Saturday, October 11, 2014

Make your own zombie movie

The Living Dead Festival was held this weekend in Evans City, Pennsylvania. The Festival is an annual event in recognition of Night Of the Living Dead, the great-granddaddy of all films featuring walking corpses that want to eat living flesh. The first part of the movie was made in the Evans City Cemetery. Among the guests was the writer/director of that famous film, George Romero.

 Big George in the (living) flesh!

I first saw NOTLD in the early '70s, and recognized in it some of the themes that were common to my nightmares: being in a confined space, and besieged by monsters who wanted to get in and get me. Yikes. Romero had filmed my bad dreams!

I have always  compared other movies in that genre to the original. I’ve seen many, but not all, so-called “zombie” movies (which is a misnomer, according to Romero, who does not call his animated dead zombies. They eat human flesh so they are ghouls). Many of those movies do not work for various reasons. Sometime in the past couple of months I watched World War Z with Brad Pitt which I thought failed. It had a reported 190 million dollar budget, was full of special effects and action, and yet for me it flopped. Why? My guess is that it was too big, and got away from elements that make the best of those stories memorable: the sense of isolation, being trapped, and of course total paranoia.

As successful as the TV series The Walking Dead is, it often strays from those tenets, yet it works. I guess it has to do with the ongoing characters and some interesting situations involving them. Once we identify with characters a movie or TV show is halfway home. Add to that several scenes each episode of “walkers” getting their heads blown apart, or stabbed through the skull, or beheaded in graphic detail, and you have a recipe for success as a cult hit. The violence, the same reason many will not watch it, is why some others love it. For the record I don’t turn away from the violence, but I think it is overplayed. I prefer it to be an ever-present threat to the living people, but used less often to much better effect.

Last week I watched a German movie with those common zombie movie themes called Rammbock, subtitled Berlin Undead. The movie is only 63 minutes long. It gets right to the action and does not waste any time making its point. I appreciated that, but thought except for it being in German and set in an apartment building in Berlin, it added absolutely nothing to the  genre.

I felt I could make a movie like that. You could too.

For one thing, Rammbock was filmed on a small budget by some clever filmmakers who used real locations and a bunch of friends to play the dead people. Most zombie movies just copy other movies. In Rammbock they did some things right that you could copy in your own movie.

First, use an ordinary guy as your protagonist. In this movie Michael has come to Berlin from Austria to give his ex-girlfriend, Gabi, her keys, and to try to win her back. As he walks into her apartment he finds out she is not there and there is a plumber banging on the radiator. The plumber is the first we see of the victims of the particular virus that causes murderous rage.

This seems ridiculous to us Americans who all carry high-powered assault rifles and .44 Magnums at all times (or so it seems, especially to folks in other countries), that the plumber’s young assistant is shooting at zombies with a slingshot. A slingshot! But it always works in movies to get away from more traditional ways of killing zombies with something more exotic than guns or knives. Maybe you could try killing a zombie with a cocoanut, or dropping a piano on it. It does not really matter what you use to kill them with, just make sure it is interesting and bloody.

Rammbock seemed to skimp on the traditional zombie appearance, depending more on make-up and frothing mouths than more elaborate rotting-face appliances. Why are zombies’ faces all messed up, anyhow? Well, for horror movie shocks, that is why. If you think about it, it seems that some of them would be funky-faced, and others would not. But I guess there is nothing scary about a zombie that doesn’t look like what we expect a zombie to look like. So, on second thought, go with what the audience expects, rotting faces.

You can do like the movie did, and show a crowd of zombies from a distance, and in motion. This was done with a hand-held camera, which gives it a frenetic feel. A bunch of undead running around, grunting and growling, camera moving jerkily, adds to the atmosphere.

The other thing that adds to the atmosphere is, as I mentioned earlier, setting it in a small space. In this case an apartment complex, confined to a few dingy rooms. There were times in the movie when I thought the real-life apartments they filmed in looked squalid enough to be depressing. But it added to the overall atmosphere of fear, anxiety and that good old paranoia.

Before the final scene the main character goes to the roof and looks out over Berlin, with some matte shots of smoke rising above the city. That is a good way to show that everyone is being affected, not just his little group in the apartments.

Unlike Rammbock you could also have a few sex scenes and some naked boobs. Earn your R-rating with more than gore.

I have written before of the original Night of the Living Dead and why, despite its low budget origins, the movie still has the ability to frighten and disturb the viewer. You can read about it in my 2008 post “The Forty-Year Night.”


Kirk said...

You what movie kind of reminds me of the original Night of the Living Dead? Don't laugh, but it's Plan 9 from Outer Space. There's similar imagery, as far as the walking dead is concerned, and in both cases the root cause of the problem is in outer space (aliens in one, a malfunctioning satellite in another.) Of course, George Romero handled it all with a bit more finesse than Ed Wood.

Postino said...

You know, Kirk, I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time in the mid-'70s, after it was being talked about, and the buzz about it was good. I saw Plan 9 From Outer Space on TV years before anyone designated it "the worst movie ever made." Even without seeing that I thought when I saw it that it was a terrible I haven't seen it since. Not even for laughs.