In accordance with its namesake, the new Syfy series “Day of the Dead” is jam-packed with the undead. Meet their maker: Emmy-award winning makeup effects artist Todd Masters.
Masters — who is known for his work on “Slither,” “Tales from the Crypt” and “True Blood” — and his company MastersFX were given the lead to head the special zombie makeup effects on the series. This ode to George A. Romero’s famous flesh-eaters reminds its audience that sometimes all it takes to bring people together is a horde of zombies trying to rip them apart. The series follows the story of six strangers trying to survive the first 24 hours of an undead invasion. “Day of the Dead” also marks the first time that Masters serves as an executive producer.
The team worked quickly, as they were in production during the pandemic, facing technical struggles with budget and time. Masters and his Vancouver-based character factory were tasked with filling each episode with dozens of shriveled and desiccated effects, rolling with the punches while still aiming to put an original spin on this horror classic.
The 10-episode series was created by Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas and stars Keenan Tracey, Daniel Doheny and Natalie Malaika.
Here, Masters speaks to Variety about his collaborative process with various members of the crew as well as the other creative processes that went into making the monsters that populate the series.
You and your team worked through the pandemic, can you speak to some of the hurdles you had to overcome?
There was a point, maybe a couple of weeks before we started shooting, that they had to modify the script a bunch, and they took out a lot of our fun stuff. I had never been in this situation before: We had to argue with them to put it back in because we love this shit as much as the fans love it, if not more. If we’re going to do the “Day of the Dead,” we would be embarrassed if we shortchanged the audience. We kept pushing things back into the story, and we really wanted to make at least one big moment per act.
There have been lots of renditions of the zombie apocalypse seen on TV, how did you put your own personal spin on the zombies seen in the show?
I started leaning a bit more towards Italian zombie movies. There’s something about them. They’re more disturbing. “The Walking Dead” zombies have what I call “a DC-comic look.” They’re really well done. They sculpt them for a long time, and they really paint the hell out of them and they look amazing. We didn’t have all that, and so I wanted more of a drippy, splattery, messy situation on some. In other cases, Scott and Jed came out with storylines that gave us something to design for away from “The Walking Dead.” Some were mummified, some were fresh zombies, some were really old. It’s almost like the playbook was do anything you can, just not “The Walking Dead.” I wanted something that felt more disturbing and felt more fucked up.
Were there any specific moments that you paid homage to the original film’s effects?
For a monster maker that’s been doing it all his life, there’s a certain historical monster encyclopedia that’s just baked into me. Romero really started the whole zombie come-to-life thing. It hadn’t really happened before then. Romero was the first one where they actually stood up and were the fucking walking dead. You know, “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” you got to check out the makeup in those. It looks like half the makeup is done in lipstick. But that’s the thing: There’s something about these movies that play better because they’re so gritty, and it feels kind of dirty. You get that much more horror element out of it.
There are a couple of designs that are in the Romero movie that we inserted into the TV show. There’s this one guy called Dr. Tongue that fans will notice. He’s a direct ripoff. We were talking about different ways we kill people, because that’s what we do, and there was this one character who dies a horrible death but they didn’t really describe it. So I went in with a pitch for Dr. Tongue — [director Steven] Kostanski immediately knew what I was talking about — and we pulled up a bunch of images of the character. Basically, the jaw is ripped off and his tongue is dangling. The infliction is exactly the same down to every single little marking.
How did the collaborative process come into play for the effects for this project?
A lot of our references were in respect and homage to [Tom] Savini, who was the makeup effects guy [on the movie], and [Greg] Nicotero, who was an assistant and was actually in the movie and now runs a competing shop that does “The Walking Dead.” We are in this weird monster family, where we all know each other and we wink to each other in movies. It’s funny when you’re watching someone else’s stuff and there’s a reference to something you’ve made. It’s like an unknown language that we have.
You mentioned coming up with ways that people die in the show, can you speak to how collaboration extended to working with the director?
The best creative people want a collaborative relationship. I’m a little notorious because when I was younger, I really pushed the issue on a couple of things in movies and television stuff to the point of in some cases even being fired. A lot of the people that I’ve learned my craft from would do that. And it’s not to be difficult to work with. It’s to make the movie better. When you’re in the monster world and you want to make a monster movie that’s going to reach out and touch monster lovers, who better to talk to than a monster maker? We’re the ones that know that you can’t kill them that way because it was just done in that movie. Instead of doing it that way, why don’t we try this way because we’ve never seen this way before? So we’re constantly trying to supply information because I think we know it best.
What was one of your favorite creative moments on set?
There was this one point where we were still trying to keep everything in budget, and there was this truck that’s supposed to drive through one of the zombies. We were trying to figure out how to make a dummy for no money that we drive through. And we were drawing all these things like, “We can make it out of garbage bags, I don’t know.” All we needed was something for the moment of impact. One of the effects guys just quietly goes, “Well I have a dummy in my shack that’s designed to drive a truck through it.” I swear to god. It was like a gift from the gods. It couldn’t have been more perfect. It was so funny. We really kind of wrung out every drop on this one and left it out on the field, and I’m really hoping people can see it and appreciate it.
“Day of the Dead” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Syfy.