Zombies are all over the place these days… cartoons, movies, comics, you name it. America, and the world, has fallen in love with the walking dead all over again. There’s something about those shambling, rotting, flesh eating corpses we just adore – maybe it’s their gleefully gluttonous eat or die mentality, maybe their simple pleasure in a good hunk of fresh meat. I don’t know, but we sure seem to find the smelly buggers irresistible.
In 2005, a couple of genre fan/filmmakers decided to express their love for our undead buddies and make their own independent film. Now that it’s completed, The Zombie Diaries is beginning to get noticed and gather acclaim. Co-writer/producer/directors, Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett took some time out to answer some of our questions.
Morgan Elektra: First off, I’d like to thank both of you for taking the time to answer some of our questions. It’s greatly appreciated!
The Zombie Diaries weaves together three different storylines of survivors of a viral outbreak in a post-apocalyptic world of the undead. Can you tell us a little bit about how the two of you first came up with the idea?
Michael Bartlett: I was in a rather stagnant, unchallenging job at the time, which meant my mind had a lot of time to wander. I had just finished a short film, Mnemosyne, and was looking for a new project. I found myself thinking about a film I’d seen called “Ever Since the World Ended” which was a post-apocalyptic documentary. I had heard a lot about the film prior to its screening at The Raindance Film Festival and had imagined the camera men in the movie walking through the empty cities and showing the devastated remnants of America; something literally jaw-dropping. It ended up not really satisfying me. I thought the idea of documenting a post-apocalyptic world hadn’t been executed properly, so I decided it would be a suitable project. The film, however, had to have a commercial edge, and that’s where the integration of zombies came from.
Kevin, I knew very well was much more well acquainted with the horror genre, so I contacted him with my idea which I originally had conceived as a short.
Kevin Gates: I thought it would have more potential as a feature and given the way it would be shot using handheld video cameras, it wouldn’t cost that much to produce. It took us no time at all to settle on the idea and start writing.
MB: We began to run with the idea.
ME: And how did it develop?
KG: We came up with two story ideas initially and didn’t develop the third until later. Both stories were set a month or so after a virus had struck the UK and showed how survivors were adapting to a dangerous new world infested with the living dead. Mike and I couldn’t have been further apart during the writing process, Mike being in Missouri and myself being down in Cornwall. However, thanks to e-mail we were able to send our scripts back and forth to each other for feedback.
The original idea was to have three directors writing and directing different stories. Mike and I ditched that idea, as we couldn’t find a suitable candidate for the third story. We decided the best course of action was to collaborate together on the third story. Mike wrote a rough draft that I reworked and expanded into what would become our favourite of the three stories “The Outbreak” – that showed how the virus began, leading right up to where the other stories start.
ME: You’ve mentioned you’re both fans of the genre. Can you tell us about some of your favorite horror movies?
KG: Lucio Fulci is probably my favourite director, certainly his movies from the early 1970s up to about 1982. Films like Zombi 2 (Zombie Flesh Eaters), The House by the Cemetery and The Beyond are some of my favourites and have a fantastic atmosphere that is so far removed from the American horror films of the period.
My favourite film of all time however is John Carpenter’s The Thing. For me it’s the perfect horror/sci-fi movie and no-one (including Carpenter himself) has come close to it since then. Other films that have been a big influence on me within the horror genre are obviously Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but also many other Italian horror films like The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, Suspiria and Cannibal Holocaust. I also love trashier Italian movies and the likes of Bruno Mattei and Umberto Lenzi’s gore soaked epics of the early/mid-80s.
