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‘Nation’ building

Fri., June 13, 2014

Zombie population moves into city thanks to 1,300 roles in SyFy series

When George A. Romero was making his game-changing horror masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead” in 1967, he reportedly paid each of the Pennsylvania locals who portrayed the film’s flesh-eating ghouls a single dollar and a homemade T-shirt that read “I was a zombie in ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ”

It probably didn’t mean much at the time, but it’s a distinction that most modern horror aficionados would actually eat raw flesh for.

Since “Night” defined the trappings of the zombie genre, pop culture has been inundated with one zombie uprising after another. Romero and his monsters were cult figures for years, but mainstream audiences have recently embraced the undead, and zombie-centric films (“World War Z”) and TV shows (“The Walking Dead”) have raked in big bucks.

With all those onscreen apocalypses over the years, think about how many extras and background actors, most of whom never get any significant screen time and no actual lines, were required to pull them off.

The upcoming SyFy Channel series “Z Nation,” which is filming in Spokane, calls for somewhere near 1,300 individual zombie roles (many of the extras will play dual roles), of which there are two different types: Either you’re a “background zombie,” which requires a basic makeup job, or you’re a “featured zombie,” meaning you’ll likely be shown in detail on camera and need to be covered in prosthetic gore.

It’s a Wednesday morning, a little after 7:30 a.m., and the production’s small makeup trailer is crowded with four extras in various degrees of zombification. They’ve been at the production base camp since 6:15, and the makeup artists are hurrying to finish their work in order to get the actors to the set. Today’s scene requires them to be tied to a fence – they’re functioning as a sort of makeshift alarm system to alert the show’s human survivors of any intruders.

“I’m not used to getting up this early,” said Darin Hilderbrand, who is getting prepped for his first day as a zombie extra. “My kids were actually zombies in the first episode, and it looked interesting, so I signed up and got the part.”

Like any role in a professional production, Hilderbrand and his fellow zombies had to audition. They were asked to demonstrate their most effective zombie impersonations – “Z Nation” features both fast-moving and traditionally lurching zombies – and were later given zombie footage from “28 Days Later” and “The Walking Dead” to study.

Beyond mastering the typical zombie movements, they were also asked to create backstories for their characters: Who were these people before they were transformed?

Hilderbrand said he had something in mind before he showed up to the set, but now a prosthetic gash is being applied to the right side of his head. “I was unaware of the head wound when I created my backstory,” he said, as makeup artist Corinne Tucker paints a pattern that resembles a brain peeking through the exposed flesh. “So it’s developing as we speak.”

Stephen McKinney has played a zombie once before, and the bottom half of his face is currently covered with a prosthetic that resembles a jaw cleaned of its flesh. “I’ll paint your teeth black, but cover them with your lips as much as you can,” makeup artist Josh Tucker instructs him. McKinney will be able to speak and eat; it’ll just be difficult.

The makeup artists apply several shades of brown and green paint with mottled sponges, creating a mossy effect on the skin, and then the actors are taken outside and sprayed with several coats of a solution called Green Marble Selr, which prevents the makeup from smearing and running during the shoot. The whole process takes about 90 minutes. Today they’re aiming to finish in an hour.

The Tuckers are co-owners of Synapse FX, the Los Angeles company providing the makeup and special effects for “Z Nation,” and they estimate that anywhere from 10 to 20 different zombies leave their trailer nearly every day; another dozen extras are due later in the day.

“Should we be going a little lighter on the blood with these guys, since they’re not actively eating all the time?” calls out one of the makeup artists on the other side of the trailer, applying fake blood to the corner of an extra’s mouth.

“Yes,” Corinne Tucker replies. “Not really around their mouth as much.”

“Don’t ask me that question,” Josh Tucker added, “because I’d say, ‘More blood.’ ”

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