Hit series’ attraction to open at Universal Studios on July 4
LOS ANGELES: He is the God of Gore, the Sultan of Splatter, the Emperor of Entrails—and the brains behind some of the most iconic blood and guts set pieces in film history.
If you’ve seen something in a violent movie that made the blood drain from your face, there’s a good chance that Oscar-winning Greg Nicotero provided the special effects.
The 53-year-old and his partners have worked on more than 400 TV and film projects, from George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead in 1985 to last year’s Quentin Tarantino splatter-fest The Hateful Eight.
Best known these days for his effects work and directing on AMC hit series The Walking Dead, Nicotero’s obsession with the macabre began back in 1975 with Jaws.
“I needed to know how they did it. When the movie came out I was obsessed with learning everything I could about how they built that shark,” said the filmmaker, who was 12 when Steven Spielberg’s tour de force hit theaters.
Nicotero’s effects have provided some of the iconic moments of modern cinema, from the “hobbling” scene in Misery (1990), when James Caan’s ankles are shattered by a sledgehammer-wielding Kathy Bates, to the ear-slicing in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
“What makes that so memorable is that you don’t see it on screen. The camera is on him, and then Mike Madsen goes in with the razor and then the camera pans away and Madsen enters the shot holding the ear,” he says.
“You don’t see it, and I’ll never forget Quentin telling me over and over again how many people objected to seeing it.”
Barbecued sausage meat
A tour of Nicotero’s workshop 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles is like dying and going to horror geek heaven.
There are vampires, werewolves, giant piranhas, a huge shark suspended from the ceiling, a T-Rex head, a life-sized horse and models of aliens, monsters and ghouls of all kinds and their messed-up victims.
In Nicotero’s office, severed arms are propped up on a wooden cabinet while decapitated heads clutter the floor the way a stray box of paperclips or a paper coffee cup might in a normal workplace.
And then there are the zombies–dozens of them in various stages of decomposition. There are smashed heads with eaten-away faces, broken hands, cloudy eyeballs and dentures stacked neatly in drawers.
The blood that pours from every gouge, slash and gunshot wound in Nicotero’s universe is corn syrup and food coloring, while the human flesh is usually barbecued sausage meat.
Nicotero grew up in Pittsburgh, where the legendary Romero and his special effects supremo Tom Savini were busy redefining the horror genre, having shocked the world with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead.
“I grew up 30 minutes away from where they filmed Dawn of the Dead and the cemetery from Night of the Living Dead was 20 minutes from my house,” says the father-of-two.
After a chance meeting at a restaurant in Rome, Nicotero became friends with Romero and quit pre-med to manage the make-up effects department on Day of the Dead, the third in the horror master’s zombie trilogy.
Zombie boot camp
Within a year he had moved to Los Angeles where he rented a house with freelance make-up effects artists Howard Berger and Bob Kurtzman, and the three would eat pizza, drink beer and watch horror movies together.
They channelled their shared interest into KNB EFX, a workshop that would grow into a 20,000 square foot base of operations northwest of LA, serving film and television productions all over the world.
Nicotero won an Oscar in 2006 for his work on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and in 2010 Frank Darabont, his director on The Green Mile, asked him to join a new TV series called The Walking Dead.
It quickly became the most-watched show in the history of cable television, and Nicotero graduated from special effects and co-executive producing to becoming its most prolific director.
He has recently set his sights beyond the film and TV to theme parks, working on a walk-through Walking Dead attraction opening at Universal Studios on July 4.
Nicotero has provided the make-up and special effects, as well as training for the attraction’s 100 extras at a zombie boot camp showing them how to find “their inner walker.”
So having used rubber prosthetics, countless gallons of fake blood and some of the most talented artists in the business to murder, maim and maul in every way imaginable over three decades, is there anything that could possibly scare the God of Gore?
“Spiders,” he says instantly, without having to think about it. “But other than that, nothing.”