Nightmare Factory (2011)

First published by Little White Lies

Anyone who loves horror will have heard of make-up and modelling doyen Greg Nicotero, and anyone who has been following the movies (of any kind) from the last three or so decades will inevitably have seen some of his company KNB EFX Group’s handiwork. With its mix of talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage, Donna Davies’ profiling documentary bears all the tried-and-tested hallmarks of a DVD extra, and it is difficult to imagine it projected onto a big screen anywhere other than at a specialist event – but it certainly earns a place at FrightFest, both for its extraordinary gallery of participants, and for its broad historical sweep.

A veritable who’s who of the post-60s landscape of American genre cinema – George A. Romero, John Carpenter, John Landis, Frank Darabont, Robert Rodiguez and Quentin Tarantino – all line up here to offer soundbite-sized testimonials for Nicotero (who is after all their regular collaborator), while also commenting on the crucial role played by make-up and practical effects in what they do. Meanwhile, Nightmare Factory is not afraid to take the long view of monster making, tracing Nicotero’s own love for grue all the way back to the womb, with his mother Connie shown suggesting that, as a result of her reading ‘a blood-curdling book’ during her pregnancy, “he came out drawing monsters”. Reared on his grandfather’s collection of Super 8 creature features (“I’d seen Creature From The Black Lagoon 300 times by the time I was 10 years old”) , and soon shooting “literally hundreds” of his own stunt-filled home movies with brother Brian, the teenaged Nicotero had a chance meeting with his hero (and fellow Pittsburghian) Romero, which led to an invitation to the set of Dawn of the Dead and an introduction to gore guru Tom Savini. Consequently hired to work under Savini on Day of the Dead, Nicotero found his true calling. Meeting Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, he moved to LA and with them founded an effects shop there that would eventually become KNB.

Interwoven in Nicotero’s personal history is the story of how practical effects have evolved over time, in a surprisingly direct “blood line” from the early make-up work of Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce through Dick Smith to his mentors Rick Baker and Savini, who in turn helped out Nicotero and his peers. There are dark whisperings about how the rushed system of production currently prevalent in Hollywood production models and the rise of CGI and post-production VFX leave less room for make-up and modelling craft, and Berger expresses doubt as to whether there will be another generation of monster makers – but Nicotero himself, now a self-confessed “47-year-old horror nerd”, remains positive: “I still have a passion for it, and clearly the passion that I have will affect someone down the road.” If he is right, then Nightmare Factory forms part of the campaign to inspire the next Nicotero in forming and maintaining cinema’s monstrous imagination.

© Anton Bitel