North Olmsted’s Tony Gardner gives life to the living dead in ‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ with makeup and effects

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Zombie apocalypse movies always seem to start somewhere in rural America. Someone gets infected, someone gets bitten and presto! Global gore.

For Tony Gardner, who created the zombies in the current “Zombieland: Double Tap” and its 2009 predecessor, “Zombieland,” “rural America” was North Olmsted.

“I’ve always been involved in making films,” said Gardner in a call to his special effects company Alterian Studios in Irwindale, California, outside Los Angeles. “A bunch of us in the [North Olmsted] neighborhood would make movies almost every weekend just for fun.

“They were usually effects-type films, with stop-motion or creatures or makeup or something in them,” he said. “Something that was perceived as weird stuff back then. It was not a career choice in Ohio back in the ’80s.”

It is now.

During his career, which began working with seven-time Academy Award winner Rick Baker during the making of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, he’s done the effects makeup for “Shallow Hal,” “127 Hours,” “Cult of Chucky,” “Bad Grandpa,” “Return of the Living Dead,” “Addams Family Values,” “Hocus Focus” and more, as well as music videos for Daft Punk and the Foo Fighters.

“I’m responsible for the design of the creature or character for a film and the development of the character and testing of it,” Gardner said in explaining the responsibilities he holds as head of a makeup effects department and makeup designer, posts he held on the new “Zombieland” movie.

Tony Gardner

Makeup and effects designer Tony Gardner works on a zombie-to-be in the original “Zombieland,” back in 2009. Gardner reprised his role as head of makeup effects and design in the sequel out this Friday, “Zombieland: Double Tap,” as well as scores of other horror-type films and even a Foo Fighters video.Alterian, Inc.

But he’s one of those hands-on bosses, too. On the set of “Zombieland” and other films, he’s one of the artists applying the makeup and prostheses, the fake blood, the gore, all the fun stuff.

“The highest count on any given day was about 350,” Gardner said, when asked how many zombies he and his crew had to “do.” That volume came during crowd scenes, which featured various zombies and stunt zombies. “We spent two weeks doing all the crowd stuff. We had to bring in an extra dozen makeup artists to get all those scenes. The makeup department grew to 28 people.”

Then there’s the challenge in this film of people either becoming zombies, or seeming to. (Warning: Spoiler alert!)

“With Madison [actress Zoey Deutch’s vacuous blond character], there were very specific points where she changes her look,” Gardner said. “The day was scheduled around them stopping [filming] and giving us an hour to add swollen eye bags and a swollen upper lip.

“But with Flagstaff and Albuquerque [two hilarious doppelganger characters for film stars Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus and Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee], it took two days,” he said. “The stunt doubles had to change as well. It was kind of ‘let’s stop, let’s go’ because they tried to shoot in continuity order as much as possible.”

So, for a guy who loves Halloween and gets paid to create costumes, makeup and effects that scare the pants off the rest of us, what scares Gardner?

“It’s funny because the things that scare us are the weirdest things,” said Gardner, who once was investigated because one of his effects — a bullet traveling through a body in the George Clooney film “Three Kings” — looked so real that authorities feared he’d used the body of a real homeless man.

“We had a body of a character for show and the question has always been storage [at his shop],” he said, which prompted an interesting solution.

“We strapped it to a rolling office chair, so it looks like it’s sitting up, and everybody just moves it out of their way and rolls the chair over to someone else’s table,” he said. “At the end of the night, when you’re getting ready to lock up, you look up and somebody’s sitting in a chair staring at you.

“We have severed heads of different people and use them as actors in shows,” Gardner said. “We’re kind of blase about the whole dismembered body-parts thing.”

You might think that would be a weird environment for kids, and in some ways, you’re probably right. But Gardner’s three children have embraced it, both as occasional performers — eldest daughter Brianna and youngest daughter Kyra were both zombies in this latest movie, and played the same character at different ages in a Daft Punk music video — and in their own career choices.

His son Austin is a medical student and is working toward his doctorate in forensic pathology and forensic anthropology.

By the way, Gardner has a bit of an unusual twist on the old “take your daughter to work day”:

“I’ve got Brianna’s [severed] head from the Netflix series ‘The Mist’ mounted on the wall in our sculpting room as a reference tool,” he said.

Have to wonder if Foo Fighters founder and frontman Dave Grohl saw that before signing up for Alterian to do the makeup for the band’s video “Run,” in which all the musicians were made up to look like Methuselah’s ancestors. If so, it probably would have been the deal clincher.

“Doing the Foo Fighters video, Dave Grohl and the others were so excited to be able to play in the prosthetics we did for them that they were disappointed when it was over,” Gardner said.

Grohl directed the video, and did it in character, even.

“Dave wore his old man makeup from early in the morning till the end of the day,” he said, and in an odd way, it apparently made it easier for others to take direction from such a “senior” character.

So that leaves one challenge for Gardner, who lives to do the difficult: Do the makeup for a video for Rock & Roll Hall of Famers the Zombies. Hey, he’s got the resume.

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