Character Design

How to Create a Horrific Zombie Poster with Photoshop and 3D Renders


In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to re-create a classic zombie poster. You’ll composite multiple 3D renders in Photoshop and make extensive use of Adjustment Layers and masking techniques. Finally, you’ll learn how to add a grunge effect to the movie title using a combination of Illustrator’s Live Trace Tool and its Pathfinder commands.


My name is Mark Mayers, and I'm a freelance illustrator and designer based in Cornwall, UK. I can recall life before Macs and I'm also a reformed technophobe! Besides my day-to-day work, I also freelance for leading publishers worldwide.

The living dead have been terrifying moviegoers for decades; from George A. Romero’s 1968 masterpiece "Night of the Living Dead" and Lucio Fulci’s excessively gory "Zombie Flesheaters;" right up to modern blockbusters such as "Shaun of the Dead," "28 Days Later," and "Diary of the Dead." They’ve even influenced video games, such as "Resident Evil." Let's take some inspiration from these sources and create "The Digital Dead" poster design.

Step 1 - Terrifying Textures

Before we begin I’d like to share the techniques used in preparing the 3D figures. I used the highly detailed Mike 3, Victoria 3, and Steph Petite unimesh Poser models available from Daz3D for the main characters.

First, I modified the high resolution texture maps (also from Daz) by adding Hue/Saturation and Levels adjustments, then I used the Dodge/Burn Tools and finally overlaid some paint stains for the gore. I used the same technique on the clothing, as well as creating separate transparency maps for the holes.

Step 2 - 3D Nightmares

Each of the foreground figures were loaded in Poser and the new textures were mapped. I then used facial and body morphs (also from Daz) to create individuality to each character. Poser has a fairly slow render engine, as well as being a nightmare with multiple figures loaded, so I exported each figure as an OBJ file. I then used Cinema4D with the interPoser plug-in to import each figure and assemble the scene. Lighting was added and I assigned compositing tags which produced the Alpha Channels to isolate the figures.

The interPoser also allowed me to update the main figure scene on-the-fly using the muscle maps (also from Daz). Finally, untextured, low resolution figures were used in the distance to keep the file manageable.

Step 3 - Sinister Skies

Create a new 300dpi, RGB A4 canvas (210mm wide x 297mm deep), ensure black is set as the foreground color (press D on your keyboard) and hit Opt/Alt+Delete/Backspace to fill with black. Next open "Clouds_1.jpg" from the "source" folder and Shift-drag its layer icon into your new document. Both documents share the same pixel dimensions, so Shift-dragging pin registers the new Layer exactly.

Lower the Opacity to 75% and label it "Sky." Add a Layer Mask and drag a Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradient from the bottom. Now modify the mask using a large, soft-edged brush set to a low Opacity to create an uneven horizon line.

Step 4 - Creepy Clipping

Clip an Adjustment Layer to the sky by holding down Alt while clicking on the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the foot of the Layers palette. Select Hue/Saturation and set the Saturation to -46. A normal Adjustment Layer will affect all layers immediately below it, but when you can clip an Adjustment Layer it leaves the underlying layers intact.

Step 5 - Deathly Black

First download the trees. What you’re aiming for is to isolate the branches from the sky. The following technique of creating a density mask works best with images with a lot of contrast. Inspect each Channel to see which holds the most contrast between the trees and sky– in this instance it’s the blue one. Duplicate it by dragging its icon onto the Create New Channel icon at the foot of the Channels palette.

Now hit Command + L to access the Levels. Set the midpoint to 0.28 and the whitepoint to 69. By default it’s the white areas that create selections, so hit Command + I to Invert it, then Command-click the Channel thumbnail to generate a selection. Next target the top RGB composite and Copy to the clipboard.

Step 6 - Spooky Trees

Paste the selection into your working document as a new layer above the "Sky" layer and label it "Trees." Go Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal and position/scale to suit. Now set the Blending Mode to Multiply and drop the Opacity to 85%.

Step 7 - Mysterious Mist

Drag and drop the "Clouds_2.jpg" from the "source" folder as a new layer, then position it over the middle of the sky. Add a Layer Mask and use a Linear Gradient as before, but drag downwards to mask the upper area. Now set the Blending Mode to Screen, drop the Opacity to 60%, and label it "Mist." Continue masking the lower area with a medium soft-edged brush.

