing a lot with just color. The idea is that he’s the next level up from Bub in terms of intelligence. Bub was trained to be intelligent by being fed human flesh. Whereas with Big Daddy there’s enough critical mass of zombies out there that the zombies are, not quite learning, but taking Bub one step further. At the end of ‘Day of the Dead’ Bub shoots Rhodes and then salutes him. Nobody objected to that because you spent so much time with Bub, and you identified with his character, that you were happy to see that. There’s been a lot of people that like to say ‘Whaddya mean zombies are smarter? I don’t get it!?” But George already did that in ‘Day of the Dead’ and nobody complained about it. This is just the next logical progression. George is just taking his story one step further.

For Big Daddy, we started really subtle. We didn’t want a lot of prosthetics on him, we just wanted contacts and dentures and slight stuff. But as the makeup design process evolved we all decided that he needed to go further, and that we didn’t want him to be too subtle. We ended up going with a foreheand and cheek prosthetic that signifies the wrinkly leathery skin that happens when you’re rotting and walking around in the sun all the time.

EA: On that note, at this point in the story, the zombies are quite old. Certainly older than anything we saw in Day of the Dead, so how did you go about creating these ultra aged zombies?

GN: Oh yeah! That was one of the first things I pitched to George. I told him I want to do some puppets that are so emaciated that you immediately know it’s not a person in a makeup. The first shot of the movie is unbelievable, just beautiful because you come right down through a crowd of zombies and there’s this emaciated skeletal zombie right in the foreground. There was a lot of talk about how the zombies are living in the world amongst themselves, and there’s not a lot of food around, and when there is food around, they’re pretty ravenous. And they wanted some of the zombies to not be tremendously rotted looking. So I asked where would there be fresh victims, like the Number 9 Zombie? And we discussed the possibility that as the zombies evolve their decompositions starts slowing down.

EA: Interesting…

GN: Well, you’re talking about a bunch of people who grew up actually thinking about all this stuff, especially me growing up in Pittsburgh. The joke Tom and I always had on ‘Dawn of the Dead’ was that the zombies all had that brownish color with the blues and greens and rotted flesh and wacky teeth and no eyebrows and no contact lenses. You have to literally look through the camera for every shot and see what zombie is going where. There would be times when there would be a zombie who would get close to camera who didn’t have contact lenses in, or had a background mask in, and I’d be yelling ‘Get that guy outta’ there!,’ and bringing guys with contact lenses closer. Let me tell you that was a challenge. You’ve got a group of thirty zombies in one shot, and you’re looking through the camera going ‘That guys’ hair needs to be greasier, or that guy needs more blood on his face.’ We were constantly at the ready with paint spritzers and a jug o’ blood and some KY, and conditioner and fullers earth for the hair. Everybody’s set bag had that stuff. Before each take, every zombie either had dentures or black mouth rinse that we mixed out of blue and red and green food coloring that would gray out their teeth and make their tongues black. So if a zombie comes at camera, there’s no pink, you don’t see a living interior of the mouth. It’s dead and rotted and there’s no life in it…that part pretty much drove me insane.

EA: In addition to your makeup responsibilities, you also did some second unit directing for Land right?

