Greg Nicotero is pretty much synonymous with The Walking Dead, but there was life before that undeath.
What you may have is forgotten is that before he threw himself into hordes of walkers as director, executive producer and special makeup effects supervisor on The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, he was zombifying the masses that terrorized George Romero’s 1985 chiller Day of the Dead as makeup artist Tom Savini’s assistant. That landed him a role that came about almost as randomly as a zombie bite.
“In the original script, they find a head and the head is still alive,” Nicotero told Entertainment Weekly in a recent interview reminiscing about what it was like to work with the legend Romero.
“It’s the head that doctor’s working on with the electrodes. When they started cutting the script down, George had said, ‘Well, that guy’s got to stay.’ So, Savini said, ‘Why doesn’t Greg do that?”
That mechanical head the doctor does unspeakable things to is indeed Nicotero’s head, but it goes further than that. Not all reanimated heads have the same effect without some backstory to them. After the script got a lobotomy, just the electrode-studded head made no sense without the audience knowing who it once belonged to.
“So, they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to give you a character,’” Nicotero said. “I’m not a terrible actor. I’m an okay actor. But—actually, I’m a terrible actor—but…they wrote a part for me.”
You would think that was the end of that until Nicotero ran into another problem. With a human character who does human things before his head gets detached from his body, he found himself in a scene where all the characters were hanging out and getting stoned. Except he doesn’t smoke—anything.
“I’m supposed to be smoking weed…and I don’t smoke, so they brought me rolled cigarettes without filters on them,” Nicotero recalled. “So, for like three hours, I was smoking cigarettes with no filter…I was going to vomit everywhere.”
After the other actors, who were probably in a pleasant haze by then, went off to lunch, Nicotero was too dizzy to even get to his feet until Romero brought him back to life.
“George walked over, and looked at me, and said, ‘Are you alright?’ I’m like, ‘I can’t stand up.’ And he laughed for five minutes….And he stuck his arm underneath me and was like, ‘Come on let’s go,’ and he lifted me up and took me to lunch,” said Nicotero. “So that was how I got a part!”
Sometimes you just have to suffer for a dystopian movie about suffering.