Body parts, many with suppurating wounds and exposed bone, lay haphazardly in clear plastic bins. Severed heads, some in mid-scream but some showing the stoicism of the undead, line shelf after shelf. Cadavers, whose states of decomposition range from fresh-off-the-morgue-slab to maggot-accommodating open chest wounds, stack like cord wood on the red-splattered concrete floor. Harvested organs, and a fetus or two, are jarred like summer pears.
Oh, the carnage.
Isn’t it fascinating?
Rather than making you squeamish, a trip to Dapper Cadaver, the go-to grindhouse factory for scores of Hollywood horror flicks, TV medical and crime dramas, haunted houses and museums and even the occasional coroner’s office, actually demystifies all that gore you see splattered on screens big and small.
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It is, pardon the pun, disarming.
So lifelike (deathlike?) is the mass of mangled flesh and bone housed in a light-industrial section of this city’s Sun Valley neighborhood that even those of tender sensibilities have to admire the artistry at work, the carefully crafted verisimilitude. You’ll come away from a visit with an insider’s knowledge about how movies such as “Saw” or “No Country for Old Men” make their chilling violence so real, how “Law & Order” and “Dexter” stockpile such an array of human remains to litter each episode.
And you’ll also come away with a smile on your face, if you happen to visit Dapper Cadaver when its owner and chief goremeister, BJ Winslow, is free to show off his little workshop of horrors. There’s no official tour, but if Winslow’s not up to his elbows of squishy fake brains for clients such as the Six Flags Fright Fest or sculpting animal carcasses for a natural history museum, he’ll gladly lift the bloody veil on cinematic blood and guts.
In fact, he’ll even sell you a freshly cut femur for $70 to $100, a severed head with exposed gray matter for slightly more, no questions asked. But walk-in business makes up little of Winslow’s business of trafficking in human flesh.
Let’s just say the proliferation of “CSI”-type shows has been a boon, the zombie craze a veritable cash cow. Winslow, who works alongside wife Eileen, has fabricated props for rock groups such as Insane Clown Posse, Slipnot and Marilyn Manson, yet also has serviced the FBI, CIA and countless police and fire departments needing their disaster-prepardedness drills to look hyper-real. And in 2010, when the Obama administration was looking to populate its annual Halloween Party with frightening personages – other than members of Congress, of course – it called up Dapper Cadaver.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll catch Winslow in the midst of a project. On this day, he had a corpse laid out on a table and had made several long incisions.
“This?” he said, cheerfully, thrusting his hand into the molded cadaver’s abdomen. “It’s a body I’m working on for a museum doing an Egyptian exhibit on a guy getting mummified. When it’s finished, it’ll be set up on a slab and somebody will be pulling organs out of him.”
Maybe because Winslow was still in the process of creating this mummy, he had not named it. Many others he names and even gives backstories to. Some, like Brain Food Ben, are get their monikers because of their appearance (exposed skull, in Ben’s case), but others, like Christina, a dark-haired beauty in a torn shift, wrapped in chains and with decomposing flesh that belies her smiling face, are cast from the physiognomy of real, presumably living, people.
“You’ve gotta name ’em,” Winslow said. “That’s the fun of it.”
Lest he get mired in morbidity, Winslow maintains a hearty gallows sense of humor. He even looks the part of the eccentric, slightly mad scientist, sporting a vertical shock of curly brown hair (literally, hair-raising), a pointy goatee and a sly expression. He’s quick with a quip and isn’t at all self-important, despite the fact he’s the flesh-peddler to the stars. Ask him what’s the most unusual request he’s ever received from a client, and his brow furrows.
“I kind of lose touch of what’s unusual and what’s normal,” he said. “But I can tell you the most unusual request today: Somebody needed a blue whale’s ear bone. It’s for someone from the BBC, so I assume it’s for a nature documentary. I found one for them.”
Winslow likes to gesture wildly when he talks, which is when you notice the red paint – at least, you hope it’s paint – embedded under his fingernails and into the crevices of his palms.
“Oh,” he said, laughing, “I like to do most of the painting and character work myself, like when we get a call for a realistic maggot-riddled body for a coroner’s office. Actually, I didn’t do the maggots for the last one. The coroner was going to use real maggots for the exercise. The coroner, by the way, told me what they call maggots — ‘disco rice.’ It kind of ruined rice for me for a few days.”
Hedging his bets that the entertainment industry alone might not be economically sustaining for his business, Winslow has studied anatomy and is licensed to make “study corpses” for medical researchers and law enforcement agencies. It turns out he now has lots and lots of business and has hired a staff to help crank out body parts.
At heart, Winslow considers himself an artist, though he apparently he was not encouraged to take this particular path as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz.
“I had a lifelong love of horror movies,” he said. “I wanted to bring a lot of things I love together. I’ve always loved science, nature and painting as well. I took a couple art classes in college, but I had some teachers pushing the idea of ‘gallery art.’ A lot of the stuff I made was getting criticized because it was weird toys and cartoons and things like that. I dropped out of art, but I got jobs (while in college) with toy design companies and a carnival for a haunted house, making stuff.”
He hung out his own bloody shingle eight years ago. Breaking into the prop business in Hollywood is competitive, he said, but he was cut out for it. Near the end of the impromptu tour, he stopped before a life-size, naked yet anatomically correct figure of a man in mid-snarl. It’s a likeness of self-mutilating shock rocker GG Allin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1993.
“We’re doing him for the Museum of Death (in Hollywood),” Winslow said. “He was tough. We had a head that was close enough, but getting the eyes right was important. He usually had one eye more bugging out than the other, just a bit of a lazy eye, offset just enough that it’s unsettling. It was hard to do.”
Allin’s eyes are creepy and chilling, positively Charles Manson-like. It can freak out a visitor.
“Well, that’s what we do,” Winslow said.