By AJ Mandeville
Zombies have become a part of the modern zeitgeist, but few people realize how long they’ve been a part of popular culture. Sure zombies have historically come in all shapes and sizes- from the bleary-eyed, tetrododoxin-poisoned slaves of the Caribbean, to rotting, shambling corpses we see today on television shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead– but the essence of a zombie and what makes it terrifying is best captured in the full execution of creating one of the living dead. Below are some tips on how to go from mediocre mortis to wonderful walker!
1) Study your anatomy
It’s easy enough to just slather on a bunch of latex and some blood and dark eye shadow and say, “Hey, I am a zombie. Give me your brains, please,” but that is a corpse cop-out. Do some research! Yes, the NSA may raise an eyebrow as they watch you type in What do dead bodies look like? In your Google search, but it might be the best way for you to get a feel for what death actually looks like (note: this WILL give you NSFW results, so don’t look this up on your company computer while Craig from accounting is peering into your cubicle). Books like Grey’s Anatomy will also give you some insight as to where things will begin to decompose first and what things will begin to sink in or become more accentuated. If you are putting muscle prosthetics on your forehead, for example, you’re going to look like a damn fool, likewise if a random femur is popping out of your shoulder, so know what goes where before you shamble out of the house.
2) Know the rules
I’ve seen this far too often in zombie costumes- random bits of bricka-bracka sticking out of one’s skull, or a would-be ghoul doing that over-played “body holding its own head” costume. If Tom Savini has taught us anything, then it is the tenant uttered in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, “You gotta shoot ‘em in the head. You shoot ‘em in the head, they seem to go down permanently.” So if you are wandering around with things mangling up your zombie brains, you are breaking the rules. Yes, I know there are movies where that isn’t necessarily true- The Return of the Living Dead is a whole series where only complete incineration eliminates a zombie, but remember, those zombies could also talk and coordinate ambushes. If you are walking around moaning and abiding rules from a different franchise, you are just offending zombies all over. And don’t shuffle about moaning “brains” either if your zombie’s throat is shredded out. You should be making a, “hrraugh freiaah” sound anyway, since that’s the sound of air rushing in and out of your rotted lungs and neck.
3) Blending is a ghoul’s best friend
Ok, you now have the wherewithal to know where body parts are going to be rotting and wounded, and you know what not to do with gag effects, so now you should know some secrets about how to make your zombie wounds look convincing. Most costume stores sell prosthetic bite marks, exposed bones, and other effects so that you don’t have to make them from scratch. The box art then shows some guy or girl with this flawlessly attached wound and so your assumption is, “Oh, well, it comes with liquid latex and spirit gum, so I guess that’s all I need…” No! If you only use those pieces, you’re going to look like you’re wearing a macabre sticker! The feathered edges on those appliances will curl up, and fall off, right as the night really takes off and you will have a great big patch of nothing on your body where the prosthetic used to be. Plus, you’ll look really tacky. By all means, purchase the prefabricated wound, but now you need some support supplies. I recommend getting some makeup sponge wedges, some cotton balls and some special effects wax, usually all located near the latex prefabs. Once you’ve secured the application to your face with spirit gum, now it is time to brush a little latex around the edges of the “wound” to seal the edges onto your body. Next, for shallow surface wounds, roll a little ball out of the effects wax into a snake and line it with the edges of your wound’s border. If you waited for the latex to dry a little, it should be sticky enough to hold the wax in place a little bit. Now smooth the edges of the wax with either your finger (pro-tip, lubricate your finger with petroleum jelly or dish soap so it doesn’t stick to your finger) or a makeup spatula. Finally, you can seal this with a little more latex and it should be secured and blended. For more meaty wounds, after laying down a layer of latex, you should now apply a few wispy puffs of cotton and flatten them down. Or leave a few bits hanging off to look like shredded flesh, I don’t care. Now take a makeup wedge and glob some latex over the cotton and smooth it out. This will give you a bit of depth on the wound, as well as allow you to blend it onto your skin without an obvious border. You can shape this cotton-latex material fairly easily and can even be used to make custom wounds.
4) Know your zombie’s history
If you are in a wedding dress and are a zombie, how did this happen? What killed your character and left you with such ghastly wounds? How long have you been dead? These are all questions you must ask yourself when transforming into a zombie. This will help you decide how rotted you are going to be, how many wounds, and what type of wounds for the matter, you are going to be presenting. A fresh zombie may still be weeping blood out of their wounds, and will certainly have a different type of blood. Your eyes may still be a little more vibrant, your functionality and movement perhaps a little jerkier as the dying synapses in your brain try to send information to your uncooperative body. Your color change will perhaps be a little less drastic, as your revenant body is still trying in vain to pump your necrotic blood through your body. Perhaps, as a more “exposed” body, you will begin to become dirtier and your skin more leathery. All of these things will help to determine how authentic you are going to look, because the border between uncanny and incongruent is treacherous and must be maintained on the side of the former. Knowing your color wheel and the products available to you will help you make the right choices when developing your zombie’s look.
5) Practice makes perfect
There isn’t a time of year where being a zombie is more appropriate than another. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, the undead aren’t going to wait until Halloween to eat you, and they sure as hell aren’t going to spare you around Christmas time. So use this information to develop your unique skills to play the part perfectly. Practice on yourself, your friends and study the sources available. Watch George A. Romero’s “-of the Dead” saga, or any other zombie movie franchise, and see what makes them go from “People in costumes” to “shambling nightmares.” Buy supplies from real costume shops, not just the ones that pop up October 1st, and develop a kit that you can use for a wide range of zombies. Finally, here are 3 taboos to avoid:
- You don’t need to wear contacts for every zombie costume. Especially the white ones with the black pupil. If you insist on committing to the part, get cataract-style contacts or even milky blue eyes. When you Google the suggestion in Tip 1, you’ll see why.
- The wedding dress is a played-out costume. Think about who is going to be getting killed first- Doctors, nurses, police, firemen, paramedics, wall-street workers, old people, security guards- these are the first responders so it stands to reason they will be the most numerous zombies until their successors realize what they are dealing with.
- The zipper face. Just no. Why is there a zipper on your face exposing a bloody face underneath it? Who put that on you, and why? No.
- By AJ Mandeville of Anubis Jackal Studios