How to Make a Zombie Costume That’s So Real, It’s Scary

Zombie costumes are the perennial Halloween favorite. They are accessible and rely on the creator’s imagination. But a convincing zombie costume can be deceptively difficult to construct. Here I’ll outline the steps required to take your zombie costume from standard to scary with a few helpful hints along the way.

1) Select the type of zombie you want to portray

What do you think of when you think “zombie”? Maybe it’s the sickeningly green skin, the rotting limbs, damaging clothing, vacant stares, a hobbling gait. The look of a zombie is unmistakeable.

Zombie classifications
But did you know there’s a whole world of zombie types to pick from? Like the plant and animal kingdoms, zombies have their own classifications.

Crawler zombies

Your typical, ambling zombie slowly crawling over the countryside. These types of zombies are harmless if humans keep their distance. But if you’re a zombie who likes to reside in close quarters like defunct hospital wards or city rubble (or even a packed Halloween party), this is the perfect costume for you. You might be slow, but you are just as deadly as the best of them.

As seen in: The Walking Dead

Rage zombies

These zombies can be characterized by blind aggression where the only brain function signals anger. If you’re feeling disaffected, disenfranchised, and a little ticked off, going in the guise of a rage zombie might be the cure. Popularized in the movie 28 Days Later, these zombies began as humans infected with the Rage Virus, an experiment that spiraled out of control.

Zombies from 28 DAYS LATER
Zombies from the movie 28 DAYS LATER. Yikes.
Unlike other zombies, their modus operandi is not to eat human flesh but to kill it or infect it. They run fast and furious, and display superhuman feats of strength.

As seen in: 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later

This is just the beginning. There are entire classes of zombies out in the media – crack open your favorite horror comic or movie to find the zombie you were meant to be.

2) Gather zombie clothing for the job

Note what makes one zombie different from another. Their ragged clothing is what will tell the observer about their origin story.

Are you a zombie that has died at war? You’ll need old combat gear, most likely easy to find at Army Surplus stores.

Are you a zombie that was hit with a virus while you were babysitting? A tongue-in-cheek ensemble of a baby bottle and a baby doll that has been through some rough going will get the point across with hilarious results.

My favorite twist: the zombie killer-turned-zombie. The Walking Dead’s Michonne makes zombie killing a work of art. But after nearly 100 zombie kills you’d think she’s bound to get attacked at some point. (Say it isn’t so!) Add your own creative flair to emulate Zombie Michonne. Or even Zombie Shaun, Zombie Gerry, or Zombie Alice.

Silent Hill nurses
Image: Niemti via Wikimedia Commons
The number-one rule to selecting zombie clothing is not to buy clothes you’re hoping to re-wear as a non-zombie. You’re going to destroy these things down to the seams, stain them with fake blood, and maybe get Halloween candy smeared on them at a party. There’s no returning these threads from whence they came.

Cheap zombie clothing

Here are a few resources for scoring zombie clothing on the cheap:

Second-hand thrift shops like Value Village. (Hint: avoid the new Halloween costumes because they’re typically regular-priced. Looked at the used clothing only.) Don’t forget to look for your local independently-owned thrift shop, too! These often support nonprofit causes, too, so you can get a karma boost while buying.

Community clothing swaps. Your neighbor’s trash might be your treasure. Search Facebook for a local neighborhood group or even a Buy Nothing group.

Cheap zombie costumes
Image: Janne Hellsten via Flickr
Your own closet. No, seriously. It’s a trove of things you’re no longer interest in and can repurpose. I have a few martial arts uniforms I no longer use that, while were pricey to buy, would make some sweet zombie fodder.

Now that you’ve got your base, let’s discuss the fine art of destroying clothing.

3) Create zombie clothing

Creating a convincing zombie costume requires more finesse than you might expect. Sure, you can just cut holes into the clothes and run them through a mud puddle, but then you’re going to look like you just got run over on your bike ride to work.

No. Zombies scare the living daylights out of people, not simply make them worried that you’re feeling okay. The sky’s the limit on what you can do to bring your zombie to life. Just remember: too little detail and people will mistake you for an average joe. Too much detail and… okay, you really can’t have TOO much detail. That’s like saying you can have too much awesome. Impossible.

Giving the effect of wear and tear

Rips and tears

Zombies are constantly catching themselves on things because, well, they’re only concerned about finding brains and not self-preservation.

Consider the types of tears your zombie would experience: if you were a zookeeper, perhaps you’d have long gashes across your shirt from being attacked by tigers. If your zombie was a convict, it was probably catching itself on broken chain link fencing and barbed wire. Those would be smaller punctures and shorter gashes.

Burning and searing

Not reserved to meal preparation, burning and searing can give the effect of your zombie having barely survived a fire.

EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION: only attempt burning and searing non-flammable clothing, try this in an open area away from flammable surfaces, and keep water or even a fire extinguisher around. (And if you’re a minor, have an adult do this for you.)

