Craig Feldman’s career as a living actor spanned nearly 30 years. He’s done most of his work, however, since becoming undead. In these excerpts from his new memoir, My Death in Pictures: A Zombie’s Eye-Socket View of Hollywood, Feldman focuses on the years he’s spent typecast as a zombie, within a system that often seems less concerned with talent than with outward—not innards—beauty.
I Walked With a Zombie(1943): Death can be a hindrance for any working actor: The greatest actor of his generation can quickly turn into the most disappointing actor of his decomposition. But I decided that my passing would make me all the more aggressive careerwise. While that aggression has occasionally terrified casting agents, I’ve also reaped (no pun intended) the benefits. Sure, other undead performers may turn up the holes where their nose used to be at the idea of appearing in a “zombie” movie (some say it’s akin to the old vaudeville practice of appearing in “deadface”), but when I heard they were looking for someone to star in I Walked With a Zombie, I was first in line.
Turns out the movie wasn’t looking for “rot-n-bite” zombies but the traditional voodoo kind, which wasn’t part of my training. Still, the assistant director turned out to be a cousin of mine, and he got me work doubling for a shrunken head. For me, this was just a gateway for real zom-jobs to follow.
Night of the Living Dead(1968): I’ve got such a love-hate thing for George Romero. I mean, the guy basically gave me a career. There wouldn’t even be a market for zombie-American actors if not for George. We’d all be stuck playing corpses on Law and Order (and even those gigs are routinely stolen by the living). Still, it’s not like the guy writes us challenging parts. “Grunt. Moan. Grunt. Chew.” That’s an actual page from my script.
Romero also spread the rumor that we can get put down by a shot to the head. Now every movie I book wants me to do the headshot gag. I don’t care if you’re dead or living: That hurts. It hurts, and it’s hard to cover with makeup. My face is more roofing caulk than skin at this point.
Plus, does he have to shoot all of his stuff in Pittsburgh? I’ll tell you something—I’ve been dead, and I’ve been to Pittsburgh. I prefer dead.
Dawn of the Dead(1978): Almost every actor I know has one movie they can’t remember making, whether it’s due to drugs, depression, or alcohol. This one’s mine. Back in the ‘60s I did a series of TV spots for Don the Beachcomber, during the tiki bar craze. You know, “Take it from a zombie, Don mixes the best zombie cocktails in town”—that sort of thing. By the ‘70s, I had a full-blown drinking problem. Being dead didn’t help. It takes an awful long time for alcohol to oxidize if you don’t breathe. Plus, my liver fell out some years back, so I could take a shot and it’d stay in my system for weeks.
Anyway, I wish I could remember this one. Fans consider it a classic. I just watch and know it isn’t dead muscle tissue making me lurch like that.
Zombi 2(1979):Happy Days gave us the phrase “jump the shark,” but at least Fonzie never challenged a shark to a fistfight. Yeah, that was me in the famous “zombie vs. shark” scene. Thank god it was shot underwater, so you can’t see me trying not to laugh.
This may have been the nadir of my career as a serious zombie actor, but at least I got to go to Italy. The craft services were incredible—wonderful fresh pasta and cannoli for the living actors, brains rubbed with fresh olive oil and sea salt for me. Molto bene!
28 Days Later(2002): Danny Boyle tried to bypass SZAG (the Screen Zombie Actors Guild) by claiming that his zombies were actually living humans infected with the “rage virus,” but thanks to our strategic alliances with other trade unions (in addition to the ever-present threat of flesh-eating), we were able to force him to employ zombie performers. I almost wish we hadn’t. By then, I was far from a newly dead, and the vogue for fast-moving zombies took its toll—one take of running is enough to snap every remaining tendon in a seasoned zombie’s body.
Plastic surgery may be common in Hollywood, but it’s an absolute necessity for a working zombie. If you’re ever playing the which-zombie-has-had-work-done game, I’ll save you the trouble—it’s all of them.
The Walking Dead(2010): If you’d asked me, back when I started acting, if I’d ever do television, I’d have said no way. But, look … you get older. Suddenly you find a one-room coffin isn’t enough for you, and you start looking at sarcophagi. Your children’s children start having children—that’s the problem with being undead, your offspring expand exponentially, and each new generation expects to go to college. Sometimes, you need the job security of a day-in, day-out gig, and you could do worse than a prestige project for AMC.
Does it get tiring? Sure. Sometimes I just want to lie down and rest my weary bones. But can I complain? No. It’s a good life.
Or it was.