Makeup Master Greg Nicotero Helps Make AMC's <i>The Walking Dead</i> a Gory Must-see

"I had always assumed that horror -- especially the really dark, gory stuff that I sometimes work on -- was more of a niche market."
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Let's face it: Nobody likes going through security at the airport.

But for Greg Nicotero, the Emmy-winning makeup effects artist and co-executive producer of AMC's hit series The Walking Dead, that whole take-off-your-shoes-so-that-they-can-then-be-sent-through-the-X-ray-machine bit can sometimes get extra exciting.

"Typically, I'm going to the airport right from work," Nicotero explained. "And it's only as I'm putting my shoes on the conveyor belt that I then notice that they're flecked with fake blood. Which makes it look like I'm some guy who's trying to flee the country after I've stabbed someone."

Thankfully for Greg (who's spent an awful lot of time at the airport this past six months, what with having to travel back and forth between LA and Atlanta as Nicotero rode herd on the makeup effects for Season 3 of Walking Dead -- which is being shot in and around Senoia, Ga. -- not to mention consulting on that Walking Dead-themed obstacle course which AMC set up at San Diego Comic-Con back in July and working with Universal Studios officials in both Hollywood and Orlando on those "Walking Dead: Dead Inside" mazes that are being presented at this year's Halloween Horror Nights), the TSA hasn't shown all that much interest in his footware.

"They're far more concerned with whether I still have loose change in my pocket before I got through their scanner," Greg laughed during a recent interview. "The fact that my shoes make it look like I may have just killed someone prior to arriving at the airport is really none of their concern. But making sure that I don't have any metal on me before I go through their X-ray machine, that's important."

Which -- I know -- sounds kind of absurd. But these days, Nicotero's whole world is filled to the brim with absurd.

"I mean, when I started working with Gale Hurd and Frank Darabont on The Walking Dead, I never once dreamed that someday there'd be these Walking Dead calendars that would feature my zombie makeups which people would then hang up in their kitchens," Greg marveled. "Or -- for that matter -- when I'd tell some guy that I work on The Walking Dead, he'd then say 'That's my wife's favorite show. Wait here. I want to introduce you to her.'"

Mind you, Greg has spent almost 30 years now working in the horror genre. His first big gig as a makeup effects artist was on 1985's Day of the Dead, the third film in George Romero's zombie film series. And ever since then, if filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth need a gory effect for one of their movies, Nicotero is the guy that they reach out to.

"But I had always assumed that horror -- especially the really dark, gory stuff that I sometimes work on -- was more of a niche market. That it wasn't to everyone's taste," Greg continued. "Which is why to have The Walking Dead become this mainstream success, to have so many people become fans of this bleak, episodic drama which is set during a zombie apocalypse is just kind of mind-blowing."

To be fair here, Nicotero gives Gale Hurd the lion's share of the credit when it comes to the The Walking Dead's success.

"This is the woman who produced huge genre movies like Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. So Gale knows a little something when it comes to telling stories on an epic scale," Greg enthused. "But to do that on a TV budget and then stick so close to Robert Kirkman's [one of the creators of the Walking Dead graphic novel series] vision is just amazing."

And Hurd really wasn't willing to compromise when it came to Kirkman's vision. Which is why, when NBC and HBO both said that they'd be willing to commit to a The Walking Dead television series if the production team significantly toned down the graphic novels' violence and gore, Gale said, "No, thank you," and then began shopping the show around to other networks.

"Thank goodness we wound up at AMC. They totally get this show. Right from the beginning, they've been completely trusting and supportive of what we've been trying to do with this series," Nicotero said.

How much do AMC executives trust the Walking Dead production team to do the right thing all on their own? Take, for example, the prison that will serve at the principle setting for Season 3 of this acclaimed television series. (Which -- FYI -- officially got underway this past Sunday night with a record 10.9 million viewers tuning in. Which made The Walking Dead Season 3 premiere the most-watched telecast of any drama series in basic cable history.)

"We spent a million and a half on that prison set. And all the months that that took to build, AMC never once checked up on us," Greg stated. "They never flew an executive or an accountant out to Georgia to make sure that we were spending that money the way that we said we would. Now that's trust."

Of course, one of the main reasons that AMC executives trust the Walking Dead production team is they've seen the first two seasons of this television series. Which, thanks to the dedicated group of film veterans that Frank Darabont assembled as this show was initially getting off the ground, manages to have the look and polish of a theatrically-released movie on a cable TV schedule and budget.

"People keep asking me when we're going to make a Walking Dead movie. And my response is, 'There already is one. It's on every Sunday night at 9 p.m. on AMC. You should watch it sometime,'" Nicotero smirked.

That said, shooting this new season of The Walking Dead has been particularly challenging for Greg and his crew. Not only because the Walking Dead production team was really looking to raise the bar on Season 3. But also because of all of the other spin-off projects that Nicotero has been riding herd on these past few months.

"So am I kind of fried from regularly flying back and forth across the country to have all these meetings with Universal Creative about those Walking Dead-themed mazes that they're doing for this year's Halloween Horror Nights? Absolutely," Greg admitted. "But in the end, it was totally worth it. Universal's done a beautiful job with these haunted houses. They've recreated iconic settings from the show down to the last detail. As people go through these mazes, it's going to feel like they've walked straight into their television sets and are now right in the middle of an episode of The Walking Dead."

What really helps here is that Nicotero and his team at NB EFX Group, Inc. are providing Universal with the exact same zombie character makeups that were used on the television series.

"So when we encounter Bicycle Girl as you go through the 'Walking Dead: Dead Inside' haunted house, she's going to look just like the character did on the TV show," Greg enthused. "Likewise the Well Walker. We're even recreating that moment from the series where Daryl encounters that walker in the swamp who's eating the live deer."

And given the amount of detail that's involved with successfully pulling off a particularly gruesome makeup effect for an episode of The Walking Dead, does Nicotero now plan to slip away from the show's set in Georgia and then winging his way to either Hollywood or Orlando? Just to make sure that the folks at Universal Studios are applying all of his zombie makeups correctly?

"Oh, no. I trust these guys. Though, that said, I might fly down to Universal Orlando just so I can then experience the Walking Dead maze as a civilian," Greg said. "See how the general public reacts to having all these gruesome characters come off the screen and then begin shambling around in the real world."

"Though, with my luck, this would be the one time when I'm going through airport security when the TSA would actually noticed the fake blood flecks on my shoes," Nicotero concluded. "And then I'd have an awful lot of explaining to do before they'd finally allow me to get on that plane."

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