Greg Nicotero, the effects artist from ''Land of the Dead,'' talks to us about his career and how he got started in the industry

By Chris Nashawaty
June 13, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

The first thing is to find a willing guinea pig. Little brothers are always good. You’ll need someone who’s able to sit still for two hours. Like making sausage, creating a zombie requires patience. It’s a long, messy process. And a deeply satisfying one, too, for those with the stomach for such things. . .

Unless you subscribe to Fangoria, chances are you’ve never heard of Greg Nicotero. But you’ve definitely seen his work. He’s the guy who engineered the syringe to Uma Thurman’s heart in Pulp Fiction. He choreographed the hobbling of James Caan’s ankles in Misery. He’s the makeup effects whiz who turned Mickey Rourke into the brick-faced bruiser Marv in Sin City and crafted Dirk’s diggler in Boogie Nights.

Tonight, though, Nicotero is busy with what may be regarded as his biggest triumph by the geeks and fanboys who regard him as a god. He’s creating zombies — legions and legions of lumbering, decaying, flesh-hungry zombies — on the Toronto set of George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead. Coming on the heels of such new-style genre flicks as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Resident Evil, Land of the Dead is the latest installment in Romero’s original zombie saga that kicked off with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, peaked with 1979’s Dawn of the Dead, and seemingly petered out with 1985’s Day of the Dead. Granted, much of the burden of reviving the franchise rests on Romero himself. But if Nicotero can give the gorehounds something they’ve never seen before — something truly sick and new — then he might just go down as the man who brought the walking dead back to the land of the living once and for all.

Nicotero is 42, with long, blond rock & roll hair, and the giddy demeanor of an adolescent boy yet to discover girls. Taking a break from the makeup chair, Nicotero apologizes for the fact that his shirt, pants, and chunky black boots are spattered with blood. ”I’m pretty much covered in blood all the time,” he says. ”Last week I flew home to L.A. and I didn’t have a chance to do laundry first. I had a suitcase full of bloody clothes. I’m just waiting for someone to stop me at the airport and check my luggage, or for the maid to come in and think I’m some mass murderer who hasn’t been caught yet.”

As he says this, a puddle of dried blood on the ground next to him marks the spot where, earlier in the evening, an actor was disemboweled in a zombie feeding frenzy. The puddle has the sticky consistency of strawberry jam, and in the middle of it, a fat noodle of latex intestine still marks the scene of the crime. Nicotero doesn’t notice any of this until it’s pointed out. ”We took a small intestine and a large intestine and tucked them into a body cavity so that when you reach in and grab them they stretch. We told the zombie actors right as we were ready to roll, ‘Okay, if you get down to the bottom, underneath the sternum there’s a heart and a kidney so you can really go crazy.’ Everything was flying!”

For the record, Nicotero insists he’s a normal guy. Yes, he has a robot from Lost in Space in his Tarzana, Calif., home, and owns a miniature spaceship from Alien and a six-foot-tall replica of Han Solo frozen in carbonite. And yes, fellow film nerds like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez occasionally drop by for model-painting parties. But he’s not off-kilter in the way most people expect him to be just because he traffics in carnage for a living. He enjoys watching Judge Judy. And he has a wife and two kids — a wife and two kids he’d like to spend more time with if business weren’t so good.

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