The Walking Dead’s timeline shows the wild science of zombie decay

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When it comes to studying the undead, there are few better masters to serve under than George A. Romero, the director responsible for creating the modern zombie in his ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead films.
It was under Romero that a 21-year-old wannabe make-up artist named Greg Nicotero began his tutelage in 1984, working on Day of The Dead, the sequel to 1978’s Dawn of the Dead – a film which just happened to be Nicotero’s favourite movie of all time.

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“George is the guy who invented the genre,” Nicotero enthuses. “The zombie rules that are so entrenched in our culture right now were invented by George Romero.”
In the decades since, Nicotero has taken Romero’s zombie template and run with it, becoming a key creative force behind AMC’s hit zombie franchise The Walking Dead, which sees a triumphant return this month.
October is a boon for fans of the undead, with a total of three Walking Dead shows appearing on screens. Alongside the main show, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead returns for its sixth season, and young adult spin-off World Beyond will premiere after the main show on October 6, via Amazon Prime.
With three different shows straddling different localities and timelines, the question is not only how do viewers keep track of what we’re seeing on screen, but more importantly, how do Nicotero and team ensure each show’s zombies display an appropriate level of decomposition?

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“It is challenging to gauge where we are with each show,” Nicotero explains. “We’re constantly trying to gauge the level of rot and decay.”

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Exactly what decomposition looks like in human bodies can be explained by Dr Anna Williams, principal enterprise fellow in forensic anthropology at the University of Huddersfield. “There are five main stages,” she says.
In a fresh corpse (or newly-reanimated undead) we might expect to see the body look paler and colder, and likely displaying a phenomenon called ‘tache noir’, essentially a black stain across the dried out eyes.

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Lividity, in which blood settles in the lowest part of the body, will also occur. “If a person/zombie is upright, this will look like ‘stockings and gloves,’” says Williams.
Wind the clock forward a few weeks and the accumulation of gasses in the abdomen will cause the eyeballs and tongues to protrude, while decomposing substances will be pushed through the capillaries to give a green/black marbled appearance to the skin.
Within three to five weeks the body enters ‘active decay’ in which maggots will hatch from eggs in the eyes, mouth and other orifices. Six weeks later, in the ‘advanced decay’ stage, most of the body will have been eaten by scavengers, leaving just skin, bone and some ligaments. In a hot climate, (like Virginia, where The Walking Dead is set) Williams explains that a body can reach the final stage, skeletonisation, within two to three weeks.

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Clearly, The Walking Dead has little to gain from its zombies (or, ‘Walkers’) turning into skeletons so soon. “These aren’t Ray Harryhausen skeletons,” says Nicotero, referring to the legendary special effects artist. “There’s never going to be an episode of The Walking Dead where these skeletons are somehow moving through supernatural powers. There has to be muscle, even if it’s atrophied. I really like that these things continue to walk around while they’re rotting and decomposing.”
Gearing up for production on season 11 of The Walking Dead, Nicotero says the emphasis is more than ever on ‘accurate’ decomposition. In particular, he and his team are playing with the idea of teeth falling out, and eyeballs dripping out of the sockets.
Not all of this has its origins in Nicotero’s gruesome imagination; at college he mastered in biology and once studied to become a doctor.
“I have a lot of anatomy background,” he says. “I draw on that quite a bit. There have been instances where we have looked at real cadavers. The most interesting thing is that we’re so conditioned through movies and television shows to imagine what bodies look like, that when you see a real dead body it doesn’t match up with what your imagination because we’re accustomed to seeing the traumatised version of a body.”
The zombies across The Walking Dead universe – including on World Beyond – are plenty traumatised. In fact, one of Nicotero’s favourite challenges is to work on new visual ‘gags’ for each series.
“We’ve done gags where the skin has flopped off which we achieved by layering vaseline between fake muscle and skin to get that yellow adipose-like fat,” he says. “There are so many things to think about; when a zombie bites into somebody you want to see the muscle tearing at a different rate to the skin. In terms of blood spray, we developed this little perforated plate that we’d lay over a blood bag, so when you see the skin rip off in a zombie bite the blood swells up instead of spraying out. It was really important to me that you get the sense that the blood is flowing from underneath the flesh.”
Other favourite make-ups include the toxic waste zombies from season eight of the main show, created in homage to RoboCop’s villainous Emil Antonwsky, who meets his demise through falling into toxic sludge. Season nine’s frozen zombies, meanwhile, were something Nicotero had been waiting to do ever since he first read the comic books which the series is based on.
“We still have the freedom to play around across the shows,” he says. “It is a bit of a challenge now because we have to keep one-upping ourselves in terms of visual style. You just really want the zombies to look good. Recently, we’ve been experimenting more with tearing off skin by using prosthetics as a base and adding on to them so that they feel like they’re more delicate. Ten years in to the zombie apocalypse, we want it to look like if you grabbed a zombie your hand could sink through its chest and slide right into its liquified organs.”
Despite a decade of experience in the world of The Walking Dead, Nicotero explains that World Beyond provided some fresh opportunities, allowing him and show runner Matt Negrete to really focus on zombie ‘hero moments’.
“On World Beyond we really spent time asking ‘what is the hero visual that you want to send to the audience?’,” explains Nicotero. “It was really different to what we’d done on The Walking Dead in the past.”
With two seasons of World Beyond commissioned and a trilogy of Walking Dead films in the pipeline, it seems Nicotero has plenty more opportunities to deconstruct decomposition yet. Whatever fresh takes World Beyond introduces one thing is for sure, there will be blood. And guts. And eyeballs…
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