MB: My favourite horror films are: The Exorcist, The Thing and Jacob’s Ladder. I also enjoy a good old fashioned cheesy horror film, so last Halloween I bought myself Island Of Terror and The Fiend without A Face on DVD. It’s hard to take the genre that seriously anymore. Most contemporary horror directors seem to spend more time paying homage to existing movies than actually making good, original horror films. I haven’t seen Eli Roth’s Hostel or Lucky McGee’s The Woods and I probably won’t because I have been so utterly disappointed with their previous work, and this extends beyond them to most contemporary horror directors. It was actually the lousy second half of Jeepers Creepers that inspired me to make films in the first place; I figured “I can do a hell of a lot better than this.”
In fact, even most of the old timers don’t seem to be able to match their earlier movies (John Carpenter is a classic example). The genre has become very much geared towards ‘jump’ moments and less towards atmosphere. I think that’s a very bad thing.
The last good horrors I saw were R-Point and The Descent, and I would recommend them to everyone.
ME: Who are some of your favourite directors, and how did they influence The Zombie Diaries?
MB: My favourite directors are Stanley Kubrick, Steven Soderbergh and David Lynch. In terms of influence on The Zombie Diaries, I would say The Blair Witch Project was obviously a massive influence, and also Romero’s Dead trilogy. I watched all his movies as a kid and absolutely loved them.
KG: There’s certainly elements of Blair Witch and Cannibal Holocaust in the way it has been filmed. The opening credits sequence has shades of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, with city workers suffocating from pollution on their way to work while a radio announcer speaks of the coming virus. There are these nods here and there, but we haven’t gone too far and have tried to keep things as original as possible.
ME: What do you like best about the horror genre? What do you say to people who disparage it?
KG: Critics look down their noses at the horror genre but it doesn’t bother me. So many people love horror films and I think the horror film fans are the best part of the horror genre. In no other genre to you find people with such enthusiasm and passion for their movies.
ME: Every story has a beginning. What started you down the path to being a horror fan, and ultimately, making horror movies?
MB: My best friend used to be allowed to rent any movie he wanted when he was, like, 6 years old. His parents used to go out and party a lot so I was sent to his house to keep him company. We both got to see all the classics. In fact we rented everything. I always said to people I knew that I would one day make a film. It never became a reality until I went with a friend to watch Jeepers Creepers, which had been hyped as the “best American horror film in the last decade.” I was incredibly disappointed by the second half of the it; the great atmosphere had been substituted for a Benny Hill sequence involving a man in a rubber suit chasing a pretty girl and her brother. I knew I could do better and thanks to the low-cost of digital equipment, the time was right.
KG: Mine started in the late 1970s when my parents bought their first VHS machine (one of those huge top-loading steel contraptions). They used to rent lots of movies and my father particularly used to rent lots of horror movies that I was obviously forbidden to watch. But curiosity got the better of me and I recall sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night and switched on a bit of a movie called The Devil’s Rain and was awe-struck. I remember the scene at the end with the melting faces and for a kid who’d never seen any horror film before it was quite an incredible experience. I’ve not seen the film since then but have kept it as a fond memory, which is probably for the best. After then I saw more and more films and the friendly owner of my local video store in the 80s used to let me rent whatever I wanted. So I’d watch the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Devouring Waves and all manner of trashy horror flicks. They were great days indeed and I’ve been hooked on horror movies ever since!
ME: The two of you wrote, directed, and edited the film together. Kevin, you studied film for several years and have a degree in experimental filmmaking, wheras Michael is completely self-taught. Was there a difference in the styles and techniques you each used, and how did you work together with such dissimilar backgrounds?
MB: Actually we pretty much rotated in and out of directing and producing almost seamlessly. There wasn’t one moment of tension on the set between us. Although we have different backgrounds, the one thing we did have in-common is that we had both been in charge of and directed a film before. The experience you learn under that sort of pressure is what really shapes you, in my opinion.
KG: Whilst studying film-making at film school or university can’t teach you everything, it gives you an invaluable grounding and discipline that you can put into practice when out in the real world making films. I don’t believe you can learn film-making just from watching movies, you have to get out there and work with other people and learn your craft.
