Jeffrey Combs is furious. Bathed in campy greens and reds, the veteran actor viciously stares at something off-screen. It’s a corpse. One of his men, torn to pieces by something out of this world, and awaiting his rites on a makeshift operating table in a battered medical tent. As the camera zooms closer, we see Combs is playing a Nazi general, another villain to add to his spooky closet of movie monsters. “Cut,” yells director Rob Schrab, sitting with a boyish grin behind the monitors. “He’s never this happy,” says his wife. “Hey, our wedding!” Schrab spits back. Combs, ever the professional, walks around the tent for his cues, running right into showrunner Greg Nicotero. “I’ve been wanting to rip your jaw off for 10 years,” he tells Combs, “and now is finally my chance.” Behind him, legendary makeup and FX wizard Tom Savini steals Combs away for a selfie. Three werewolves walk by undeterred. This is summer camp for horror hounds. This is Creepshow.
Based on the 1982 anthology film written by Stephen King and directed by the late George A. Romero, Shudder’s forthcoming series adds another volume of spooky tales to the dusty EC Comics homage. Over six episodes and 12 stories, Nicotero and his rag-tag team of genre legends will bring the tricks and treats every Friday night beginning September 26th. It’s one hell of a boo crew, too, featuring a diverse cadre of filmmakers in Schrab, Roxanne Benjamin, Dave Bruckner, and original Creepshow masterminds Nicotero, Savini, and John Harrison. Together, they’re working with a range of stories from the likes of Joe Hill, Josh Malerman, Paul Dini, Joe R. Lansdale, and the King himself. Trapped within all that midnight madness is an equally eclectic cast that includes Combs, Kid Cudi, Big Boi, Bruce Davison, DJ Qualls, David Arquette, Dana Gould, Tricia Helfer, Giancarlo Esposito, Tobin Bell, and all-time fan favorite Adrienne Barbeau, who starred in the first film.
The series is a major coup for Shudder, which has been turning the horror genre into a never-ending Halloween celebration. In the last year alone, they’ve delivered original films such as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Ryuhei Kitamura’s Downrange, and the critically acclaimed documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. They also brought back legendary late-night host Joe Bob Briggs, who’s becoming the de facto face of the network. And, to top it all off, Master of Horror John Carpenter composed the company’s official theme. Although they’ve been hosting a variety of exclusive shows, in addition to selections from parent company AMC, Creepshow is on another level. There’s the intellectual property to consider, what with Stephen King having a blockbuster renaissance, but it’s also something of a Venus fly trap for talent. Given its anthological medium, and Nicotero’s seemingly infinite connections, the series could have quite the shelf life for Shudder.
It’s also a perfect fit. For a network deeply invested in all things spooky, it doesn’t get much spookier than Creepshow. The 1982 original is horror’s Canterbury Tales, fueled by talent of all trades relishing their love of the genre. From the comic book paneling to the radiant filters, Romero and King truly captured the aesthetic of the old EC Comics, which is why it’s remained such a staple of Saturday night sleepovers and midnight marathons. Since then, it’s spawned two sequels in 1987’s Creepshow II, which Romero, Nicotero, and Savini were heavily involved in, and 2006’s Creepshow III, which most fans (and its creators) have since written off. Shudder’s largely avoiding the latter film’s fate by keeping things as close to the original as possible. Much of that spiritual congruity can be attributed to Nicotero. As co-executive producer of The Walking Dead, he flexes quite a muscle with AMC Networks, and he’s doing all the heavy lifting on Creepshow.
“I want to embrace the spirit of the original movie,” Nicotero insists while sitting in his makeshift office, tucked away in the Atlanta studio where the cast and crew are shooting on a razor-sharp schedule. “I’m not rebooting anything. It’s not like, ‘Oh we’re going to upgrade it and retell it.’ It’s really like you’re picking up another issue of Creepshow, and these are the stories.” His words take on more weight when you look around his office. Littered across his desks, his walls, and his myriad filing cabinets are tchotchkes of the past and the present, all of which are physical manifestations of his love for this genre. Prior to our chat, he even placed the titular prop from the forthcoming “Night of the Paw” episode on my recorder. “I have an original Creepshow script that I took home last night,” he says leaning back, “and tucked inside is my original invitation to the cast and crew screening that I was sent. It’s got my parents’ address. I think the day we started shooting I posted it.”
