Greg Nicotero likes to joke that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind that stood in front of the mirror as a kid singing into a hairbrush, and the kind that spent their childhood days walking like a zombie.
Nicotero is the zombie-walking type. The horror bug bit him early and deep. It was in his blood long before he cut his professional teeth working on Day of the Dead with George Romero or co-founded the award-winning special makeup effects company KNB EFX. He seems to have been born to do his current job as executive producer, director, sometimes cast member and head of all makeup on AMC’s The Walking Dead.
When Universal Studios Hollywood creative director John Murdy decided to open The Walking Dead, a new permanent attraction based on the show that opens to the public on July 4, he knew he wanted Nicotero involved. Who better to train the actors he hired to be Walkers than the dean of zombie school himself?
Since before season one of The Walking Dead, Nicotero has been hosting zombie school in Atlanta where the show is filmed. “I am the dean, I am the teacher, I grade all the papers, I give detention,” he explains. Every Walker you’ve seen on The Walking Dead learned his or her zombie walk from Nicotero.
Universal Studio’s The Walking Dead attraction will be a sort of year-round, zombie-fueled haunted house. Unlike many park attractions, it is not an automated ride. Visitors will walk (or run) through the attraction as they are chased by a combination of animatronic characters and “real” Walkers played by professional actors.
To prepare the actors for their roles as Walkers, Nicotero hosted a one-day zombie boot camp at Universal Studios last week. Members of the press were invited to observe and participate as Nicotero coached the actors and gave them tips on their walking technique.
If you’re the kind of person who grew up imitating horror films, or if you’ve always dreamed of chasing Rick Grimes down a dark hallway, here are some tips and tricks culled from zombie boot camp to help you perfect your walk:
1. DO Make Your Performance Unique
John Murdy says that if you tell somebody to act like a Walker, the first thing they do is drop one arm and drag one leg like Boris Karloff in an old mummy movie from the 1930s. Instead of copying classic zombie walks, Murdy suggests bringing your own personality to the role. “Find the inner-walker within yourself,” he says. “Within the role you’re playing, think about how you were killed. How does that affect you physically?”
2. DO Switch Things Up
During zombie boot camp Nicotero was constantly pointing out ways in which the actors could adjust their walks. “If you find yourself holding your arms in the same position, switch it up,” he says. “You don’t always have to lean forward. Instead, try throwing your shoulders back.” Adjusting your gaze and changing your speed are also great ways to vary your posture and your performance.
3. DO Act Like a Drunk Marionette
“As a zombie, you’re not necessarily in control of your body movements,” Nicotero explains. Imagine yourself as a marionette on a string or a drunk stumbling out of a bar. “When a drunk guy leaves the bar at two in the morning, he thinks he’s walking in a straight line, but his body isn’t really listening,” Nicotero points out. “There should be an apparent disconnect between the brain and the body.”
4. DO Get Hungry
Nicotero told the Universal Studios actors that they should always be searching for prey. “When you’re in the attraction, lock onto someone in the crowd. Focus your gaze and your head right on that person. Go for him. Reach out towards him and RAAAAGGGHWWW!!!” John Murdy encourages the actors in the exhibit to get up close and personal with visitors. “Of course they won’t touch you, but they can get this close,” he says, holding his thumb and pointer fingers a centimeter apart.
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5. DON’T Earn a Nickname
“At zombie school,” Nicotera says, “if we give you a nickname, that’s bad.” He points out common mistakes to avoid. Don’t stomp around and be the "Get Out of My Yard Zombie." If you’re constantly gliding your feet, then you’re the "Ice-Skating Zombie." If you hold your arms too close to your body with your hands limply hanging, you’re going to get tagged as the "T-Rex Zombie." “You don’t want a nickname,” Nicotero reiterates. “Authenticity is tremendously important in terms of how Walkers look and, more specifically, how they move.”
6. DON’T Walk In a Straight, Linear Line
Nicotera tells his Walkers to use their space creatively. On set, this means maneuvering around obstacles in unpredictable ways. In the attraction, actors are taught to approach visitors from the periphery for maximum surprise.
7. DON’T Expect an Easy Ride
“I think the idea of being a zombie is much more glamorous than the reality,” Nicotero explains. “In Atlanta, it’s typically over a hundred degrees and very humid. When we’re filming out in the woods we have to check each other for ticks at the end of the day.” Zombie walking isn’t for wimps. Nicotero and his team are looking for people with stamina. They want actors who will approach their jobs as Walkers like they’re training for a marathon.
8. DON’T Grow a Beard
For the show, Nicotero’s Walkers are required to shave their faces. They also have to wear bald-caps. No matter how great your walk, ultimately Nicotero’s prosthetics and makeup are what transform living, breathing actors into the walking dead.