By Drew Taylor | The Playlist October 30, 2013 at 4:44PM
Every Halloween people indulge in horror movie marathons, where fountains of gore crescendo skyward, madmen make mincemeat of unsuspecting victims, and otherworldly monsters prowl menacingly with gore-dipped fangs. While watching these movies, it's easy to take these terrifying creatures of the night for granted. But how do those ghouls, goblins, and gross-out zombies actually make it to the screen? That is the question effects guru Greg Nicotero is faced with everyday and one that the new EPIX documentary "Nightmare Factory" fully engages with. Zombies, werewolves, and vampires all have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is often Nicotero's KNB Effects factory floor.
At the beginning of this lively documentary, Nicotero lays it all out. "We've done 900 movies," he estimates. "We're one of the most prolific, if not the single most prolific, effects company in the world." And it's true – just running down their roster of films shows both the scope of their imagination and their value to certain filmmakers. They won an Oscar for their work on "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and oversee the weekly demands of "The Walking Dead" (a show that has Nicotero occasionally directing as well). Basically, they can do it all… or at least cover it all with slimy red goop.
KNB originally stood for the founding members initials – Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. About a decade ago, though, Kurtzman decided to move back home to Ohio. He still does make-up effects and consulting (he'll be the one responsible for the ridiculous walrus make-up in Kevin Smith's forthcoming horror movie "Tusk") but is no longer part of the company; Berger and Nicotero just decided to keep the KNB moniker for simplicity's sake. (Oddly, the filmmakers don't manage to get Kurtzman on film.)
While Berger is still a major part of the studio, the day-to-day operations seem to be overseen by Nicotero, thus he becomes the focus of the documentary. We learn about his childhood making Super 8 monster movies and, as a resident of Pittsburgh, obsessing over the zombie films of George A. Romero. Amazingly, a family trip to Rome would see Nicotero and his family sitting at a neighboring table to Romero. Nicotero, unable to control himself, struck up a conversation with Romero and the director invited him to work on the set of his forthcoming zombie epic "Dawn of the Dead," where Nicotero promptly became the protégé of genuine make-up effects legend Tom Savini. He eventually became Savini's #2 dude on Romero's 'Dawn' follow-up, "Day of the Dead." Nicotero's father had wanted him to become a doctor (he's interviewed extensively here). Berger recalls that, after telling his father he would be moving to Los Angeles to follow his dreams, Nicotero's father shot back: "You'll never be anything with long hair like that."
The team, assembled in earnest for Sam Raimi's breakthrough "Evil Dead II," would really come into their own as a company after doing work on the austere Disney drama "Gross Anatomy." The film, about med school students, required a whole host of lifelike cadavers, which the team dutifully dreamed up. It was this attention to detail and realism that scored them the gig designing the mechanical buffalos for Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning "Dances with Wolves" and added to their already varied portfolio.
In the often dazzling documentary, we see Elijah Wood visit the studio to talk about the company becoming the go-to effects house for his fledging genre production outfit. Wood became buddies with the guys when they turned him into a razor-clawed maniac for Robert Rodriguez's garish comic book adaptation "Sin City." The amount of awe and wonder that washes over Wood's face as he walks around the floor of the nightmare factory is positively contagious. These are grown men, getting to do what they love, with a maximum of creative input. And what they're doing is designing monsters and fashioning severed heads that will double for beautiful young starlets. It's amazing work but it's presented with an earnest matter-of-fact-ness; the guys that do this stuff don't see it for how spectacular it really is.
The documentary is mostly biographical, and peppered with talking-head interviews with many of their starry collaborators. But there are some notable omissions in terms of who director Donna Davies talked to, though. While she gets plenty of stuff from the guys who work in the factory, and a kind of sage wisdom from the pieces Nicotero and Berger contribute, there are still some folks that would have made this dynamite. Rodriguez is on camera occasionally but you can't tell if his interview was recorded specifically for this documentary or some throwaway DVD special feature; and the comments made by Quentin Tarantino, who has become one of the group's chief collaborators in recent years, were clearly lifted from some other source.
Those lapses aside, "Nightmare Factory" is mostly a hoot. You get to watch Nicotero prepare his nifty black-and-white short film "The United Monster Talent Agency" (aired, finally, on AMC) and dress coeds in gaping wounds for the satirical bloodbath "Piranha 3D." And most hilariously is a piece of an interview from John Carpenter, who mockingly groans, "Oh mighty divas, you have come to save my movie." Carpenter then goes on to describe the process: "They take so long to set this shit up. You get a nice little pacing going; the actors are cooking and the crew is cooking. You get the special make-up effects and it skids to a halt. Really? Wires? This is the modern age and you're still using wires?" The best part is that Carpenter's curmudgeonly rant is intercut with Nicotero talking about the same movie, with straight-faced seriousness. It then cuts back to Carpenter, who just cackles, a cigarette precariously dangling out of the corner of his mouth. Still: their point (and the point of "Nightmare Factory") is still the same: monsters aren't born, they're made. [A-]
"Nightmare Factory" premieres tonight on EPIX at 8 PM.