George Romero's Night of the Living Dead had something for everyone: chiaroscuro, political overtones for the civil-rights crowd, relatively realistic flesh-consumption. But its biggest impact was upon filmmakers. The 1968 classic made zombies sexy in a metaphoric way, and the opportunity to comment on mortality/the nuclear arms race/McCarthyism/etc. -- not to mention exhaust leftover ketchup supplies -- proved more than most auteurs could resist.
As it nears its fifth decade, the zombie revival is as strong as ever. And several Missouri filmmakers are joining the (stiff-walking, flesh-chomping) mob.
"Zombie films have notoriously been in the Midwest," says director and Columbia native Chip Gubera, whose Song of the Dead showed at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase last year. "[Like] Redneck Zombies and Return of the Living Dead. I think it's because of the Midwestern feel these films have that Midwesterners want to make them. They look out their front doors, and they see the landscape that's in the films, and they think, 'Why the hell not?'"
Straight-up zombie films are one thing. But along the way, something funny happened -- literally. Dead-serious zombie films gave way to a new genre, the zombie comedy. And the trend, best epitomized by 2004's indie smash Shaun of the Dead, has hit home in a big way. At least four recent zombie comedies have local ties; if you live in far west county, there may be one filming just outside your window.
"St. Peters just has the look, the classic houses, classic suburbia," says director Peter Carlos of the location where his short film, Zombie Kid, will soon begin filming. "They have great yards and porches. Plus, in the suburbs, everybody's kind of walking around dead-like, going to work, not making eye contact. Sometimes people don't even know their next-door neighbors. It's very zombie-like."
Zombie Kid is about a regular family who gives birth to an undead -- you know, something everyone can relate to. "It's really about the kid who doesn't quite fit in," explains Carlos, who teaches film writing at Lindenwood University. "At school, everyone has their little cliques and groups, and no one wants to pick the zombie for the baseball team."
Pet Zombie, meanwhile, involves a woman who receives a zombie as a gift. That's cool with her, though the neighbors aren't too psyched, because they think he's eating their pets. (Long story short? The zombie ends up the hero.)
Sean Keough, Pet Zombie's director, says that making a comedy eliminated the necessity of realistically rendered dismemberment. "None of us have been doing this long, and it's hard to do it right without screaming B-movie, or C- or D-movie," says Keough, a window contractor by day. Pet Zombie was filmed in St. Charles County and is currently in post-production.
On the other side of the state, Adam Goforth (of Troy, Missouri) just finished filming The Average Dead in Kansas City. His "pocket-lint-budget" full-length movie concerns "two everyday people who happen to be zombies," he says. "They're trying to learn how to be evil so they can be in the movies and remembered forever. They wasted their lives, so why should they waste their afterlives?"
Besides the ability to make the films on the cheap, another appeal of zombie comedies is that they're fun for the whole family. Carlos' twelve-year-old son Alex, for example, is a starring zombie in his dad's short film.
"Anybody can play a zombie. Even the lead singer of Coldplay was in Shaun of the Dead," reasons Carlos. "My kids have seen that ten or fifteen times. People like to see arms flying off and heads rolling down the street."
Carlos cites Gubera's Song of the Dead as an inspiration. Song took the best feature prize at the 2005 Kansas City Filmmaker's Jubilee and screens at New York City's Two Boots Pioneer Theater on Saturday, November 5; Gubera is optimistic about its possibility of picking up distribution.
Song of the Dead's plot concerns a biological terrorist attack that brings the dead back to life. Not content just to be a run-of-the-mill zombie comedy, this a zombie political satire. And, oh yeah: It's also a musical that features seventeen original songs.
When it comes to making zombie flicks, Gubera says, the Midwest side is the best side.
"The Midwest is known on either coast as the flyover zone, so the people often feel kind of forgotten, unimportant," Gubera explains. "And that's what a zombie is: a forgotten group of dead people. Except they're a forgotten group of dead people who are taking their revenge by forming an army and taking over the people who think they're important.
"So remember -- the Midwest is a force to be reckoned with. It's more than a flyover zone -- and it just may take some zombies to make the people on the coasts realize that."