For eight seasons, Dexter fans followed a serial slayer whose conflicted values made him an antihero. With all the blood and body parts on screen, viewers can imagine that things were pretty gory behind the scenes of Dexter. Compare the boxes of prop limbs, rolls of heavy-duty plastic wrap, and actual blades to the possessions of known offenders and they probably aren't very different. Luckily, Dexter was only a television show and the behind-the-scenes stories of how they made the blood on Dexter are a lot less gruesome than the real thing.
While the finale let a lot of fans down, the show won several awards during its run, including a Golden Globe for Michael C. Hall. It was the Dexter kill scenes, especially Rita's demise, that proved the show could be brutal - and the ethical dilemmas surrounding who deserves to be strapped to Dexter's table were real for audiences. Joshua Meltzer joined the show at the beginning and took over as prop master during Season 3. Due to his innovative work on the show, Meltzer has since become Hollywood's "blood guy." If nothing else, Dexter will be remembered for its special effects and the behind-the-scenes efforts to create eight seasons of gore and bins of extra body parts.
Fans of the show might notice Dexter changed his method of wrapping his victims as the series progressed. The cocoon-like plastic used to secure victims in Season 1 had to be altered after the crew discovered it could be dangerous for the actors. Because the plastic covered much of their body, it cut off their ability to breathe. Meltzer came up with the idea to separate the plastic covering into sections and only hold down the top of the head, torso, hips, and feet.
Although this made life for the actors playing Dexter's victims less dangerous, their job was not easy. Actors wore nothing under the plastic wrap, covered only by a g-string that matched their skin tone. The lighting and camera exposure helped cover them but didn't make the scenes more comfortable for the actors. To add to the difficulty of their job, actors had to lie on the table for a number of hours, unable to get up on their own. Meltzer noted the actors were essentially victims as well, saying, "They can't get up unless we let them off the table."
To help keep Rita's demise at the end of Season 4 a secret, the writers created a script with a fake ending. Producers didn't tell Michael C. Hall how Rita would perish until almost the same day as filming, and didn't inform Julie Benz of her character's final moments until an hour before she received the final script. They kept the filming crew small to limit the number of people who knew how the season would end. "It ended up being the last scene that we shot, so that we could get as many extra people out of there as possible," recalled Meltzer.
A bathroom with a bathtub on the soundstage served as the set; however, because it wasn't a real bathroom, it had no plumbing. Crew members had to install a plumbing system in order to fill the tub with blood, as well as remove it. Hall remembered the scene being tough, horrifying, and heartbreaking, especially seeing the infant actor sitting on the floor covered in fake blood. Hall later comforted upset fans on Reddit by explaining, "The baby's mother was right beside the camera. And we did our best to make it feel like playtime."
One Season 5 scene features Deb discovering two mostly decomposed victims, meaning maggots and flies covered their remains. To make this scene as realistic as possible, Meltzer used real flies and maggots instead of CGI or special effects. "Anytime a prop master can pick up a phone and call an animal trainer and say, 'I need 20,000 maggots' - that's a good day," he said.
He decided to use fake remains for the scene, most likely to portray decomposition without having to bury an actor in layers of makeup, as well as saving someone from being covered in maggots for several hours. Unfortunately, even the large amount of maggots Meltzer requested wasn't enough to make the scene authentic, so Meltzer sprinkled brown rice over the remains to make the swarm look bigger. He also released 5,000 flies onto the set, with a licensed insect trainer making sure no insects were harmed during filming.
The Dexter prop team used a variety of chainsaws and blades throughout the series, many of which were real. For the actors' safety, the team dulled the blades. They also created a variety of specially made devices, including one with a retractable blade. Since the handle for the retractable tool needed to be big enough to hide the blade, this special device is only on screen for a few seconds, usually as it moves rapidly towards its target.
Meltzer also created a prop with just a handle screwed onto a plate attached to an actor's chest. This made it look as if a blade was stuck in a victim's chest without needing to puncture an artificial torso. Meltzer used rubber blades in a few shots, especially those requiring an actor to swing at other actors, or perform any action that posed a threat to anyone's safety.