It all started in January when a friend emailed me a link with this note: “Hey Karen, you HAVE TO DO THIS!”
This is how mischief starts nowadays. The link that my friend Terri had sent brought me to a data capture site for The Discovery Channel’s long-running show MythBusters, which features ever-changing myths that the team re-enacts to either bust or confirm. They were searching for zombie volunteers for a day of filming in the San Francisco Bay Area for a zombie TV special that would air later this year. It was unpaid (yep), silly (I am over 40), and you had to show up early in the morning, pre-zombified (uh huh.)
I was in.
Non-disclosure agreements from The Discovery Channel were signed, scanned and sent, and arrangements made for my husband to take time off of of his legitimate work as an attorney doing important things on a Friday to ferry the kids around while I… shambled around on a MythBusters set. After jumping through a few more electronic hoops, including sending them a full-length photo and a head shot, I was finally accepted into the volunteer undead horde.
I had managed some decent Halloween zombie make-up on my kids in recent years, but this was different. Standards were high! This had to be right! Luckily, my friend Terri (the mischief-maker who started all this) agreed to handle my zombification.
It was time for research. We scoured YouTube for tutorials on applying zombie make-up and found that The Walking Dead special effects guru (and now TWD executive producer) Greg Nicotero has posted some really great, detailed tutorials for the lay person. Two words: liquid latex. You can’t be a zombie without rotting flesh, and liquid latex is the ticket; helping us create peeling skin, scabs and open wounds.
At our local theatrical supply store we found another essential element for my zombie transformation: “tooth rot” tooth paint in a disgusting greenish-black. We picked up a few more tips from The Walking Dead show clips (for example, conditioner left in the hair makes it look greasy and gross.) And my 13-year-old son mixed up a batch of fake blood using corn syrup, Hershey’s chocolate sauce and red food dye. I’ll admit, Terri and I spent hours experimenting with creating peeling flesh, fake blood and crusty scabs. It was awesome. Terri even thought she might like a second career doing special effects make-up.
I should mention that all of this was totally humiliating to my 11- and 13-year-old sons. It was uniquely motivating.
The day of filming finally arrived, and Terri showed up at my door at 5 a.m. with coffee and make-up kit in hand. In under two hours, I looked terrible. My outfit from Goodwill was shredded, torn and covered with dirt. My hair; stringy and disgusting. By 8 a.m. my fellow undead and I were arriving en masse at the Mare Island Naval Yard, just east of San Francisco, for our day of filming with the MythBusters cast and crew. We had heard several days earlier that actor Michael Rooker (Merle Dixon of The Walking Dead) would be filming with us. Ours was the first of three scheduled days of zombie myth busting. We spent most of our time on camera inside a funky old ship repair warehouse filled with exposed wooden beams and stairs, and a huge open main floor that had been converted into a type of zombie vs. human zone. We met Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage in that main warehouse where we would end up filming most of the day.
To my delight, I was pulled aside at the start of the day and taken to another warehouse with a few other zombies to film close-ups and other special footage with Michael Rooker and the two MythBusters hosts. The rest of the day we spent with the larger group learning how to shamble properly, groaning en masse, touching up our make-up, and following the director’s orders while Jamie, Adam and Michael experimented with various ways to fend us off. It was cold (it was February), but everyone was giddy to be there. I met a woman who had driven all the way from San Diego (!), and two young women from the California Department of Fish & Game who had taken a vacation day.
At the end of the day, we got loads of gratitude from the production assistants and a MythBusters zombie T-shirt. Am I embarrassed by my day of zombie frivolity? Maybe a little. I know my friends were hard at work that day; writing important long-form journalistic pieces or getting legislation passed somewhere. I know this, and yet I cherish the day. But not because we got to hang out with television stars or see ourselves online in MythBusters promotional videos. It was a really great day because we all got to geek out together, eat our own brown-bag lunches in a cold warehouse together, compare recipes for fake blood, and generally take a few hours to get down with our silly selves.
I’m afraid I have a bit of a reputation after all this. A friend gave me a zombie calendar for my birthday last week and my Mother’s Day gift from my family this year was a 30 lb compendium of The Walking Dead comics. Hmmm…
A couple of weeks ago, Terri messaged me again on Facebook: “Karen, oh my God, you HAVE TO DO THIS!” It was a link to buy tickets to ride the “Zombie Train,” where you could be part of a laser-gun wielding zombie militia, shooting zombie volunteers on the ground from the moving train. I think I’ll sit this one out, as tempting as it sounds.
The MythBusters 2013 Zombie Special aired on The Discovery Channel Thursday, October 17th and will be available soon via iTunes.