For Nicotero, Creepshow is a chance to revisit his roots. At 56 years old, the Pittsburgh native has amassed quite a resume for himself, be it working as a make-up effects creator, a television producer, or a director. Name any splatterhouse classic that’s ever collected dust on your bedroom floor, his name is somewhere in there. Same for the majority of your favorite Hollywood blockbusters. Yet for all of his accomplishments, they all lead right back to Romero and Creepshow. “I was on the set when they did the original,” he admits. “And George gave me my first job.” That job wound up being 1985’s Day of the Dead, where he not only studied under Savini, but also worked alongside Harrison, who had previously served as assistant director on Creepshow and composed its iconic themes.
“I’ve known Greg since he was 14,” Savini says during a quick lunch break. A legend to everyone in the room, he’s unmistakable, aged only slightly from his days of chopping up zombies in Monroeville Mall. “He was a little kid, visited the set of Dawn of the Dead, and he was my assistant on a couple of movies I did. He was ‘Gut Boy’ on Day of the Dead. He handled the pig intestines for us, you know, and brought the pig intestines in.” It gets worse. “Unfortunately, they had unplugged the refrigerator while we were in Florida for three weeks. We had to use them — you can’t go buy new pig intestines at three in the morning when we did the effect — but the stench was unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Almost immediately, Savini pivots away from being seen as any kind of mentor to Nicotero, instead offering up a curiously steamy anecdote. “We’re in his hot tub,” he says casually. “You know, he mentions me at award ceremonies and things, and I said to him, ‘Greg, you would have all of this if you had never even met me.’ Because he’s a hard worker. Oh god, he’s incredible. He starts The Walking Dead after this. Come on! It exhausts me just thinking of that. So, we’re in his hot tub and I said, ‘There are two words for why this is all happening to you: you’re good,’ and he absolutely is good.”
“These are the guys I’ve been in the trenches with all my life,” Nicotero asserts with a humble smile. So, it wasn’t long before he made calls to all his fellow veterans after being pitched the series. “I literally texted every single actor I’ve ever worked with to find out what they were up to,” he says with an excitement that’s as theatrical as it reads, “and I was like, ‘Come on, let’s play, it’ll be fun. This is our chance to do what we always wanted to do,’ which is work with our friends — and it’s quick. You come in, you shoot a couple days, and you leave. So, in that regard, it’s been fun, but it’s also been insanely hard.”
It’s certainly not a freewheelin’ nostalgic trip: “It’s three-and-a-half-days,” Nicotero groans. “You can’t stop filming for 12 hours. You can’t eat, you can’t go to the bathroom, and you just gotta keep filming and go crazy.” Not surprisingly, those limitations and challenges were a hard sell on a number of Nicotero’s former colleagues. He says both Joe Dante or Sam Raimi passed, leaving the door open for its current slate that includes Harrison, Benjamin, Bruckner, and Schrab. “I’ve had a bit of a man-crush on Greg since Day of the Dead,” Schrab says over the phone. The two had met years ago through a mutual friend and they had quickly bonded over, wouldn’t you know it, The Creep himself. “When I saw he was doing Creepshow, I just said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I have to be a part of this. I’ll do whatever it takes.’”
“Whatever it takes” has essentially been the M.O. for all parties involved — even Nicotero. “I was still filming The Walking Dead while we were picking the stories,” he admits. “I had conferences with all the writers and I set them off into their world. Then, you know, The Walking Dead ended, and I had a week to fly home and catch my breath before we were in pre-production on this and it was like, ‘Okay, well, which ones are we gonna do first?’” But, it’s an M.O. understood by anyone involved, particularly a veteran like Combs. “This stuff you can get bogged down in,” Combs says of fast shoots and tight schedules. “But I’ve known Greg before he started directing. I was admiring his ability to kinda see the lay of the land and come up with quick solutions and that takes a lot of experience to make your schedule and do it in a way that still has great quality.”