MB: Kev and I don’t really have directing “styles” as such. We don’t panic, we make sure we don’t wrap a scene until we’re happy, and we are always respectful of everyone around us. I think it’s how you relate to people that makes you a good director, not whether you attend a one-day film course or a 3-year film degree.
KG: I always think through thoroughly and do the necessary preparation and that’s vital on a low budget film. If you don’t spend the time preparing, you’re just going to waste people’s time and a lot of indie shoots suffer from being badly organised. Once all the preparation is done, it makes it so much easier on the day of the shoot and as we’d done our homework, the shoot for The Zombie Diaries ran very smoothly.
MB: Obviously you need to have a vision, but I am not convinced that’s something that can be taught. Just look at the filmmaker who was the subject of the “American Movie” documentary. He had more film texts than I have had hot dinners, yet I’m not convinced he really knew how to conceive and make a film.
KG: We worked very well together, despite our different backgrounds. We wrote, directed and produced in equal proportions but I was also doing a lot of the technical stuff. The crew – aside from the special effects guys and a few production assistants – was just Mike and myself, therefore a lot of the camerawork when the actors weren’t doing it themselves was done by me. It was a risk letting the actors film, but we wanted authenticity. I tried only to operate the camera when something had to be spot on like a special effects shot.
There were rarely any disagreements in production or post production. There’s nothing worse than working on a film where the people aren’t getting on. On a low budget film, it’s a recipe for disaster. We got a good bunch of people together for The Zombie Diaries and everyone believed in the movie and stuck with us.
ME: You began production in July of 2005, finished by the end of the year, and spent most of 2006 in post. Tell us about what it’s like getting funding for, filming, and then editing, a low budget independent horror film.
MB: I have no idea about getting funding. I know so many people who are stuck at the script stage due to following the funding route. Kevin and I ensured the film was 100% financed between the two of us.
KG: Private investment is really the only way to make these types of movies. Unfortunately the various film councils, funding bodies etc don’t put money into films of a horror or fantasy nature. They prefer dramas that have something to say about contemporary society. Fair play to them, but those types of films don’t interest me. Whenever I see a film and at the start it displays “in association with the UK Film Council” I’m immediately put off because I know what’s coming. For me, film is all about escapism and fantasy and I hope to continue to make films within this genre.
Because of the way The Zombie Diaries is shot, there wasn’t a need for a big crew and this kept costs down and was one of the reasons we were able to shoot it on such a low budget. We called in lots of help and favours such as getting the Territorial Army (The UK’s equivalent of the National Guard) involved in certain scenes, which helped raise the production value. That together with some great locations meant we got a lot of stuff for free, that otherwise would have cost a small fortune.
ME: What was the best moment you had? The worst?
MB: Filming The Zombie Diaries was a great experience, although there were a lot of ups and downs. The worst moment for me was when we had our actors all booked into a hotel for a long weekend shoot and it pretty much poured down with rain the entire time. The best moment was seeing the make-up by Scott Orr for the first time. My jaw literally dropped. The effect I am referring to is the zombie that will soon to become known as “Picnic zombie.” Of course, you’ll understand when you see the film.
KG: Editing was all done at my studio, which was great as it meant we could take our time cutting the movie. As the film was shot digitally it also meant we could edit on affordable editing packages. It was an enjoyable process, mainly because we didn’t have to conform to the normal editing rules. Jump cuts were used throughout the film and I also degraded the footage at certain points to add to the authenticity of the “found footage” theme.
Given the nature of the film being three stories, we tried out various editing structures, but settled on what we’ve called the “Pulp Fiction edit” that I conceived by not wanting the film to come across as an anthology of three stories, each with a beginning, middle and end. You can imagine the pacing – it would have been up and down throughout. The film is therefore edited so it has a much better pace and makes the audience think a little as the timelines flick back and forth and elements of the stories cross into each other.
The extremely positive test screenings we’ve had to several hundred people have shown that the movie with this structure appeals to both commercial and art house audiences and this is very pleasing.