Step 8 - Graveyard Shift

Clip a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to the "Mist layer," this time checking the Colorize option, setting the Hue to 191 and the Saturation to 16. Organize your Layers by creating a new group folder and label it "BACKDROP." Now unlock the "Background" Layers transparency by double-clicking its thumbnail, then Shift-click the top and bottom layer thumbnails, and drag them into your new folder.

Step 9 - Zombie Dawn

Now to add some ghouls! Open "Distant_zombies.png" from the "source" folder, then drag and drop as a new layer above the group folder, and position as shown. Now go Layer > Matting > Defringe by 1px to fix any white halos, then label it "Distant figures."

Blend the bottom of the figures by adding a mask, ensure black is set to foreground, then drag a Linear Gradient from the bottom of the mask using the Foreground to Transparent option. Next add a mask to the "Trees" layer and using some of Photoshops Natural Media delete some foliage behind the figures.

Step 10 - Deadly Fix

Open "Midground_zombies.png" from the "source" folder and after zooming in you’ll see the woman's dress has a problem area. Create a new layer and use the Clone Stamp Tool (S) set to All Layers to fix this. Also, the far right figure needs his shoulders smoothed. Remedy this by using the Pen Tool (P), drawing closed paths and making a path-based selection by clicking on the path thumbnail. You can now work on the clone layer to fix. When you’re done hit Command + E to Merge down.

Step 11 - Ghoulish Greens

Drag and drop the merged "Midground_zombies.png" as a new layer into your working document, defringe again and label it "Mid figures." Now clip a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and set the Saturation to -25. Use the drop-down Edit menu to select the Greens and drop the Saturation to -37.

Step 12 - Lead Zombie

Set your working file to one side as it’s time to start work on the main character. Open "Skeleton_render.png," then Shift-drag "Muscle_render.png" and "Skin_render.png" in as new layers. Label them "Skeleton," "Muscle," and "Skin." We’ll be making extensive use of Adjustment Layers on this file – but remember it’s the most flexible way to work, as they can be modified at any point.

Step 13 - Creepy Channels

Command-click the "Muscle" layer thumbnail to generate a selection, then go Select > Modify > Contract by 5px. Switch to the Channels palette. Click on the Create New Channel icon at the foot of the palette, ensure your foreground color is set to black and hit Delete, filling the active selection with white. Create another new Channel using the same technique with an unmodified selection from the "Skin" layer.

Step 14 - Bone Chiller Part One

Command-click "Alpha 1" to generate a selection, add a new layer at the bottom of the stack and label it "Black figure. Now hit Command + Delete to fill the selection with black. Disable the visibility of the "Muscle" and "Skin" layers. Next darken the bones by first dropping the "Skeleton" layer Opacity to 70% and then clipping a Levels Adjustment layer setting the midpoint to 0.58.

Step 15 - Bone Chiller Part Two

Modify the bones further by clipping a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to the "Skeleton" Layer, setting the Hue to +31.

Step 16 - Zombie Flesheaters

The bones are lacking some flesh, so open "Meat.jpg" from the "source" folder, then using the Lasso Tool (L) create a rough selection. Now Copy > Paste below the "Muscle" layer and label it "Bone gore." Next set the blending mode to Hard Light and drop the Opacity to 50%. Position it over the chest/neck area and trim any excess by generating a selection from "Alpha 1," inverting it (Shift + Command + I) and hitting Delete.

Step 17 - Less Gore

The gore is looking a little too red, so clip a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. Select Reds from the Edit drop-down menu and drop the Saturation to -63.

Step 18 - Brutal Brushes

Load the "Zombie Brushes.abr," which can be found in the "source" folder. Generate a selection from "Alpha 1," target the "Muscle" layer and go Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection. Now select the Brush Tool (B) and open the Brush Preset Picker. Next use brushes "Zombie 1 – Zombie 4" to reveal the underlying bones – you’ll achieve best results by working in a stamping fashion at 100% Opacity. Don’t forget to vary the brush size and to rotate/flip them to avoid repetition.

Step 19 - Zombie Creeping Flesh

Add a Layer Mask to the "Skin" layer and use the same method as previous to reveal the muscle tissue. Temporarily dropping the layer’s Opacity will make things clearer, also if you feel you’ve gone too far, then you can always reinstate areas of the mask with a white brush. Note when you mask the outer areas such as the arm the remaining skin appears thicker – that’s because we contracted the selection in Step 13.

Step 20 - Torn Flesh

Target the fourth layer from the bottom (the skeleton Hue/Saturation), add a new layer and label it "Skeleton shadow." Set the Blending Mode to Multiply and generate a selection from "Alpha 1." Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to pick a dark burgundy from the image as the foreground color. Now select the Brush Tool (B), and using a medium soft-edged brush set to around 50% Opacity paint within the selection. What you’re aiming for is to create a sense of depth by painting shadow areas around the torn edges of the muscle tissue.