For Savini, it’s been a complete 180 from his traditional day-to-day schedule. “This is intoxicating,” he says with a devilish grin. “Before coming here, my big decision of the day was, ‘Are we going to Whole Foods?’ Now, I never stop thinking of this. When my head hits the pillow at night, I’m staging stuff. I wake up, I’m staging stuff. So, it’s alive, it’s on the wire, I’m on the wire now, and that’s exciting.” He adds, “You don’t have that feeling all the time going through life. I’m 72. I have my school. I don’t have to do anything, really. It’s a whole different mindset that I’m walking around in. It’s totally immersed. You’re making this story, full of details, and then keeping in mind Greg’s notes. When you’re done shooting a scene, you put another lens on, and go for the close up on everybody.”
Much of this hustle and bustle is Nicotero’s own doing. “I was pretty greedy at first,” he admits. “I was like, ‘We should do three stories per episode, and each story should be like 17 minutes,’ and then we got into production and I was like, ‘What the fuck was I thinking? We should do two.'” He has his reasons. “I wanted to tell as many stories as I could,” he adds. “I just thought if you’re gonna do Creepshow, it’s not one story for one hour, it just didn’t feel right.” He’s not wrong. The original film seamlessly weaves together five unique stories — and that’s not even counting the connective tissue featuring Tom Atkins and a young Joe Hill — oscillating wonderfully between hammy horror and grotesque comedy. Yet that candied mix is what separates Creepshow from many other anthological series, and why its 1987 sequel with its three elongated tales suffers. In the end, you need to flip.
“Because of the comic book vibe with all the panels, I think Creepshow is a different experience,” Nicotero argues. “We are really embracing the split-screens and going through the panels. So, it’s got that flair and flavor to it, which is great.” His insistency on this aesthetic is reassuring in the sense that he’s not only being respectful to the source material — in ways that even the 1987 sequel dismissed — but why it’s become such an enduring brand. “Even when the network watched the first cut of an episode, I don’t think they really understood how much we were embracing that aspect of it,” he continues. “Like, you know, the camera goes across the title page, and the Creep is there, and you hear a little giggle. They were like, ‘Wow, you guys are all in,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, if we weren’t all in, then it would probably just seem like another anthology show.’”
Combs was also shocked by the aesthetics. “When I read the script, I loved all the capturing of cells and it’s a great way to tell a story, graphically, visually — to use comic book motifs,” he says. “When I was on set and saw all the lights I thought, Well this is really theatrical. This isn’t naturalism we’re going for.” As Schrab argues, “You wouldn’t have Creepshow without the lighting. It’s an image. That’s what makes it a comic book, having those lights. I wanted them in my episode because I wanted it in the same spirit of what George and Stephen were doing back in the day. It wasn’t even a question of ‘Should we or shouldn’t we?’ I called it the Creepshot, the lighting the background, and people knew exactly what I meant. You know and when were doing it, it was like honoring the legacy of what Romero did.”
Romero unexpectedly passed away in 2017, but the late godfather of the zombie genre walks tall throughout the set. He’s on the lips of every director, writer, and producer involved. He’s on the worn-out shirts of wide-eyed makeup artists and sweaty grips. He’s in the shadows of half-built sets looming in the dark. He’s all over the blood-splattered linoleum floors. There are even tokens from his Creepshow past littered throughout this playground of practical effects. Nathan Grantham waits patiently for his birthday cake in the corner near the lock-up closet, while Fluffy the Crate Monster protects all sorts of expensive camera equipment. “Tina [Romero] was here,” Nicotero reflects. “She came and visited and she was like, ‘My dad would just love every second of this,’ because of me and [John] Harrison working and [Tom] Savini and so, I just got chills, that was nice.”
Nicotero continues, “Adrienne Barbeau was here. We were shooting a shot, and we did one take, and then we did a series. I said, ‘Let’s try this, let’s try this,’ and at the end, she came over and said, ‘There was one in there I loved,’ and I went, ‘Me too.’ She said, ‘The other ones…”, and I said, ‘We’re just playing around.’ She said, ‘You’re good?’, and I’m like, ‘No, it’s great. It’s awesome. Trust me.’ She then told me, ‘You sound like George. When I did the first Creepshow, George kept saying, ‘Bigger! Be bigger! Like, you know, Billy can be really big. Trust me.’ When she said that, for five minutes I was like, ‘Oh, shit. Wow.’”
