Having served as an assistant to makeup master Tom Savini on George A. Romero’s zombie classic Day of the Dead (1985), Greg Nicotero knows a thing or two about zombies.

A partner in the award-winning KNB EFX Group, whose experience in makeup effects spans three decades and over 400 film and TV credits, Nicotero also supervises the ghoulish makeup illusions on The Walking Dead, is one of the show’s executive producers, and has directed 22 episodes.

We caught up with Greg at Melbourne’s Walker Stalker Con to talk zombies and what we can expect in the second half of season eight.

One of the great things about The Walking Dead is that it thrust zombies into the mainstream, made them cool, and encouraged people to go back and watch the George Romero films.

I think the resurgence in zombie movies started in 1998-99 with Resident Evil and House of the Dead. When you have a third person shooter game and you have the ability to shoot the zombie yourself, I think that opened up the genre to a whole generation of younger people who didn’t grow up watching Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

Then there was 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake, and all of a sudden the zombie genre was adrenalized. I give a tremendous amount of credit to 28 Days Later because I think that was probably the most unique take on zombies, even though technically they weren’t zombies, they were ‘infected’. And The Walking Dead put them right in your living room.

How did you wind up directing episodes of The Walking Dead? Did you always have a desire to direct?

I had always said I wanted to try it once. I just wanted the experience of directing. Running KNB was really a full time job for so long that it never became a reality.

When we were shooting The Faculty, or Land of the Dead, or The Mist, I would shoot second unit for those directors – they were friends of mine. It was more a situation of convenience that gave me my first experiences directing.

There was a two-year period where I worked every single day – Piranha, Inglourious Basterds, Book of Eli, Predators. It was two years of travelling and non-stop working. I got home from Predators and had about six weeks before Walking Dead started, and I directed a short film. Frank Darabont was the one who made people notice the film, and when we got into season two of Walking Dead he said, ‘You’re ready to direct; do you want to direct an episode?’ And he gave me that opportunity.

It was a great opportunity to make that transition from special effects make-up artist to director; it’s a challenging jump. A lot of time people think it’s all about the effects. But what I learned from directors I’ve worked with, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, was if you don’t care about the characters, the effects don’t matter. You have to care about the characters first and that’s where my focus on directing came about – paying respect to the actor and the character. It’s about telling a great story, and it doesn’t matter if you have ten dollars or ten million.

What’s the most challenging effect you’ve done for The Walking Dead?

The challenge is the amount of time. It’s not like a movie where you have six months to prep. The scripts come out and you probably have, at the most, two or three weeks to really develop and design something. That’s one of the other reasons my role is so important – I have a very strong vision as to how to execute these effects, so they give me a lot of freedom.

I would probably say the well walker in season two, and some of the earlier characters like the bicycle girl. Hershel’s head was something I was excited about because we made an animatronic head that had jaw movement and then we put digital eyes on the head. I didn’t think we’d have the time to build a practical head that had radio controlled eyes that would look real, so we put in contact lenses and filmed the eyes and digitally composited them onto the prosthetic head.

My job is to keep the audience guessing. The minute they say, ‘I know how they did that,’ we’re screwed! You have to keep it fresh and trick them into thinking they saw one thing. That’s how we do it and that’s how magicians do it – it’s misdirection. So I think keeping the audience engaged in how we’re accomplishing these zombies, whether we’re ripping their skin off, wrapping entrails around a tree, or Winslow with all the spikes crammed in. We want the wow factor when audiences watch the episodes.

What can we look forward to in the second half of season eight?

We always have a very specific pace in terms of how the show works. The first half of the season always tends to set up where our characters are. It’s like setting up a chessboard. Then in the second half of the season, it’s like boom, boom, boom – things start happening fast and furious. There’s a lot of that happening in the second half. Moves that were set up early in the season start making sense.

The toxic zombies were great – will we see them again?

I know – I loved them! I don’t think we get to see them again, unfortunately. That was my RoboCop/Rob Bottin tribute. I even sculpted the dripping fingers. It was a lot of fun. I still love doing that kind of stuff. I still love paying tribute to effects artists that inspired and continue to inspire me.

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