ME: Michael, you’ve kept a running blog for several years, chronicling your steps on the road of independent, self-taught filmmaking. I know many of our readers aspire to do what you’ve done and continue to do. Any words of advice for those people out there who are thinking about picking up a camera, or who have been dabbling?
MB: Five golden rules. (1) Actually make a film. Most filmmakers I have known (in years) have not actually even made a movie, they just talk about making one. (2) Welcome criticism. You only get better by finding out where you are going wrong. (3)Know what to drop, what to keep. Some people who give you criticism will make very good points, others may be the wrong demographic for your film, or may just not “get” your film, so don’t listen to every bit of criticism, but make sure you think over everything and decide what to drop and what to keep. (4)Make an effort to do something with your film. There’s no point making a movie then doing nothing with it. Get it shown – either at festivals or on TV. (5)Network. Use the power of the Internet to make alliances and friends with other filmmakers out there. I have made some great contacts through my website alone but I have always made an effort to talk to others. I once approached Shane Carruth (Winner of Sundance 2004 with Primer) cold at the height of the Primer buzz. There was a 99% chance he wouldn’t respond. But I did anyway. And guess what? He responded, gave me a 2 hour telephone interview, and 6 months later he was watching my short film giving me feedback, which was very helpful!
ME: The horror genre has enjoyed over the last several years, an explosion of, I wouldn’t say popularity because the fans have always been there, but wide acceptance and exposure. Some people think it’s linked to the desensitization of society, or the surge of war and disaster around the world. What do you think has caused it?
KG: Society may have become desensitized in recent years because of the immediacy of thousands of news channels and websites like Liveleak that show atrocities all over the world direct on your home PC. I don’t think man’s inhumanity to man has got any worse; it’s just a case that we can all view graphic and real depictions of violence and cruelty at the click of a button whereas ten years ago we’d probably just read about it in the newspapers.
I don’t really believe the increasing popularity of horror movies has much to do with this, however. I think there’s still a huge distinction between reality and fantasy. I think a lot of the mainstream acceptance has been due to the casting in a lot of these movies to make them more appealing to the younger generation. Hence you have rap stars and even the likes of the useless Paris Hilton to sell a horror movie. Censorship has also become more restrained; certainly here in the UK and movies that previously would have been 18 are now certified 15, giving the movies a wider audience.
A lot of horror fans are getting fed up with the seemingly endless cycle of remakes and sequels. I think film historians will look back on this period in years to come as a time of creative redundancy, certainly within Hollywood and the studio system. It’s strange, as technology is pushing the boundaries of what is possible even further, yet the studios are going backwards with the movies they’re making. There are the odd exceptions who are trying something new, but sadly they’re few and far between.
ME: I’m sure you’re getting a lot of comparisons to George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, since the names are similar (though it should be noted that production on The Zombie Diaries had been completed before Romero even announced his newest project), but the idea of following and chronicling the lives of survivors in the aftermath is what the zombie subgenre is all about, and is not just limited to film. It’s what Max Books did in his novel World War Z (review), as well as what’s being done in the popular comic The Walking Dead, albeit without a camera. Since the basic structure of the zombie story is so similar across the board, how did you go about making The Zombie Diaries unique and memorable?
KG: Well the main hook of The Zombie Diaries is the subjective camera, which is a first for a zombie feature film. Also, the story focuses on the survival in a new world, where the humans are more dangerous to each other than the zombies are. The zombies are there and will rip your guts out if you give them a chance, but they’re often in the background. When you watch the film, you’ll see what I mean when you look at the deaths in the movie and how they occur.
Also the structure of the film is also what sets it apart from similar films like Blair Witch and Cannibal Holocaust. From what I’ve read about Diary of the Dead, this will also be what differentiates our film from Romero’s. I’d like to think we’ve put a fresh spin on the zombie film, whilst remaining very commercial.
