Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Project Halloween Zombie

Oh boy... why have we done this?

We closed on the house toward the end of last October so this is the first time I'm really getting the opportunity to spook up the place for Halloween. The first decoration I wanted was a zombie clawing it's way out of the ground. But zombie sculptures proved to be pretty expensive for something that's essentially a ghoulish garden gnome that's only good for the month of October. That is unless you think zombies are good decorations year round. A half rotting corpse might at least make an interesting conversation piece during those Summer BBQ outings. You could casually wax about how the zombie is really a grotesque symbol of excessive consumerism rotting the core values of America and the human soul... preferably while enjoying a big tasty plate of ribs.

Obligatory I don't know what I'm doing rant:

In a previous life I did some prop master work at a local community theater. Occasionally we made props, but mostly it consisted of fixing things with a glue gun, and trying to get out of the way of large moving pieces of scenery. I do sculpt and do small artistic projects for fun. I do watch a lot of horror/zombie films. But that's about where my authoritative knowledge on the subject ends. The rest I've left up to my teachers Google and the Internet. God help us.

Google-ing "how to make a zombie" returns everything from how to mix strong rum based drinks to making nightmares out of paper mache. After reading a fair amount, and watching a number of Youtube videos of people Dr Frankenstein-ing it up in their basements I've settled on a couple of techniques and I'm ready to put on an evil lab coat of my own. Also I can now mix a mean Polynesian beverage.

Key materials:

  • Bag of rags - Rags bought at the large home improvement stores usually consist of 100% cotton T-shirt material torn into various sizes. Previously someone’s torn up Hanes-ware. Unused. Hopefully.

  • Liquid Latex - Heaven forbid it rains so I like my zombies waterproof. Nobody wants a squishy zombie with parts melting off it. Wait...No...Well you know what I mean. Previously someone's melted down rubber gloves. Unused. Hopefully.

  • $15 - “Bag o Bones” - Harvested from man's late cousin Homo-styrofoamian. Got this from the local Halloween store. It’s an assortment of hastily painted foam skeleton pieces.
Main t:

  • Heat gun - You can probably get away with just using a hair dryer. The only reason I bought this is because I lost my hair dryer a long time ago due to lack of use/lack of hair. Basically it's a hair dryer on steroids.

  • Glue gun - The main weapon in my arsenal of “stuff-making” and/or “stuff-repair”.

Isn't there an easier way to do this?

You might ask why don't I just put the cheap skeleton pieces together, slap an old suit on it, and put that in the yard instead? It's because we're going for full on rotting zombie corpse here folks. Not some second string Skeletor coming out of the ground. The foam skeletal structure will provide a great base in which to build up and fill out the zombie. Think of it like baking with a pre-made store bought pie crust... OK an evil pie crust.

The foam skull came with it's jaw glued shut, but because I want Mr Z gasping for air after taking his dirt nap I cut the jaw and separated the upper from the lower teeth. The teeth also needed a bit more definition so I've carved those in as well. Someone clearly hasn't been flossing.

There's a Shakespeare joke in here somewhere.

To "flesh out" Mr. Z I'm tearing up chunks of packaging foam and gluing them to key parts of the skull.

This is turning into a bad episode of CSI. But at least he shouldn't have a BONE to pick with me... YEEYAAAAHHHHHH!!!!

Working with latex:

Liquid Latex contains a high concentration of ammonia. If you're wondering what it smells like imagine if Satan had a three headed cat and it was your personal duty in hell to clean fluffy's litter box each day with your bare hands. That's about half as bad as this stuff smells. Only use in an area with proper ventilation.


The technique I'm using here involves soaking the rags in latex then applying them in strips over the skull and padding. I'm not a doctor nor do I play one on tv but this part does involve a little understanding of anatomy. If the strips are too parallel or don't form the facial features properly he'll look more like a mummy then a zombie. For more intricate features I may stretch and glue pieces of a rag in place then apply the latex and shape as necessary.

"Hey Van Gogh you dropped something..."

Mr Z after putting on a few good pounds.

All the aloe vera in the world could not help that skin.

The Ark! Don't look at it! --Indiana Jones.


The bag of bones I bought also came with a set of flimsy straight fingered hands that we're going to break, reshape, and put skin on. Replicating hands are tough no matter what medium your working with. Building off the foam skeletal hands gets us over the first hurdle to avoid bad appendage making which is getting the right proportions. Our minds are wired as such that you can nail 99% of the detail on a hand but if you make one finger just a little bit too long the human eye zooms right in on that 1% and breaks the illusion because "it just doesn't look right". Of course we've got some leeway here as rapid decay has set in.

The fun thing about making a zombie is that it doesn't have to be pretty (no really). By that I mean replicating human anatomy is difficult, and the point here is not to be perfect. You don't need to cleanly smooth the latex or get all the appendages "just right". If a hand looks a little off well that's because it's "rotting", "bloated", or "pieces of it are falling off".

I've reshaped the hand by breaking it at the joints and bending all the fingers so the hand is in gripping position. I've then glued foam and cotton to bulk up areas and added weather stripping to mimic tendons.

I know. It looks like a cross between Wolverine's hand, and some kid's bad history project on the Mummies of Egypt.

OK that whole thing I did with the foam, the tendons? Turned out to be a pretty big pain to cover convincingly with latex. So for the other hand we're going to try using rubber gloves and cotton. Given the way the glove stretches around the hand I've cut and shaped the gloves at the finger joints so it conforms better.

Excessive hand sanitizer use can lead to frightening repercussions.

Zombie paint job:

For the base coat I've got some gray and black spray paint. First I hose everything down with gray, then spray all of the cavities and areas where I need shade with black. This will provide a platform to do the rest of the painting.

