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The Walking Dead and the Steel City

on Thu, 02/06/2014 - 00:00

Greg Nicotero
Super Bowl Sunday may be an unofficial holiday in the United States, but for many Americans it is the second Sunday in February that’s even more anticipated. The AMC drama The Walking Dead traditionally returns from its “winter break” at that time, and the television series about a small group of survivors from a zombie apocalypse has taken the country by storm. The 16.11 million viewers that the season four premier attracted in October 2013 set a record for a cable drama telecast, for instance, while the ratings in the key 18-49 demographics for The Walking Dead are often better than any show appearing on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC.

When The Walking Dead returned in February 2013, a Steel City twist was added to the proceedings as former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward made a brief appearance as a zombie. “A former Georgia teammate of mine is one of the stars of the show, and my agent thought it would be something fun and different for me to do,” Ward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, referring to actor IronE Singleton. “It was an amazing experience. Just being in makeup preparing me for my role was cool. I actually scared myself when I looked in the mirror for the first time.”

Hines Ward made his zombie debut less than a week after receiving the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award, which honors local Pittsburgh athletes. Ward was also named Super Bowl MVP in 2006, danced his way to victory on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars in 2011, and had a small role in the film The Dark Knight Rises.

Despite success both on and off the field, however, one could argue that a person hasn’t truly made it in the Steel City until they have been turned into a zombie. It was George Romero, after all, who invented the modern-day zombie, transforming it from its Haitian voodoo origins into the walking undead that we know today, and contemporary zombie dramas can all trace their roots back to Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. In fact, during the documentary Birth of the Living Dead, television producer Gale Anne Hurd specifically mentions the zombie portrayed by Bill Hinzman in the Romero film as the blueprint for the zombies on The Walking Dead.

“The image of the zombie in the cemetery is a key image we all felt was so iconic,” Hurd explains. “And we patterned our zombies for the series of The Walking Dead after that zombie. We patterned both in terms of his kind of gait, his speed. Not only is it creepy but it just seems like it’s unrelenting—he’s not going to stop.”

The man hired to transform ordinary humans like Hines Ward into zombies on The Walking Dead, meanwhile, is special effects guru Greg Nicotero, who served under George Romero and Tom Savini on 1985’s Day of the Dead. “My career was all completely by chance,” Nicotero told Collider in October 2013. “I had known George Romero for years. I had gotten to be friends with him and his wife at the time. They had offered me a job on Creepshow in 1981, as a P.A. They were like, ‘We’re getting ready to do Creepshow. What do you think?’ I was seventeen years old and getting ready to go away to college, and I said, ‘I’d love to, but I’m getting ready to go away to school to study pre-med. I just don’t think it’s going to work out.’”

Fortunately for Nicotero, it wasn’t a onetime offer. “When Day of the Dead came about in July of 1984, it was the same thing,” he continues. “They said, ‘Hey, man, we’re doing Day of the Dead. What do you think?’ In my head, I thought, ‘Okay, I passed up this opportunity once. I can’t do that twice.’ In the time between 1981 and 1984, I had become much more interested in film and much more of a student of creature effects and make-up effects. I always looked at it as a hobby. It was always a great opportunity to follow my dream, but I never said, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do for a living!’ It just happened, and I followed those paths that were laid out in front of me. The next thing I knew, I was there.”

“There” included the inevitable relocation from Pittsburgh to Hollywood, where he crossed paths with a wannabe screenwriter working at a video store named Quentin Tarantino. When Nicotero’s business partner, Robert Kurtzman, had an idea for a film called From Dusk Till Dawn, he hired Tarantino to write it. Instead of paying him for the effort, however, Kurtzman offered to provide the special effects for Reservoir Dogs for free. With the exception of Jackie Brown, Greg Nicotero has worked on every film directed by Quentin Tarantino since, including Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained.

Other film credits include Joss Whedon’s Serenity, the first James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, and comic book adaptations Sin City and Spider-Man 3. In 2000, meanwhile, Greg Nicotero received an Emmy for the SciFi Channel miniseries Frank Herbert’s Dune and was awarded an Oscar in 2006 for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The zombie genre is where Greg Nicotero first learned his craft, however, and it is only fitting that someone who worked under George Romero be the man in charge of creating similar creatures for The Walking Dead. Georgia may serve as the setting for the AMC series, but in reality it is Pittsburgh that truly serves as “ground zero” for the zombie apocalypse. Just as the road to the Super Bowl once ran through the Steel City during the late 1970s, the same can be said of the living dead in the Twenty First Century.

Anthony Letizia

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