In a nondescript business park on the outskirts of Atlanta, amidst industrial food warehouses and office furniture distributors, horror is happening.
One of the hangar-like warehouses has been converted into the set of Creepshow, an anthology series based on the iconic 1982 movie coming to horror-focused streaming service Shudder on Sept. 26. The first season consists of six episodes with two short films in each. Evidence of the horror that's been produced and is still to come is strewn all over the building. A 15-foot-long foam aquatic monster named Champy, who will star in a segment called "By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain," lays on the floor of one room, awaiting a paint job. In another, a storage closet overflows with severed heads and other body parts. Another room is covered in a thick, sticky coating of fake blood, because a "blood cannon" was used in there for the climactic scene of a segment called "Skincrawlers." There are about a half-dozen sets in the studio. A few days before, these sets were something else, and a few days later they'll be something else again, because all 12 of Creepshow's segments are being filmed here. Space and time is tight. The production is shooting at a breakneck pace where they're basically making one short film every three and a half days.
On the day in late March that reporters visited the set of Shudder's first original series, showrunner Greg Nicotero was directing a segment called "Gray Matter," which will serve as one half of the series premiere. Written by Byron Willinger and Philip di Blasi, it's an adaptation of a 1973 short story by Stephen King included in Night Shift, his very first short story collection. "Gray Matter" tells the story of a man named Richie who's transformed into a monster by drinking contaminated beer. His fate is discovered by his friends Chief (Saw's Tobin Bell) and Doc (Giancarlo Esposito) when they go to check on him during a storm. That's the scene Nicotero and crew are prepping to shoot as reporters arrive.
The atmosphere on the set of Rich's apartment is unnervingly eerie. The room is strewn with beer cans, newspapers, and the skeletons of animals he caught and ate. His recliner is caked in tarry, a moldy black filth. Real Spanish moss that had been installed yesterday hangs from the ceiling. "Before it looked like a frat party," says onset dresser Eric Brown. "Now it's like the Upside Down from Stranger Things." During filming later that night, the room is pumped full of fog to make it extra-spooky. The room has a pungent funk, a sort of rotting vegetable smell, as if a monster really does live there.
On the show, the room will be lit mostly by flashlight as Chief and Doc enter and discover the monster. The monster was built by Nicotero's KNB SFX Group, and it's a big, gross, gray-blue, slimy creature that glistens in the darkness and is operated by a person inside of it. When the monster arrives on set, one of Nicotero's SFX makeup deputies Gino Crognale is leading him by the hand because he can't see very well, which is a delightfully jarring juxtaposition of revulsion and tenderness. Everything on the set feels real, because it is real. In keeping with the spirit of the original Creepshow, all of the effects are as practical as possible. In a later interview, Nicotero said that the best compliment he got during production came from Giancarlo Esposito that night. "Giancarlo said when he walked on set for "Gray Matter" into Richie's apartment, 'It didn't take much for me to get to where I needed to be emotionally because I felt like I had walked into just the weirdest place I had ever been,'" Nicotero said. In an age when so many things are shot in front of greenscreens and actors have to imagine the ball on a stick they're talking to is some kind of living being, the immersive authenticity of Creepshow is especially exciting and fun.
Creepshow is Nicotero's first time working as a showrunner. He's worked in special effects makeup for over 30 years, and rose to prominence as a director and producer on The Walking Dead, but this is his first time being in charge of an entire production. "I've been in the business since 1988 so I love the idea that I'm still learning, and I'm still evolving as a filmmaker," he said. He feels a "tremendous obligation" to the material the show is adapting; which includes stories from writers like Josh Malerman and Joe R. Lansdale, and also to the material he developed with up-and-coming writers and directors like Roxane Benjamin, who directed "Skincrawlers" and a segment called "Lydia Layne's Better Half" (written by Nicotero and original Creepshow 1st assistant director John Harrison), as well as to the original Creepshow, which was written by Stephen King and directed by an equally iconic horror maestro, George Romero.
The series is packed with nods to the movie, which has special significance to Nicotero, as one of the earliest jobs in his illustrious career as a makeup effects artist was on Creepshow 2, assisting equally legendary effects artist Tom Savini, who's directing "By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain," which is based on a story by King's son Joe Hill, who acted in the original Creepshow. Adrienne Barbeau, who appeared in the notorious Creepshow installment "The Crate," is returning for "Gray Matter," playing the owner of the convenience store where she and Chief and Doc learn about what's happening to the man from his son. And a "traveling ashtray" that was used as a murder weapon in Creepshow's first segment "Father's Day" (and appeared in the rest of the movie's segments) will pop up in each of the series' segments, too.
Since "Gray Matter" is the series' requisite King adaptation, it's additionally loaded up with Stephen King Easter eggs. "I think we have more Stephen King references in this episode than Castle Rock had in its whole season," brags property master Lucas Godfrey, who was responsible for the props of King's things. There are over 50 little King references in the episode, including the skeletons of Church the cat from Pet Sematary and Mr. Jingles the mouse from The Green Mile among the carcasses. The bodies of two girls who look a lot like the twins from The Shining are in his bathtub. A toy replica of Christine is tucked away amidst the accumulated filth on the kitchen table — not far from the ashtray, which Nicotero proudly points out while giving us a tour of the set. And the man-slowly-turning-into-a-monster-amidst-vegetation has a distinct "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" vibe, the segment of the original Creepshow in which King starred.
And there's an Easter egg for The Walking Dead fans, too: Chief, the cop played by Tobin Bell, works for the King County Sheriff's Department, just like Rick Grimes. Greg Nicotero would never pass up an opportunity to pay homage.
Creepshow premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 on Shudder. New episodes drop weekly through Halloween.