Thinking back to George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, perhaps the best zombie film ever made, I’d argue that the film works because of the characters, the story, the tone and interesting subtext. The zombies in it are brilliant. But then in a film where so many elements of the production have been worked out by canny, thoughtful people, the zombies are likely to be good due to a similar careful process.
I can’t say if that theory holds up on Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, as when I visited the set the film was some way from being finished (it was, er, still filming, in fact). If the theory does work backwards, though, we should be in for a treat with the film as the zombies in it are terrific and are the result of a considered process carried out by some fascinating people.
There’s no right way to do zombies. The damaged, discoloured look of the zombies in Dawn Of The Dead came courtesy of Tom Savini. In Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2 a.k.a. Zombie Flesh Eaters) the infected undead have a rotting, earthy look about them. Except for the underwater zombie who fights a shark, who has a more ‘stuntman-with-make-up-coming-loose’ look about him. In fairness, pre-shark fight his underwater make-up looks terrific.
Let he who has also fought a shark underwater cast the first stone.
Fulci’s zombies were created by Gianetto De Rossi and his effects team. Fulci’s film, Rossi explains on the US bluray release of Zombie, was made as a follow up to Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (which was released as Zombi in Italy, hence the title Zombi 2), and with a considerably lower budget, too. The zombies created by De Rossi and his team relied on distorted facial features, hair and clay.
Of course, not long ago, prattling on about the zombies in a Lucio Fulci film would have got you kicked out of just about any party. In the last decade or so, though, enthusiasm for zombies has increased massively. Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake topped the box office in 2004, while Shaun Of The Dead landed the same year. Since then, there have been countless zombie movies, books and television series’. In 2013 World War Z was the first zombie blockbuster, bringing in $540m at the box office. The Walking Dead television program and comic books have become a cultural phenomenon. Romero himself even returned to the sub-genre with a follow up trilogy to his original collective of zombie classics.
Essentially, if you make something with zombies in it now, people are going to be paying attention to the details.
When I visited the set of Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse last summer I got a chance to speak to some of the people who created the zombies for the movie. Amongst them was Tony Gardner, the make-up effects designer, who you’ll find is the focus of this article and is just a ridiculously cool guy. Gardner conspired with director Chris Landon and zombie choreographer Mark Steger to put together a formidable horde of the undead, the likes of which can only be stopped by three scouts.
Tony Gardner gave the best interview of the visit. We conducted the interview outside, in a circle, around a cardboard box with a decapitated zombie head in the middle. The group of journalists tittered and whispered about it, but I was a little hardened to it. I can’t tell you the number of times the Den of Geek editorial team have attempted to intimidate me during meetings by bringing out a dismembered body part.
You may have noted the infected, veiny look of the zombies in Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse. That look comes courtesy of Gardner.
“This poisoning video that I saw when I was a kid, that did traumatise me for life, I guess” he explains. “Somebody was bitten by a poisonous snake and you could actually see the colour change. You could see the venom travelling through the veins. It was like a graphic representation of how it travelled, but me being artistic, I just took it as literal. The idea is that if someone’s been bit and there’s this poison in the saliva of who’s biting you, it would transfer into the person and spread through the arteries and veins first.”
“Most of the attacks happen to the head, so the veins that go on the side of the head are all swollen,” he elaborates, in case you were wondering just how much thought actually goes into this. Lots, it turns out. “All the small veins and capillaries that come off of that are actually discoloured. There’s a degradation in colour, it starts off really black, and then brown and then red. The idea is this virus is wrapping itself around you. The eyes are just an artistic decision that is not accurate. What would you call that? Explosive cataracts.”
“It’s done realistically. We’ve done films which were veiny before and it’s just an artistic free for all. So we’ve actually charted a whole naked body with all the veins and arteries and we’ve taken that whole chart and turned that into tattoo transfers.”
The thing is, there’s not really a nice way to find out a lot of the information that Gardner draws from. Is there a way, we wonder, to do what he does without enduring some trauma?
