Greg Nicotero has a flight to catch, and the producer who keeps poking her head into his office seems worried that he’s not going to make it. But when Greg Nicotero starts talking about monsters, everything else can wait. We’re discussing the TV revival of Creepshow he’s executive producing for Shudder, and a few minutes ago he pulled out his phone and started showing off effects footage. In one clip, the vines sprouting out of a grotesque scarecrow’s back are pulled backwards through the crack in an open door; the footage will be reversed so it looks like the scarecrow opened the door, an old trick that makes a wide grin spread across Nicotero’s face. “This shot made me so fucking happy,” he says. “I’m like, ‘we’re doing it old school!’”
Nicotero is best known for his work as a makeup artist, and spends most of the year creating and supervising the shambling corpses on AMC’s The Walking Dead with his company, KNB EFX. That show was gearing up for a new season when The A.V. Club visited the Creepshow set in late February, at the halfway point of the intense six-week shoot. And just a few minutes of small talk made it clear that Nicotero had brought much of the KNB and Walking Dead crews along for his off-season passion project. Although it’s also under the AMC umbrella, Creepshow is Shudder’s first foray into an original scripted series: Previously, the horror-specific streaming service had only produced documentary and unscripted shows, like Joe Bob Briggs’ revived MonsterVision and The Core, a series where Darling director Mickey Keating interviews horror creatives in geeky detail.
The Shudder brand is specifically aimed at the kind of people scattered around this crowded, maze-like soundstage in suburban Atlanta, people whose T-shirts and tattoos blend together into one unified declaration of devotion to the horror genre. And comedian Dana Gould, who’s on set for a few days filming the “Skincrawlers” segment of the show’s season one finale, is in his element: “We’re all the same person,” he tells me. “The minute I see somebody in a Famous Monsters Of Filmland T-shirt, I’m like, okay, we could talk for four hours.”
For the time being, however, each crew member is engrossed in their own creepy task. Just around the corner from craft services, under the blank gaze of an animatronic creature, a crew member is arranging furniture in a dollhouse the show’s props buyer recently acquired at an estate sale. The dollhouse will soon co-star in season opener “The House Of The Head,” but for now, the screen-ready props are sharing space with Day Of The Dead and The Evil Dead action figures hanging out in the miniature attic bedroom. When I ask about them, the set dresser shrugs. “Those are mine,” he says.
A nearby storage room is piled with mutilated dummies and latex monsters awaiting their on-camera moment; these are created at KNB headquarters in L.A., and shipped weekly to the Creepshow set. In the middle of this ad hoc bone yard, another crew member is rooting around in the animatronic brain of the desiccated corpse who hosts the series, trying to find the faulty wire that’s making his eye movements glitchy. The corpse’s name is the Creep, and he’s the mute cousin of Tales From The Crypt’s Cryptkeeper. (Like his relative, he’s fond of groan-worthy horror puns. He doesn’t rap, though.) Both were spun off from the trio of ghouls—the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch—who introduced terrifying tales in the pages of EC horror comics in the early 1950s.
EC comics shocked adults, who blamed them for the ills of postwar American society—or at least, all those that involved teenagers. This scapegoating made it all the way to Congress in 1954, when a psychologist named Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of the bestselling anti-comics screed Seduction Of The Innocent, testified that horror comics like EC’s The Crypt Of Terror and The Vault Of Horror were turning an entire generation into sadistic criminals with no regard for human life. That wasn’t true, of course—not only because EC Comics’ most terrifying legacy was inspiring a generation of horror writers, but also because the stories had a surprisingly strong moral code.
The people who get it [in EC Comics] are always the ones that deserve,” says Creepshow director John Harrison. It was always about cheating husbands, or bank robberies gone bad, or people that had done something wrong and found themselves in some kind of weird supernatural situation. Everybody went nuts and said, ‘Oh, they’re corrupting our kids, we’ve got to ban these things.’ But if you really looked underneath the surface, there was a morality tale inside every one of them.”
