SHOWN AT FRIGHTFEST 2012
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the late 1970’s, a teenage boy was on holiday with his parents in Rome. A massive horror and monster fan, he discovered that sitting at the table next to him was none other than George Romero. Romero told him some incredibly exciting news; that he was going to shoot a belated follow-up to his groundbreaking zombie classic Night Of The Living Dead, entitled Dawn Of The Dead, and not only that but that the boy could go and see it being filmed in Pittsburgh. Several years later, with the boy now 21 years of age having become crazy about makeup effects and even having done some stuff with mates at home, he received an invite from Romero; to help the legend that was Tom Savini with the special effects on a third zombie picture, Day Of The Dead, that he was about to shoot. The 21 year old went to work and never looked back since, his work on the Romero pic beginning a very successful career in makeup effects which is still going strong.
This rather inspiring little tale is one of several in Nightmare Factory, a riveting documentary about Greg Nicotero and the company KBB EFX he set up with Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman which for some time now has been one of the most respected, innovative and used special effects companies around. You may not recognise the names of these guys or even the company, but you’ll certainly recognise the names of titles they have worked on; Scream, The Time Machine, Dances With Wolves, The Chronicles Of Narnia, Piranha, The Grey, Misery, The Walking Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, virtually every Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movie…..the list is endless. From family blockbusters to gory slashers, they have done it all, though of course the emphasis in Nightmare Factory is on the more gruesome side of KNB’s work, and I should say right here that it doesn’t stint on the gore, with lots of clips which are of a graphic nature, though of course the fact that they are used somewhat out of their usual context makes them rather less shocking. Not one for the kiddies though……
The documentary takes you into the lives of Nicotero, Berger, and Kurtzman, with particular emphasis on Nicotero. They tell of how they fell in love with monster movies as children, their early successes and how they ended up setting up KNB. Intercut with this are snippets from the likes of Romero, John Carpenter and John Landis and lots of fascinating behind the scenes footage. The bits which I enjoyed best are segments in the KNB headquarters where the camera pans around and we can both catch brief glimpses of both familiar and unfamiliar creations and hear bits of conversations which sound surreal if you don’t know where you are. At one point Elijah Wood comes in and is told that his head [from Sin City] is still around somewhere. This all may have been deliberately staged but it has a great random feel and you get some idea of the crazy but fertile environment in which these people work.
Nicotero has been documenting his work since Evil Dead 2, so the behind the scenes film material is gold dust too, with us being shown how key scenes from certain films are done. There was a little too much emphasis on Tarantino’s films for my liking, but like it or not [I stopped being a fan of his over a decade ago] he is still a high-profile filmmaker and his enthusiasm for and admiration of KNB’s work is great to see. By contrast, Carpenter [who is represented by Ghosts Of Mars, not automatically a movie you would expect to see lots of cool behind the scenes from but very welcome!], jokingly moans about how long the effects guys take in doing stuff and how they sometimes hold up shooting! Of course there’s quite a bit of emphasis from The Walking Dead, a series which didn’t exactly “wow” me but loved watching the behind the scenes bits of on here anyway. I adore this kind of stuff, whether I like the actual film or programme or not, and my only complaint is that the bits are all too short and I wanted more! I suppose I could have also done with being shown more of how certain things are done in the world of special effects; we are shown how a typical bullet hit is done and I wanted more of that nature, but there’s only so much you can fit into 90 minutes though isn’t there?
A certain sadness comes over the documentary in its later stages, with the raising of subjects that are close to my heart, such as the changing face of special effects. We are shown how old and new methods can work well together, but I agree entirely with what the guys say about CGI, which allows you to show anything, but takes away some of the creativity and excitement of practical effects , where people were more limited with what they could supposedly do. Even more important to me is the fact that the days when children were brought up on monsters, be it reading about them in magazines or watching late night horror movies, seem to be gone. The monsters have mostly changed into human menaces, the late night horror movies are rarely shown any more and kids, even if they are aware of them, just don’t have as much interest in things like The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man. I did not grow up to be a film director or a special effects whizz, but I personally will always remember those days when I was young and spent late nights illicitly watching Universal and Hammer Frankenstein and Dracula flicks with immense fondness, while also reading about all these other films that, one day, I would be old enough to see!
Nightmare Factory is perfectly paced; it’s never slow, but doesn’t fall into the trap of many modern documentaries which feel as if they are made for people with ADR. Though it isn’t so much the case with the other two [Kurtzman actually left KNB many years ago], we are certainly given a sense a real sense of Nicotero’s life. Maybe the whole point of the documentary is to “big him up”, but guys like Nicotero are often overlooked by people who will most likely praise the director, or the script, or the acting of a film they have just enjoyed but won’t think that some of their favourite scenes were mostly due to a couple of guys doing magic with things like latex and gelatine. Of course there are many fans who do notice these guy’s work and even revere the folk who have, in a sense, entertained them. My feeling is that, if you’re a real horror fan, Nightmare Factory is simply essential viewing.