GN: One of the things that George said right from the beginning was that there was going to be times when he wouldn’t have time to shoot some things, and asked me if I’d be interested in shooting some stuff. I told him I’d love the opportunity to spend some time shooting the effects the way you want to shoot the effects. I’d show up at work, I’d have my shot list, and I’d sit down with the editor and look at the footage I was matching to, and then go out and shoot my bits and pieces. It was really rewarding to see a lot of the stuff I shot in the film. There’s a shot in the trailer with all the zombies coming out of the river. Boy was it cold. The zombies would come out of the water steaming. There was a specific shot that George wanted of Big Daddy coming out of the water (which is in the trailer), that’s just a close up of just his eyes coming up. It’s an homage of the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ poster, and the shot from ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Martin Sheen coming out of the water. And George didn’t want the zombies to blink, the water had to not affect them. We had a little swimming pool that we rented, and I thought we could throw them in there, and just shoot extreme close-ups of just their eyes coming out of the water. We actually made a fake head of Big Daddy because we didn’t know if we’d be able to get him to do it without blinking. Then the CGI guys at Spin said, let’s just shoot it, and if he blinks we’ll just remove it. So I called Eugene Clarke [Big Daddy] up, and told him that it’d mean a lot to me if he’d try it. He said ‘Hey man, if it’s gonna be a good shot, and George wants it, I’m in, dunk me in, stick the lenses in, let’s do it!’ We did it, and he didn’t blink, his head just slowly rose out of the water, and it was amazing. We never thought we’d be able to get it, because we weren’t even sure the contact lenses would stay in under the water, or if these thousand dollar contact lenses would just float out and be gone. There was a lot of stuff like that. There are a couple shots in the movie that I don’t think will even make it into the movie, they’ll be in the unrated DVD, because they’re too graphic. At one point George said ‘Are you crazy, we can’t use that, it’s too gory!’ Here’s me thinking ‘Wow, George Romero said I did something too gory?’ I kept telling George that in Japan people will love this.

EA: Out-goring George Romero, that must have made you proud.

GN: I was shooting stuff I knew I’d like to see in the movie because I’m a fan too. There was one gag I improvised that we shot the last night that people are already talking about it on the Internet. I don’t want to ruin it because it’s a great gag, but we can talk about it after the movie comes out.

EA: What role does CGI play in the film?

GN: The guys at Spin doing the CGI stuff have done a great job. They’ve really risen to the occasion in terms of expanding on George’s universe. There was some stuff I shot elements for, and when I saw the finished shot, it’s this pan across this desolate wasteland with fires burning, and it looks like hundreds of acres of junkyards with dead bodies, it turned out really neat. At one point George called me saying, ‘You know things are a lot different from the last time I did a zombie movie. We can’t just strap squibs on the back of anybody’s head and just shoot them.’ Nowadays they need to be stunt people. Which means you don’t have the luxury of just shooting any zombie you want. So we came up with the idea of using a non-squibbed head hit. Using what I learned from Savini on ‘Dawn of the Dead’ we took condoms and water balloons and filled them with blood, and stuck an air hose in it, and attached it to a vacu-formed plate, and taped it really tight, hoping that it wouldn’t explode while you’re taping it down. The first couple head hits I saw in dailies, I wanted to see more blood. One of the cardinal rules is that if you’re going to shoot a zombie you’ve got to have them standing in front of something so you can see the blood hitting the wall. We were constantly refining the head hit process, and came up with a really good system. We also shot tons of blood elements, so the CGI guys could add blood sprays all over the place for wide shots when the Dead Reckoning is driving down the street and the gatling gun is machine gunning zombies. It looks great, the CGI work is so good you don’t even know it’s not practical.

EA: Were there any digital makeup enhancements? Removal of noses, that kind of thing?

GN: No. That’s been done before. We designed a couple of gags with the idea that there’s puppeteer removal, but the plan was always for rig removal. If somebody gets shot in the head, sometimes we’d purposefully position a tube in the shot to maximize blood spray, knowing we could remove it later. The audience doesn’t want to see effects they’ve seen fifteen years ago. So we used CGI as a tool to finesse a few makeups and gags, and they pay off one hundred percent.

EA: Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite zombie gag, the ripping of human flesh. Have you guys been able to improve this effect since Day of the Dead?

GN: We initially had a gelatin skin but if you tore just the gelatin without any backing, it would rip instantly, and leave this giant hole. So we created this gelatin skin, and behind the gelatin we brushed in a layer of foam latex, and then a layer of some stretchy latex, and gelatin and hot melt, and then brushed another layer of gelatin over that. When the skin tore, there was not only resistance, but you could feel layers below the surface. One of the reasons a lot of the gags are executed by KNB people is because you have to sell it if you’re biting somebody’s arm, or tearing out somebody’s eye, it’s still rubber or gelatin or silicone. If you just rip somebody’s arm off, the sleeve isn’t going to come with it, the sleeve is going to stay on. The reality is, if a zombie is tugging at your arm, it’s like pulling a chicken leg off a chicken. There’s so much muscle and tendon, it’s not going to happen unless there’s something there biting the arm. We put a lot of thought into stuff like this.

