Forget the humans—the most compelling characters on The Walking Dead, which has its third season premiere tonight at 9pm on AMC, are obviously the zombies. These shambling, flesh-hungry undead are the creations of special effects makeup artist Greg Nicotero, who uses a combination of prosthetics and CGI to bring the walkers to life.
Nicotero generally picks tall, slender actors with good bone structure to be walkers. “If you start with someone whose proportions are already thin, it feels organic and realistic when you add prosthetics," he told Popular Mechanics in 2010. For more thoroughly decomposed zombies, Nicotero creates rotting body parts out of latex foam from molds of the actors’ heads and bodies. When limbs have to come off, he clads them in blue or green fabric, and visual effects artists remove them in post-production.
Fresher zombies have it much easier: They wear partial prosthetics, and gory wounds are applied using 3D prosthetic transfers. But all zombies wear the creepy yellow contacts that look like rotten eggs, a change Nicotero implemented after the second season (the red contacts used in season one made the walkers look too bleary-eyed, he told reporters at Comic Con 2011). And they all go to zombie school, too.
The look of the zombies has evolved over the course of the show, in part because Nicotero is constantly trying to improve on the makeup. Season three’s next level prosthetics include rotted chests and backs; Nicotero and his team sculpted the rotted torsos, then glued them directly to the actors. Zombie puppets will play a bigger role in the new season, but Nicotero estimates that he and his team still did as many as 6000 makeups.
Nicotero, who also serves as co-executive producer, will direct three episodes of The Walking Dead this season. Watch him give a tour of his warehouse—and detail the techniques they’ll use to make season three’s zombie kills more gruesome—in this video:
And if you need any of Nicotero’s zombie makeup tips for Halloween, you can find them here.