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It seemed rather fitting that we hit the set of writer, director and producer Thomas J. Churchill’s ambitious zombie feature Lazarus on Easter Sunday, and we’re glad we did.
Battling the throngs of Sunday worshippers who’d clogged Los Angeles’ concrete arteries for Hollywood Bowl’s Easter Mass, we made our way to Tarzana, CA, where filmmaker Churchill had set up shop at Waggin’ Tails Lounge, a dog grooming facility owned by his cousin, Kathie Fiorillo. Shooting day twelve of thirteen on the Canon 5D, Churchill was prepping a scene which would feature the re-animation of the dead, and while it may be poised to enter the already bloated sub-genre of independent zombie cinema, readers, do please take note: Lazarus seems to be hell-bent on offering an entirely fresh take.
Set in Hollywood 1957, Lazarus revolves around the character of George Lazarus (Ray Capuana), an insurance investigator who schedules routine interviews with twelve employees of the Deadly Sin Cigarette Company, upon the receipt of a rather suspicious insurance claim. In the process he learns that all twelve had recently been fired for being sick at the job, and then subsequently and without a trace, he disappears. Two weeks later, with Lazarus now a missing person, his heart-sick fiancée Bethany Loomis (Natalie Victoria), along with Chip (Kevin Franklin) undertakes the task of finding him, and in retracing his steps she learns that what was initially regarded as a simple fraud investigation case may actually be the beginning of the end of the human race.
Produced by Churchill and David M. Parks with cinematography by Wolfgang Meyer, Lazarus additionally stars Stephen Geoffreys (Fright Night), Brooke Lewis (iMurders), Josh Hammond (Jeepers Creepers 2), James Duval (Sushi Girl), Brian Andrews (Halloween), Janet Tracy Keijser (House on Haunted Hill), Kenneth J. Hall (The Puppet Master), Krista Grotte and Taylor Morgan Lewis. Roy Knyrim’s SOTA FX provides the special effects, with Clayton Brickert and Robert Giddens assisting.
“I wrote the script in a week,” Churchill told us of Lazarus, as he screened some film noir’esque eye candy footage from the same on his laptop.
“I had some time before Hallow Pointe goes into production,” the filmmaker said of the werewolf flick he’s producing, which is set to lens this August, “and my producing partner thought we should shoot something. He suggested a vampire film and then a zombie film, and the zombie thing has been done to death. But when he asked me how I would approach it, I said, ‘Let’s make it a Hollywood period piece. It will be in black and white. We’ll make it a loose prequel to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead since that film is public domain, in a world where no one has ever heard of a zombie before.’ In fact, the character of Chip is actually intended as the nephew of Night of the Living Dead’s character of Ben. ‘And we’ll make it very Hitchcock.’”
There’s more narrative cleverness at play here too, and while not intended as heavy-handed, Churchill also wove in the devil (the character of ‘Mammom Beelzebub,’ the president of the Deadly Sin Cigarette Company, which he portrays), as well as characters possessing the biblical names of ‘Caine’ and ‘Abel,’ and direct homage to the works of Hitchcock, which clearly have influenced the Queens, NY-born filmmaker (he was wearing a Hitch shirt the day of our visit, whilst smoking a Cuban cigar).
As for recreating the look and feel of the 1950’s on a limited budget, it would appear from the footage which he screened that Churchill has succeeded wildly, in not only set design and props (it all looks quite authentic), but also in casting.
“I wanted the character of Bethany to basically be Grace Kelly,” said Churchill of his intended casting, “and Natalie Victoria was referred to me by Brooke (Lewis). She came in for an audition, and while I had other actresses I’d promised to audition, I knew from my first meeting with Natalie that she was our Bethany. She has an incredible look and is so talented.”
Chatting with Victoria, who portrayed the love interest in the Pierce brothers’ 2011 horror zom-com DeadHeads and who will next be seen in director Hank Braxtan’s horror flick Chemical Peel, the actress stated of what attracted her to Lazarus, “I loved the idea of shooting a film that was a cross between a Hitchcock thriller and the classic Night of the Living Dead. Plus, I’ve always wanted to shoot a film set in the 1950s, so that was also a huge draw!”
As for what she did to prepare for the period piece, “Google! I researched the era’s fashion, style, hair, classic commercials, and I pulled up a few Hitchcock movies like Rear Window and North by Northwest,” Victoria offered. “I wanted to make sure that I captured the ‘naivety’ and simple beauty of that era, pre-Internet.”
Regarding her experience on Lazarus (she’d wrapped the day prior), “It was very smooth,” she said. “The team is great and relaxed and knows what they are aiming for. Tom has a clear vision, which really is wonderful for actors to tune in to, and my fellow actors Ray and Kevin were a joy to work with, and they always came ready to try something new.”
Her enthusiasm is perhaps unsurprising, given the buzz on set regarding Victoria’s chemistry with Franklin.
“Kevin (Franklin) and I rehearsed a lot together,” reflected the actress, “which always helps, and we really got on well off and on screen. He’s a pro, and so natural in his delivery that we were always trying new stuff to add a new spin to a performance or a take. Acting with Kevin is easy. He’s great! Just beware about falling asleep on set around him. He loved taking pictures of me when I cat-napped after a meatball dinner break.”
As for her working relationship with director Churchill, Victoria concluded, “Tom is terrific! Talk about a guy who really is genuine and full of laughs. His personality is so fun on set and really puts everyone at ease. As a director, he had such a clear vision of exactly what he wanted, down to set details, that as an actor he made it easy to jump into a character and tweak performances with his guidance. I remember one scene from the end of the film was really emotional, and he just knew all the right things to say to me before the takes to aid me in giving the best performance possible. I’d definitely love to work with him again!”
It is the year 1957 in Hollywood, CA. A telegram arrives at the office of George Lazarus, an insurance investigator with the assignment to look into a suspicious claim that was just put in by Harvest International Tobacco Company. Lazarus begins to schedule routine interviews with the twelve employees that are named on this claim. He learns that they all had just gotten fired for being sick at the job. He never makes it back to the office. What seemed to be a normal fraud investigation case may have turned out to be the beginning of the end for the human race. His fiancee, Bethany, begins to worry as she realizes that he hasn’t been back at the office since early that morning and he hasn’t checked in either. Not the behavior from a man who lives by daily routine. She decides to follow his path in hopes of locating him. Nothing can prepare her for what she is about to witness in this eerily horrific pre-apocalyptic tale.
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