MINOR SPOILER ALERT: Do not read any further if you don't want to know anything at all about the next episode of "The Walking Dead."
I think about zombies a lot.
Ever since age 6, when I white-knuckled my safety blanket while watching a nighttime broadcast of George Romero’s iconic film “Night of the Living Dead,” reanimated corpses have been shambling around the darker parts of my consciousness. Every time I hear a police siren wailing in the distance, some small corner of my mind jumps to “zombie apocalypse!”
One sunny afternoon in downtown Atlanta, my phone started buzzing on my desk.
“Is this Michael?” a hurried male voice asked when I picked up, tearing breakneck through his syllables at a rapid staccato. “I’m calling from casting for AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.’ We’re filming tonight in central Georgia and we’re wondering if you’d like to come down and be a zombie extra in two scenes.”
A few months previous, I had filled out an online casting call forwarded to me by a friend. They were asking for very thin people to work as extras, playing the titular shambling ghouls in Season 2 of the show. As my friend joked in the email, I was perfect for it, since my body type most closely resembles that of a particularly gaunt scarecrow. (It was later explained to me by the costume director that putting thin people in regular clothes makes the best zombies, giving them shrunken and emaciated look.)
This was it: My chance to take a defining pop-culture obsession of mine and become an active participant. Hell yes, of course I was going to drive an hour and a half to central Georgia and work until 3 am, even thought I had to be at work the next day at 7.
I pulled into the parking lot of Newnan High School later that afternoon, and spent about 15 minutes navigating the exterior of the building, weaving through a maze of trailers and parked cars, trying to find my way to the holding room for extras. When I arrived, I was given some torn and dirty clothes, and got into costume.
“Oh, shoot,” the costume director said when I returned from the changing room. We’re supposed to give you a run-through of our ‘How to be a zombie’ guide, but I can’t find it.” I laughed to myself, and then launched into an unprompted explanation of the differences between fast zombies and slow zombies, and how they represent different secular sublimations of the breakdown of society.
Somewhere in the middle of this rambling dissertation (I think it was when I actually used the words ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Hobbesian’ when talking about the signifiers of fast zombies), she held her hand up with a quiet smile and told me to go the makeup trailer.
Fifteen minutes later I was fully zombified, pale gray makeup caked on my skin, blood spatters and wounds artfully arranged all over my face. They even gave me a yellowing fluid to make my teeth gruesome. When the makeup artist swiveled the salon chair around so I could look in the mirror, I jumped out of my chair – there’s a very good reason this show won an Emmy for outstanding prosthetic makeup.
All of the zombie extras were then told to congregate outside, and were shepherded into one of the school’s hallways, which had been trashed enough to look decidedly post-apocalyptic. White tungsten light blasted out of open classroom doors, making our throng of would-be walking corpses even more ghoulish and sinister. Fliers on ‘the infection’ littered the floor, detailing the efforts of this school-turned-FEMA-camp to fight a mysterious plague.
In a series of takes, we chased two of the main characters down the hallway as they clutched satchels of needed medical supplies. They hightailed it towards the exit, and we shambled after them, always just a few steps out of reach of our yellowed and grasping fingers. Rinse and repeat for a few hours, until we finished and were deposited on a sidewalk outside in the cool summer night, waiting for the next scene to start rolling.
We all felt free to indulge in this moment of quiet camaraderie, as zombie fanatics and would-be actors shared cigarettes and bon mots about their favorite zombie movies. One knot of ghouls got into a heated debate about how Europeans have taken a different tack on the zombie, vis-à-vis Jaume Balaguero’s excellent “[REC]” and Danny Boyle’s genre-defining “28 Days Later.”
I suddenly didn’t feel as bad about my earlier diatribe to the costume director. I was among friends – people who geeked out about this stuff as much as I did. (Or moreso, in quite a few cases.)
For the second scene we filmed that night, we tromped around the school to a “Friday Night Lights”-style football field lit by gigantic floodlights. Another chase scene ensued, and we were all instructed by the director to think of the character we were pursuing as “like a pigskin, but a pigskin filled with BRAINS!”
There are very un-glamorous parts about being an extra: Long periods spent standing around waiting for something to happen, the pay isn’t much to speak of, and I was so tired and listless the next day from sleep deprivation that I played it off by telling people I was still method-acting as a living corpse.
Still, if I could send a message across space-time to myself at age six, I’d let myself know not to be quite so afraid. When the zombies eventually do take over, I’m going to be able to put that on my resume.