Shock Horrors! Greg Nicotero’s Creepshow

Blood, zombies, giant spiders – Greg Nicotero’s resurrected Creepshow is absolutely killing it.

Few people in horror have spilled as much blood as Greg Nicotero. When we meet over Zoom, there’s even a blotch of it on his shirt.

His intricate, hyperreal make-up effects have astounded audiences across four decades, on a series of groundbreaking collaborations with George A Romero, Wes Craven and countless other horror legends. As a make-up artist, executive producer and director on The Walking Dead (2010-2022), he helped redefine the zombie for a modern, less censorious era of television, and inspired a new generation of horror fans in the process.

In 2019, Nicotero resurrected the cult horror anthology Creepshow for AMC’s boutique streaming service, Shudder. Based on Romero’s 1982 feature, the series is, in many ways, the perfect Halloween treat – reminiscent of reaching into a candy-laden pumpkin on a stranger’s front porch and not knowing quite what you’ll pull out. It’s certainly the only show airing where haunted dollhouses, Lovecraftian abysses and a support group for the lycanthropic can co-exist. Reflecting on the third season’s unpredictable line-up, showrunner and director Nicotero says he chose “stories that were a little more outrageous…[they] were really personal to me”.

The high-concept grotesquerie of Creepshow happens to be a poignant homecoming for Nicotero. Growing up, his home town of Pittsburgh was the centre of Romero’s foundational zombie films, which began with Night of the Living Dead (1968). After a chance meeting with Romero at 16, Nicotero found himself on the set of the original Creepshow film, where he was introduced to legendary make-up and special effects artist Tom Savini. Nicotero fondly remembers: “I said to him, ‘I want to do what you do!’” After 35 years in the industry, Nicotero experiences the same enthusiasm from emerging, like-minded artists. “It makes me proud that I’m able to perpetuate my craft by inspiring young people.”

The original Creepshow is something of a touchstone for horror cinephiles, marked by the eccentric chemistry between Romero’s direction and the screenwriting debut of Stephen King. As a tribute to the EC Comics of yesteryear, it faithfully recreated the graphic novel format: brash colours and the pulpy sensibility of series such as Tales from the Crypt, promising to be “the most fun you’ll ever have being scared!” Nicotero’s take on the material is similarly a labour of love, marrying limited resources with an infinite well of ideas.

“Every week we get to create new creatures and the sky is the limit because it’s my show,” he says. Not only does it further the legacy of the source material, the Creepshow series  is an overview of his own career and his influences as a horror fan. Genre devotees will appreciate the homages to Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), John Carpenter (Halloween) and other key collaborators from Nicotero’s filmography, along with the slew of horror icons behind and in front of the camera (including Tom Savini, fittingly).

“The horror genre has the most loyal, devoted followers,” he says. “It’s a monster that needs to be fed.” Facing down the gaping maw is a team effort. “We all thrived on each other’s commitment and passion, and I was really proud to be in the trenches with this group of people because they saw how much I loved it – and I do believe that it shows on screen.” He likens the process of making a TV show to conducting an orchestra. “You have to be in tune with every musician, and I’m grateful for the experience.”

Having begun his career during a golden era of practical effects, Nicotero has navigated the seismic shift from analogue to digital filmmaking. While genre fans often object to the use of CGI effects, he views it as another instrument to be deployed in his craft. “We’re asked to paint a beautiful portrait. One person has the brushes, another person has the paint…it’s when all those things work in harmony that it succeeds,” he says. “In my career, I’ve always collaborated with filmmakers that understand that harmony.” In expectedly macabre fashion, Nicotero jokes that the scars of horror fans mark the place where they were once conjoined. “I was separated at birth from somebody like [The Walking Dead creator] Frank Darabont. He got nudged into the writing world and I got nudged into the make-up effects world.”

On screen or off, very little gets under Nicotero’s skin – though he does harbour a phobia of spiders. (In Creepshow season two, an exterminator is haunted by a giant arachnid, a puppet rendered in alarmingly vivid detail.) “It’s really hard to lean into what actually scares me. I know what I think is scary to other people,” he says. “My thrill is being able to scare [them].” Though nothing has matched the visceral terror of seeing films like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Thing (1982) in cinemas as a young adult, he sings the praises of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), along with recent zombie TV series Kingdom. Despite having been neck-deep making The Walking Dead for 11 years, he binged the South Korean show, now streaming on Netflix, in two days. “They have a different take on it that is really fun.”

In horror, nothing ever stays dead.

Creepshow is streaming on Shudder.

By Jamie Tram, writer and Halloween enthusiast from Melbourne.