Pittsburgh native, Greg Nicotero, brings zombies to life on TV's 'The Walking Dead'
Greg Nicotero designs a zombie's face on "The Walking Dead."
Greg Nicotera said for "Walking Dead" his goal was to create zombies that looked different from what zombie fans have seen before.
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For McCandless native-turned-Hollywood makeup effects guru Greg Nicotero, there are no fast-moving zombies.
"Fast zombies aren't zombies," he said in a recent phone interview. "They're infected people. It's a fabrication of some bad filmmaker's mind that thinks something rotting should move quickly. ... Any purist will tell you that zombies are zombies and if something is decomposing its muscles should not be working that well. Needless to say, I'm a little passionate about that."
Mr. Nicotero, who has designed makeup effects for such varied projects as "Transformers 2," "The Pacific," "Pulp Fiction" and "Army of Darkness," through his company KNB EFX Group Inc., comes full circle from where he began with his work on the new AMC zombie apocalypse series "The Walking Dead' (10 tonight).
A 1981 graduate of Sewickley Academy, Mr. Nicotero, 47, attended Westminster College to study biology (with a minor in art) but he left before graduating to work on George A. Romero's zombie classic "Day of the Dead."
"When you talk to guys like [filmmakers] Quentin Tarantino or Eli Roth, those guys are cut from the same cloth," he said. "It's no surprise to me that [director] Guillermo del Toro started out doing makeup effects. They all have similar interests. They love Ray Harryhausen movies, they all have a ravenous appetite for Universal horror movies like 'Creature From the Black Lagoon.' And it was a time before VCRs and the Internet, where the primary form of entertainment was going to the movies, seeing 'Planet of the Apes' in theaters. I loved monster movies and was fascinated with the idea of making monsters. I just happened to be very fortunate that I met George and Tom Savini and found myself having a career in Pittsburgh of all places."
Mr. Nicotero's uncle, Sam, is a local actor who worked on Mr. Romero's "The Crazies" and interviewed the director for a magazine article. When Greg Nicotero met Mr. Romero he was able to mention his uncle and strike up a conversation. Through Mr. Romero, Mr. Nicotero met makeup effects legend Tom Savini, also a Pittsburgh native. He'd been a fan of both men's work but was following in his father's footsteps with plans to become a doctor.
"When 'Day of the Dead' came up, I decided to pursue that interest," Mr. Nicotero said. "George said, 'But you're supposed to be a doctor,' and I'm sure in an alternative universe somewhere, I was a really good doctor, but in this universe the fake blood is more appealing to me than the real blood."
Mr. Nicotero served as Mr. Savini's assistant on 1985's "Day of the Dead," and it's where he met Howard Berger, another principal in KNB, which was formed in 1988.
"We've done 900 movies since then," Mr. Nicotero said, adding that his parents, Jim and Connie Nicotero, go to see them all. "My mom sits in the theater and makes the usher sweeping up sit down and watch her son's name. ... My parents are my biggest fans and I could never have done it if they had literally given me any grief when I said, 'I'm going to take a semester off of school and go and do this movie.' They looked at me and said, 'You've got a good head on your shoulders,' and they really supported me. I'm sure I mortified them at the time but now, in hindsight, their support was critical to what I'm doing now."
His most recent endeavor, "The Walking Dead," is based on a comic book written by Robert Kirkman and follows a group of survivors, led by a police officer (Andrew Lincoln), as they search for a safe home free of zombie incursions. Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") wrote and directed tonight's premiere, the first of six first-season episodes. Mr. Nicotero served as consulting producer/special effects makeup designer on "Walking Dead," which filmed on location in Atlanta this summer.
"I begged Frank to shoot in Pittsburgh," Mr. Nicotero said. "You'll never find better zombie extras in the world than in Pittsburgh. We had people clamoring from all over the world to come to our set and get up at 3 a.m. and get glued into prosthetics and have fake blood poured on them and stand around in the sun and get dehydrated."
Mr. Nicotero has attended a zombie walk at Monroeville Mall -- "a great, geek moment," he called it -- and was not surprised to hear about an attempt at a record-setting zombie walk in Market Square earlier this month (splotches of fake blood dotted city sidewalks for a day until rain washed them away).
He said for "Walking Dead" his goal was to create zombies that looked different from what zombie fans have seen before. He used his past experience creating zombies as a guide.
"I always wanted to cast people who had a very specific look," he said. "When you take great character faces to begin with and put makeup on them, you're augmenting an already magnificent canvas."
Mr. Nicotero wanted to cast people with long necks, slumped shoulders and delicate features.
"It helps to have people with small noses so when you add a prosthetic on top of them it doesn't look like a building up on their faces," he said. "We pushed these zombies a little further than we had on other shows and were really able to come up with something that felt not only consistent with the graphic novels but something we hadn't seen before."
In addition to his work on "The Walking Dead," Mr. Nicotero has directed an eight-minute film, "The United Monster Talent Agency," which posits a world where monsters are real and need talent agents. It's available for viewing online at http://blogs.amctv.com/the-walking-dead/2010/10/united-monster-talent-agency.php.
First Published October 31, 2010 12:00 am