Stephen King and George Romero were two of the many kids inspired by EC, and in 1982 the two teamed up for Creepshow, an anthology film that paid tribute to the comics’ pulpy aesthetics and gruesomely ironic comeuppances. A pretty good sequel and a not-so-good threequel followed, as did the TV series Tales From The Darkside and Tales From The Crypt and their various film spin-offs.
That’s almost 70 years of legacy wrapped up into the new Creepshow’s six episodes, and Nicotero—who originally wanted three segments per episode, but eventually settled on two—takes the responsibility very seriously. For him, the connection is personal: When Nicotero was 18 years old, fellow Pittsburgher Romero invited him behind the scenes of the Creepshow film—his first time on a film set. “I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast,” Nicotero says, but he does remember everything about stepping into King’s short story, “The Crate.”
“When you look at the outside of a movie set, there’s nothing there. It’s just wood and struts,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s weird.’ And then I turned the corner and walked in and I saw where they had dragged the crate under the steps. It was the first time I felt that physical transformation, like I walked out of the real world and into this fantasy.”
Nicotero still has the crate, which he keeps at his house along with a Creepshow script and his invitation to the premiere—also his first. That was the day Nicotero met Tom Savini, the legendary makeup artist who would change his life forever by hiring him as his assistant on Day Of The Dead (1985). Savini is set to direct a segment of the new Creepshow; Harrison, who served as Romero’s first AD for Creepshow and Day Of The Dead, is on board for four, and he brought his Tales From The Darkside cinematographer along with him. The show retains its connection to Creepshow’s other driving creative force, too: Stephen King wrote one of the two episodes Nicotero is helming, while the story for Savini’s episode comes from NOS4A2 author Joe Hill—King’s son.
Continuity is at the front of Nicotero’s mind, and much of our discussion revolves around the subject: “I wouldn’t want to reimagine it [for TV], because it wouldn’t feel like Creepshow,” he says. “The Dutch angles and the really extreme lighting and the dissolves—all that stuff maintains the sensation of reading a comic book, and we really wanted to keep that.”
He adds, “so many reboots forget their core audience because it’s so important to them to rebrand for a younger audience. And I’m like, ‘why can’t we do both?’”
The New York Times wasn’t paying Creepshow a compliment when it described the film’s aesthetic as “carefully simulated comic-book tackiness,” but much like the corrupting influence of the comics, this too has been re-appropriated into a badge of honor. Shudder’s Creepshow is soaked in bright colors whenever possible. The splash pages that bookend every episode were drawn by the same artist who did the Creepshow films, and the actors hold their best terrified faces over exaggerated comic-book backdrops for simulated panels within the stories themselves. Comedy writer Rob Schrab “literally wrote the captions for what the Creep would say and where the comic book frames are” into his script for episode two’s “Bad Wolf Down,” Nicotero notes with pride.
The difference in this particular incarnation of Creepshow is in the shifting tones between segments: Not all the stories are horror-comedy, and not all of them feature EC’s signature moralistic twists. Some of the segments, like episode three’s “The Man In The Suitcase” and episode two’s “The Finger,” execute their high-concept setups with straight-faced intensity. Harrison’s segment, “All Hallow’s Eve,” is a haunting, melancholy ghost story, and “Lydia Lane’s Better Half,” which he and Nicotero dreamed up for director Roxanne Benjamin, is straightforward psychological terror.
Harrison pauses after he describes the scripts as “modernized,” adding after some thought (and referring to his Creepshow predecessors by their first names), “I don’t think people will notice a huge difference in the storytelling from what Steve and George did to what we’re doing now.” But he also gleefully describes one of his segments as a “balls-out heavy metal thrash gore fest,” so some things have changed. The amount of interest in horror anthologies, for instance: “George and I walked around Los Angeles on several different occasions trying to sell an anthology series we couldn’t get arrested.”
But that was the 1990s. “If you look at television today, man—it’s almost all genre, all the time.”
