On the calendar behind Greg Nicotero’s desk, every day, from Jan. 7, 2019 through to today, March 28, is marked with a red “X.” The lines are big and emphatic, as though the writer put every last bit of his energy into striking them.
“It seems like yesterday was January 7th and now it’s the end of March,” Nicotero says, sinking into a chair in front of the calendar. “There’s been no time to even pick anything up.”
Production happens in a near constant state on the Creepshow set and the chaos on the cavernous Atlanta soundstage reflects it. Outside of Nicotero’s office, hallways are littered with rubber monsters and gory props. Two lifeless Nazi soldier dolls greet the production staff arriving on set, one bald and scarred, the other with his head already helpfully removed. A flayed pink creature languishes in an overturned shipping crate, wires trailing from its exposed torso. A big blue monster with a caved-in chest rests next to his fallen comrade. Even the infamous Creeper relaxes right outside the break room, hooded and smiling.
Nicotero is taking a rare break from the Nazis, creepers, skincrawlers, and fungus to address a group of journalists about why all the long days and late nights in blood-soaked plyboard rooms are worth it.
“Listen…Wes [Craven] is gone. Tobe [Hooper] is gone,” he says. “Fuck, in just the last two weeks, Joe Pilato died, John Buechler died, Larry Cohen died – all these people that I’ve known for a long time. You really want to let them know how important their work is.”
To horror special effects expert turned Walking Dead producer Greg Nicotero, there is no better way to honor the legends of horror’s past than to bring an important horror project back from the dead. So he did, with Shudder’s upcoming horror anthology Creepshow.
The film Creepshow originallypremiered in 1982 and featured five short horror stories directed by zombie master George Romero with two of the five tales penned by Stephen King. The shorts “Father’s Day,” “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” “Something to Tide You Over,” “The Crate,” and “They’re Creeping Up on You” were framed as stories within the “Creepshow” comic book, an homage to EC horror comics of the ‘50s like Tales from the Crypt.
The film, which boasted practical effects from legendary make-up artist Tom Savini (who returns as a director for one episode of the reboot) proved influential enough to generate two sequels, a web series, and even a comic book adaptation with art by horror comics icon Bernie Wrightson. It also helped embolden and inspire a generation of horror fans, including the man who would one day take on the mantle of pop culture’s zombie czar from George Romero.
Having worked for Savini and Romero on 1985’s Day of the Dead, Nicotero was actually on set for much of the filming of the original Creepshow. The idea to reboot the franchise, however, wasn’t entirely his. On a flight home from Australia after doing Walking Dead press, Nicotero read the zombie anthology series Nights of the Living Dead and envisioned the possibility of a similar horror anthology series for television.
“Not that I don’t have enough zombie shit in my world, but I liked it,” Nicotero says.
Nicotero sought out one of the anthology’s writers, Craig Engler, only to discover that Engler is an executive at Shudder, the streaming horror offshoot of AMC, which is the same studio Nicotero works for with The Walking Dead. So he arranged a meeting.
“They said ‘hey, we’re thinking about rebooting Creepshow.’ And I went, ‘Like, my Creepshow, Creepshow?’ And then they said, ‘Well, would you be interested in being like the creative executive?’ And I said, ‘Um, yeah.’”
And that’s how Nicotero found himself back in Atlanta right after The Walking Dead season 9 had wrapped, this time to bring 12 new short horror stories to the fore, all within the same colorful comic book format as the original.
Shudder’s Creepshow will feature six episodes with two shorts per episode. “Gray Matter” is based on a new Stephen King story; “House of the Head” comes from Josh Malerman (Bird Box); “By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain” is written by Joe Hill (NOS4A2); “Bad Wolf Down” is written and directed by Rob Schrab (Monster House); “The Companion” comes from Joe R. Lansdale, Kasey Lansdale, Keith Lansdale, and Matt Verne; “The Man in the Suitcase” is written by Christopher Buehlman (The Lesser Dead); “All Hallows Eve” was written by Bruce Jones (The Hitchhiker); “Night of the Paw” was written by John Esposito; “The Finger” comes from David J. Schow (The Crow); “Lydia Lane’s Better Half” was written by John Harrison; “Skincrawlers” was written by Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series) and Stephen Langford (Family Matters), and John Skipp and Dori Miller contributed “Time is Tough in Musky Holler.” Harrison, Dave Bruckner, and Roxanne Benjamin also direct episodes alongside Schrab, Nicotero, and Tom Savini.
Along with the writing heavy hitters, Nicotero assembled a notable cast that includes Giancarlo Esposito, Tricia Helfer, DJ Qualls, Big Boi, and more.
“I literally texted every single actor I’ve ever worked with to find out what they’re up to,” Nicotero says. “I was like, ‘Come on, this is our chance to do what we always want to do, which is work with our friends, and it’s quick.’”
The production of Creepshow is nothing if not quick. In order to fit filming in between two seasons of The Walking Dead, Nicotero, AMC, and Shudder had to resort to some drastic measures. While the Shudder version of Creepshow more than doubles the amount of stories that the original film tells, it was allotted half the time to film them.
“It’s just all been a blur of monsters and mayhem and craziness,” Nicotero says. “I was telling the Walking Dead line producer, ‘Working on this show has been like The Matrix, where you just get plugged in, and like a second later, you’re like, I know kung fu.’ I feel like I’ve learned everything about making movies, and I’ve been making movies for a long fucking time.”
Each of Creepshow’s 12 installments is allotted roughly three and a half days to shoot, with the actors and directors using just about every second of that precious time. The cramped schedule means that near the end of production the Atlanta set is a living testament to all the shorts that have long since completed shooting.
“You don’t even have five minutes to wipe the blood off,” Nicotero says.
Sure enough, bloody footprints mark the cast and crew’s progress from set to set of the final two projects before Creepshow is wrapped – Schrab’s Nazi werewolf epic “Bad Wolf Down” and Savini’s Loch Ness Monster-esque tale “By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain.”
As he waits for his lake monster, “Champy” to dry its latest coat of paint, Savini discusses what it means to be back in the world of practical horror that George Romero helped create.
“None of us would have the career without George,” Savini says. “If there wasn’t the Dawn of the Dead, I wouldn’t have gotten Friday the 13th. The ‘80s was the splatter decade, and I was ‘the king of splatter, the wizard of gore.’ I’ve been called all those things. Because the ‘80s that was the heyday of stuff that was happening right in front of you. This was before CGI.”
Savini is known for his groundbreaking prosthetic makeup effects work in movies like Dawn of the Dead, The Burning, The Prowler, and the original Creepshow. In many ways his career path inspired and laid the groundwork for Nicotero’s. Now Nicotero has brought him back for a modern version of Creepshow that uses all of the same old tricks of the trade.
Nicotero, Savini, and the rest of the Creepshow crew are evangelical about the use of practical effects in the series. It’s not only a tribute to the original Creepshow but a tribute to Wes, Tobe, and the rest of horror’s past.
“We’re training new generations to accept all the CGI stuff,” Savini says. “It’s us old timers who have a collective dislike of it. It’s like Steven Spielberg says of his son Max when he was 12 years old, if (Max) is watching a movie and what he’s watching is impossible, he says, ‘it has to be CGI.’ Which is not fair, because Greg did this incredible makeup on the baseball player in Land of the Dead, people thought that was CGI because it was so good.”
Nowhere on the Creepshow set is the adherence to practical effects more evident than with the massive beached sea monster Champy. “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” is written by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, marking yet another way in which Creepshow has come full circle. A young Hill appeared in the original as the comic-reading boy in the film’s prologue and epilogue. Now, some 40 years later, a plesiosaur from his imagination lies on a sandy beach.
Savini is the living memory of the Creepshow set. He fondly recalls the days of young Joe Hill and Greg Nicotero, and the horror environment that led to the original Creepshow.
“I’ve known Greg since he was 14,” Savini says. “He was ‘gut boy’ on Day of the Dead. He handled the pig intestines for us. Unfortunately they unplugged the refrigerator while we were in Florida for three weeks. The stench was awful. And we had to use them. Can’t go buy new pig intestines at three in the morning.”
Thankfully there are no intestines involved with Champy. When Champy is finally dry, Savini excuses himself from the break room, saying, “Greg is gonna move my monster without me.”
On the other end of the warehouse, Tom Savini’s monster, past a now-defunct spore-covered cabin and a blood-drenched news studio, Rob Schrab and the “Bad Wolf Down” crew are filming a climactic moment of werewolf-on-Nazi violence.
As the hours tick away into the night, Schrab closely watches a monitor to make sure his hulking werewolf is taking off a Nazi dummy’s head just right. It has to be perfect in the dry runs because in the “wet run” the remaining stump on the Nazi’s shoulders will fire off a thick geyser of blood from a tube down its shirt. Nicotero arrives from his time with Savini and Champy to help oversee the slaughter. After all, he’s seen this sort of thing before.
“Bad Wolf Down” features one of the more impressive and well-known casts for a Creepshow reboot short. Kid Cudi stars as a soldier immeshed in the werewolf theatrics while another horror expert, Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animators)portrays a Nazi.
“Well. It’s the first time I’ve ever played a Nazi, let alone a Nazi General,” Combs says. “That’s why I accepted it –I like a challenge. It’s kind of chilling to be in that uniform.”
Combs is one of many horror veterans appearing in front of the camera on Creepshow. Others include David Arquette (Scream), Tobin Bell (the titular Jigsaw in Saw), and Adrienne Barbeau (who starred in the original Creepshow’s “The Crate”). As an integral part of the ‘80s horror scene with Re-Animator, Combs was pleased to be back in the realm of practical effect horror.
“When CGI first came about, we got a new tool in our toolbox,” he says. “It’s absolutely amazing and incredibly effective. But you go back and watch some of those movies from the past few decades and they don’t always hold up so well. Before there was CGI, I did a movie called Re-Animator, which was mostly practical effects. I believe that if CGI had been available back then, it probably would have dated that movie more than it did. And if anybody knows practical effects, it’s Greg.”
Greg Nicotero indeed knows practical effects. And he knows Creepshow. If there’s anyone in the pop culture landscape that could make an adaptation of a nearly 40-year-old anthology happen, it’s the The Walking Dead’s gore guru.
Before he gets up to tend to Savini’s water monster, Schrab’s werewolf, and all the blood between them, Nicotero reflects on the chaos of his previous three months.
“One of my friends … I think it was Jeffery Dean Morgan or Norman (Reedus), was like, ‘Listen, if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack, you’re not reaching high enough.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, then I’m reaching really fucking high.’”