Step 21 - Menacing Muscles

Desaturate the "Muscle" layer by clipping a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, setting the Saturation to -16 and the Lightness to -14.

Step 22 - More Gore

Add a new layer below the "Skin," label it "Muscle gore," and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Generate a selection from "Alpha 1," then use the "Zombie 5 – Zombie 9" brushes at 100% Opacity. Use the same burgundy to paint some blood splatters within the selection. Now dilute the effect slightly by dropping the layer Opacity to around 70%.

Step 23 - Sinister Skin

Add another new layer below the "Skin," label it "Skin shadow" and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Generate a selection from "Alpha 1" again, then pick a dark brown as your foreground color. Now use a medium soft-edged brush set to around 70% Opacity and paint shadow areas within the selection following the same techniques as demonstrated in Step 20. Finally, drop the layer Opacity to around 60%.

Step 24 - Deathly Pallor Part One

Now we’ll adjust the skin tones, first clip a Color Balance Adjustment Layer to the "Skin" and set the Midtone Blue to -23. Now select the Highlights and set the blue to -15.

Step 25 - Deathly Pallor Part Two

Next clip a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to the "Skin" and drop the Saturation down to -33.

Step 26 - Rotting Flesh

The figure is almost complete, just a few more steps. Create a new layer at the top of the stack and label it "Skin outer dark," then set the Blending Mode to Multiply and generate a selection from "Alpha 2." Now pick a dark olive as the foreground color and use the "Zombie 1 – Zombie 4" brushes at a smaller size and a low Opacity to darken the skin around the wounds. Build up the effect and vary the brush shape as you work. When you're happy, lower the Opacity to around 65% and give it a Gaussian Blur of 2px.

Delete any interior overlaps by generating a selection from the "Skin" Layer Mask, Inverse it, ensuring your new layer is targeted, and hit Delete. Finally, add a Group Folder at the top of the stack and label it "FOREGROUND FIGURE." Shift-click your top and bottom layers and drag them into the folder.

Step 27 - Dead Man Walking

To add the main zombie to the scene, simply drag and drop the entire group folder into your working document at the top of the stack. Position it by highlighting its icon and using the Move Tool (V), and position as shown below.

Step 28 - Gruesome Gradient

Blend the bottom parts of the zombies by adding a new layer at the top of the stack, ensure black is set to foreground and Shift-drag a Linear Gradient from the bottom using the Foreground to Transparent option. Name the layer "Grad" and set the Blending Mode to Multiply.

Step 29 - Deadly Distress

Now for the creation of the grunge movie title. You’ll be using Illustrator in the next few steps, but first you’ll need to prepare an image for tracing by removing the midtones. Open "Distress.jpg," from the "source" folder, then access the Levels (Command + L). Set the blackpoint to 90, the midpoint to 1.39, and the whitepoint to 153. Save it to a convenient location.

Step 30 - The Devil’s in the Detail

Launch Illustrator and type the heading lettering. I used Serpentine Bold set at 50pt and 150pt. It’s well worth the effort to track and kern headline type to achieve slick professional results. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to first track your text, and then make kerning adjustments.

Tracking creates even spacing between multiple characters, and there are numerous ways to it. First use the Type Tool (T) to select your text, you can do so using any one of the following methods:

  1. Enter values in the tracking input field.
  2. Choose a preset number from the pull-down options.
  3. Click in the input field and use the Right/Left Arrow keys.
  4. Shift + Command + Left/Right Bracket Keys
  5. Hold down the Alt while tapping the Left/Right Arrow keys.

Kerning adjusts the width of the space between two characters. First choose Auto in the kerning box to use the values the font designer has included, then fine-tune by clicking with the Type cursor. To adjust use any one of the following methods:

  1. Enter a value in the kerning input field.
  2. Choose one of the pre-set values from the pull-down menu.
  3. Click in the input box and use the Up/Down Arrow keys.
  4. Use Alt + Left/Right Arrow keys
  5. Shift + Command + Left/Right Bracket keys.

Step 31 - Dead End

Once your happy, Select All (Command + A) and hit Shift + Command + O to Create Outlines – remember this cannot be undone! The Pathfinder command you’ll be using later to distress the artwork will only work on a single path. First select the word DEAD, then in the Pathfinder palette use the fly-out menu to select Make Compound Shape. Next, hit the Expand button – this eliminates any overlaps. Finally. select both words and go to Object > Compound Path > Make.

