During my time on the set of Shudder’s Creepshow, there was no moment more memorable than taking a peek behind the camera as director Rob Schrab delegated orders to the actors inside a covered bunker. What made this moment so incredible? Unaware of his casting, Jeffrey Combs walked out from beneath the tarp and casually joked with Tom Savini less than three feet away from me. I stood with my mouth open while standing in between some crew members and Marty Schiff like one of The Walking Dead’s zombies as Greg Nicotero moved around the set aiding in direction. Mr. Schiff kindly asked me what city I was from (could he tell I was in shock?) and for a brief moment, approximately 10 whole minutes, I couldn’t even remember.
The star power was just so incredible. The Re-Animator himself was in complete Nazi regalia and appeared out of nowhere along with towering actors half-dressed in practical werewolf garb and legendary men of the horror genre walked by me like I was misplaced in some sort of bizarre, but amazing dream. I listened in as Mr. Combs talked about the different places he visited around the world and discussed Frankenhooker between takes of a practical SFX decapitation. It may have lasted hours well into the late night, but it looked awesome. I watched on as an actor who starred in a role I absolutely adored waltzed around a set for hours, calm and ready to go each time they called his name. Being able to talk to him later was just another special moment on top of this experience for me. Another incredible treat that the entire team behind Shudder and Creepshow shared with me. I’d never doubt it, but Combs truly oozes the astonishing level of charisma, intelligence, and confidence that you’d expect from the man who brought Herbert West to life. This was even better, though. This was all reality.
The familiarity and camaraderie between everyone involved with the production was palpable with excitement. The environment was set in ease and goodwill. Combs describes it as “an evening of werewolves and smoke and action”. So, how did the seasoned actor get involved with Creepshow?
“Very simply, I got a text from Greg. I’ve known Greg for quite a while, since Bride of Re-Animator, and he’s always been tremendous. He’s loose and full of goodwill and accessible no matter how much incredible success he’s had. I’ve worked with him a number of times over the years. I even pointed out to him that he did a little short some years ago when he was wanting to put his foot into being considered for directing. He did a little short, it was almost like a promo, like a display of what he could do, and he asked me to be in that. I was gladly happy to be asked.
I love Greg. So, he texted me and asked ‘Would you be interested in this?’ and it evolved pretty quickly from that. I was very excited about it. You said something about the set and how full of ease and goodwill it is. I think that’s all attributable to Greg. He’s accessible. There’s a good vibe on his sets.”
I guess an actor’s purpose is to hold a mirror up to who we all are. Maybe I just make it a little more colorful at times.
Though there was a good vibe, the set was a fast, down and dirty shoot. How does it compare to some of the other horror projects, low budget and big budget, that Combs has worked on over the years?
Well, the thing that sort of struck me, and I told Greg about this: With this stuff, you can get kind of bogged down in ‘Oh my God. How do we get this? What do we do?’, but Greg, I’ve known him since before he was directing, I just admired his ability to see the lay of the land and come up with a very quick solution to solving three problems all at once. That’s incredible. It takes a lot of experience to know how to make your schedule and do it in a way that the shots still have quality. I was deeply impressed with Greg.”
Rob Schrab’s ‘Bad Wolf Down’ segment of the episode pits werewolves against Nazis with Combs at the forefront of the more sinister group. The actor shares details about his role, but careful not to spoil any details of the narrative.
Combs explains, “It’s the first time I have ever played a Nazi, let alone a Nazi General. That’s a first and that’s why I accepted it. I like a challenge. It’s new territory. I tell you, it’s kind of chilling to be in that uniform. The whole look of it came out of discussions with Rob. The costume kind of takes care of itself, but I said ‘Listen, let’s crop my hair. Let’s just cut it off. That’s what these guys would be like.’ The one thing I really hate is a period piece where people’s hairstyles are not even accurate. It’s one of my pet peeves. The TV show M*A*S*H was supposed to take place in the Korean War, but they all have 70’s haircuts.
The makeup guy was just great with that. There’s a little hideous, frightening scar on my cheekbone and that was something we were really in harmony about. I sort of felt that this was a Nazi who was not a thug, but was probably of German aristocracy and therefore he only went to the finest military academies. It was almost like a badge of honor to have a little fencing scar on your face and show that you were tested and you prevailed. We were all on the same page with that and the mustache, that shitty little mustache. I didn’t have much time to grow it, but I did my best.”
I’ve always been drawn towards deeply conflicted characters, characters that maybe ride the line between being good and being not-so-good.
Werewolves add a supernatural element to an extremely real wartime setting. When it comes to portraying a historical character like a Nazi, did Combs participate in research for his role?
