Over the years, Hollywood has used a number of ways to visually depict the undead on the silver screen.  Of course, creating the look of someone who is rotting obviously has to be a special effect.  The three methods used are actors and actresses in makeup, computer generated 3-D animation, or the use of puppetry.  Sometimes you’ll see a combination of all of the above.

But which method works best?  Which one is creepiest?  Which one is most convincing that the living dead are walking among us?

The cinema zombies you see most often are people in makeup.  It’s the easiest to do.  The pro is that you have actual people portraying actual people, so to a degree, there is a sense of realism.  The con is that you’re limited to trick makeup, which can give the illusion of boney cheekbones and sunken eye sockets, but you can’t exactly make it look like someone’s jaw fell off.  Not convincingly, anyway.

You see more CGI these days. While the sky is the limit in terms of the director’s imagination, current digital animation has its ups and downs, too.  On the positive, you can decay your zombies to the point where they are borderline skeletal.  Limbs can come and go, no problem.  On the negative, CGI often looks too perfect.  As a result, people can tell it’s fake, and what good is that?

What you don’t see as often is the use of puppetry. While this has limitations, it’s often a nice middle-ground between live action and CGI.  Puppetry is not living and breathing, but what you see on screen is real form with the same light and shadow as everything else.  Sam Raimi uses it effectively at times.  One of the coolest undead puppets I recall in recent years was in the movie HELLBOY, where the lead carried around half of a reanimated corpse on his back.

Which one is most convincing?

To each his own, but my vote goes to puppetry.  You haven’t seen as much of it, but I’d love to see more hands-on craftsmanship that goes into creating the living dead in films.  Traditional slight-of-hand still holds up better than CGI, in my humble opinion, though isn’t as cheap.

And it takes more time.

But don’t you want filmmakers to put more time and care into creating movies you’re spending your hard-earned dollars on?


  1. Mark Schwarz:

    CGI is not scary and ineffective in horror movies. Something about actors reacting to a threat via green screen takes away the “scare factor”. It worked on “Jurrasic Park”, but was a no-go in my opininon on “The Mummy”. I agree with the pupetry concept as well. Unfortunately, Hollywood keeps telling us that audiences are more ‘sophisticated’ and don’t fall for the suit anymore. Don’t expect to see CGI zombies in my movie!

  2. Christopher Mills:

    As special make-up fx supervisor for Silver Shamrock Lab, I often feel I am a part of a dying art. I always push for the practical first be, it an extreme prostheitc or a animatronic puppet. Though I will have to say that if you have a good artistic team and you are able to combine practical with CG you can acheive the realisism with no limits.

  3. flabbyface:

    I hate most CGI these days. WTF is with using CGI blood?! Seriously? – You can clearly tell it’s digital, seems like some actors these days are afraid to get wet and messy. I honestly don’t get it. I think CGI in a whole is a lot less scary and practical. I do fear for the future, as the last commenter stated, prop work and other fx is definitely a dying art.

  4. Mister Cantankerous:

    Well I’ll tell you what I think, I personally think you need a mix to pull it off in the best way possible. In my not so humble opinion, a combination of technical make-up and CGI make for the most realistic looking zombies. Or you can hire the real thing. I know quite a few zombies who will “work for brains”.

    Now you’re on your own.

    PS: Glad I found your blog, I look forward to promoting both your blog and your wonderful artwork.

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  6. rebeccamarie:

    In my person opinion, and experiences as a special effect makeup artist, the best method is extreme makeup artistry and a dash of CGI.

    For my makeup artists, see it as a finishing coat for the final product. IT adds that final dimension to the finished product without compromising or compensating the FX makeup in place. It isnt about which is better. its about how we can combine like knowledge and build a better industry.


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