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Jason Thorson

Zombie Week: The Indie Filmmaker and Zombies

Posted on December 11, 2010 by Jason Thorson

We have a new essay for Zombie Week here at Flames Rising. Reviewer Jason Thorson tells us a little bit about indie films and the zombie/survival horror genre.

Horror and low budget filmmaking have always had a symbiotic relationship.  But when it comes to really low budget filmmaking, the type that employs guerrilla tactics, stars your friends and acquaintances, and is shot in your mom’s backyard, well that’s zombie territory.  Micro budgeted indie horror and the walking dead go together like guitar lessons and Smoke on the Water – the ends require modest means.

The reasons for this cozy relationship of convenience are pretty obvious, mostly involving the “bang for your buck” ratio.  With no resources, including money, equipment, and experience, what would the scope of your story be if you decided to shoot a western, for example?  What would your costumes look like?  Locations?  Guns?  Horses? 

Right.

Conversely, let’s examine the scope of the zombie film and to do so we need not look any further than the zombie film archetype, Night of the Living Dead (1968).  The scenario is as follows: the dead are rising up and devouring the living.  Those who are attacked, even if they survive, soon become a member of the cannibalistic reanimated dead horde.  This plague sweeps the United States and eventually the world.  Pretty huge scale so far, right?  And most importantly, this apocalyptic nightmare is represented from the sanctity of an abandoned farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, as a handful of survivors plan their next move.  That’s seven actors, all of whom are dressed “normally” and carrying out the story’s action in one mundane location, while some extras shamble about and moan.  That, ladies and gents, is bang for the buck!

Another reason to use the zombie apocalypse backdrop is because it easily allows for quality storytelling.  A zombie plague can be represented by a number of other scenarios – nuclear fallout, viral pandemic, natural disaster, etc.  It’s really a generic overarching source of antagonism that foists your characters into a box, thereby providing a structure that inevitably eliminates the type of indecision that can paralyze the story teller.  The true antagonists in the zombie story always end up being the living, not the dead.  People from all walks of life are forced to live with each other and compete for limited resources all while trying to survive a seemingly insurmountable threat.  How will each character react?  The results will bear the fruit of a compelling story every time.  This is how George A. Romero became a social commentator, quite by accident as it turns out. 

The setting for the zombie apocalypse is literally anyplace on planet earth – a farmhouse, a mall, an abandoned military bunker, anywhere.  The characters are you and me.  The neighbor.  Everyone.  The monsters are also you and me.  The other neighbor.  Only they’re dead.  These fundamental story traits – the who, what, when, and where of your movie are all around you.  This fact removes costume designers, art directors, set builders, and A-list actors from the list of necessary requirements for filming your story.  One could reasonably assume that the resulting movie would look and sound really bad.  Well, that’s certainly possible.  Does it mean that every indie Zombie flick is destined for You Tube?

The simple answer is no.

Exhibit: A in the case for the potential of low budget zombie movies would have to be the British DIY undead favorite, Colin (2008).  Colin went on to become quite well known in horror circles for several reasons.  For one thing, it’s a good movie with a unique perspective as it unfolds from the point of view of the title character who’s infected early in the film and succumbs to the zombie plague as we watch.  Another reason this film is exemplary is because it actually managed to make waves at the Cannes Film festival.

What truly makes Colin remarkable, though, is that it cost about 45 euro, or the equivalent of about $70 to make.  Marc Vincent Price produced, wrote, directed, shot, edited, mixed, and provided visual FX for Colin.  FaceBook and MySpace were used to find zombie actors and a standard mini-DV camcorder was used to shoot the entire film, as well as to record sound effects in post.  Price completed the film on his PC using Adobe Premiere software. 

In 2009, Colin played at Cannes as well as at Zombie-Aid in Manchester, Frightfest in London, Malaga Fantastic Film Festival in Spain, and then it obtained theatrical distribution in the U.K. via Kaleidoscope Entertainment.  In 2010, Colin made its way to North America where it’s been shown at several festivals and in major city theatres across the U.S.  It’s currently available on DVD. 

I’m not suggesting that everyone can shoot his or her own “Colin” and make it as far as Marc Vincent Price has.  I mean, I own all the same equipment and software and have access to the same resources, but I stand a better chance of getting struck by lightning while being attacked by a shark…on land, no less.  However, given Price’s talent and wherewithal, a meteoric rise from out of next-to-nothing actually did occur and I think it stands to reason that zombies – the topic of his film – provided him the best opportunity to pull it off. 

Colin is far and away the best-case-scenario – i. e., the biggest bang for the buck.  However, there are an abundance of indie zombie flicks that have had varying degrees of success as of late.  Some these include Zombie Honeymoon (2004), Dead Meat (2004), Dance of the Dead (2004), Fido (2007), Flight of the Living Dead (2007), Ponty Pool (2008), Outpost (2008), Zombie Strippers (2008), Dead Girl (2009), and Dead Snow (2009).  A few of these bend the zombie concept in unique ways, but they’re zombie flicks nonetheless, all of which are independent films made with relatively little money while achieving successful results. 

The zombie tsunami of the last decade does not appear to be drying up anytime soon.  More books, more games, more TV, and of course, more movies are on the way.  Some of this undead media will be good, a lot of it will be bad, but one thing’s for sure: The examples that exist on the periphery of the mainstream, the really independent movies – the no-budget shorts and the cobbled-together, first-time features – it is among these where you’ll find the cutting edge, where people with nothing to lose push the envelope of storytelling to the far reaches of their imaginations as they weave new tales around the idea of a world overrun by rotten, ravenous cannibals.  And to that I say, “Keep it coming!”

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