‘Walking Dead': Greg Nicotero gives undead life at Universal Studios

Sept. 18, 2012 | 6:10 p.m.
Greg Nicotero on 'The Walking Dead'

Greg Nicotero is inside the maze of “The Walking Dead: Dead Inside” exhibit at Universal Studios Hollywood. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Watch out for the horse, cautioned Greg Nicotero.

It was a sweltering September morning at Universal Studios and inside a new maze based on “The Walking Dead,” the movie-makeup master and co-executive producer of the AMC series pointed to the floor where a zombified horse cadaver lay on its side, shrouded in plastic sheeting. Trap doors had been left conspicuously open and a few headless bodies had been strategically placed to give visitors the same sort of thrills they might experience in the post-apocalyptic American South of the hit zombie show, a nightmarish realm where flesh-eating ghouls hungrily devour their prey, equine or human.

“The Walking Dead: Dead Inside” maze is this year’s centerpiece for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, the annual event that begins Friday and transforms the theme park’s family-sun-and-fun ethos into something far more dark, grisly and adult in the weeks leading up to the spookiest day of the year.

“This is not a carnival attraction, this is not a haunted house that somebody’s having in a high school parking lot,” Nicotero said. “This is really about taking the participant and putting them inside the show.”

A zombie from season 2 of "The Walking Dead."

A zombie from “The Walking Dead.” (Greg Nicotero/AMC)

Few people understand and appreciate zombies the way Nicotero does, though that might be a simple accident of geography. The Pittsburgh native grew up watching monster movies in the same city where George Romero revolutionized and politicized the horror film with his radical 1968 zombie film “Night of the Living Dead.” Now 49, Nicotero began to learn his craft apprenticing with Tom Savini, Romero’s mustachioed makeup effects artist, the man widely considered the patron saint of splatter.

Since he turned professional in the mid-’80s, Nicotero has worked with Sam Raimi, Frank Darabont, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino on horror films and more commercial movie and TV projects. He’s won four Emmys and his credits include HBO’s World War II miniseries “The Pacific.”

But there’s no question his heart belongs to horror. The first film he recalls seeing is 1966’s “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” starring Christopher Lee, which was released when Nicotero was 3. His vast knowledge of the genre not only influences his speech, which is littered with enough references to fill a cult movie guide, but also it affects what “Walking Dead” viewers see from week to week. (The show returns for its third season Oct. 14.)

On the series’ Georgia set, he runs a “zombie school” for extras who play the feral walkers, personally demonstrating how they should move and at what speed. He points out that walkers rarely wear clothing that would telegraph the people they had once been — lab coats, uniforms and the like.

“When an audience starts identifying them as caricatures they become less threatening,” Nicotero said, sounding a little like an ambassador for the monsters. “What we have successfully been able to do is take these characters and make them simultaneously scary, creepy, sympathetic, threatening so that you get a sense that these people were actual people.”

John Murdy, Halloween Horror Nights’ bespectacled creative director, himself a lifelong genre fan, shares Nicotero’s enthusiasm for the undead. It was one of the reasons he was keen to include “The Walking Dead” in Universal Studios’ horror lineup — in addition to the maze itself, the theme park has created a “Walking Dead”-themed “terror tram,” which will drop visitors off on the back lot where they’ll have to make their way through roughly 125 actors dressed as zombies.

Greg Nicotero (right) and John Murdy

Greg Nicotero, right, and John Murdy. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times)

Halloween Horror Nights is one of a handful of similarly scary Southern California events — Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags and Disneyland all offer their own take on the holiday — though Universal Studios prides itself on big-name entertainment tie-ins. Affiliation with the movie studio is optional.

Previous Halloween Horror Nights have featured mazes designed around horror movie franchises including “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Saw.” This year, Halloween Horror will bolster its brand of bloody mayhem with haunted attractions based on the video game/movie franchise “Silent Hill,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the studio’s own classic monsters.

“We want to feature properties people know and love,” Murdy said.

Universal Studios does not release attendance figures, but Murdy said he was expecting “The Walking Dead” to draw fans from across the country, especially given Nicotero’s participation. (The show also will serve as a marquee attraction for Universal’s sister theme park in Orlando, Fla.) He also said he’s prepared for the level of scrutiny that accompanies such a high-profile enterprise.

“We’re dealing with this beloved show that everybody’s into so as designers our goal is to hit all those little details that people are going to care about,” Murdy said. “Horror fans, the properties they love, they know everything about.”

Murdy’s team of around 25 makeup artists will utilize the same prosthetic molds Nicotero’s permanent crew of five uses on the series to transform the performers. Nicotero also has provided reference photos and information about the proper color palette required for each zombie’s makeup, which Murdy estimates will take about 30 minutes per performer to apply.

Murdy describes the process of readying the actors to frighten patrons as “an assembly line of gore.” It’s a funny observation, but one that perhaps also points up the tricky nature of adapting a series that blends horror with character-based drama for a live environment: Only one of those two facets can win out, and when it comes to Halloween, nuance might inevitably place second to blood, guts and viscera.

"The Walking Dead." (AMC)

“The Walking Dead.” (AMC)

Visitors to “The Walking Dead: Dead Inside” will have no shortage of fluids spattered at them as they wind through a labyrinth of corridors that approximates major moments from the series’ first two seasons. Sound cues, lighting and fog and misdirection boost the scares; Murdy and his team often rely on the same sleight of hand tricks as many magicians.

“I’m a little jealous in one respect,” said Nicotero, whose show so often shoots outside under an expansive daytime Georgia sky. “They have the opportunity to have darkness and nighttime and atmosphere. Everything’s scarier at night. That was one of the biggest challenges when we started the show three years ago — nothing says horror like a blue sky and sun.”

It was precisely a blazing sun in a cloudless blue sky that met Nicotero and Murdy as they emerged blinking from the darkness of the maze into the heat of the September day.

“I guarantee you that a third of the people that go through this maze will be repeat participants,” Nicotero said. “Horror fans are unlike any other fans because they want to experience something and they want to experience it over and over again.”

It’s not just cheap thrills, they’re after, he said. It’s a chance to confront on some level the most primal of fears.

“The idea of being eaten alive, the idea of a loved one not being your loved one — they still look the same, but intent on devouring your very essence,” Nicotero said. “We’ve been able to instill a new perception on that.”

– Gina McIntyre

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