Growing Up With Film
Many of my earliest memories are of watching movies. Watching television or film was never a babysitter; my parents were not the type to turn on a movie just to keep me entertained. Even as a child, watching a movie was an experience, a real event. However, unlike most children, my taste in movies was not the normal. I was not as interested in the latest Disney film or any other G rated offering. Instead, I was a fan of horror movies. I never found them scary, and I was educated enough to know they were fiction and everything was fake. That is possibly what I liked most about horror movies. I loved the special effects, the creatures that were created on screen and always the gore. By age eight I had seen the first eight Friday the 13th films and the first five A Nightmare on Elm Street films. This is not an indictment on my parents; I wanted to see these films, and in fact I loved them. I had seen all previous installments of horror franchises such as: Candyman, Warlock, Darkman, Bloodspecies, Puppet Master, Hellraiser, Howling, Child’s Play, etc… and looked forward to every new sequel. My father and I would watch the most obscure horror movies whether in the theater or on video. Sometimes we would be the only two in the theater, but my father knew I had a passion for the genre.
I eventually grew up and started to appreciate other genres of film. As a teenager, I would watch the Academy Awards and root for my favorite actors and actresses, and then try to watch the films they had been nominated for. I watched several great dramas, comedies and action films in my teenage years, but I still could not shake my love for the horror genre. I still was passionate about the previous film franchises mentioned and followed some of them religiously.
Into my twenties and now early thirties, I spent more time watching movies the critics like and by the time the Academy Awards roll around I have seen nearly every film before the awards show telecast. I became what I call a student of film. I appreciated film for more than just the entertainment value that most moviegoers seek. I began to understand and appreciate what certain producers, directors and cinematographers were doing, the kind of art they were trying to create and the passion they had. I began to follow certain producers and directors because I liked their style. However, even though my taste in film had matured, I still loved the horror genre and would watch nearly every horror film I could get my hands on. Including following new horror franchises such as: Saw, Scream, and Resident Evil.
I began to see that the quality of horror films being released either at the box-office or direct to DVD were at a rapid decline. There was a lack of originality as nearly every other new horror film was a remake from a previous film. Studios began to shelf some of their films in favor of films they thought would make more money. However, some of these shelved films were absolute horror gems that many people never got a chance to see such as The Midnight Meat Train, Trick ‘r Treat and The Hills Run Red to name a few. The best major studio horror film to reach the theater has been The Cabin in the Woods released earlier this year. Because the studios were releasing low quality horror films in the theater and hiding better films from horror fans, I could no longer trust the genre. I knew I needed help to determine what I should spend my time watching. I stumbled upon a website called Bloody Disgusting.com and I have used it to help sort through the countless horror movies that get released every year.
I would like to think that fans of the genre are the people responsible for making horror films come to life on the big screen. This may be the case and these filmmakers could be facing limitations from the studios they work under; therefore, their production does not become as successful as they wanted or the fans wanted. As a diehard fan of the horror genre I have seen countless films, good and bad. I feel like I know what the fans of the genre want. Therefore, I want to produce my own horror film as my graduate project to finish my graduate degree in communications at the University of Central Missouri. I have written a horror/comedy screenplay based on a zombie outbreak at a pizzeria titled Dough of the Dead, and I am close to starting production for this project.
Why Zombies? An Academic Look into the Genre
Horror movies are my favorite genre because of what they make me feel, they make me feel afraid. The goal of every horror movie is to frighten the viewer, or have the viewer experience the feeling of fear in a safe environment (Dickstein, 1980). Zombie movies terrify me more than any other genre because of the sense of Armageddon and the issue of death itself, especially life after death. I agree with Peter Dendle (2001) who said “zombies are an unashamed mockery of humankind’s most universally cherished ideals: life after death.” (p. 10) I also agree with Kim Gregson (2005) when she said that “zombie films take death several steps further by bringing the dead back to life.” (p. 8) However, director Brian Yuzna (2002) explains the appeal of the zombie genre best: “It is straight, unapologetic, unpretentious horror; horror that’s not all gussied up in mainstream drag looking for respectability; horror that goes straight for your eyeballs… with a long wooden splinter.” (p. 25) The zombie sub-genre in horror movies simply is my favorite, not just for the reasons quoted above, but I also love the special effects involved with creating the walking dead. Today, the popularity of zombies in the mass media is at an all-time high.
To explain the rise in popularity of the zombie sub genre in horror films, one must look at the cinematic history of the zombie genre. Gregson (2005) and Kyle Bishop (2009) claim that the genre got its start as early as the 1930s and 1940s with films White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) but did not become a recognizable genre until George Romero released his classic Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Dendle (2001) even jokingly calls Romero the “Shakespeare of zombie cinema.” (p. 121) Bishop then goes onto explain that Romero made Night of the Living Dead as a satire to the then current Vietnam War, a common trend in all of Romero’s films. Romero’s satiric film spawned a slew of zombie films in the 1970s and 1980s including: Garden of the Dead, Return of the Evil Dead, Horror of the Zombies, Zombie, Night of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies, Mansion of the Living Dead and Kung Fu Zombie to name a few.
