Greg Nicotero: 'Walking Dead' Owes a Lot to George Romero

Executive producer and makeup maestro talks about his history with the zombie pioneer

Greg Nicotero
Jordin Althaus/AMC
Greg Nicotero
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In anticipation of The Walking Dead's season premiere on Sunday, October 13th, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast or crew member every day this week. Yesterday, Steven Yeun told us how the show changed his life forever.

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How did you first get into working with George Romero?
My uncle is an actor, in Pittsburgh, who was in a couple of George's early movies. I met George through my uncle, and became friends with George and his wife at the time. When I was 16, they offered me a job on Creepshow. I was like, "No, no, I've gotta stay in school, I'm pre-med and I'm going to be a doctor. Thanks for the offer, but no thanks." When Day of the Dead happened in '84, I got another call, and they said "Hey, we're doing Day of the Dead," I didn't make the mistake I made on Creepshow. I got a second chance, and that time I went, "Fuck yeah, are you kidding me?" I mean, Jaws and the original Dawn of the Dead are sort of neck and neck for my favorite movie ever.

What is Romero like?
He's amazing. He wasn't afraid to take chances, and he really laid the groundwork for so many filmmakers today. Between Night Of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, those two movies were taboo – they did things that nobody would even dream of doing. George had a very, very specific voice, and he always pushed it. And by using violence in movies and the satirical look at things, George really opened the world for genre filmmakers by being brave and bold, and not backing down. He jokingly said to me once, "You know, I kind of screwed up your life, didn't I? You were all set to be a doctor and now look what happened." I was like "What do you mean, look what happened? I have a life where I am allowed to have the creative freedoms to do the things that I love to do."

To what extent do you think those Romero films, specifically Night Of the Living Dead, Dawn Of the Dead, Day of the Dead, set up the world that Walking Dead inhabits?
We always sort of refer to Night Of the Living Dead as the Holy Grail of zombie movies. All of the rules – you've gotta shoot it in the head to kill it – before 1969, that little piece of folklore didn't exist. Now it's part of popular culture. So we owe a lot to George's vision and the world he set up.  I know that when we did the pilot, Frank Darabont and I talked at great length about Night Of the Living Dead being sort of our beacon.

What was the playing field like for zombie films and TV shows when the Walking Dead started?
Up until 2004, there weren't a lot of zombie movies. They kind of became comedies or sort of low-brow, cheapy, low-budget things. Then you had 28 Days Later, which is a great post-apocalyptic movie, which I think gave a tremendous amount of steam to the Dawn Of the Dead remake. And then you turn around and you see Shaun Of the Dead. Which, to me, is one of my top 10 favorite movies. Because not only is it funny, it's scary! It was one of the first films that was reverential to the zombie genre. Then all of a sudden, people are taking this genre seriously again. George did Land Of the Dead, which was the long-awaited sequel to Day Of the Dead, and between the Resident Evil movies, and all that stuff, zombies just started gaining a lot of momentum.

Describe the process of creating the zombies for each show.
We generally do pre-production for the show three months before it starts shooting. We start sculpting all new prosthetics. We do animatronic puppets sometime too. One of the advantages of me being a creative producer is that I can just sort of run with some creative looks. Most every zombie on the show has been designed or conceptualized by me. We don't have to submit designs to anybody. We spend a couple months sculpting and molding things, and those pieces are manufactured and shipped down here to Georgia. On a busy day, we'll have eight makeup artists. They'll be gluing prosthetics and doing makeups, dentures, custom contact lenses and sometimes wigs. Then we have mid-ground makeups that don't necessarily get too close to the camera, but they're really elaborate paint jobs with some blood and wounds. Then, sometimes, we have the deep background people that really don't need masks or makeup or anything. They're just sort of silhouettes. Every year we continue to push the envelope in terms of stuff that you haven't seen before. 

Have the zombies changed over time?
As the show progresses each year, you can always get the impression that zombies are decaying more and more. If we're outside for one day, think how dehydrated and hot we get. Imagine being outside every day for a year. You'd be a raisin! The zombies are out there. They don't stand in the shade. They don't go inside. So they would literally be brown, leathery raisins. I've done a lot of research in terms of cadavers, corpses and weird things. When the skin tightens, it sort of pulls away. You can feel the skull, because the skin has just shriveled away and tightened. I always think about that kind of stuff.

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