Dapper Cadaver is a horror fanatic’s paradise
Peek inside the Madison prop shop where Hollywood buys its dead bodies and try not to scream.
From the outside, Dapper Cadaver is virtually indistinguishable from the other warehouses that dot the industrial space south of Madison’s Beltline Highway. Inside, however, the self-described purveyor of “top-quality death-related and scientific props” is a horror fanatic’s Shangri-La. There are shelves of severed limbs and flayed torsos, and silicone organs smeared with fake blood. Next to a pile of dinosaur bones on the floor, a small open casket contains a dozen or so vintage dolls, as if the porcelain toddler from the “Annabelle” series decided to have a party and invited all her friends. The display case that acts as a counter for the showroom at the front of the warehouse holds nearly 40 replica human, animal and dinosaur skulls in various shapes and sizes. But it’s what happens beyond the showroom that really makes Dapper Cadaver unique.
“If it’s dead or can die, we can make it,” said co-owner BJ Winslow in a 2019 video for entertainment news site Insider.
Winslow and his wife, Eileen, opened Dapper Cadaver in Los Angeles in 2006. Since then, they have provided props for thousands of film and TV productions, including “American Horror Story,” “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” “Modern Family” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Remember the charred bodies in “The Revenant”? Dapper Cadaver made them using foam rubber and paint. The severed heads of several “Game of Thrones” characters were made here, too; their faces were added digitally in postproduction.
Made-to-order items make up roughly 75% of Dapper Cadaver’s business. The film and TV industry can move quickly, which often means fabricating props in a rush and shipping them to sets in places like Atlanta, Toronto and Los Angeles. Ironically, that’s where the shop’s Midwest location comes in handy. When the Winslows moved their shop north in 2020 to be closer to Midwest-based family during the pandemic, they gained an advantage from the climate: The foam rubber used to manufacture bodies doesn’t cure as well in higher temperatures and becomes especially problematic on 95 degree days — which are far more common in southern California than Madison.
Of course, making death-related props also requires a predilection for the macabre. BJ Winslow grew up next to a cemetery with a mother who wrote ghost stories and threw elaborate Halloween parties. Eileen Winslow thrilled at talking shop with her nurse grandmother and surreptitiously read Stephen King novels beneath the cover of Judy Blume. When the couple met in Los Angeles in 2003, they were newly graduated from college and BJ Winslow was just beginning to make props out of his garage. At one point early in their ventures, the couple had more than 100 Styrofoam headstones in their backyard. When a windstorm carried a 4-foot facsimile of a stone cross into the yard of an unsuspecting neighbor, they decided it was time to open their own shop.
“We sort of joke that someone in our neighborhood had their come-to-Jesus moment,” says Eileen Winslow.
A proliferation of TV crime procedurals in the late 2000s proved a boon for the fledgling business. “Law and Order” was an early client, as was the long-running Fox series “Bones.”
Today, Dapper Cadaver processes roughly 150 orders a month from a variety of clients. Eileen Winslow handles sales and administration while BJ Winslow oversees production. In addition to film and TV clients, the shop also services amusement parks, escape rooms, haunted houses and Halloween parties. They also make training manikins that may feature photorealistic wounds and burns for medical schools, forensic units and first responders. It’s fast-paced and it can be stressful, but the entertainment side is fun and the educational side is meaningful — which keeps things in perspective.
“Like anything else, it’s good to have a self-care routine,” says Eileen Winslow. “If you’re doing education props and you need a little break, do a zombie head, or a witch. It helps to maintain some balance.”
Jeff Oloizia is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.
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