According to Bishop (2009) the zombie sub-genre was all but dead by the time Michael Jackson released his Thriller video in 1983. Although Romero tried to bring new life into the genre with Day of the Dead (1985) fans wanted more comedic films like Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985). Movie goers of the 1980’s were too consumer friendly and carefree to want to take a serious look at personal and societal values that Romero included in his films. The genre lay silent until Danny Boyle started the zombie renaissance in 2002 with his film 28 Days Later. The film was a success and green-lit several more zombie films including Resident Evil, Shaun of the Dead, Romero’s own Land of the Dead and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Bishop placed the recent rise in zombie popularity because of events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He explains that “horror films function as barometers of society’s anxieties, and zombie movies represent the inescapable realities of unnatural death while presenting a grim view of the modern apocalypse.” (2009, p. 17). Evidence supports his theory as zombie films have been on a steady rise since 2002. Much like the satirical work Romero was producing since the late 1960’s, twenty-first century filmmakers were creating “zombie cinema [that] represented a stylized reaction to cultural consciousness and particularly to social and political injustices.” (2009, p. 19) Simone do Vale (2010) echoes Bishop by claiming “that the proliferation of horror movies often coincides with times of overall insecurity.” (p. 194)
Zombies in the mass media have been primarily seen only in film, this is because they are better suited for film. Bishop (2006) suggest that it is because zombies “lack emotional depth, their inability to express or act on human desires, and their primarily visual nature make zombies ill-suited for the written word; zombies thrive best on screen.” (p. 200) This is now evident today. The graphic novel The Walking Dead has a huge fanbase, but became a worldwide phenomenon once it became a television series on AMC. After only a few episodes during the first season of The Walking Dead it became one of the most watched programs, not only on cable, but in all of television. High viewership quickly green-lit a second season and a third season is currently in production. Max Brooks wrote a bestselling faux-nonfiction novel World War Z which is currently being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and is expected to be a big blockbuster film in the summer of 2013.
Bishop (2006) claims that the zombie genre is as popular now as it was when Romero released his classic Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960’s. The genre has evolved into one that has the “ability to make audiences think while they shriek.” (p. 196) The zombie sub-genre has replaced the previous extremely popular vampire genre today, this is why making a zombie film at this time is a smart choice. Zombies are “hot” and the fanbase is looking for more, more originality, more creativity, and more zombie fun. I believe that making a zombie film at this time is a smart decision due to the current climate of zombie popularity. Zombies will forever be a part of the mass media because of how zombies make us feel. They may make us laugh, they may scare us and they even might make us think about our own humanity. Bishop (2006) says it best: “Zombies are not uncanny because of their humanistic qualities; they are uncanny because they are, in essence, a grotesque metaphor for humanity itself.” (p. 201)
The Original Concept
The story idea for Dough of the Dead began several years ago due to a conversation with a co-worker at SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza. A co-worker asked me if zombies invaded the restaurant what item in the kitchen I would use to defend myself. From that moment we began making up little stories and scenarios involving zombies invading our restaurant. Screenplay work on Dough of the Dead began in January 2011; I knew it was not going to be a full length movie. I was a huge fan of the Tales from the Crypt show when I was younger and wanted to turn my zombie story idea into an episode that would fit that show: a thirty minute short film. I wrote the screenplay and used actual co-workers and other friends as inspiration for a majority of the characters. Many crew members at SPIN! Pizza became inspirations to several characters. Up until the moment the zombies arrive, every scene and dialog comes straight from conversations I have overheard as a manager at SPIN! Pizza. The screenplay was finished by May 2011, and it sat to collect dust. I always wanted to make a movie from that screenplay for fun, but knew it was impossible. It was not until early 2012 when it was revealed to me that I could produce a short film as a graduate project instead of a thesis or full length screenplay that I quickly started getting pre-production underway.
- Bishop, K. (2006). Raising the dead. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 33(4), 196-205.
- Bishop, K. (2009). Dead man still walking: Explaining the zombie renaissance. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 37(1), 16-25.
- Dendle, P. (2001). The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarlan & Co., Inc. Publishers
- Dickstein, M. (1980). The aesthetics of fright. American Film, 56, 32-37.
- do Vale, Simone. (2010). Trash mob: Zombie walks and the positivity of monsters in western popular culture. At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries, 70, 191-202.
- Gregson, K. (2005). Understanding the appeal of zombie films: A disposition theory approach. Conference Papers – International Communication Association. New York, NY, 1-28.
- Yuzna, B. (2002). Italian Zombies. In Slayer, J. Eaten Alive! Italian cannibal and zombie movies. London: Plexus.