Imagine learning how to throw a football from Tom Brady or receiving acting lessons from Meryl Streep. That’s like this, but with zombies. On Wednesday, some future walkers at Universal Studios Hollywood received a crash course on being zombies from Greg Nicotero, the man who has helped define walkers for a new generation on The Walking Dead.
It’s been more than 30 years since Nicotero got his start as a special effects makeup artist on Day of the Dead, directed by horror legend George A. Romero. Nicotero’s career has taken him to the sets of a wide array of films, from Pulp Fiction to Scream to Boogie Nights (yes, he created Dirk Diggler’s prosthetic penis). But The Walking Dead, based on the comics from Robert Kirkman, was a game changer for Nicotero: the AMC series is a runaway hit, and Nicotero’s work molding the walkers has played a crucial part in keeping more than 15 million viewers coming back each week.
The show’s success has led to further expansion: prequel series Fear the Walking Dead airs on AMC, and at Universal Studios Hollywood, an at-first temporary Walking Dead attraction was deemed popular enough to become permanent.
Nicotero had been involved in the series’ previous seasonal attractions at the amusement park, and for the new permanent attraction, which opens July 4, he has helped design the animatronic walkers to ensure they have the same iconic look from the show. In addition, more than 1,000 people auditioned at a casting call last month hoping be the newest walkers. About 100 were deemed walker-worthy and sent to zombie boot camp. The sergeant for the day: Nicotero himself.
As an executive producer, director, and makeup guru on the show, Nicotero has been training walkers since the beginning. Before every season, he holds a zombie school in Georgia, where the series shoots. While some are regulars on the set, sometimes Nicotero is teaching an extra who may be there just for a day. “It’s probably somebody who works at Subway and just wanted to be a zombie really, really badly,” Nicotero says.
Today his class is a group that’s in the zombie business for the long haul. They won’t just be filming a short scene and then taking a break; these walkers will be in character for hours at a time, ready to deliver scares at any given moment. As the attraction’s creative director, John Murdy, says, it’s a new show every 10 seconds.
“Authenticity is tremendously important to me in terms of how the walkers look and more specifically how they move,” Nicotero explains. Here to help him teach such authenticity is Joe Giles, the man Nicotero likes to call “Patient Zero.” Giles has been a walker on the show since the pilot, and many of the series’ original walkers were based on him because of how much Frank Darabont loved the way Giles played a zombie.
It’s easy to see why, as Giles slowly emerges from behind the curtains in full walker attire. He looks as if he’s still filming a scene with Walking Dead stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus. He shuffles around looking for food, never breaking character, even as cameras flash and onlookers attempt to take selfies. “I want you guys to each bring your own personality to the character, but there’s a really unique body language that Joe brought to his performance that we adopted into the show,” Nicotero tells the group.
After the new recruits get an up-close look at the way Giles moves, Nicotero wants to see what they’ve got. “We don’t want every walker to appear to look the same,” he explains after the first group does tries its best attempt at becoming walkers.
With the next batch of walkers ready to take their turn, Nicotero tells them to be free and have fun with it. He also wants them to not walk in straight lines. “You’re not necessarily in control,” he says, comparing walkers to people leaving a bar late at night.
“Keep your look focused; the walkers aren’t looking around for butterflies,” Nicotero jokes. Moving faster and locking in is better sometimes, he says. “We always talk about the idea when walkers are getting close to you, it’s like a lion hunting their prey, and they might get a bit more animated.”
Today’s boot camp is over for these walkers, but soon they’ll start almost three weeks of rehearsals ahead of the attraction’s opening. Learning how to maintain energy — exiting the scene is just as important as the entrance — and working on their stamina for the long days of scaring ahead are both on the agenda. And if they get tired, there’s always brains.