Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Comedy of Errors

Rhys Davies Interview - Zombie Undead

10 June 11 words: Patrick Waggett
"I like the shambling, slow zombies. The fact that it's the numbers that grind you down, rather than the speed or ferociousness of them"

Many Directors start of their careers, cutting their teeth in the horror genre. Sam Raimi burst onto the scene with cult classic The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson showed the world Bad Taste... but look where they are now – directing blockbusters such as Lord of The Rings and Spiderman.

Leicesterbased director Rhys Davies has decided to follow suit with his debut feature film, Zombie Undead. The film begins with a terrorist attack on Leicester city centre and people have been re-directed to an out of town evacuation centre. Here we meet the main character Sarah (Ruth King), en route in the back of off-duty paramedic Steve's (Barry Thomas) car, trying to stem the flow of her stricken father’s blood. Entering the evacuation centre, they're greeted by chaos; patients strewn across the floor amid pools of blood. A doctor rushes to help Sarah's father, plunges an adrenaline needle into his chest and Sarah passes out. When she wakes, the centre is deadly silent as she goes in search of her father. Is Sarah prepared for this devastating epidemic?!

We had a chat with Rhys to find out what inspired his film and ask him how much blood is enough…

So, why zombies?
I thought about zombies because, hopefully, you can sell a zombie film - it’s a marketable product. I’d only ever done one short film before and I thought that I could carry on doing lots of short films or just jump in and go on the journey of making a feature film - so I decided to do that! When you say you’re making a zombie film, most people smile. But if you say you're making a drama film they say “ok, that's quite interesting”; zombies just seem to engage people a bit more.  I'm a horror fan as well, so I wanted to make a film in that genre first to see what I could do.

So it's a bit like certain directors in Hollywood, like Sam Raimi, that use the horror genre as a stepping stone into the industry. Was that your idea…
I think that’s part of it, to be honest. Let’s face it, horror films have certain rules. So for a first attempt you think there’s a fairly good chanceof moving on from that, and yeah, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, they all started out with really low budget, 'splatter movies' didn't they? I'm happy doing what I'm doing now, making low budget feature films, just as long as I can carry on really. It's all about making the next film.
 

Leicester - not a great place to be on this day...

You mentioned Peter Jackson as well.  Which filmmakers and films are influences on Zombie Undead?
Peter Jackson's got to influence anyone, whether you're a horror director or not. What he did with Lord Of The Rings is absolutely amazing, even fans of the books liked it which is pretty incredible. He’s someone you can aspire to, someone with a vision and who makes it happen. I think The Frighteners was the biggest budget thing he had made before LOTR, the leap up from that… He is the perfect example of if you've got passion and talent, you can go and do something big. What I wanted to do with Zombie Undead is not just make a film with zombies, but for it to be about the characters and how they react to each other and have the tension building up to breaking point throughout the film. It probably sounds a bit pretentious, but Alfred Hitchcock influenced me - he knew how to build up tension.

When we first meet Jay in the film, do we sense a bit of Shaun Of The Dead
That was probably his outfit. It was actually what the actor (Kris Tearse) wore on the day and probably his own homage to Shaun... with the shirt, the tie and stuff. Zombie Undead is an update on George A. Romero's kind of zombies, we were aiming for a hardcore update rather than completely twisting it in a different way. SOTD and 28 Days Later, they really took it in a different direction… Shaun Of The Dead, what a film!

In Zombie Undead you never actually hear the word zombie and they roam around at a slow pace. Was that part of your homage to Romero?
Yeah! I loved the remake of Dawn Of The Dead because I like the more shambling, slow zombies. The fact that it's the numbers that grind you down, rather than the speed or ferociousness of them. You can run away from them, but eventually they will get you. If zombies run quickly, you're kind of doomed wherever aren't you?

Do you have a personal favourite zombie film?
As long as we agree 28 Days Later is classified as a zombie film. The original The Night Of The Living Dead too, because it's so intense in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of way.

The BBFC classified Zombie Undead as 15 for "strong language, violence and gore". Would you have preferred an 18?
Things have changed over the past ten years or so and I know the amount of gore to make a film an 18 is, well, you can have a lot in there. I used to see films when I was a kid that were on the video nasties list in the eighties. You look at them now, they're so tame - if that's the right word - especially when you compare them to something like A Serbian Film, things like that which are very hardcore and nasty in places. Is there a benefit of having an 18 certificate? It's more gore and people want to see that, but if it's open to a wider audience as a 15, that can't be a bad thing. I remember I read an interview in Fangoria Magazine about an Irish zombie film... I can't remember what it's called, but it was about ten years ago and they said; 'you will never have enough blood in your film'. I went into this Zombie Undead thinking that and you think you have a lot of blood, but afterward you see you still need more. Don't do what I did and think you've got enough, chuck more in!

