Greg Nicotero is no stranger to bloodshed. In fact, he’s the man behind the blood, happily splattering red while crafting some of the best makeup and prosthetic work of the past two decades. A Pittsburgh native, Nicotero cut his teeth in the business alongside Tom Savini on Day of the Dead before later returning to work with Romero on Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead.
Although the bulk of Nicotero’s impressive resume - boasting names like Tarantino, Rodriguez and Raimi - leans towards genre material, he found a kindred spirit on the unlikely Green Mile. “Frank [Darabont] made a joke about when Tom Hanks’ wife is sick and said, ‘She should look like a heinous horror hag,’” Nicotero told FEARnet during our exclusive interview. “He’s literally quoting Sam Raimi and I got it.” When Darabont got the green light to adapt Robert Kirkman’s long-running zombie comic The Walking Dead for AMC, it was only natural that the director call upon his old friend to bring the zombies back to life.
Nicotero spoke to FEARnet just before he heads to San Diego for Comic-Con 2010 from the balmy Atlanta sets this week where they are currently wrapping Episode Three. While Darabont edits his Pilot episode and readies material for Comic-Con back in L.A., Nicotero is keeping plenty busy working on the effects, directing second unit and serving as the resident zombie aficionado on set.
FEARnet: The Walking Dead has been a pet project’s of Darabont’s for quite a few years. When were you first brought on board?
Greg Nicotero: Frank and I have talked about The Walking Dead for years. He introduced me to Robert Kirkman three years ago. He was really dedicated to doing the show and being able to have Frank put his fingerprint on the zombie genre. Frank astounds me, his desire to really tell this story and be faithful to it. It makes me happy that he’s so dedicated to the material. When he went back to Los Angeles after directing the Pilot, he wanted to make sure that the level of quality of the scripts and the directors and everything stayed high.
In crafting the look of the zombies, what influences did you draw upon?
We used the graphic novel as the starting point. I’ve done my share of zombie movies in the past. The idea of this is, some zombies will be fresher looking and some will have that kind of classic beginning of decomposition rot. Everybody has contact lenses. We’ve done pretty elaborate sculptures with dentures and hair pieces and that stuff to really simulate the fact that the lips are decomposing and peeling away, revealing gums and teeth. If you look at all the drawings in the graphic novel, there’s always a lot of teeth showing.
Your zombie actors had to go to school before the shoot. What sort of things did you show them in zombie school?
I put together a video with clips from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead and REC and even Shaun of the Dead in there and said, “Okay, here’s some of the examples of what we’re looking for in terms of zombie performances.” Night on the Living Dead is the blueprint. That’s the reference we’re using. I’ve literally handpicked most of the zombies for every sequence because we’re going for a specific look and a specific portrayal. Our department is kind of like the 13th actor in the movie because the zombies have a presence. It’s always there and it’s always felt and that’s one of the things that Frank has loved about this project for years. He’s such a purist.
The images AMC has released of the zombies are truly fantastic. They’ve really gotten fans excited for the series.
The first image they released, the bicycle girl, is the first zombie you see in the series. It’s right after Rick has gotten out of the hospital and he’s walking through the park and sees a bicycle. He goes to grab it and there’s a defecated, sun-dried, decomposed half-girl lying there.
We’ve heard that AMC plans to test the bounds in terms of gore, but in the end this will still air on basic cable. What kinds of limitations does that impose?
They’re really dedicated to making this show as cutting edge as can be. If that means a couple frames get trimmed from the broadcast and winds up on the DVD, I don’t know. But truthfully we really haven’t shied away from anything, which I find really exciting. There’s a scene where a zombie gets chopped up with an axe and it was one of the goriest things I’ve seen in a long time and even Frank was like, “More blood. I want to see more blood!”
The Pilot had a scene where you had to prep 150 zombies, but then you told us Episode Two was even bigger.
This isn’t a TV show. These are mini movies. The Pilot, following the arc of the graphic novel, gets Rick (Andrew Lincoln) into Atlanta. The audience is discovering along with Rick that the world has basically become overrun with zombies. He doesn’t come across gigantic packs of zombies as he’s moving towards Atlanta, but once he gets into the city, everything changes. Episode Two picks up with Rick in Atlanta meeting the other characters. We’re in the middle of it. It was exhausting. We had 14 days to shoot the Pilot and then we had eight days to shoot Episode Two, which was a big, gigantic action episode where we’re introducing all the new characters as well as having them dispatch zombies. We literally worked 18 hours a day. It was exhausting. Thank God Episode Three was less zombie heavy.
Comic-Con starts next week and I know you guys are flying there on your days off. How much will we get to see?
I know that they’re going to show a trailer, like a sizzle reel. I don’t know if Frank’s going to show any edited clips or anything. He’s really been working his ass off on the Pilot and the scripts and getting the Comic-Con presentation together. He’s like, “We’re going to do this and that and we’re going to have a limited edition poster!” He’s basically generating stuff that, if he wasn’t involved with the show, that he would go to Comic-Con and buy. Frank’s more excited about Comic-Con than anybody I know.
The Walking Dead will debut as part of AMC’s Fearfest this October.