ME: You put your actors through a very intense casting process to find the right people for The Zombie Diaries. Can you tell us what you did, and why you felt it was necessary?
MB: If one is going to essentially fake “real” video diaries, the acting has to be absolutely spot-on. The acting in similar movies, the Blair Witch and Zero Day, was very good but in another, Alien Abduction, was pretty awful. What really made Blair Witch and Zero Day work was the quality of the acting – it felt real. People’s voyeurism takes over and they get drawn into these artificial world. That is exactly what I wanted to achieve. My goal was for people to flick onto The Zombie Diaries in a few years on cable, not know what it was, and ideally think what they were watching was real.
My last film, “Mnemosyne”, a 20-minute short, was praised for its script, cinematography and sound, but unanimously criticised for its acting. I spoke to Shane Carruth (who had got great performances from non-pro actors in Primer) about it as well as other directors I had met through my website, one being Daniel Outram. They suggested a few things to me, and I realised that in order to get the right acting we would need to be uncompromising during casting. We surprised actors with improvisation requests, in some cases for entire sequences from the movie; it was important they could handle this, as sometimes we surprised the actors when filming the movie with things they didn’t expect. So we had to be sure they would thrive on these kinds of situations. Some people found it very awkward and we were immediately able to rule them out. Others absolutely flourished and we knew they were worth a second look. Once we chose the cast I made sure they rehearsed the script to fully know the goals and motivation of each scene, but then they were asked to improvise around it. The results were so much more energetic and realistic.
ME: One of the things you’ve said is that you wouldn’t go ahead with the project until you had the special effects team of Scott Orr, Cesar Alonso and Mike Peel on board. Why was that so important to you?
KG: Well, being a zombie film we had to have some damn good zombie effects. Without them, the film simply wouldn’t work and would fall flat on its face. We knew we could get away with the handheld filming style because of the nature of the movie. But this is a zombie movie and we couldn’t do a Blair Witch and not show anything. If we wanted to compete with the big boys and get a realistic chance of a decent release out of The Zombie Diaries, we needed some great zombie effects that would stand up against the unforgiving harshness of the digital look.
I’d worked with Scott Orr and Mike Peel before and knew they possessed the talent to create some great effects for us. Cesar Alonso also came on board and formed a great team who created some truly memorable zombies and gore scenes. One journalist recently said; “the zombies look like they’ve been dipped in acid!”
ME: What has the response been so far to The Zombie Diaries, and what are you hoping people take away from watching it?
MB: We have had some interest from German and UK distributors already, although we haven’t launched it at any film festivals yet. The response from the test screenings was very good. Our film became the first movie to sell out at our local theatre on pre-bookings alone – not even Spider Man or Lord Of The Rings managed that – and this was all with very minimal publicity.
Our hopes are that people will find it an incredibly enjoyable 80 minutes of escapism. When we make films, our goal is to entertain and provide imaginative escapism. I hope people feel that what they have watched feels as real as seeing any kind of other disaster through the eyes of a camcorder, and hopefully just as engrossing.
ME: In ten years, where are Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett and what are they doing?
MB: I am moonlighting as the main reviewer for Aint It Cool News in the sad wake of Harry Knowles’ triple heart-attack. I return the website back to its hardcore roots where truly awful movies are punished by ruthless reviews – that is, of course, until a large, well known studio executive approaches me with a black suitcase filled with cash.
KG: After earning a comfortable existence making genre pictures for several years, I’m contemplating the great comeback and hoping my next movie doesn’t turn out like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 3.
ME: And finally, what do you want written on your tombstone?
MB: “I’ll be fine – it’s just my allergies again”
KG: “Be right back”
On that note, I want to thank the guys again for taking the time to answer our questions. For more information on the film, make sure you stop by The Zombie Diaries official site. It looks pretty groovy … Here’s hoping they line up some distribution soon so we can all see it soon!