“None of us would have a career without George,” Savini insists. “For me, anyway, if there wasn’t Dawn of the Dead, I wouldn’t have gotten Friday the 13th, and that one-two punch is what catapulted my career.” He’s hardly as nostalgic, though. “Every now and then I’ll get a flash like, Wow, you know, this is really happening, you know? How many years has it been? 1982 was it? It’s almost 40 years. I don’t know, I haven’t given it much thought.” Most likely because he’s too wrapped up in work. During his break, Nicotero informs him that they’re ready to move his giant sea monster, which factors heavily into his adaptation of Joe Hill’s By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain. While Savini patrols the elaborate set with his crew, sizing up the watery beast, Nicotero creeps up behind him in ghoulish fashion. Savini’s playful reaction and their shared chemistry speaks volumes.
Of course, the other name on everyone’s mind is Stephen King. Although not directly involved with the series, he’s been very forthcoming in aiding their production. “I actually wrote Stephen King and said, ‘Can’t be Creepshow without a Stephen King story. What do you think?’” Nicotero says. “And he’s like, ‘I have just the story!’ Within 20 minutes, Stephen had two different stories that he had proposed.” Those would be “Survivor Type”, which was first published in 1982 and later collected in 1985’s Skeleton Crew, and “Gray Matter”, which was first published in 1973 and later commingled with 1978’s Night Shift. “Once we got into production, and I started seeing where we were landing,” Nicotero adds. “I felt that there was one that was perfectly suited, which was ‘Gray Matter’, the story I directed. But it was just cool that, you know, he said, ‘Yeah, man, you know, sure.’”
It helps that Nicotero has an equally rich history with the best-selling writer. While discussing King, he shares another heartfelt anecdote from his salad days. “When I lived in Pittsburgh, after Creepshow and Day of the Dead, Romero was moving his offices and Michael Gornick, his office manager and cinematographer, called and said, ‘Hey Greg, you know, we’re moving offices. We need a bunch of kids to come help clean up the basement.’ I was 16, so I was like, ‘Sure! I’ll come help.’ So, I was moving all these boxes, and paperwork, all this shit, and Michael was like, ‘Throw it away, throw it away.’
“But there was a letter,” he continues. “It was from Stephen King to George Romero, typed on the old onion paper with white-out and all of that shit. It was a three-page letter about Creepshow, and it had some of Steve’s ideas for the script. On the last page, off to the side, handwritten, it read: ‘Hey what do you think about Joe playing the kid in the opening of the movie? Wouldn’t that be cool? I don’t know if he can act, but it would be great.’ Of course I keep everything, so I still have the letter.” Last year, he sent the letter back to King, who had a field day with it. “I’ve known Stephen since I was a kid,” he says, “but I love that I still have that letter and he was like, ‘That’s fucking crazy that you still have that.’”
Equally crazy is the story provided by King. One of the gnarlier tales in King’s bibliography, “Gray Matter” follows the maddening descent of an alcoholic father, whose swill of choice does a number on his DNA. It’s foul stuff, to be sure, and none of it’s been lost in translation, at least not production-wise. Walking through the set, it’s clear Nicotero has gone all in on the sticky-icky thrills. The living room, where much of the action takes place, has lost a war with the unnatural. All kinds of goo and fungus cover the furniture, the electronics, the kitchen appliances, you name it. There’s a dead rat on the counter. Maggots have taken over the coffee pot. Crushed beer cans are everywhere. It’s the colossal hell that King put to the page, and Nicotero loves every piece of the carnage. “You see, I got my Harrow Supreme Beer on the desk,” Nicotero says, picking up a fresh can. “It’s literally Slimfast Chocolate, and the actor that played Richie drank like 30 of them in a day. He probably lost 12 pounds, but I was waiting for him to just vomit chocolate milk all over the set. I felt so bad.”
The can is just one of the many tangible objects within reach. Walk anywhere in the studio and you’re bound to nearly step on something important. Whether it’s a series of vomit hoses or weathered World War II gear, dismembered corpses or intricate gremlin puppets, the entire place looks like someone’s sick and demented toy chest exploded. “We’re shooting so fast that when one of them is done, the guys just throw it on the floor in the room and grab the next one and run to set,” Nicotero says. “So, when you walk by our lock-up, everything is just fucking thrown everywhere. There’s no time to even pick anything up. Like the skin crawlers, the big bloody monster, they’re all on the ground. We finish shooting and it was soaked in blood and they just dropped it and it’s still sitting there, because you don’t even have five minutes to wipe the blood off. We’re moving that fast.”