“It’s weird. When I was a kid wanted to be a vet, but I couldn’t handle the blood and anything in pain, so that I’m doing this now is fairly ironic. I don’t really care for blood in real life. But I was really fortunate in meeting Dr. Corbet. It’s his life. When we were doing Three Kings we consulted him for all the internal organs, and he would bring these incredible photos and if you were able to mask out the person, they would cut ‘em open and jack this out. It was, almost artistically, fascinating. So I detach the person from it. But once I take two steps back, I say “Oh yeah, that’s a guy”, then I’m lost. Doing research, for me, is a bit challenging because I’m empathetic, to people. When you’re researching diseases, quite often it’s just not a thirty something guy, but it’s a ten year old kid. It’s tough, but medical books and Dr Corbet have really been what we’ve based a lot of it on. “
So, er, no then.
Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse looks a million miles away from a gritty, realistic movie, though. So you might wonder whether it was really necessary for Gardner to dig into this horrifying experience that affected him as a kid, or to go to the grisly trouble of plotting a chart through an actual human body. “Any time there’s an impalement or a dismemberment we just want to try to make it medically accurate. It’s really easy to go fantasyland, and it loses its impact. Especially in a comedy. If it’s more real it’s more visceral, it has more impact. I think that’s important. But you’ve got to back off of it and come back to it, otherwise you just wear people out. Ultimately that’s the editor’s job though, right?”
Trauma isn’t the only risk Gardner and his team take. I reasoned that there might be a problem for Gardner had someone wanted to borrow his laptop. Specifically, someone had to ask Gardner about the state of his Google search history, so I pitched the question on behalf of Den of Geek.
“It’s pretty bad,” he acknowledged. “We do this character for Geico that’s made out of money. I don’t know if you guys know this, but if you try to copy money, or scan money, the government finds your computer right away and your screen goes black and a warning comes up. It’s terrifying. I can’t tell you how many times you’d see people in the shop where they’re like “ahhh-ahhhh” and they pull the plug, because it’s really scary. We’re making fake money to glue on this guy. So the government’s probably watching our search history at this point. I’d say for the last three months it’s probably been pretty disturbing.”
Gardner was also responsible for the zombies in the horror comedy Zombieland. He tells us what he did differently here. “Zombieland’s zombies are based on bed sores. It’s based on your skin collapsing and caving-in to your body and these sores getting deeper and deeper. And, you having a fever and being sweaty and wet. These are dry, their veins expand, their arteries expand out all over their bodies. Their skin gets blotchier. Then, magically, sometimes the capillaries in your eyes just blow out. That’s the aesthetic thing that takes it over the top and makes it zombie.”
Whenever Gardner talks, it sounds like he’s asking you a question. It’s a bit like being asked to participate in what he’s explaining by understanding it. It really feels like he’s explaining it because he genuinely wants us to know, which is utterly endearing. And why wouldn’t he want us to know the extent of his hard work?
I talked about the film Zombie earlier and I’d like to come back to it. When making up the more ramshackle zombies for the famous Brooklyn bridge scene in Zombie, the effects team arrived with buckets of clay and, in 15-20 minutes, had 70 zombies ready to go. Of course, much of that was necessity, as they were shooting in a notable public place without permits and could have been shut down at any moment.
Gardner’s team haven’t had to pull off such a feat, and the likelihood of arrest certainly seems lesser here (although Gardner does tell us that he fears being pulled over by the police as he commonly drives around with a car full of dismembered limbs and such, albeit fake ones). Even on a production the size of Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, Gardner concedes that “The biggest challenge has been time and money.”
“We have 18 make-up artists today. We’ve had a couple of hundred zombies. The goal is with featured ones to be somewhere around 2 hours. There’s this stripper zombie, and she’s basically wearing a thong, and that’s it” he recounts. I’ve specifically broken up his quote here because he paused slightly, and I wondered where he was going with it. I wanted to recreate my concern for you, too.
“She’s wearing a cap on her head that holds some effects rigs. She’s got a tube thing wrapped around her neck. Prosthetic. The goal even with her, though, is let’s keep this under four hours, because otherwise it’s not conducive to the shooting day. It just means, if she stands like this, how many people can we put around her? There’s a lot of stuff you won’t see, hopefully.”
“The goal is to get everything practical that we can. Heads popping off. The idea with CG in some instances is to add more blood. They’ll err on the side of less because more can be added later, but you can’t take any away if you want less” Gardner tells us.
Gardner’s was the interview I left the set that thinking about. When people talk about Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, Gardner’s name is unlikely to come up, even though the film so clearly bears his fingerprints. Gardner’s job, I decided, is to be the extra mile. The last push. Gardner’s role, like that of Tom Savini and Gianetto De Rossi, is to provide the proof of the passion.
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