EA: Were there any substantial non-zombie makeups done for Land of the Dead?

GN: Well we haven’t talked about Charlie, who is played by Robert Joy. He’s the autistic sidekick of Riley. Half of Charlie’s face is burned. I spend so much time talking about the zombies, that we never talk about the fact that one of the lead actors has a burn makeup for the entire movie. We tugged the corner of his eye down to really make it look like it was an old burn. Robert Joy’s performance really brings the character to life. He does this nervous thing where he pulls the hair down over the burned side of his face because he doesn’t want people looking at it.

EA: Should we be looking out for a Nicotero cameo in Land?

GN: Actually, I’m in there several times. One of the first test makeups we did was the dentures on the side of the face thing that we did for the Number 9 zombie. We did that test makeup on me, but way more extreme, as if the entire side of my face was bitten off. The dentures were huge, they went down to my jawbone, and almost up to my nose, and three quarters of the way back on the side of my face, with prosthetics on top of that. When you have a makeup effects guy in the makeup, you can always torture them a little bit more, because they’ll put up with it because they know in the end it will look good. The dentures I wore were obscene they were so huge. I could barely see out of the contacts lenses I designed for myself because they were a cataract eye with horrible blood vessels broken all around the outside, with yellow patches all over them. Plus I had cheek and forehead pieces, and a wig, and I was missing my left arm. The scene I’m in, I am fighting with Riley [Simon Baker], I grab him and we get into this scuffle. When we rolled I went for it.

EA: Did you get to take Simon out?

GN: No I didn’t get to kill him…I don’t survive the altercation.

EA: What can you tell us about the Dead Reckoning?

GN: I was there for every frame of film. When I saw the rough cut, I was amazed at how big the scope was, how much personality George was able to give to the Dead Reckoning vehicle; I mean it’s just a big truck driving around. When you’re sitting on set at four in the morning and you’re shivering and sitting by the heater and the truck drives left to right, and then it drives right to left it’s kind of cool, but it’s totally different seeing the personality when it’s cut together in the context of the movie, it’s like it’s own character.

EA: So having seen a rough cut, where do you think Land of the Dead is going to place when compared to the standard set by the current Night/Dawn/Day trilogy?

GN: You can absolutely see how George has progressed as a filmmaker. The movie is way bigger than even I’d imagined. George has lived with this vision in his head for so long, and the execution of it is amazing. When I saw the rough cut in March, I was blown away. It has heart and scope, and doesn’t look like a low budget movie. The first thing I said to George when the lights came up after the screening was ‘Wow!’ I was amazed and proud what George was able to accomplish. I think it’s a great movie, and I’m dying for other people to see it, because I want to talk to other people about, and see what they think. I was so happy after reading the reviews after the first fifteen minutes screened at Cannes. I can’t tell you how great I felt when I heard people saying ‘Yeah, George Romero’s back!’ George’s movies have a feel that no other filmmaker can bring. You can have zombie movie after zombie movie, but without George’s touch, it’s not a zombie movie…well unless it’s ‘Sean of the Dead,’ which we all know and love. My hope’s are that it will not only please the fans, but will also create a whole new legion of fans that will want to go back and see the other movies.

EA: So is it to early to start talking about a sequel?

GN: I know George has a lot of things in the works. I’ve heard talk of a new movie, I’ve heard talk of a TV series, and a bunch of other things. But ultimately, it’s up to the fans, if people go see the movie, and it’s successful, then they’re be another movie. That’s the formula, unfortunately. I’m encouraging everyone to go see the movie of course, for George, more than anyone else. It’s going to come out between Batman and War of the Worlds. So the weekend Land opens, you’ve got ‘Herbie the Love Bug,’ ‘Bewitched,’ or ‘Land of the Dead.’

EA: The choice is clear

GN: Well, I think so.

Thanks due, of coures, to Greg for taking the time to chat with us, keep up the fantastic work, man! Land of the Dead hits theaters on June 24th, so make sure you ass is there for it!



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