That’s how you want it, though, at least in the land where Savini and Nicotero stomp. These are the progenitors of the practical, and if you don’t see it on set, you probably won’t on screen. “Greg and I are firm believers in practical effects,” Savini stresses. “Every now and then you need to take that thing out of the tool box and use it. That’s what my school teaches: practical effects. There’s still a call for what we do. There’s still a call for the practical stuff. Low budget films, independent films, old timers who don’t want that feeling. Because with CGI, you have to pretend it’s there. It’s not really there. If you watch the werewolf transformation in American Werewolf in London, that’s happening right in front of you. All my stuff happened right in front of you, and there’s a feeling you get from that.”
Combs, also a longtime veteran of working with FX, echoes those thoughts. “CGI can be incredibly effective,” he shares. “But if you go back and look at films in the last two decades, they don’t hold up so well. I personally think CGI is a new tool that was overused. I find it much better to use practical effects. A long time ago, I did this little movie called Re-Animator, and it was completely practical effects, and it holds up. I think if CGI would have been around back then, it would date that movie.”
That’s not to say CGI doesn’t have its place in horror, and Savini is not averse to the technology. “I love CGI when it’s done well,” he contends. “I wish I would’ve had it back then to solve some problems. But it’s an economic thing. If you’ve seen The Walking Dead, when the people are over the trough, they didn’t even put appliances on them. There were just tubes on their neck to shoot the blood and visual effects erased it later. That’s an economic decision here. For me, if I had to tear the guy in half again, like we did on Day of the Dead, that’s five to six hours from now before we can do that. With CGI blood, you can do it again, over and over, instantly, you know, as many takes as you like.” Like Combs, he sees CGI as a tool, one that’s being relegated to the back of the box on Creepshow.
“It’s 98% practical effects,” Nicotero estimates. “All the creature work, all the makeup, the werewolves, the puppets.” That’s practically unheard of in today’s business, especially in horror. Not surprisingly, there are some who are unfamiliar with these tricks of the trade, including those involved in production. “It’s been fun because a lot of the people in the crew are like, ‘We’ve never done something with puppets and puppeteers and rods,’ you know, practical effects,” Nicotero says with a tinge of glee. “They usually shoot a gray ball and walk away, you know? So, it’s a whole different world.”
But not too different for those involved. Remember, anyone who’s coming into this has a vested interest in the genre. They’ve grown up on the stop-motion animation of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and they’ve cowered at the imaginative body horror of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.If anything, working with Nicotero and Savini gives them a chance to expand their palette or, at the very least, affords them the opportunity to fine-tune their talents. As Combs says, “If anyone knows practical effects better than anyone, it’s Greg.”
As with anything, going practical also has its share of disadvantages. “We had two days,” Schrab says. “If this was like The Walking Dead, things would have been a lot smoother, so decapitating a head took a lot longer, but it was worth it. We were working with a low budget and not as much manpower, but I owe a lot of help to Greg. I think it’s a lot more clever and interesting to work with practical stuff. Because you’re always trying to make it look real and not cheap — it’s more fun for me as a filmmaker. And I’m here to have fun.”
There’s no shortage of that on set. Even as the hours inch into the night, and laughter slowly shifts to yawns, you get the sense that everyone would rather be here than anywhere else. While the crew assembles a pivotal sequence involving a decapitation at the hands of a werewolf, Schrab and the crew bide their time by trading barbs about Frankenhooker. Off to the side, Combs explains why Italians dubbed all of their horror movies. Elsewhere, Nicotero can be heard asking a crew member if they need tea. “You sound the way I sounded on day seven of my episode,” he says. Inside the tent they’re shooting in, someone asks a masked werewolf if they have the right teeth. It’s a family here, bound by fake blood and their love for all things horror — and it’s contagious.
