Being a zombie has its drawbacks. First off, they don’t tend to make great conversationalists. (Enough with the moaning already!) Hygiene is certainly an issue. Worst of all, the situation is just too damn permanent. But what if you could be a zombie for a day, to get a taste — no pun intended — of how the undead other half lives? Well, it seems the producers of The Walking Dead were looking for willing bodies (read: knuckleheads) to appear as flesh-eating zombies for their season 2 premiere, so I decided to venture down to Atlanta to volunteer my services.
My first stop is at wardrobe, where I am promptly handed an enormous bloodstained suit, which makes me look like a cross between a homeless person and Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne. My shoes are tagged with the words ”Chad Sanders,” so I choose to adopt that as my zombie name. Of course, the real fun happens in the makeup chair. Makeup guru Greg Nicotero and his team have 35 zombies to gorify today. Some just get a ”paint job,” which is a liberal application of dirt, grime, and blood, while others get the ”hero zombie” treatment, which means an assortment of prosthetic gashes, demon-eye contact lenses, and phony rotted teeth.
I sit down in the chair of makeup artist Andy Schoneberg, and the transformation begins. My wound du jour is a huge bloody mess on my forehead, and while it looks cool as hell, it also has me wondering — what sort of lamebrain was Chad Sanders anyway? I mean, I can see getting bitten on the arm, leg, or even neck — but the forehead? How does that even happen? That’s just poor zombie defense skills, is what that is. Great, I’m playing a moron.
An hour and a half later, after having disgusting yellow and black fluid squirted all over my teeth, and hellacious orange contacts inserted into my eyes, I’m ready for action — the action of killing! I’m especially excited to test out my zombie walk, which involves a bum left foot that needs to be dragged, a twisted right arm that hangs lifelessly down to the side, and a full-body lean to the left for no reason in particular. This proves to be a miscalculation of epic proportions once I learn that the entire day will be one long chase scene. (You try chasing someone with only one leg and one arm while leaning awkwardly. Advantage: humans.)
The scene we’re shooting involves a horde of ghouls descending upon an abandoned Shane (Jon Bernthal). Although it means multiple takes at multiple angles for multiple hours, it is a full-on blast every single time. After all, how often in life are people feeding you instructions such as ”Attack him like you want to rip his flesh off!”? Just as fun is getting to know my partners in grime, who come from all walks of life for all different reasons. One is a recent college graduate looking to pocket a little extra coin before starting his Arby’s management training program the very next day. Another is a YMCA masseuse who’s been a lifelong zombie fan and doesn’t even know how much she’s being paid for the honor (background zombies get $62 for the day before overtime, while ”hero” zombies get $86; there’s also a kill fee — anyone who gets offed scores an extra $50). Even star Andrew Lincoln’s brother-in-law is here today masquerading as a member of the undead.
In between takes, the zombies devour the one thing they crave in the 95-degree heat even more than flesh: Gatorade. Several also light up cigarettes. (I suppose if you’re already dead, lung cancer is the least of your worries.) Finally, 12 hours later, we gear up for one last run, chasing Bernthal over the course of a few hundred yards. It’s brutal, intense, and gnarly, but when the director yells ”Cut!” for the last time, the actor and my zombie brethren exchange high fives and congratulations all around. In my exhausted euphoria, little do I realize that my zombie life is still in danger, for there is one other surefire way to kill a member of the walking dead — cut his scene out of the show. And sure enough, this entire day will end up on the editing-room floor. Poor Chad Sanders, dude just can’t catch a break.