Creepshow doesn’t have the budget of a Game Of Thrones or a Westworld, so the most valuable resource on the set is time. The show’s production schedule is intense, with each segment allotted just three and a half days of shooting time; to make things even more stressful, one of those days is devoted wholly to practical effects. Directors rotate in and out, while crew members set up and break down multiple sets at the same time. Walking through the sound stage between setups feels like lingering in a haunted house past closing time: A graveyard sits next to a torture chamber sits next to a morgue sits next to a dilapidated farm house. Some of the used sets still have props piled up in one corner and sticky fake blood on the floor.
In my 16 hours on set, I saw a camera test, a pre-production meeting, and an active shoot—all for different segments. For “Skincrawlers,” today is a dialogue day, and Gould is wearing a nylon fat suit he says isn’t unbearable or anything, but “during lunch I have to take off the top, just let my skin breathe.” He’s playing a man who’s tempted, in suitably moralistic Creepshow fashion, to try a miracle weight-loss cure. Asked if he’s ever worn a fat suit for a role before, he says with a laugh, “that’s never happened to me in my entire life.” Usually it’s the other way around, he jokes. He’s playing the character mostly straight, with the exception of a funny run he’s come up with for the climactic scene.
Like seemingly everyone else on set, Gould has known Nicotero for a while; they met in the ’90s through Nicotero’s cousin, who’s also a stand-up comedian. “We were working together in a comedy club, and I just talked about horror movies all the time because it’s my only interest,” Gould explains. “He said, ‘Oh, you should meet my cousin Greg.’” Gould grew up on this kind of stuff, and spent much of his childhood watching horror movies with his mom. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor so I could become a movie star so I could then write horror movies and be in them. It was the dumbest way to become a writer,” he says. Naturally, he also has a Creepshow story.
“I was an usher at a movie theater in high school, so I saw it about 400 times,” Gould says. “It was this old two-story music hall that had been converted into a two-screen movie theater. And the other ushers and I—even after Creepshow had left—when we would close up at night, or we’d be locking the doors, one of us would yell to the other one, ‘It’s Father’s Day!’ back and forth to each other in this big old empty movie theater. It was really fun.”
In the first dialogue scene of the day, Gould’s character is meeting a friend for lunch at a food truck. In true, scrappy low-budget fashion, the food truck simply parks out front, and the crew shoots the scene right there on the patch of grass that separates the parking lot from the street. The Creepshow set is tucked away in a warehouse district far from the main road, but trucks from a nearby UPS depot keep ruining the shot. At one point, someone drives by in an ancient sedan whose muffler sounds like it’s going to fall off at any moment, and it’s so absurd that everyone laughs.
But if Roxanne Benjamin is flustered, she doesn’t show it. Benjamin, who’s here directing her second of two Creepshow segments, keeps smiling and cracking jokes with Gould throughout take after frustrating take, her body language communicating to the crew that everything is fine. She came prepared, sketching out detailed storyboards that add little stage directions like the bit where a hapless PA on the segment’s fictional TV show slips and falls in a puddle of gore. She later explains,“that’s the whole job of directing, communication. That’s it.”
At this point, I’m standing in the back of the crowd next to Stephen Langford, the veteran sitcom writer who co-wrote “Skincrawlers” with Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series fame. As Langford quietly explains between shots, the inspiration for the story, about a weight-loss worm with some gruesome side effects, was twofold. First was Langford’s own experience with weight-loss surgery. The second, as Dini explains when we go inside to call him from an empty office, was a bit more exotic.
“Paul likes to go to places I wouldn’t. Places that you couldn’t pay me to go to,” Langford explains as he dials the phone. We get Dini on the line, and Langford asks him to tell “the leech story.” It goes like this: Dini was on vacation in Sumatra, where he paid a guide to take him deep into the jungle in hopes of spotting orangutans in the wild.
“We’re up at dawn and we’re hiking,” he says. “And after about an hour or two, I sit down and rest and I noticed there was blood on my arms, and my legs, and places I didn’t realize. The leeches had just attached themselves as we brushed through the foliage. I wasn’t in pain or anything. It was almost like mosquito bites. If I had seen it happen, if I had seen a leech on me, I would’ve probably freaked out. But I never actually saw them.”