“You know that 8th grade boy who loves monster magazines and who collected masks and who did stop-animation as a kid in his basement?” Schrab asks. “That’s still me. I’m an adult who still gets to play with monsters. If you look at my stuff on Community or, most recently, Ghosted with Adam Scott, there’s monster stuff in there. I’m always trying to get ghosts and monsters into this stuff, so Creepshow is like the absolute best property for me to work on. The tagline is ‘The most fun you’ll have being scared’ and fun comes before scared.”
All of that joy and love for the genre, Nicotero insists, is what made this series possible. These aren’t just professionals clocking in, but genuine fans, and you can see it in the extra mile they run amidst all their winded sprinting. “They’re sort of like the next generation of nerds,” he suggests. “I’m in this generation of nerds and they’re like two generations down from me. They’re like, ‘Fuck, we’re working on Creepshow!’” He goes on to describe the little things they kept bringing to the table. “We were always digging for easter eggs and things to find,” he says. “All that nerdy shit that we’re doing and I’m like, ‘No one’s going to ever notice this,’ and then half the crew on set is like, ‘Is that Chief Woodenhead?!’” He teases that “Gray Matter” has “probably 30 King Easter eggs,” adding, “There’s a lot of little things. The comic books. The voodoo doll. They’re everywhere. I forget half of them because we’ve been shooting for seven weeks. I’ll probably go back and go, ‘Oh, shit! I forgot about that one,’ which will be fun.”
Still, it’s more than just love for the genre, it’s also respect. Poring over the outstanding box office receipts that horror keeps on producing, it’s easy to say, “Well, it’s having a renaissance,” without actually saying why. Among the many reasons is that today’s creators not only revere the genre, but those who came before them. Blumhouse tapped nearly everyone who was on the set of the original Halloween for their blockbuster reboot. Andy Muschietti’s record-breaking It took extra lengths to work in King’s source material as much as possible. All the while original storytellers like Oscar winner Jordan Peele are taking great strides to build upon the past as opposed to simply cashing in on it. In that sense, horror isn’t just big right now, it’s also smart. Shudder is hip to this, which is why they’ve put Creepshow in the right hands.
“Good horror succeeds because people respect it,” Nicotero says. “The guys that are now in positions like me are all guys who grew up ravenous for it, and loved it, and now they’re looking back on it like, ‘Fuck, that’s the shit that shaped me.’” He points to the door, “When Rob Schrab is literally shooting, he’s like, ‘I’m gonna start crying.’ He was so excited and so happy to be here and so proud. Those are the people that should be making this material. I have people go, ‘Fuck, I moved to LA because I wanted to work on a movie like Creepshow, and now here I am working on Creepshow.’ So, I think it’s all about respect and all about paying tribute to those guys.”
All those giants of horror are never far from Nicotero’s mind. “Sadly, Wes [Craven] is gone and Tobe [Hooper] is gone, and it’s really sad to think about,” he reflects. “Fuck, in the last two weeks, Joe Pilato died, John Buechle died, Larry Cohen died, all these people that I’ve known for a long time.” He points to his tribute to Cohen by referring to another episode he directed for Creepshow. “In ‘The Finger’ episode, we made a little Stuff container and put it in the freezer, and it’s right there, and four days later, I heard that Larry had passed. I was like, ‘That’s fuckin’ weird, man.’” For Nicotero, part of what drives him in the making of Creepshow is his deep love for his friends and mentors: “I wanna pay tribute to these guys and let them know how important their work was to me and as soon as I can.”
Walking back to set, things are less frantic. There’s a stillness to the air — an impenetrable silence. A plate of sandwiches sits cold on the service table. An eerie portrait of the Granny Gross Ghost from The Real Ghostbusters watches nearby. They’re rolling. Over in video village, Schrab sits calmly and focused. Nicotero stands next to him. Behind them, the crew waits with baited breath among the discarded monsters lying on the floor. On the screen, there’s the unlucky officer, who’s about to lose his head. They only have one chance at this. Otherwise, it’s going to be an even longer night. Finally, the hulking beast slashes his claws, the head goes rolling, and that bright red blood rushes up. Everyone pauses. “Cut,” Schrab exclaims with relief, as Nicotero pats his shoulder. In minutes, they’ll have to set up the next shot. But in this moment, they’re having their cake and eating it, too.
Down the hall, you can almost hear Nathan Grantham groan.