Burning Zombie Dummy

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Imma eat yer braaaaains

Sean was asked by an independent film group to develop a "burning zombie" special effect for the next arc of their series Exile. Originally, they planned on setting one of the actors on fire. When no one volunteered for the task, they planned on strapping a bust to one of the actors and setting the bust on fire. This was deemed appropriate, until they asked Sean to do it, when he politely suggested that it would be better (for values of "better" equating to "infinitely safer") to build a dummy with articulating arms and some sort of "walking" motion.

Unofficial Video Official Trailer (small portion of the burning dummy can be seen at about the 0:46 mark) Exile, Arc 2 (The Family You Choose), Issue 2 (watch the entire series, or skip to the 10:45 mark to see the effect) Sean started with a simple sketch to feel out the details of what needed to be in the apparatus. PJ and his friend Bob helped with figuring out the technical details and labor of construction. The project came in three parts, the Cart, the Torso, and the Head.


Leonardo Da Zombie

The design for the dummy started out on paper. A few features were know right from the beginning.

  • Off-center wheels would make the cart wobble.
  • A handle on the back of the cart would make it easy to push while hiding behind the dummy out of camera view.
  • A spar would hold the torso upright.
  • The spar would be folding to allow for easy transport.
  • The torso would not be permanently fixed to the cart, for easier transport and for potential reuse of the cart.
  • Cables would control the arms.
  • The skull for the head would be based around a squash or melon.


Once construction started, most of the features fell in to place very easily. Originally, the face was planned to be formed from cardboard with modeling clay to smooth out the skin. Also, an articulating hand was planned. In the case of the face, a mask blank proved far more efficient. In the case of the hand, rubber gloves filled with foam gave a basic enough shape without needing to build a tedious hand.


The cart provided a handle for moving the dummy from a safe distance, a spar for holding the torso in the air, and off-center wheels for inducing a wobble motion that would make the dummy appear to move with a loping, shambling hobble.


The torso was a basic form for holding shape in the shirt covering it, as well as a platform for attaching arms that would swing during movement and a spike for attaching a head. First, formed the spine and shoulders Then, the hips A piece of cardboard was nailed to the spine to begin the rib cage And wrapped the cardboard around for the basic form Simple hinges made the elbows of the arms And the shoulders were mostly just straps made from duct tape (also, this mask form would later be used to make the face) With clothes on, it's already pretty convincing A cable through and around eyelet screws controlled the arms


And the face was formed with modelling clay around a craft mask blank. The major facial features are first shaped with rolls of clay, then rolled-out sheets of clay are overlapped and blended to make "skin". Finally, strips of tissue paper are cemented on top of the clay to give it strength as it dries out and to give the skin a dried, dead look.

Final Dummy

And here is the completed dummy. Kerosene was used as an accelerant for the burn. Kerosene is much safer than gasoline or alcohol to burn in the open, as kerosene vapor does not explode like gasoline or alcohol. While the kerosene was somewhat difficult to procure (not all gasoline stations carry it) and was marginally difficult to start burning without special arrangements (a cigarette lighter proved insufficient), the safety issues were more than worth it. During the shoot, all activity outside of the burn area was stopped, with three people on fire extinguisher duty. With proper planning, a little practice, and completely professional attitudes on everyone's behalf, the shoot went off without a hitch and the burn was controlled safely. Hurrah!