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What You Didn't Know About The Walking Dead's Zombie School

The Walking Dead turned its main cast into serious stars. Even though plenty of Walking Dead actors have left the show by now, often in gory ways, they will forever be remembered as the survivors who took on the zombie hordes (and other humans). 

However, the unappreciated stars of the series are the background actors — the zombies themselves, who terrified and disgusted characters and audiences alike. And the show's creators have always taken the process of finding and training their decaying cannibalistic monsters very seriously.

The man heading the effort is Greg Nicotero, a special effects and makeup expert who also happens to be a zombie movie obsessive. "I've seen every zombie movie ever made," he told CNN in 2012. Particularly early on in The Walking Dead's life, Nicotero relied on a process he called Zombie School to find the best zombie actors. (This, superfans, is why we are referring to the walkers as zombies, even though they don't say 'zombie' on The Walking Dead.)

You might think anyone could play a slow-moving, glassy-eyed reanimated corpse. But as Nicotero explained to Rotten Tomatoes, finding people who can nail The Walking Dead's specific brand of zombie, take after take, has been a key part of running the whole show. "What you don't want to do is spend an entire hour or two fine tuning background zombie performances that would then be taking away from shooting the rest of the scene," he said. 

Here's what you didn't know about The Walking Dead's Zombie School — and the characteristics of the perfect zombie.

Greg Nicotero is open to zombie interpretations — except one

Zombie School was less about training zombies than it was a chance to find people who already had that natural zombie spirit. Nictero told CNN that he would see 150 to 200 aspiring zombie extras each season, putting them through various exercises while also giving feedback on the type of zombie the show was looking for.

The characteristics of the ideal zombie performance are both vague and specific. Russell Towery, stunt coordinator for seasons three and four of The Walking Dead, told AMC.com, "We try not to tell somebody how to walk like a zombie: we try to let everybody's zombies come out in their performance." In Zombie School, Nicotero stuck to general advice. For example, "Zombies always have slumped shoulders... there's a looseness and a relaxed nature to it," he told several hopefuls in a video. A good frame of reference: Drunk people leaving a bar at 2:00 AM.

In terms of specifics, there's one thing Nicotero and Towery definitely didn't want from their zombies: A stance they refer to as "Frankenstein," meaning arms stuck straight out ahead of you. Nicotero explained to Vulture, "if we have someone in the background who's walking like Frankenstein, that doesn't look to portray the rules that we have built in our show." Nicotero also had a particular look in mind, according to his interview with CNN. "We tend to go with thinner people who have a specific kind of bone structure, so when we put prosthetic on them... it doesn't look like we're building out their face too much."

Being a Walking Dead zombie does require acting

Graduating from Zombie School is about more than the perfect loping zombie walk and sharp cheekbones. Nicotero says natural zombie actors bring emotion and character to the role. He told Vulture, "There is emotion. It's not just a monster... we feel sympathy. We feel a sense of loss. We also have to feel terror and a threat, so it's not as easy as it looks... there's acting skills involved."

When they do find people who bring that sense of personality to the zombies, Nicotero says, they like to hang on to them. Ten years into the show, he's assembled a group of actors he considers to be the zombie elite, which means Zombie School is no longer needed. "I don't think we've done Zombie School in two years, because at this point, we have our troupe of zombie performers and actors, and I think the people that we love, we bring them back over and over again," he told Rotten Tomatoes in October 2020.

Zombie extras who have really impressed in previous episodes are often given larger roles, such as killing off major characters. For example, Kevin Galbraith played a zombie in about five episodes before Nicotero chose him as the 'Swamp Walker' that killed beloved character Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) in season two, as pictured above. This big moment meant even more to Galbraith, he said in a Reddit AMA, because it was Nicotero's first time directing an episode, and he chose to have only one zombie.

If Zombie School and zombie acting sounds more thrilling than chilling, Nicotero has done his job. "I want people to leave with the experience of, 'Oh, that was kind of fun,'" Nicotero told AMC.com.