This year’s Rhode Island Comic Con guest list boasted big names like Anthony Daniels, Carl Weathers, Carrie-Anne Moss, Christina Ricci, Evangeline Lilly, Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal, Linda Hamilton, and Marissa Tomei, to name a few, alongside hundreds of vendors and artists.
A highlight of the weekend was an intimate panel with legendary special effects artist-turned-director Greg Nicotero, who shared his reflections on The Walking Dead now that it has come to an end, in addition to insight from nearly 40 years in the industry.
Nicotero’s fascination with the horror genre stems from his childhood. “I grew up in Pittsburgh, and there was a TV show called Chiller Theater on every Saturday night. The host was a guy called Bill Cardille, who plays the reporter in Night of the Living Dead. I would stay up every Saturday to watch it. July was classic horror month, so they would show Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula, all the classics.”
He also praised his parents, who he calls “huge movie buffs,” for taking him to the movies. “We saw everything in the theater. I saw Dracula: Prince of Darkness when I was like 7 years old. They literally grab a guy, hang him by his feet, slit his throat, and his blood pours out and coagulates Dracula’s dust, and Dracula gets up. He’s not naked; he has his clothes on, which I was always curious about,” he chuckled.
“That was the kind of stuff that I watched. I was scared of horror movies when I was little, but I was also fascinated, because I was so compelled by the idea of being afraid.”
As for his favorite horror movie, it’s a toss-up between two formidable classics. “I go back and forth. Sometimes it’s Dawn of the Dead. Sometimes it’s Jaws. As a matter of fact, when I was getting married, they had a bachelorette party for my wife. She had to answer what my favorite horror movie was, and she couldn’t do it, and everybody went, ‘Ooooh!’” he smirked. “Like I wasn’t going to marry her. And she’s still never seen Dawn of the Dead!”
He shared an anecdote about seeing The Blair Witch Project before it was released. “My friend Dana Gould, who’s a really funny comedian, handed me the VHS and said, ‘Be prepared to shit yourself.’ That was his review of the movie! I didn’t know what he was talking about. My girlfriend at the time and I sat down and watched it, and it was genuinely terrifying. It was before the hype, so I didn’t know anything about it.” On the subject of found footage, he also commended [REC] and Veronica.
Horror still excites the genre veteran, as exemplified by a trio of recent international gems he saw this Halloween season. “I watched When Evil Lurks. It’s fucking great! Then I watched that director’s [Demián Rugna] first movie, Terrified, which is also great. Then I watched Talk to Me. They don’t have a lot of money, they’re all paid for by grants, but they’re super creepy. There’s something real. It’s like watching the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It feels like real people.
“I really loved those movies, so I have this renewed interest in watching these smaller movies from Argentina and Spain and Australia. These filmmakers have to be inventive because they don’t have the luxury of having lots of money to do all kinds of elaborate stuff, so it forces them to be a little more creative in terms of how they craft their movies. I’m fucking 60 years old, and I’m still excited to watch a movie!”
He reminiscenced about the communal experience of cinema. “That’s so much about what makes horror movies, that adrenaline rush. Ironically, Walking Dead was one of the things that really was able to capture that again. People would get together and watch it, so they all reacted together, which made me very proud. I’ve heard from so many of you that it brings families together. We never imagined when we were making it that 13 years later we’d still be talking about it.”
Showrunner Frank Darabont brought Nicotero onto The Walking Dead following successful collaborations on his previous work. “I worked with Frank on a lot of his movies, and when we did The Mist, I was the second unit director. Every experience that we had working together, I would design all the creatures and all the effects. He was like, ‘This is me and you. I don’t know how to do this without you.’”
He continued, “When we started shooting the show, he directed the pilot, then he went back to LA to edit, but we had five more episodes to shoot. The directors would come in, and they had never seen Night of the Living Dead, they didn’t have The Walking Dead to reference. They didn’t grow up with the zombie rules.
“Basically, I became the second unit director and would shoot all the zombie and gore stuff. I became a very integral part of the show, just because of my dedication to the genre and Frank. Then [executive producer] Gale Anne Hurd called me when we wrapped and said, ‘You know, you’re not just a makeup effects person. You really produced the show with us, so we want to give you a co-producer credit.’ Nobody gives you anything, especially in Hollywood! That was like the greatest compliment.”
In addition to The Walking Dead and The Mist, Nicotero had second unit directing experience on the likes of Land of the Dead, The Faculty, and Wishmaster, but Darabont’s offer for him to direct an episode of The Walking Dead‘s second season still came as a surprise. He went on to helm 37 episodes, including several of the most memorable.
“I’ll never forget it. We were out for dinner for Frank Darabont’s birthday, and he goes, ‘You’re ready to direct an episode. I’ve got a question: do you want a zombie-heavy episode or a zombie-light episode?’” He ultimately chose the latter, helming Season 2’s “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” which features an emotional character demise. “People were crying! Who cries at fucking zombies? That was the power. That’s the DNA of what The Walking Dead is in my mind.”
Nicotero confessed that he was “scared shitless” to step into the director’s chair. “I don’t know how I did it. I was surrounded by the cast, who trusted me. The one thing about directing is the cast and crew have to trust you. If they don’t, you’re screwed. For the whole first season, they saw the work that my team did on the show, so when it came time for me to direct, they trusted me. They were like ‘This guy knows the show, he knows what it’s about, and he knows all of us.’”
Nicotero credited The Walking Dead with helping to usher in the return of practical effects to the mainstream. “I think, because of the success of The Walking Dead and then Game of Thrones and American Horror Story and all this other stuff, there’s a renewed interest. That’s my pay-it-forward moment. It broadened the world’s perception of practical makeup.”
