Becoming a Zombie for a Day on the Set of 'Warm Bodies'

Vampires are cool and all, but which sounds like more fun – simply slipping on a pair of fake fangs, or dousing yourself in dirt, painting your teeth a grimy yellow and painting a stream of blood down the side of your mouth? (Remember, I ask which sounds like more fun, not which results in the hotter supernatural creature.) I was about to find out on the Montréal set of Warm Bodies. And in the end, I’d say enjoying the eye candy that was Nicholas Hoult’s zombie character (simply known as "R"), hanging with skeletons known as "Bonies" in baggage claim and getting to have a human flesh-free lunch with dozens of zombies, being transformed into a member of the living dead won handily. Read on…

Things kick off bright and early at the largely unused Montréal-Mirabel International Airport, which has been transformed into the Isaac Marion International Airport in homage to the author of the book Warm Bodies. Before exploring the airport ruins, it was straight into wardrobe. I’m more of a jeans, T-shirt and Vans type of girl, so I'm a bit shocked to discover a low-cut shirt, skirt and high heeled boots waiting for me to slip into. As costume designer George L. Little explains, “We try to make people look like these are the clothes they wore when they died, not just a costume.” I don’t know what it is about me that says business lady, club-goer crossover, but hey, I'm about to become a zombie; might as well go all in!

My hairdresser, Colette, normally does 25 to 30 zombie 'dos a day. She goes right to work, deciding that a messy bun on the top of my head most suited my semi-work/semi-play character, and slopping on what looks like globs of mud right on my head. I knew showering would be priority #1 when I got back to the hotel that night, but at least it's moist powders and gels mixed with brown coloring, not actual dirt.

While the hair takes a mere five minutes, zombie makeup eats up about 45 minutes of time. The procedure begins with a layer of foundation to make me devoid of color, then it's time for the fun stuff. My makeup artist, Olivier, explains the need to stick to his superior’s guidelines – not too much makeup around the eyes, make sure the lips aren’t too green, and “punch out” with subtly – but also tells me he’s got a thing for gore.

Olivier takes great pride in working on my veins, an intricate process via hand painting and airbrushing. Olivier also has a special little something for my teeth. All of the other press popped tiny pills that turned their mouths black. However, Olivier convinces me it’d be much creepier to paint some rot right on my teeth. This is a once in a lifetime thing; why not, right? Yes and no. But before we get to the conclusion of my teeth rot trauma, a little more dirt is a must. Little himself douses me in dirt-colored powder, hacks up my outfit with scissors and drips hot wax down my clothing for an extra grimy effect, and it’s off to set I go.

While hanging out in a dilapidated airport waiting room--and fitting in quite well, might I add--Warm Bodies director Jonathan Levine laughs and says, “I’ve read some things on the Internet that say it’s Twilight meets Shaun of the Dead, which, to me, sounds like the worst f***ing movie I’ve ever heard.”

Star Theresa Palmer actually doesn’t quash the connection to Twilight, rather embraces it. “Look, it’s very flattering that people are comparing our film to Twilight,” she says. “If we have even half the level of success of that movie, I think we’d all be very happy, but having said that, it’s such a different film. It’s almost a little darker, a little edgier. There’s a relationship between the mortal and the immortal, but that’s where the comparisons really should end.”

You see, R eats flesh, grunts and lumbers – but deep down, a piece of his human self still lives and grows, thanks to the spark that ignites between R and Palmer's Julie. Palmer explains, “He’s stuck in this world where he can’t express his feelings, but he listens to Frank Sinatra, he’s a romantic and he’s just trying to shine through his decaying flesh.”

Hoult may be Warm Bodies’ main man, but he gives R’s other half the credit she deserves. “She’s very good at learning her lines because she has pages of dialogue whilst I grunt,” he says with a laugh.

So now the big question is, how do you sell your lead character's layers and intense emotions when he can’t even speak? The answer in Marion’s book is narration, and while Levine admits the movie has a lot of voiceover, he's using some graphic elements to spice it up, “almost like Fight Club in a way where these graphical things illustrate expository points.” He adds, “I’m not as afraid of voiceover as a lot of people are.”

Now that the Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is no longer a working airport, the Warm Bodies crew has the run of the entire facility. Rob Corddry, who plays R’s best buddy, M, says, “I’m always fascinated by these lost places.” He jokes, “I can just walk through security and not get hassled. I can walk right to baggage claim if I want.”

In fact, that’s exactly what we zombified journalists did. For our big moment, we make our way into baggage claim. Hoult steps in front of the camera, action is called, R wanders around a bit until a dog zips through the baggage claim followed by a group of Bonies that nearly knock poor R off his feet. While the dog is real and adorable, the Bonies are not. Rather than watching evil skeleton creatures make their way through the airport, they’re simply actors in grey body suits.

A little later we’re placed throughout the area for a wide crane shot. It’s as simple as slowly stumbling from one place to the next, giving a zombie-glance at the Bonies, zombie-turn in the other direction, reset and do it all over again.

Next is our close-up. Again, each and every journalist is designated a particular spot. I take my new position near the barrier that separates the baggage claim entrance from the doors and, to my delight, R stands nearby. In comes the dog and then the Bonies, all while we do our now well-rehearsed shuffling and staring.

Honestly? When they called "wrap," it was a relief. It’s amazing to have had such a unique and memorable experience, but let me tell you, being a zombie extra is no joke. You’re on your feet for hours on end, your hands are covered in grime so you can’t really touch anything and going to the bathroom is a bit of a pain, to say the least. But you know what? I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Well, almost all. While every other journalist’s mouth was free and clear of black grime by the end of the day, my teeth were still freshly caked in yellow. Even worse? It didn’t come off. Each tooth had to be hand-cleaned using a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol. Not much fun for someone with an intense fear of the dentist. So, in conclusion, the only stipulation in my zombie-for-a-day contract will be no paint-on tooth decay.

Check out even more details from my day as a Warm Bodies zombie extra.

 

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