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You Could Do with a Little Less Flesh

Among plaster casters, Christian Hanson has interpreted the word "head" in a single-minded fashion
Jim Walsh

Zombies are go! They stumble into zombie gas stations and pay the zombie pump. They get their zombie talking points from zombie pundits and mouth zombie opinions. They dwell in zombie cubicles and zombie churches and zombie boardrooms. Zombies are go!

Yikes. For a bunch of stiffs who don't self-promote so well, zombies are well represented in dead-on-arrival culture. There's the forthcoming video game Dead Rising, the forthcoming Wesley Snipes blockbuster Gallowwalker, the off-Broadway mini-hit Evil Dead: The Musical, the cult fiction book World War Z, the upcoming remake of Day of the Dead, the local undead boogie known as the Zombie Pub Crawl, and the "zombie-themed dance party" on the Nicollet Mall last week that landed a few would-be zombies in jail for wearing fake explosive devices.

"There's an innocence about zombies," says Christian Hanson, a sculptor/special-effects craftsman whose day job is to make "bomb proof" faux animals and environmental scenes for the local design studio Split Rock. (They specialize in creating exhibits for museums, interpretive centers, aquariums, zoos, and any other joint that needs a little first-class fakery.) His night job—his passion—is making gore. Specifically, zombies. Masks, sculptures, drawings. "They're just animals, really," Hanson says. "They're not malicious. Maybe they're a metaphor for nature—just the brutal, harsh consuming. It doesn't have anything against you; it just goes after its prey no matter what.

"Everyone loves zombies. There's always [been] the idea that the zombie is the person with no inner life who just shambles through their day and shows up at work and shows up at home and so forth—the non-directed life. Zombies don't really have that meaning for me. For me it's more the fatalism and the doom, that, 'Here they come. It's just a matter of time and they're going to break through the door. They're on the way. You can board up the windows all you want, but they're coming.'"

Hanson sits in a chair in his studio in the Scooterville building on the edge of Dinkytown. It's a seven-story dream factory that sprouts up on the wide-open prairie next to railroad tracks and grain mills, where a hundred or so artists and musicians till their art at all hours of the day and night. A poster of Night of the Living Dead lurks over his shoulder. A few feet away, lying facedown on a sculptor's slab, is his masterpiece: a full portrait bust of Bill Hinzman, the graveyard ghoul from Night of the Living Dead. He's been working on it since December, painstakingly etching the ghoulflesh, whisker stubble, and other details out of sculptor's clay. Recently, he has started to sell resin cast copies on his website, monstercloset.com.

"I always loved horror and Halloween," says Hanson, who is 33 years old and wears thick glasses. "I've always had an interest in the high drama of it, the head exposed with the brain dripping out. I loved dressing up in costumes as a kid, and I'd put severed heads and limbs out on Halloween. Then after college I decided to build my first corpse and put it out. I spent all this time on it, and it just snowballed into this thing where I had to get a studio and everything."

Name a horror film and Hanson can tell you who did the makeup and special effects. A photograph of Stephen King posing with one of his creatures sits on a shelf near some spray paint and a photo of him with his guru, special effects wizard Dick Smith. His tools—Sharpies, X-acto knives, scalpels, clay, mummies, skulls, aliens, and CDs—litter the tables and floor.

On the surface, Hanson loves the vicarious thrill that comes from indulging in the dark side of humanity. "The basic human test is whether you can resist all that bullshit," he says. "But as I get older, it makes more sense how people can give into all that—the avarice, the mean-spiritedness, and the rest of it. Because your ambitions are frustrated, and you see that the rewards don't necessarily go to those with the talent or the drive or all those seemingly deserving qualities. So much seems to be dumb luck and privilege."

Witness the monster in the closet in Washington, D.C.

"Exactly," Hanson says. "That breeds a certain cynicism of doom, even more so than a bomb or the Soviets. We hold up somebody like Donald Trump as a hero, but the artists and thinkers are nothing. I'm pretty far-left politically, and the last six years have been pretty brutal. I used to be political, and I'd go to meetings and all this. After a while it just seemed like there was no place to bring your talents or energy. I felt like I was marching in an empty room with a sign. Nobody cared. So, you know, refocus on monster effects, man. Or really, refocus on yourself."

Hanson grew up in Maplewood, where he fell heavily for the straight-edge punk-rock scene of the mid-'80s. He lit out for an art school in Pittsburgh to study special effects, but left almost immediately after he realized he knew more about monster-craft than did his instructors, who were versed in stage makeup and little else. He transferred to the University of Pittsburgh and collected a philosophy degree.

"I think Night of the Living Dead is such a powerfully metaphorical film," he says, "with this nihilistic vision about what people are like under stress and what happens to us. Everyone turns against everyone else, and whether they're right or wrong doesn't even matter. People just can't get it together, and it's a big chaotic disaster.

"There's always been doom and gloom about the environment, but with the climate change and all this stuff, the more you know about it, it really does feel like, 'Wow. It's just a matter of time, man.' I'm sorry, but it's not going to get solved. The capitalist system is going to eat us alive. Hopefully, in a cynical way [for me], it will just boost people's interest in Halloween and horror effects. As the world goes slowly down the toilet, I'll be able to make a career out of artwork that I love."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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