Talking of the blood and gore, it looks great! The production values are high, tell us about the special effects.
It all comes down to one guy, Gavin Pate. He’d not done feature films before but had done a lot of Halloween kind of make-up and doing stuff by himself, learning from Fangoria and just picking it up.  The Tom Savini way, I guess, but he didn’t go to Vietnam!  His budget was about 45p and what he and the three or four students he worked with on the film achieved with that...

Your budget was quite restricted - was there more blood, gore and violence in the original script? Also, the explosion at the beginning of the film, would you have preferred to have shown that?
I think that if it looks good, show it. If you can't make it look good, than you've got to try and work around it. Ideally, of course, I wanted it, whether digitally or through practicals but we didn't have the budget or the after effects knowledge.  There isn't anything worse than seeing any kind of film, whether a big Hollywood blockbuster or not, where the special effects just do not cut it.  It ruins the illusion. So we decided to go the other way and have the scene fade to white and hope the sounds would get you past that point. It's all about compromise. If you haven't got the money, shoot it however you can, because you can be waiting forever for money.
 

Zombie Undead - directed by Rhys Davies

One of the films strengths is that it was all shot on location, mainly in what appears to be a hospital?
The evacuation zone was shot at De Montfort University. Originally it was a hospital in the script, but we cut it down so it could be anywhere people would go to in this situation. I think it gains a lot by having the big corridors; we didn’t have a set, which is a bit flakey, but you work with what you've got, basically. If I was to do this again, I would be a lot cleverer with locations and scriptwriting. I’m writing stuff now and trying to do it around a smaller number of people and locations for a quicker turnaround.

Was it difficult to crew and cast the film? Kris Tearse who wrote the script, also plays Jay.
He’s also part of The Candle Theory who did the music, so between three of us we probably did 80% of the film! Kris came in fairly early with a script and the two of us were pushing for its completion. You’ve got to have as few people as possible because you're not paying. I wasn't paid, no-one was paid. Low budget is about choosing as few people as you can and make it as enjoyable as you can, but it won't be easy. People haven't done this in Leicester as well, it was definitely the first horror feature to be shot here. It was a whole new territory for us but a great chance to get people from Leicester involved.

There is a nice shot of zombies roaming around Leicester city centre. Was it difficult to get the extras to achieve that scene?
We pitched that to people through Facebook, Twitter, etc... They had to turn up at 5am on a Sunday at the Art Organisation where we had an hour to get a hundred zombies all made up. We did shifts of about twenty extras, by the end we got up on a tall building, got the cameras to lean over and take the shots of all these zombies.  The only problem was that the DOP and myself suffer from vertigo, so we were both holding the camera, leaning right back, we didn't really know what we'd got until we got back. But it worked out really well and it shows a bit of Leicester. Nottingham has that kind of film history with Shane Meadows, Paddy Considine, and there's lots going on there. I'm from Leicester, I wanted to prove to people that you can do it anywhere. You don't have to be in London, it doesn't make a difference, people have talent wherever they are. I wanted to keep it local as I could; local people, locations, extras, crew and cast. We got a lot of publicity from Radio Leicester, The Mercury Newspaper, East Midlands Today, etc...

How long did it take to make from concept to completion?
About two years… probably longer than that actually, two and a half. You say that to some people and they say 'my god!' but if you know anything about film, you know that from the initial pen to paper idea, getting from that to getting into stall, is years. You've got to be realistic, it is a big, big project whatever feature film you make. Orson Welles said, "A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army" and you do because it's a collaborative effort. 43 pounds is nearly complete now, but the next one’s moving forward. You want to have the industry standard of a four week shoot and then a weeks pick-ups and get tight with that because people can't always afford to do it due to time or money - you've got to earn an income as well.

Zombie Undead has received positive responses at film festivals all over, and now Metrodome has agreed to distribute the film, how do you feel?
Fantastic! It's like everything, you get good reviews you get bad reviews but at the end of the day, we sold it. I was in San Francisco at a film festival when I found out so I hope to get into more festivals now. We've sold it in the UK as well as a few territories in Europe - get it out there into the wild, see what happens and use it as collateral for your next one. We've nearly finished shooting our second film now and we’ve got a few more scripts on the go. It's about having those projects incase someone comes up to you and wants to talk about making another feature film.

Finally, what would you do if you found yourself in Sarah's situation?
Oh God! No-ones asked me that before, that's a tricky one!  I can run pretty fast, I think I'd hold myself up in a pub or somewhere! 

Zombie Undead is now available on DVD at all good retailers.

Zombie Undead official website

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now