One of the joys of being six foot nine with a SAG card is playing a lot of monsters. I've been a Bigfoot (I kill X-Files' Brian Thompson and Ben Browder in Hoax, now on Tubi!), a werewolf (Singer Ronnie Radke turns into me in Falling in Reverse's "Popular Monster" video), Frankenstein in Universal Studios commercials, a hulking Renfield helping Elizabeth Bathory take over a small town in Chastity Bites and a four-legged cave-dwelling creature trying to eat Danny Trejo in The Prey: Legend Of Karnoctus.
But there was no greater honor than to be a zombie for the late, great George A. Romero…And it was also my very first creature gig!
On a brisk September night in 1997, a big fat harvest moon rose over LA. You know you found the location when you see a burning police car and a zombie puffing away on a cigarette. Welcome to Raccoon City. The call sheet is for a commercial entitled Project Biohazard 2, a sequel to the popular Capcom video game known here as Resident Evil, (Biohazard is the original Japanese title.)
The director of this commercial is listed on the call sheet as "I. Kanbara" but turns out to be none other than George A. Romero, doing his first zombie project since ending his original Dead trilogy with Day Of The Dead. The DGA-dodging Romero's pseudonym is a playful homage to the Japanese artist, Tai-Kanbara, and a nod to the commercial's Japanese financing. Capcom is doing the expensive commercial as a dry run for a planned George A. Romero-directed feature film adaptation.
The Resident Evil videogame is only a year old at this point, Biohazard 2/Resident Evil 2 is the highly anticipated sequel game.
Brad Renfro is Leon, the game's hero cop, while beautiful actress Adrienne Frantz is the first person to play Claire Redfield outside of the videogame. Raccoon City Police Department is actually the five-story Lincoln Heights Jail, an Art Deco wonder built in 1927, the decommissioned station once held Al Capone! Now it's used for TV, movies, commercials, and music videos. This was also Freddy Krueger's boiler room in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and one of the crew notes John Carpenter did pickup shots here for Assault On Precinct 13.
I'm just excited to be a Romero zombie. As one of ten people brought in to be the undead, I join a group of men and women as we're paraded into the parking lot by a big makeup FX trailer.
We are lined up before Screaming Mad George, a soft-spoken FX artist whose gonzo work was in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Bride Of Re-Animator, and The Guyver, a film he also directed. His team of FX artists waiting to zombify us includes Ralis Kahn, Eric Fox, and Pat Magee, all of whom run their own shops. SMG FX makeup artist Mike Magee is also on set in an overseeing capacity, not doing any application.
Screaming Mad walks along, like a general inspecting the troops, followed by Steve Wang, the key makeup artist who also designed Predator. Wang assigns a makeup FX artist to each zombie, rattling off different stages of death for each person.
Steve Wang gestures to an attractive Russian actress' face, telling an artist, "She should look like she's been dead a while, hollow out her cheekbones and make her eyes look sunken."
When Wang gets to me, he smiles and says, "Oh, you're an easy call—you're going to Pat Magee's chair!" I can see why—Pat Magee is also tall and later played a Bigfoot himself in Primal Rage: The Legend Of Konga, a 2018 film he also directed.
The cheerful Magee gives me sunken eyes and rotting skin. My hair is darkened with Fuller's Earth. He adds a lot of black and browns to my cracked and torn zombie face and makes my hands look like the skin is decomposing and flaking off.
"Tonight, you're gonna see the best zombies ever," Magee promises me. "With George Romero here, everyone is gonna do their best work, nobody wants to do a shitty zombie!"
"Hey, where's the blood," I ask.
"They told (Screaming Mad) George that they didn't really want any blood in this, so we're going with browns and blacks to suggest dried blood," he explains apologetically.
One of his finishing touches has Magee painting the tips of each of my fingers black. "This is to suggest blood lividity," Magee says brightly. "Because you're dead, but still walking around, the blood naturally pools in your fingers."
Once the zombies have been through makeup, we are sent to wardrobe. They immediately provide clean, comfortable clothes. I'm given a warm turtleneck sweater, truly appreciated this chilly night.
They politely take it back "for a few minutes to 'age it up'." When they hand it back, my poor turtleneck looks like I was buried in it—it's now dirty, ripped and torn, with black oily patches to suggest more dried blood. Once I put on my mutilated sweater, I am sent to the set.