Combs responds sincerely, “I love history. I’ve read a lot of books about a lot of eras of history. Of course, World War II is pretty front and center if you are interested in history and the tragedies of the modern world. We’ve all grown up with all kinds of World War II movies and stuff. I just love the idea that this was kind of like horror meeting The Twilight Zone. I had never really thought of, or was aware of, anything where World War II and werewolves was any kind of a mix, so that was pretty clever.”
One of the most noticeable elements of the set visit was the importance of practical special effects instead of a reliance on CGI. How important is it to someone like Combs for Creepshow to represent that?
Combs answers frankly, “I actually think it’s the way to go. When CGI first came about we added a new tool to the toolbox. It’s absolutely amazing and it can be incredibly effective, but when you go back and watch some of those movies over the last couple of decades they don’t hold up so well. They look a little cheesy. I kind of feel like CGI is a new tool that has just been overused. I find it much more captivating to see practical effects.
Before there was ever CGI, I did a little movie called Re-Animator which was done completely with practical effects and clever editing so it holds up over time. I believe that if CGI had been available back then it would probably date that movie more so than it is.
Plus, it’s in the good hands of Greg Nicotero. If there is anybody who knows practical effects best, its Greg. I embrace the idea of it. I just think CGI hasn’t quite found its place on the palette. It is a tool we have to use, but it’s like a new color. You like the new red, but everything you’re doing has a lot of red in it.”
I just love the idea that this was kind of like horror meeting The Twilight Zone.
Does the comic aspect of Creepshow appeal to Combs?
The actor shares, “When I read the script, I loved all of the capturing of cells and dissolving into scenes. It is a great way to tell a story graphically, to visually dovetail into things by using comic book motifs. Illustration was sort of my first venue in artistic expression without even knowing it. I was just drawn to picking up a piece of paper and drawing even before I ever knew I wanted to be an actor. I wasn’t really interested in drawing still lifes and I wasn’t really interested in drawing landscapes either, but I was more interested in drawing faces. Now that I look back, I realize that it was this uninformed fascination that all actors have with human behavior, with character, and with what a face says. In my innocent youth, I was already kind of trying to stumble towards what I finally found as my application.”
When it comes to working with director Rob Schrab as well as the overseeing direction of Greg Nicotero, Combs considers his part in Creepshow to be collaborative genius.
Enthusiastically, Combs praises the directors by stating, “It was the best of both worlds. I first met Rob about a year prior. I had a breakfast meeting with him and a couple of other people about a potential project and I liked him immediately. I went home and followed him on Twitter as he did me. We were aware of each other’s names and aware when our names came up over time. I was really honored when Rob told me that he had actually suggested me to Greg. He asked, ‘What about Jeff Combs for this?’ and got the ball rolling.
Rob is really a wonderful writer. I love collaborating with him because it’s so great to have a director who also wrote the piece. If there are little alterations or adjustments, you know the committee is already there in one person. He’s generous and very supportive. Having Greg there as sort of a backstop was just lovely and collaborative and it made it easier for everybody.”
I like a challenge. It’s new territory. I tell you, it’s kind of chilling to be in that uniform.
I wondered what drew Combs to horror and the anti-hero type roles he’s famous for playing. His Nazi character in Creepshow is a hardcore villain. Is it hard or difficult for someone as charming as Combs to become an evil character?
Combs answers candidly, “Wow. That’s a good question, Jessica. I suppose it’s the old saying of ‘Know thyself’. I’ve always been drawn towards deeply conflicted characters, characters that maybe ride the line between being good and being not-so-good. I never play a character thinking ‘I’m a bad guy’. Even if I am the antagonist, I always try to find a legitimate and rational justification for what you might label as ‘bad’. What they are, from their point of view, it’s just life. Humanity is in the gray area, a lot of the time anyway.
It’s hard to say if someone is completely good or completely bad. There’s always another way of looking at it. That’s not always the case, but for most of us that’s sort of the way it is. I do like audiences to walk away, hopefully from my portrayals, thinking ‘Hey, I like that guy. Why did I say that? Why did I say I like that guy? He did some awful things’ or the other way around with ‘What a good guy even though he had some flaws’. We all say that all the time. I guess an actor’s purpose is to hold a mirror up to who we all are. Maybe I just make it a little more colorful at times.”
Join Jeffrey Combs, Rob Schrab, Greg Nicotero, and loads of other dedicated horror creators as they bring The Creep back from the dead. The Creepshow anthology will continue exclusively on Shudder every Thursday through October 31st.