An interview with John Vulich

Interviewer: How did you first get involved in this project?

John: The scripts for both of the films were written by a very close childhood friend of mine, William Butler. He had gotten be to friends with the Producer of the original film, Tom Fox, who also produced Bill’s directorial debut “Madhouse”, which I created the make-up effects for. At the time, Bill was hoping to direct the pictures so he was always talking to me about being “on board” to helm the effects since we had such a great time working together on “Madhouse”. So, I was actually there from the very start and even helped Bill bounce around some ideas early on in the writing process.

When Anatoly Fradis got involved as Producer, Bill and Tom made sure that I was introduced to Anatoly as a potential Make-up Effects Supervisor. I also think that Director Stuart Gordon had met with Anatoly and apparently raved about my work, which I guess helped clinch the deal… thanks Stuart!

I: What attracted you to it?

J: One of the very first films I ever worked on was George Romero’s “Day of the Dead”. I was a huge fan of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” so when I heard that he was planning another sequel, I was determined to get involved. I managed to get a job with Tom Savini on “Friday the 13th: Part 4” and expressed my interest in working on “Day of the Dead”. Tom seemed to be impressed by my work and when production began on the film, he hired me on as part of his crew. Later, when Tom made his feature film debut on the remake of “Night of the Living Dead”, he and George chose me, and my former partner Everett Burrell, to create the make-up effects for that project.

I guess that with the current resurgence in Zombie films and feeling a strong affinity with the subject matter, based upon my previous experiences working on the Romero films, that I probably would have felt left out if I couldn’t somehow get involved … that, and I’m just plain a big fan of the genre myself.

I: You’ve created a variety of looks for so many projects, how do you keep them looking different and unique?

J: It all starts with the script. Each film has a different tone and personality. One of the first things I do, when reading a script, is to try and pay close attention and get a good sense of what design aesthetic would properly suite the film. It’s also important, in my opinion, to try to stay original, keep away from copying the work of others and avoid clichés of the genre. I also don’t like to repeat myself so I’m constantly thinking of ways to improve or change direction.

For instance, with the remake of “Night of the Living Dead”, we felt that what made the original film so frightening was the believability of the make-up. They looked like they were the next door neighbor, come back to life after some dreadful accident, not some creature from beyond the grave. We felt certain that this was one of the vital factors to the scariness of the original film. So we took a “less is more approach” and went for a very forensic style of design. Some of our crew even went so far as to so attend an autopsy for research… I opted out.

For “Return of the Living Dead: 4 & 5” it was pretty apparent, early on, that the films were meant to be campy and lurid so we went in almost the opposite direction. I also managed to amass an extremely talented crew and oddly enough, they had all been so tired of the “high tech” work that has been created over the last few years, that we all decided it was far more exciting to approach these films using “old school” techniques. This seemed to be the perfect direction since these films were more of a retro throwback to the style of the original film… and it was ultimately more fun, that way, since it pretty much became a make-up “free for all”.

I: How do you go about transforming ordinary actors into hideous zombies?


J: It depends on the character. Since we had to make-up hundreds of Zombies we created a tremendous amount of foam latex facial appliances, masks, gloves, wounds and complete body suits for this project. These were created making plaster casts of various performers and sculpting the desired features, on these casts, in clay. A mold is then made of the sculpture and foam latex is injected into the molds and then baked.

If we were doing a featured Zombie we might glue a full face on him and maybe apply a few separate wounds for variety since we recycled a lot of the faces. This is generally a 2-3 hour process that starts with gluing on the appliance, with surgical adhesives, and using various paints and make-up for coloring. Often times we use hand made wigs if the character warrants it. For final touches we sloppily “dress” the wounds with blood made from corn syrup… my favorite part.

For background characters we might just glue on a few simple wounds or perhaps use a mask since they aren’t meant to be seen very close-up.

Sometimes we would take a very “low tech” approach and used various materials like gelatine, surgical grade silicone and liquid latex to build up features and textures on the performers faces. There was also a lot of experimentation that went on with mixing and matching different materials and techniques. After doing a few hundred Zombies' make-up this really helped us avoid any potential boredom.

I: What were the main challenges on this production?


J: Because of the short production schedule we really didn’t have very much time to prepare for the film so time was always a precious and elusive commodity. This of course put a lot of pressure on all of us to get prepared and keep organized.

Working in Romania also presented certain challenges since the film crews there have a different approach and methodology. Mike Measimer, who was on my crew, and I had already worked in Romania on Bill Butler’s “Madhouse” so we knew a bit of what to expect and prepared accordingly. Apparently this sort of film was quite a new experience for them and I got the impression that it was one of the bigger effects oriented films ever produced there. Subsequently, we had to spend, what little time we had, in training the performers and make-up crew in the grammar (so to speak) of Zombie movies. Luckily there are many extremely talented artists working there so it didn’t take too long to get them used to the style of film that we were making.

I: Do have a particular favourite scene in either of the films?


J: Yeah… the Zombie Possum.

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