The people I came in with are now unrecognizable to me—we stare at each other, looking at our hooded eyes, black lips and wrecked faces and hands, trying to spot who was who. Some are dressed as zombie cops.
The tall, gregarious George A. Romero sweeps into the parking lot, looking like he's going to a barbecue, not a million-dollar TV commercial.
"Hey gang," he says casually, wearing a half unbuttoned short sleeve shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, as he observes everything being readied.
"I like to be comfortable," he says of his beach ensemble.
One of his assistants frets Romero will be cold in the chilly Santa Ana winds.
"Nah, I'm fine," he tells them. "This feels like Pittsburgh in August!"
"Okay, all my zombies, gather 'round for zombie school," says Romero cheerfully, "I'm only gonna do this once!"
"I've had to do this since the first one," he explains. One notices Romero never says the title of his horror classic, Night Of The Living Dead. Whenever he references it during the all-night shoot, he simply calls it "the first one."
"Alright, you guys," he says, "On the first one, I stood next to the camera and said to my thirty zombies, 'Just do something like this—" Romero sticks his hands in front of him and mimes a classic Frankenstein walk. "Well, as soon as I yelled 'Action', I had thirty zombies standing in a field, all doing the same damn walk!"
"Because of that, I found it was a little more time-consuming, but it pays off in the long run, to give every zombie their own action. That way, they make sure their actions are consistent for the shoot. So I'm gonna come up to all of you and give ya some tips on being a zombie." Romero punctuates this by going to each one of the ten zombies, giving us specific advice, and making tweaks and suggestions.
"You look really messy," he tells a short, rotted undead guy, "so you should lean, because you need the walls for support."
The zombie starts grabbing at the wall. "Yeah, like that, but a little slower," Romero tells him. The zombie moves his hands slower. "Perfect—remember, you're reaching, not slapping!"
The director moves from zombie to zombie for any last-minute corrections or improvements.
When the Russian zombie woman wildly swings her arms, Romero playfully tells her, "Slow down, take those gestures to half speed—you're not dancing. This isn't Thriller!" She starts to move herky-jerky, slowly staggering.
"That's it," he tells her, "You got it!"
He turns to me, noting, "Because you're tall, you should lean back and forth as you walk. You're dead, so you just want to keep your basic locomotion going."
"I like the way you shamble," Romero tells me. I'm incredibly proud. Despite the gunk they put on my teeth, I'm smiling!
The director turns to another tall zombie, whose makeup is more elaborate than the rest of us.
He has sallow, rotting flesh, a jaggedly ripped mouth exposing (prosthetic) teeth, a chewed off fingertip, straggly hair, and a forehead that's more skull than skin. He's the shoot's 'Hero Zombie.'
"You, you're perfect, I know I don't have to tell you what to do!"
The Russian female zombie is offended by this, Romero responds by giving the tall, gaunt zombie a hug. "This is Mike and he was with me on the last one," which is how The Great One references his trilogy-ending Day Of The Dead. "I would know Mike anywhere, in any makeup," he says happily.
"Mike" is Michael Deak, makeup artist, special effects man, and creature actor. Like Magee and myself, he's been a Sasquatch (in Abominable).
"Now," Romero's voice booms at us, "everybody do your movements!" Watching like a proud conductor, Romero praises, "You guys got it! You're all startin' to look scary!" Content with his corpses, the filmmaker leaves to block out his shot.
"I love George," the likable Deak tells me. "I was one of the zombies who tears Joe Pilato in half on Day Of The Dead."
"I'm also the gargoyle and mummy who kills Christian Slater's sister and her boyfriend in Tales Of The Darkside: The Movie." ("Christian Slater's sister" is actress Julianne Moore!)
Romero is right, Deak has a perfectly unsettling zombie walk.
The director is planning one of the big 'money shots,' a classic zombie swarm lurching at the camera. We all spring out of one of the jail cells at the camera.
"Okay," Romero says, "you're all coming at the camera, do it!"
The shambling, mumbling horde moves four feet towards the camera, past jail cells as the fog machine spews out a creepy mist.
"Good, good," praises Romero. "Pete, wipe the drool off the lens and let's do it for real!"
