Creating a "Dawn of the Dead" Effect in Photoshop

By Al Ward
of Action Fx Photoshop Resources

Dateline: January 11, 2005
Version: Photoshop CS

More Photoshop tips
Discuss this in the Photoshop forum

As I developed the spec for my book Photoshop For Right Brainers: The Art Of Photo Manipulation, I found out something interesting about myself. As I began designing art and techniques, putting them into an outline that would eventually become the book, I found that lurking somewhere in the musty recesses of my brain was a twisted, darker version of myself that translated to the work I was developing. As I looked at the finished outline I found that several – over half in fact – of the book's techniques were going to be rather "dark"; creepy effects that I found fascinating (but may not be to everyone in my target audience). Thanks to some expert tact on my editor's part, the book turned out far more "well rounded" than a Photoshop Creepfest, although some of those darker pieces and how-to-do-them did make it into the pages.

One of my favorite techniques in the book involved taking a photo of my daughter and turning her into something that resembled the creepy girl from the movie The Ring. To this day, my wife has a fit about that photo, although my daughter loved it. Something about that image in the movie of the girl crawling out of the TV just brought the hackles up on my neck. I'm not sure if it has something to do with the concept of merging innocence with evil or if it's just plain freaky, but that really bugged me out. Ever since I've found myself attempting to duplicate that effect.

For this tutorial I want to revisit that effect, using three photos to create the final piece. This is just one of many variations Photoshop is capable of – the decision of whether the end piece is successful or not is up to the artist. That being said, here is another way of turning an innocent photo into something… well… diabolical.

All three photos I'm going to use are available on I'll start with a shot of a child. I think the eyes and half-smile expression of this shot will work well for the effect I'm looking for.

As is my habit, duplicate the background layer to save the original.

Although the image already doesn't have much color, reduce it even more with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. I'm going to alter the hue as well as reduce the saturation to give it a bit of an "unreal" feel.

A Levels adjustment layer will help darken the photo a bit. I'm just going to move the center RGB slider to the right, nearly to the edge but not quite.

A sure-fire way to insinuate wickedness is to alter the eyes. As you can see, the Levels adjustment darkened them quite a bit, nearly to black. Since I used an Adjustment Layer, I'll simply paint over the eyes in the mask with Black to reveal the lighter version in the layer beneath.

I'm going to tweak the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer again, as I want to bring in a somewhat more natural skin tone. It's just a matter of personal taste. That's starting to look a bit wicked. We still have a way to go before I'm happy, though.

Creating a "Dawn of the Dead" Effect in Photoshop

The next thing I want to do is darken the mouth almost to black. To do this I'll simply use the Burn Tool and darken the Midtones, using a small brush and being careful not to extend beyond the lips. Some darkening can also take place around the eyes.

If the effect is a bit too intense, no worries; simply reduce the opacity of the layer you are working on.

Here's a complete shot of the photo thus far.

I'm still not happy with the skin tone, so what if the color from the face is removed? Hmm… let's try it. Set White as the foreground color and select the Paintbrush. Change the Blending Mode for the Brush to Hue and paint over the skin, but leave the lips and eyes alone.

Definitely better. The shot is taking on an "undead" feel. Since my mental model was a ghost in a movie, that's just the feel I'm trying for. I'm going to stop messing with the skin for a bit, and create a Grunge Brush with a second photo. To do this I've selected a photo of chipped plaster. I'll rotate it and then use Select > Color Range to select just a certain range of colors to use as my brush. I'm not too concerned about the actual color; rather, I'm looking for a choppy selection that spans most of the image.

Once I have a good selection, I'll simply go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. Name the brush and click Ok. It will now be available for use in the loaded brushes.

Creating a "Dawn of the Dead" Effect in Photoshop

I'm going to create a new layer at the top of the Layer Stack and name it "Grunge". I'm setting the foreground color to dark brown/almost black and, with the brush set to just slightly larger than the photo and holding it still while I apply the paint, I'll dab the layer 3-4 times with the paint.

I want the paint to appear as wear and stains on the photo or skin, so setting the blending mode of the Grunge layer to Multiply will achieve this nicely.

So far the image looks creepy, but knowing what I do about Photoshop we can still take it further. What if the subject is not simply a ghost, but a mottled, semi-decayed ghost? Maybe our ghoul had to work at getting out of the grave? Let's see where we can go with this. I'm selecting another texture photo for this portion of the tutorial.

Apply Image is going to be the tool of choice in this instance. To get this to work, the texture photo and the original have to have the same pixel dimensions. I've checked the size of the ghoul photo and altered the texture photo accordingly.

Duplicate the Background copy layer. The texture will be applied here.

As I open Image > Apply Image, the face photo comes up as the default. If you simply want to make a darker version of the existing photo, you can do that here. For instance, check out the settings below and then the result.

Creating a "Dawn of the Dead" Effect in Photoshop

For this example, however, I'm going to change the Source image to the new texture. I'm also setting the Blending Mode to Difference, and dropping the Opacity of the blend to 50%.

Yikes! Looks like our friend has reason to be "disgruntled". The pattern from the texture photo suddenly becomes a characteristic of the skin… pretty cool! Without closing the Apply Image dialog box, I'm going to play with the settings and check some variations. For instance, what if I apply the effect to a mask? Here are my settings.

I like this better… it takes away much of the green in the previous version. At this point I'm almost at the finishing point. I'm going to do a couple more quick adjustments: altering the color a bit with an additional Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and then increasing the contrast with a Curves adjustment layer.

I'm having a Dawn of the Dead flashback! Definitely not someone you want to meet, even in broad daylight. That's it for this time. I hope you've enjoyed this little excursion into "Dark Art". I promise to lighten things up a bit on the next go around. Take care, and come see me at Cheers!

Don't miss the next article by Al Ward. Get the free newsletter in your mailbox each week. Click here to subscribe.

Al Ward, the author of this column and NAPP Actions Guru, offers thousands of Photoshop goodies for download on his website (! He also has several Photoshop Goodies available on CD. So who is this Al guy anyway? Al has most recently authored Photoshop for Right Brainers: The Art of Photo Manipulation and Al Ward's Photoshop Productivity Toolkit: Over 600 Time Saving Actions, both from Sybex. In fact, Sybex is currently offering a bundle of both books at a savings of $30. He also writes for several Photoshop-related websites including the National Association of Photoshop Professionals' Official Website,, Planet Photoshop and the Photoshop Café.