He made four zombie busts that Darabont and Hurd brought to showcase their vision in pitch meetings. AMC, of course, bought the show. “Interesting enough, when the show was ready to air, the first look that they published was the bicycle girl. It wasn’t Rick Grimes; it was a close-up photo of that zombie. So when the show came on, nobody had ever seen anything on television like that before.
“George Romero had said to me that, even when we were doing Land of the Dead, he was still having small fights with the ratings board. We would shoot alternate versions of things, because he was worried what the rating would be. Then you cut to five years later, and we’re doing shit on TV that’s worse than what was in the theaters!”
The Walking Dead didn’t get much pushback from AMC’s Standards and Practices department, but Nicotero recalled a notable exception on an episode he directed. “The biggest one was in Season 5, Episode 1 when they’re cutting the throats of the guys leaning over the trough at Terminus. I pitched that idea, so I loved it. The network came back and told us to take seven frames of gore out, which is like a quarter of a second! So we took it out, and they went ‘It looks great!’ Then I put it back in,” he chuckled.
Even with the benefit of digital augmentation, the focus on practical effects forced Nicotero to get creative. “In the first season, when Glenn saves Rick from the tank and they’re running down the street shooting zombies, we had practical blood. We had little rigs that would strap the back of your head with a little pipe that would run off camera to little bellows. When they would aim, a guy off-camera would jump up and down on the bellows, and it would shoot blood out of the back of the head.”
He originally devised this technique on Land of the Dead. “George wanted all practical, and they didn’t want to use any explosives. On Dawn of the Dead, they just put a squib there, but you can’t put squibs on people anymore, especially if they’re not stunt people. So we started coming up with ways to shoot the blood without any explosives. What you do is you use air pressure.”
Speaking of Romero, Nicotero confirmed that the godfather of zombies was offered a chance to direct on The Walking Dead. “Frank had said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do Season 2. See if George would want to do it.’ I called him, and he said, ‘Your zombies are your zombies. My zombies are my zombies. I think it’s good.’ He still had stories to tell. He always had said to me, ‘For a long time, I was the only kid in the sandbox, and now everybody’s in my fucking sandbox!’” he laughed.
Nicotero’s pride in The Walking Dead is palpable, particularly the first several seasons. “Everyone says, ‘Season 2 was a little slow.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot!’ You know the reason you love Daryl Dixon? Because you had a whole episode about him. You know the reason you love Carol? Because you experienced everything she went through to find her daughter, and that never would have happened if it would have been people running through Atlanta streets being chased by zombies. That wasn’t the intention of the story. For me, Season 2 is when the world fell in love with The Walking Dead.”
He cited Darabont and the ensemble cast he assembled as the key to the show’s longevity. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that Frank Darabont has directed some of the greatest ensemble casts in history: Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist. Frank knows how to put ensemble casts together. So The Walking Dead soared because of the cast he put together. There’s somebody in that cast that you identify with. There’s something for everyone, and that’s what made the show great.”
Nicotero admitted that the series is not without its faults. “It got bloated. Too many characters. They should have done the comic book. Those moments in the comic book had an impact because they were characters we cared about, and what ended up happening was, as the show progressed, they stopped killing off characters that had any real meaning to the show,” noting that some of the deviations from the source material struck him as unnecessarily manipulative.
“The Walking Dead wasn’t about Pamela Milton and 5,000 zombies. It was about that core group of people. That’s what I love about the Daryl Dixon show, because I feel like it kind of goes back to the DNA of what The Walking Dead was when we initially started the show.” He spoke highly of working on The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, although its production prevented him from directing on The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live, the upcoming spin-off centered on Rick and Michonne.
Nicotero relished the opportunity to include horror references in The Walking Dead for other fans to enjoy. “I was playing into not only the fans of the genre but to the new, mainstream audience. I would put little Easter egg zombies in or recreate famous shots from zombie movies. Nobody else on set knew what the fuck I was doing. I would just do it! I think what I was able to do was pay tribute to my love for horror movies and sprinkle that into the show.
“I mean, I had a Freddy Krueger zombie in the last season of The Walking Dead. It’s a lot of fun to do that kind of thing. And of course all the Whisperers look like Leatherface. In the Terminus episode, when they’re escaping, there’s a crate that we mirrored from the crate from Creepshow with the same thing painted on the side. And when they get the seeds at the Smithsonian, there’s a gag with spiders. There was a big crate there, and I made them recreate the crate from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You’ve gotta love it. If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t do it.”
Nicotero noted that his fandom can get in his own way. “You have to think about the bigger picture. It’s really important, especially with genre stuff. Nobody cares if it’s been done before. Like, [The Walking Dead] Dead City is Escape from New York with Negan instead of Snake Plissken. Maybe I just desperately want the most original content that is ever created, but the truth of the matter is the audience doesn’t care if it’s Escape from New York or Dead City, because they just want to be entertained.”
Rick’s vision in his final Walking Dead episode was originally conceived to feature Glenn, but Nicotero suggested using Hershel instead because “Hershel’s presence and his relationship with Rick mean something very different.” Two weeks after filming, actor Scott Wilson called him to inform him he had leukemia. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ He said, ‘Because I wanted to have fun. I wanted to come and see everybody, and it was great.’” Wilson passed away later that year.
“The people that I met and the relationships that I’ve had with those people, to me that’s the greatest gift that I’ll ever get,” Nicotero humbly remarked.