'Pete' is cinematographer Peter Deming, who shot Evil Dead 2 and later shot Scream 2, 3, 4, and Cabin In The Woods.
"You got it, George!"
The shot is of the zombie horde closing in on Claire and Leon, who are aiming their guns for the zombie onslaught. The ghouls reach Claire before she gets her gun up.
"Adrienne," he jokes to his commercial's leading lady, "if they overtake you, we don't have a commercial!"
"Sorry, George," Adrienne Frantz says playfully, "I'll escape them next time!"
Going back behind the camera, he offers last-minute advice to his undead.
"Keep it spooky, zombies," Romero says amiably. "Two of you were smiling—no happy zombies! You're animals, hunting in a pack!" After a run-through, there are two more takes of the zombies and cops.
"How was that?" Frantz asks of her movement.
"Very good," Romero praises, "Very Sigourney Weaver!"
"Thank you," she beams.
All night long, Romero is visited by a steady stream of guests, horror directors and FX artists who have either worked with him or just looking to pay homage to the king of horror.
"You two look like you're up to no good," Romero jokes to a couple of KNB guys.
The congenial Romero signs several different Dawn and Day Of The Dead posters FX artist Thomas C. Rainone brought for the occasion.
"I'm glad I didn't make a hundred of these," he teases Rainone, as he signs all of his posters.
The shoot moves into the parking lot for a wide shot of the zombie horde surrounding a burning RPD police car.
At lunch (on an all-night shoot, 'lunch' is Midnight), the zombies all gravitate to our own lunch table—we've all noticed how the crew shuns us. Nobody wants to sit with or by us! Even when crewmembers talk directly to you, they avert their gaze, sickened by the sight. "Hey guys, how's lunch? They treatin' you okay?" asks Romero. I tell him that it's so strange, no one makes direct eye contact with us except Romero!
"I've been hearing that for 30 years, man, since we were doin' the first one," he laughs.
"Zombies always tell me that. Unlike vampires and werewolves, zombies get no respect!" With that, Romero ambles off to lunch.
"Being a zombie is like being invisible," Mike Deak shrugs. "Same thing happened when I was the mummy and gargoyle—no one wants to look at you, especially when they're trying to eat!"
As the night drags into the wee hours, I notice the zombies, myself included, grow more quiet and contemplative, staring at our reflections and hands. We all seem to have the same unspoken question: 'Is this what we'll look like when we're dead?' Pondering your mortality is deeply troubling on an otherwise fun set.
The Japanese press and crew take 'buddy shots' with the zombies through the night. We pose menacingly with them, pretending to bite them. It's fun, and the people are polite and sweet. The FX team repeatedly sets the burning police car aflame and snuffs it out after every take as the shoot continues. The shot needs several zombies to shamble by it. Mike Deak and I are drafted to be two of them. "The trick is, we need to get close enough to stay warm, but not enough to catch on fire," Deak jokes. As a spotlight swings over the horde, Romero gets several shots of zombies moving between the burning cop car and other debris in the street.
"Perfect," Romero shouts in the cold California night, "Now let's do it for real this time!" We moan, shuffle and shamble until 5:00 a.m. As the sun breaks, Romero declares, "It's a wrap!"
It's Dawn of the Dead for real, as zombies in street clothes eat breakfast burritos and chug styrofoam cups of coffee before driving off in battered Honda Civics and Ford Tauruses, their rotting faces now sporting sunglasses, a perfect encapsulation of Romero's belief that the zombie is "a blue-collar monster."
After shooting wrapped that night, Romero's Biohazard 2 TV-CM ('Television Commercial message') ran on Japanese TV as a commercial, but there was more material. "It was more than a commercial, it was a movie," says makeup FX artist Mike McGee. McGee, a self-described "Shop Rat" at SMG FX during the shoot, became Screaming Mad George's shop supervisor, and now runs Alex In Wonderland FX in Burbank.
"The spot was done to sell a full-length George Romero movie. It showed what Romero would do with it. The hope at SMG FX was, if we did the commercial, we'd get to do the film, too."
"The Japanese version was originally almost 28 and a half minutes long, I've seen it," says McGee. "It was really good."
"Biohazard 2 was pretty much a short film with Brad Renfro and Adrienne Frantz, so it's sort of a lost George Romero film."
Check out this behind-the-scenes featurette: