Halloween Zombie Walking Dead special makeup effects supervisor Greg Nicotero shares tips on how to perfect the undead look for trick-or-treating or a costume party
One of the hardest Halloween costumes to pull off is the zombie. Do it right and you’ll be the hit of the trick-or-treating circuit. Do it wrong and you’ll look like someone with too much eyeliner and a bad complexion.
We enlisted zombie expert Greg Nicotero, executive producer in charge of the makeup and costumes on The Walking Dead, to share his tips for how to look like television’s most realistic zombies – with stuff you can find around the house.
Perfect fake blood: powdered food coloring, corn syrup and soap
The best thing is Karo corn syrup. People tend to use liquid food coloring and the problem with that is that it stains. If you go to a bake shop and get powdered food coloring they use to make icing, that is a better bet. Combine red and yellow food coloring to get a great blood color. Sometimes that blood will bead up on the skin, so add a bit of dish soap to even it out. If you want to get it a little darker, use green dish soap or a caramel-colored food coloring.
Realistic-looking wounds: use latex, tissue paper and cotton
As a professional team, we use a combination of foam latex prosthetics and silicone prosthetics. For a DIY version, start building up wounds using sheets of latex and either tissue paper or latex and cotton. Feather the latex so it’s not too thick, and then you can take that and glue that to your face or dry the layers with a hair dryer. That’s probably the easiest and the most straightforward way to get “wounds”.
Get the right skin tone: keep it muted – never use red, blue or green
Some pre-made zombie makeup kits are good, but the colors are usually a little weird. Instead, use a water-based makeup called Aquacolor. Put a sponge in water and apply the yellowish-brown base color so that it pales you out. Then you can go in with some browns and some sort of dried blood colors. Everything is very muted. We don’t use blue, green or red. Everything in a zombie look is very earth tone.
The perfect shading: blend colors to avoid looking like a racoon
I think the biggest mistake people make when trying to get the zombie look is they go too heavy with the shading. If you look at a picture of a skull, you’ll see that the temples, eye sockets and tip of the nose are darker. Shading is important, but you don’t want to look like a raccoon. If you do the eye sockets too dark, the shading won’t look right. It’ll look like a mask. It’s very important that the colors blend evenly.
The composition of decomposition: use latex to create deep wrinkles
To get the slightly decomposed look of zombie skin, we use a technique called “stretch and stipple”. Put some of the same latex you used to make a wound on your face with a sponge, and then stretch your skin tight while you dry it with a hairdryer. When it’s dry, the latex will wrinkle and give your skin some texture. Then, when you’re putting the zombie makeup on, shadow the wrinkles with a light makeup brush so when you step back, they look even deeper. You can also draw lines on your face with a small brush and then blend them in.
The right clothes: spritz your clothes with food coloring
Put brown or black food coloring in a spritz bottle and spritz your clothes with a little bottle with droplets of color so they look kind of aged. You want it to look dirty and you want it to look old. You can also try splattering some fake blood. You just want to avoid it all looking the same – that’s what the spritz bottle is for. You can also mix some latex with oatmeal if you want to add some mold or something.
Zombie mouth stain: brown and black colored mouthwash
We use liquid food coloring with a little mouthwash and ask the actors to pour it into their mouths, to get the dead-mouth look. We use black or brown food coloring to get rid of all the pink in their mouths, tongues and gums. That is something we do to eliminate any signs of life.
Don’t forget the hair: make it feel crusty, flat and old
I would get some dry conditioner and just make your hair look a little less alive. You want it to look greasy and flat and old. We use conditioner all the time, every day, just to give that unkempt look. It can even get a little crusty. The zombies actually smell really good all day with all of that conditioner in their hair.
Practice makes perfect: don’t wait until the last minute to get the look
Do a couple of tests with makeup and latex, even on the back of your hand or on your brother or sister. It always helps to do a test so you can play around with the colors. People make the mistake of getting all the stuff and waiting until Halloween night to try to get the right zombie look, as opposed to doing a test run and making corrections.