Step 32 - Alive Trace

With the text still selected hit Command + 2 to Lock it, then go to File > Place and navigate to the distressed image you saved in Step 29. Next go Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options ensuring the default preset is selected. Now hit the Expand button in the Control Palette to commit. Traced objects remain live and editable until you tell Illustrator to expand the object’s appearance.

Step 33 - Spooky Subtractions

Deselect and use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select a black portion from the traced image. Next go Select > Same Fill Color and hit Delete leaving just the white areas. Now position over your type and re-size – you can also use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to either delete areas you’re not happy with or re-position them – toggling Outline Mode (Command + A) will help here.

When you’re done select all of the distress and hit Shift + Command + Left Bracket Key to send to the back. Now unlock the text (Object > Unlock All), select all the artwork and choose Minus Back in the Pathfinder palette. Minus Back uses the bottom object to define the subtracted areas from the top object. You’ll see I also added a tag line using Boris Black Bloxx set at 24pt. Select All and Copy to the clipboard.

Step 34 - Creepy Credits

Create a new A4 Illustrator document and Paste in your heading. Add some guides, credits, and any logos required. There’s an outlined version of the whole artwork including the grunge heading, so feel free to use this – it’s in the download folder called "" I used various weights of Univers Condensed to create the credits. When you’re done Copy the credits and logo group to the clipboard.

Movie posters use such extreme condensed fonts because, by law they must reproduce at a certain height in proportion to main title. There’s no rule governing the width of the font so it can be as narrow the designer wants.

Step 35 - Sinister Smart Objects

In your working document create a new Group Folder at the top of the stack and label it "GRAPHICS." Now Paste the credits in as a Smart Object. Switch back to Illustrator and Copy > Paste the heading in the manor, then add an Outer Glow Layer Style. Set the Blend Mode to Multiply, the Opacity to 60%, the Spread to 22%, and the Size to 70px.

Using Smart Objects means you can embed vector graphics directly from Illustrator. If you need to edit an Illustrator Smart Object, simply double click the layer icon – which opens the vector in Illustrator – but remember it’s only a temporary file, so save before closing. Saving doesn’t create a new file, it just saves the modified information into the Photoshop document that contains the Smart Object.

Step 36 - Chilling Channel

Now we’ll add some grunge to the lower portion of the poster, as it looks a little bland just plain black. Open "Baking_tray.jpg," from the download folder, Select All and Copy to the clipboard. Back in your working document switch to the Channels palette and click on the Create New Channel icon. Now Paste the selection and re-size and position as shown using the Move Tool (V).

Step 37 - Dead Level

By default it’s the white Channel areas which act as selections needed for the next step, so invert the Channel (Command + I). Now access the Levels and set the blackpoint to 111, the midpoint to 1.70, and the whitepoint to 188.

Step 38 - Frightening Fill

Command-click the Channel to generate a selection, target the top RGB Composite Channel and switch back to the layers palette. Now select R:97, G:164, and B:188 as your foreground color and add a new layer below the "GRAPHICS" folder and label it "Distress." Now hit Alt + Delete to fill the active selection with your foreground color. I know it looks frightening, but bear with me!

Step 39 - Menacing Modifications

Hit D to set the default black foreground color, then add a Layer Mask. Shift-drag a Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradient from the top of the canvas leaving just the bottom areas intact. Now set the Blending Mode to Screen and drop the Opacity to 27%. Finally, select the Brush Tool (B) and modify the mask further using a selection of brushes loaded from Step 18 until you’re happy.

Step 40 - Scary Movements

You’re almost done, so now is the time for any last minute adjustments. The right-hand zombie on the "Mid figures" layer needs slight re-positioning. To move him without affecting the other two figures, first temporarily disable the visibility of the upper layers. Now draw a Rectangular Marquee (M) as shown, and nudge him to the left with the Arrow Keys. Remember you can also revisit any of the Adjustment Layers any time and refine them to taste.

Step 41 - Fiendish Finale

Finally, I used some of Photoshop’s Natural Media brushes to mask some of the branches on the "Trees" mask on the right side of the main character’s head.

Final Image - Eerie Epilogue

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial and also learnt some techniques that you can add to your Photoshop and Illustrator skill set. I’d also like to say many thanks to the editor Sean Hodge who invited me over to PSDTUTS to write this tutorial. Happy Halloween! The final image is below.

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