Langford and Dini have worked together for years, and Langford has definitely heard this story before. But he’s in a good mood, and chuckles and shakes his head at the details. Both men have their own ideas of what makes something “a Creepshow story;” Dini notes that “horror and hubris really work hand in hand” in EC-inspired material, and Langford adds, “it has to have this sense of weirdness. It’s not a traditional horror story.” They both get excited talking about their pitch process for the series, which by all accounts sounds like the two of them sitting around trying to gross each other out with outrageous story details. But underneath the gore, “I think there’s actually a message. It’s like, ‘you are enough,’” as Langford puts it. And without giving too much away: This being Creepshow and all, there is a moral to the story.
There’s also a blood cannon, which sits off to the side of a set made up to look like the hallway of a TV studio. Most of the Creepshow sets have no ceiling—except for the basements, which, as a crew member explains, usually have ceilings because it helps get the dust effects just right. But this one has plastic tarps stretched over it, as if to protect it from indoor rain. In fact, it’s the opposite: If they didn’t have the tarps, Benjamin explains, the blood would shoot all the way up to the ceiling of the sound stage, and Shudder wouldn’t get its deposit back. “The blood cannon is definitely a one and done shot,” she says.
Similarly, Gould compares practical effects to live performance, saying, “I think specifically, when it comes to [horror-comedy], that’s the only way it works. The minute your eye tells you something isn’t real, there’s a level of reality that is removed from it. And the level of reality is intrinsic to getting the laugh.”
The scene they’re shooting has a sort of funhouse Aaron Sorkin feel to it, if only because it consists of a walk-and-talk down a hallway and onto a TV studio set. A small band of hoodie-clad crew members scuttle behind the steadicam operator as he follows the actors down the hall, and Langford and I watch from the video village, which is set up in a room decorated to look like a hair salon. I lean over and ask the script supervisor what this room was before; she thinks for a moment, and says, “I think it was a hospice.” Another room catercorner to this one is decorated to look like a posh plastic surgeon’s office, albeit one decorated with a snake skeleton (from Nicotero’s personal collection, naturally) and a statue of Pazuzu from The Exorcist.
Benjamin is crouched in a corner of the set, a walkie-talkie on her hip, coaching the actors playing TV anchors on their peppy line readings. (The phrase “make millions!” proves especially difficult.) From the Creepshow set, she’ll go straight to SXSW for the premiere of her debut feature, Body At Brighton Rock. She’s become something of an expert in horror anthologies, and this is her fifth such project. Although her style tends to be a bit more naturalistic, she’s leaning in to the colorful, high-contrast Creepshow style for this one, saying that “Skincrawlers” has “lighting choices that have a more comic book feel to them than you would normally have, even in horror movies.” But her favorite part is doing the action and effects scenes, which “normally you don’t get to do in TV. Normally that’s peeled off to a second unit director, and you don’t get to do all of the fun stuff.”
I have to miss the fun stuff, leaving after midnight as the cast and crew try to push through and get all the dialogue done so they can concentrate on the blood cannon the next day. I call up Benjamin later to ask her how it went, and she laughs. “That was the most fun. Poor Dana!” I ask her what happened. “I mean, it’s a blood cannon! It explodes everywhere and then it rains for like 30 seconds from the ceiling and the walls!” She adds, “I don’t know if actors know what they’re signing up for when they do these kind of shows.”
“It was funny, because the entire crew is out away from where it’s happening and the doors are shut,” Benjamin says. “So it’s just Dana in there with the blood cannon, and then me and our stunt coordinator, Andy Rusk, hiding behind cardboard like we’re at a Gallagher show or something. I wanted to be in the room to take video so Dana could send it to his daughters, like, ‘Here’s what dad did at work today!’ Torturing Dana is one of the highlights of my directing career.”
Thinking back to my conversation with Gould, I doubt he thought of it as torture. But the PA on blood cleanup duty who told me this was only her third professional job ever? I did feel a little sorry for her.
Creepshow is now on Shudder, and the first episode, featuring “Gray Matter” and “House Of The Head,” is free to watch with Shudder on Apple TV channels, available on the all new Apple TV app, until November 3.