Fantastic Fest: Digging Up
I sat in last night on a screening of The Dead, a new zombie movie by the Howard and (X) Ford, an up-and-coming British moviemaking duo. The movie follows a downed American pilot trying to make it home, on foot, through the the backcountry of an unnamed African country which is, naturally, crawling with the living dead. He is joined, sometime around the second reel, by Ghanaian superstar Prince David Osei, who is on a hunt to find his son.
The movie is unrelentingly, brutally intense: I still have red marks from my girlfriend digging her nails into my arm at every scary scene, which equaled, approximately 98% of the movie’s 100 minute running time. (The remaining 8 minutes mostly consist of feel-good, inspirational dialogue ripped off from, at a guess, The Color of Friendship.) But almost more bizarre and hellacious then the zombie apocalypse depicted in The Dead, though, is the story of the Ford brothers’ attempts to shoot their movie.
I caught Howard Ford at a Q&A session after the screening.
How did the shooting process go?
Well, between the fact that for most of the time we were supposed to be shooting, our equipment was being held by the police, and the projectile vomiting, things were tough. At any given time about sixty percent of the cast and crew was laid out with intestinal problems, so it was impossible to keep any kind of normal shooting schedule. My brother and I would wake up and say, “Oh, well, do we have a sound guy who can stand? Great! Let’s do dialogue.”
Wait, wait, wait. Your equipment was being held by the police?
Yeah. We had scheduled six weeks of shooting, and for the first five all our equipment—vehicles, camera, guns, props, everything—was held up by the port police. We couldn’t get at it. So we spent five weeks dealing with intestinal ailments, going down to the port, talking to officials, handing them money, talking to more officials, giving them more money. Call it bribery, call it people doing what’s necessary to feed their families—whatever it was, I developed a strain in my shoulder from the physical act of reaching into my pocket, taking out my wallet, and handing over cash.
When you say ‘props,’ though, part of what you mean is fake body parts, right?
Yeah. We had absolute loads of severed arms, heads, legs, bone fragments, everything. This might have accounted for part of the suspicion on the part of the police.
It was gross, though—as they sat in the heat of the port for weeks in the summer, they started to melt. By the time we got them out of the ship, they were sort of gooey.
Being a zombie movie, The Dead called for a lot of zombie extras to just sort of shamble around, eat people, and get shot. Where did you get your extras from?
They were all locals. The legless zombies, the amputees—those were all beggars from the port; the walking zombies were local farmers. We’d come into town—into these places that didn’t have electricity, where everyone walked around barefoot—with this incredible movie set up. We’d put up lights at night, and the villagers would come out to just stare at them. And then we’d put out a casting call, and people were happy to work with us—the money was unbelievably good.
A lot of the soldiers you see in the movie, by the way, were real soldiers, which sort of points to the idea that everything in Africa is for sale. We were shooting by the border with Sierra Leone, where there was a very real threat of war. So we rode into town with all these fake guns and jeeps and body parts, and these soldiers—who are supposed to be guarding the boder—came to investigate. Some money changed hands, and they ended up signing on as extras.
No. Money buys everything. We actually bought some AK-47s to use as props—we asked them to give us blank rounds, but they handed them over with boxes and boxes of very real ammo. They even sold us this jeep-mounted machine-gun, this thing that fires bullets that go through buildings.
Was it hard working with people who had so little experience with movies?
It was worse than that—we didn’t even have a language in common. We would have to give our directions to a guy who spoke French, and then he’d translate them to the actor—and then there’s the issue that, oh, wait, he’s never acted before. Sometimes it would take hours to do a few-second cut of a zombie walking.
This one zombie from the beginning, real simple scene, the main character just walks around him and keeps going. But we had to do take after take, because he was so happy—he was making three month’s pay for a day’s work, and he was going to be able to feed his family. He wouldn’t stop smiling.
So was it difficult to explain to people what zombies were?
We didn’t have to. My brother and I were trying to go back to the very beginnings of the zombie myth. And before George Romero, before Haitian voodoo, that story came out of French West Africa, which is exactly where we were shooting. When we said ‘zombie,’ people knew exactly what we were talking about.
Were people in the villages suspicious?
Some were. Some wouldn’t let us film them. Remember, we rolled into town with guns and trucks and piles of very real-looking body parts and told people, essentially, “Hey, if you’ll drive off far away from civilization with us, we’ll give you money.” A lot of people were afraid that they were going to end up as body parts too.
Favorite zombie movie?
George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, which is a serious inspiration for this movie. Also, of course, Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, which was the inspiration for Romero’s film.
And features a zombie fighting a shark.
Yeah. We were actually trying to have a scene with a zombie fighting a tiger, but it didn’t work out.