Doesn't need to be pretty

From here we're going to do some detail work with acrylic paint.

  • I'll be laying down the darkest colors first: dark gray (skin), deep muddy green (mouth/teeth)

  • Then some accent colors: murky red (around the mouth, fingertips and eyes), light green (teeth), medium gray (bone)

  • Finally highlights: light gray (skin), pale yellowish brown (bone, teeth)
Go ahead channel your inner Bob Ross. Paint some happy little trees on your Zombie.

Does anybody else really need to yawn right now?

Spraying clear acrylic high gloss sealer on the finished paint job accomplishes two things. It protects the paint job while the shine of the gloss finish gives him that "still juicy" look. Most of these sealers claim to be "non-yellowing" but I've yet to encounter a sealant that doesn't bring a little yellow to the table. Maybe I'm using too much I don't know but in the case of building a gooey zombie a little sickly yellow is not necessarily a bad thing. I've also added a little hot glue to the chin and mouth area so he looks a bit drooly.

Eye'm too lazy to paint this:

Making realistic eyes that don't look like they came out of a gum ball machine requires skill, and I don't exactly have years of training under a glass eye maker. So because it's easier than painting an iris by hand we're going to go with mostly white "zombie crazy eye". I rolled a ball of plastic clay, baked it with the heat gun, painted it white with a little bit of pale blue for the iris, then coated it with a healthy amount of hot glue to give it that milky but still glossy look. It's basically a shiny ping-pong ball popped into the socket.

Sloth love Chunk! -Goonies

Zombie + Mullet = Zomblet:

I'm taking clumps of hair from an old costume wig and gluing them to the zombie head. The cheap 100% polyester fiber wig here is working great because the heat of the glue gun really fuses the hair to the head. Once enough hair is on I've used the heat gun to contour/sculpt it. The heat causes the polyester fibers to shrink a bit, yellow slightly, and fuse some of the hair strands together to make it look mangy as well as more manageable.

Lather...rinse...scorch with a hot glue gun

Mr Z's Sunday best:

Now that we've got all the pieces in place lets dress Mr Z up a bit.

I went to a thrift store and picked up a $6 dollar suit (one of the few that didn't look like it came off the body of a used car salesman). There I also found one of the world's ugliest ties. Finally I dug out an old white shirt from my closet that needs retiring.

Now we'll need to age the clothing so it looks like it's been in the ground for a while. I've distressed the cloth with sandpaper and a razor. Then we'll be soaking the whole mess in a bucket of tea, coffee grinds, and anything else I can find that stains things. Later I'll be lightly spraying the suit with gray and black spray paint then gluing moss right to the fabric.

The tie is actually ugly enough as is. No aging or alterations necessary...

Does polyester even decompose? Leisure Suits must be indestructible. When archeologists dig us up in a few thousand years only clothing from the 70's will be left and they'll believe we were once a great culture of disco dancers.

Poultry netting:

I know what you're thinking. Ok you lost me. What does keeping chickens and farm animals neatly in their pens have to do with this zombie project? You're just making this stuff up now.

Since the torso and arms will be mostly covered by clothing there's no sense in trying to mold the rest of the body with foam and latex. Also my belly button sculpting skills are rusty.

The fencing material is cheap, available at most home goods stores, and goes by a variety of names (diamond lathe, chicken wire, garden netting, poultry mesh etc). It's sturdy, used in construction, and sculptures frequently use the material as an armature.

I've rolled it into a large cylinder to make a torso and attach smaller cylinders to create arms. You could also try and fill out the zombie with trash bags and/or old pillow cases stuffed with leaves, but I don't want a floppy biodegradable zombie. This way it's repositionable and the arms have enough structure to extend outward. The frame is rigid enough that you could also build a full blown standing/staggering zombie with this if you wanted to.

You really need to bust out the thick leather gloves to work with this stuff though as cutting, shaping, and rolling the metal can make some sharp edges.

I'm also piecing this all together with some metal wire. It's like sewing...only with aluminum.


Once the fencing is completely clothed I've attached the hands with glue and wire. The head is connected to the neck with a wooden dowel. Another piece of the dowel extends below the neck essentially creating a head on a stick. The head on a stick is placed into the ground through the center of the suit/body.

Finishing touches involve covering the area of lawn with leaves, moss and debris. I picked up a foam tombstone and even a black rose boutineer for Mr. Z's lapel.


I'll rise but I refuse to shine...

You call this a tie?! Get over here!


I found Halloween decorations of this nature varied in cost and quality ranging from: a "meh" rubbery $30 zombie, to a decent looking $100 resin statue, to the full blown $250+ all out bells and whistles animatronic moaning and groaning monstrosity. I even found one with "fog spewing action". Now all they need is zombie kung fu grip. Since my creation doesn't have any motors moving it around (yet) I'd compare the quality of my creation to a decent $100+ model at around half the price.

To be honest I spent more than I expected to on this project but I'm subsidizing most of the cost in the name of building up my workshop. So things like paint and liquid latex will come in handy for future projects as well.

Acrylic painting supplies can add up but if you're good at blending colors you can save yourself some dough. I stuck with the bargain bag painting brushes, a 12 color acrylic starter kit, and a big tube of titanium white. Acrylics blend well so buy the tiny tubes of basic color to mix with, and add volume with the titanium white.

Future ideas:

Next year's project might be a dragon head I'll attach to the porch so it looks like I've got a whole dragon trapped underneath the deck (maybe hook it up to a fog machine for added effect). Either that or a giant Plesiosaurus head/lake monster that I can some how rig to spew water as part of one of my fountains.

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