Distressed fabric

This one is the most fun and the least dangerous. Learn the quality of your fabric and how you could make it look aged and worn.

An easy example is nylons: these can easily be torn to add holes and nylon runs just by scratching and pulling at them. Tougher fabrics like jeans also have fantastic wearing qualities. Rub a rough surface against patches of the fabric using tools such as a sharp-edged rock or large-grained sandpaper.

Adding dirt and grime

Dirt and grease

The obvious and cheapest solution is to walk out into your backyard and roll your clothes in the dirt. Find a particularly muddy area and rub dirt into the fabric as if you’re trying to get out a stain. Let the mud dry on the clothing over at least two days before washing.

When washing, do so on a light cycle to retain as much dirt stain as possible. You can also try theatrical dirt effect products, even if you’re doubling it up as makeup.

Rotting

Everyone’s familiar with tearing clothing and blood. One of the least-appreciated techniques of zombie art is adding the effect of rotted clothing. Wandering the countryside in sweltering heat and humid conditions will make most fabrics rot away over time. Splashes of brown- and green-colored hairspray can achieve the illusion of mould.

You can also try dull-colored acrylic paint splatters but this might not achieve the impression of ingrained mould spores.

Blood and other bodily excretions

Fake blood

The essential part of any zombie costume! You can make your blood on the cheap by combining corn syrup, red food coloring, and chocolate syrup. However, this works best for staining as it does not dry completely and can create a mess.

You can also experiment with Kool-Aid as any child of the ‘80s knows this fake juice stains terribly. Kool-Aid comes in a variety of colors, so experiment with other types of stains!

Bloody clothing in sink
<font=”1px”>Photo Credit: jamelah via Compfight cc
Theatrical blood can be purchased at a reasonable price. However, know that theatrical blood won’t always dry if applied thick: it’s often intended to appear as fresh. Save your “fresh blood” appearance for your makeup and keep the blood on your clothes dry. Trust me.

Achieving the right bloody mess

The type of blood spatter tells a story about what your zombie has been through. In most cases, a few dabs of finger-applied blood won’t cut it. And you’ll always overestimate how awesome your blood placement looks when you’re up close to the fabric. (Trust me, friends. I know this from personal experience.)

Blood on zombie clothing
Be sure to take frequent breaks to step away from the fabric and consider its appearance from all angles. Focusing blood in one area might not look convincing unless it’s a very large spread of blood. When you think you’ve put enough blood on, that’s the time to put more blood on that mess. Your observers will most likely be seeing you at a distance and probably in the dark. More blood =  more visible.

Consider different tools to make the blood splatter look natural. Hands are fine if bloody hands were smeared against your zombie. But for gunshot spatter, use a wiry and airy sponge that will leave “splotches” of blood. If you need a diagonal splash of blood, take a wood stick, dip it into a generous amount of your fake blood, and whip it across the fabric. Use the leftover blood to smear in strategic areas.

4) Applying special effects zombie makeup

So your work-of-art clothing is complete! Finish off the effect by applying makeup–otherwise you’re just going to look like someone who fights zombies. No. You want to become the zombie.

Zombie makeup blood and dirt

Many of the techniques I discussed on applying dirt and blood to clothing apply to makeup, as well. However, dirt will probably not be real and blood will likely be looking a little fresher.

Zombie face blood
Consider applying blood with a Q-Tip instead of fingers for more precision. (You also won’t leave trails of fingerprints, which is likely not the result you’re looking for.) That airy, wiry sponge would work great here, as well, to give the impression of spatter.

Try to keep blood localized to areas where you will apply fake wound effects. Blood spread everywhere can detract from the biggest statements on your face.

Create dirt and grime effects with matte eyeshadow and grease paint. These can be purchased on the cheap and give a convincing effect.

Zombie flesh effects

Zombies are pretty gross: open wounds, rotting flesh peeling off the face, exposed bone. You get the idea.

It’s no requirement but if you want to take your zombie to the next level of gross, zombie flesh effects are a must. Liquid latex can create all sorts of gross effects, from wrinkly skin to zombie bites to bug-infested wounds.

Zombie bite fx
Image: InLoveWithThePhantom via DeviantArt
Liquid latex might be a little too much work for most. If that’s you, pass it over for one of many easy-to-buy-and-apply effects. Colored contact lens such as red or green can make you look extra dead. Pre-made latex effects might take a little patience to apply and add extra blood to bring it to life, but these are the makings of a very disturbing and convincing zombie costume.

 

There you have it! Review your reference material from the first step to understand how your zombie moves and attacks. This will make innocent bystanders believe you stepped right out of a virus-infested world.
Which zombie costume is on your mind?

About Lauren Hall-Stigerts

Lauren is a lifelong gaming fan. She expresses her love of strong female pop-culture characters by costuming at conventions. Lauren's a sucker for a game with a great story. Internet marketing consulting keeps her busy the rest of the time. Find more of her shenanigans on Twitter @hallstigerts and Google+!