On the rare occasion, a new horror movie, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, comes screaming out of nowhere. “The Zombie Diaries” is one such movie: and not only is a great horror film, it’s angry, got attitude and wants your sangue. A brand new UK horror shot in Hertfordshire in the style of “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Zombie Diaries” is a labour of love for directors Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett. Based on three vignettes where a living dead virus – based upon the recent bird flu scare – devastates the UK, the film follows a set of characters who attempt to deal with the end of society, the plague of the dead as well as other humans with more than solidarity on their agenda. Not only is “The Zombie Diaries” a refreshing take on the sub-genre with a hardcore visual element as well as playing homage to a number of well-loved horror movies, Film Threat was involved with the production from day one of conception to the opening predarkmiere. And with George Romero conveniently lensing “Diary of the Dead,” the future of “The Zombie Diaries” looks bright and bloody. It gives “Land of the Dead” a roundhouse kick to the balls. Prepare for a startling new sensation – Romero, Fulci and “The Blair Witch Project” as one. A bloody powerhouse of a horror movie…
Let’s talk about the early days – what inspired you to become a filmmaker and why horror as a genre of interest?
I’ve been a horror film fan since I’ve been four or five years-old back in the late Seventies. My parents used to rent one of the first VCRs on the market, one of those huge Panasonic machines, and would rent horror videos, you know, ones with garish artwork. Of course, as a little kid, I was intrigued by those forbidden fruits that I wasn’t allowed to watch (laughs). The John Travolta and Ernest Borgnine flick, “The Devil’s Rain,” was the very first horror movie which I saw and involved me sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night and switching on the archaic video machine of the time.
It had to be the same model as my parents had: the top loading VHS that was built as strong as a mini-Panzerkampwagen, which when ejected, the videotape would zap out of the machine with the velocity of a speeding bullet. You needed someone at the end of the hall with baseball gloves to catch the tape.
Yeah, that’s the one (laughs). So that’s how it all started with me sneaking downstairs to see horror movies when my folks were asleep. The reason why I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Devil’s Rain,” which intrigued me from the very start, was the film’s final scene where people’s faces melt. For a person who had never seen anything like that before, it was amazing. And from that point on I looked through the rental video catalogue my parents had which offered hundreds of salacious films which I wanted to see. And I saw loads! (laughs).
Did your parents eventually relent and let you see what you wanted when they realised that you craved to see horror movies?
No, not in the early days. Later on when we moved to Letchworth, where I still live now, I discovered one of the old-school video shops before Blockbusters took over. The owner was a very friendly guy and he let me rent any movie I wanted to see, even though I was well below the age of eighteen. Every week, I would go in to the shop and see whatever took my interest, some which included the gory and taboo Italian horror films, the cannibal and zombie movies and much more.
So from the glory days of the pre-cert video, what made you want to become a filmmaker?
From watching these films, I became a movie buff, but at school there were no video courses I could enrol on. I was more into art and design, did painting at A-Level and went to college from there. When in college, I realised that there was a film course studying video and got it. And being a film buff, I got into it very quickly and started to make short films. I then went to university to study a degree in film and video production, and then a masters, and got into independent filmmaking in the late Nineties. At this time, digital video was available which was more accessible, made more movies and here I am with “The Zombie Diaries.”
Your first feature movie, “The Unseen,” didn’t go on to greater things. However, this must have been a steep learning curve for you.
“The Unseen” was an interesting film. It was my first feature and script. Before that I had made a lot of experimental films and now wanted to make a commercial one. This was more of a learning process in what I could achieve technically: could I make a commercial movie that worked? From that point-of-view it was a great experience. It was great fun to make but we haven’t done a great deal with it at the moment as it was more of a grounding to do bigger and better things.
It was also a remake of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” shot in Hertfordshire, right…?
(laughs). Yeah! “The Thing,” “Southern Comfort” and even “Alien Terror” – great fun. Was it me or did Neil Marshall see “Alien Terror” prior to writing “The Descent”?
I think he did. From your point-of-view, “The Zombie Diaries” is true independent cinema. Being a one-man band, you wrote the screenplay, edited, directed and prepared the sound mix – even made the tea. Considering your cast were not being paid – a precarious situation at best – had you learned any skills that could save such a low budget movie from problems?
From the start, there were two of us who directed the movie: me and Michael Bartlett. We both wrote, directed and produced the whole thing – a two-man band, really! Given the nature of the film and its documentary style, there wasn’t much need for crew as I was operating the camera, Mike was doing the sound, or it was the other way round. Sometimes the actors were doing the camerawork themselves as we wanted to achieve a video diary “look”. If I was operating the camera, I was getting some nice compositions, but I might not get what an average Joe would film on an every day camcorder. I was on-board to do stuff that was important such as special effect shots, but if that wasn’t the case and it simply involved dialogue, I wanted the actors to do the filming. Anyone can use a camcorder but a camera operator would look for nice composition which would not work in the context of the film. Within reason, the actors did as much as they could as that would bring more realism to what you’re going to see on screen. In terms of the dangers of a low budget film, you’re talking about people who are not being paid salaries. There’s two ways of looking at it: you’ve got to be nice to people so everyone gets on well, there’s a good atmosphere on set and, of course, no one leaves. If one of the main actors left, it may destroy the film – period. You might be able to write around it, but if you’re halfway through shooting, it’s going to be a pisser.
So if there are tensions on set or unforeseen circumstances should affect one of the cast, what would you do to prevent damage to your movie?
It’s a lot to do with the casting of the film. You make sure you get the right people on-board that have a certain vibe about them. If you can read people fairly well you’re not going to have these problems. If you cast someone who is going to cause problems, you should have done your research on that person previously. But we were honest with people from the start – it’s a low budget film, the conditions of the filming could be difficult, you know, it may involve shooting out in the rain for hours on end. So we’re honest and select people who we believe are best suited. As for if someone did walk off set, any low budget film can be a victim. If you have contracts and people are being paid money, it’s a different matter. But on low budget independent films, you’re always going to have that problem.
With the popularity of DV cameras, there has been an explosion of “The Blair Witch Project” style of filmmaking. Do you think that this trend of pseudo-documentaries will continue or will the medium relax to traditional static camerawork, dolly shots, etc?
When “The Blair Witch Project” came out, everyone thought there was going to be a flood of imitations shot by kids on camcorders, but that really wasn’t the case. In recent years, there have been films like “Open Water” which adopted a similar approach as did “The Last Horror Movie.” I don’t think that there’s been that many… You’ve got to make the best with what you’ve got. If you’ve got DV equipment, you’re not going to make a Hollywood movie: you’ll fail of those reasons because you don’t have the budget to do it, which is one of the reasons “The Unseen” may have been too ambitious as we tried to make a conventional horror movie shot in a standard way. With “The Zombie Diaries,” we didn’t have much money at all so we used the digital method to our advantage – what kind of film were we going to make? The basic idea for “The Zombie Diaries” was when Mike suggested doing a “The Blair Witch Project” documentary style film with zombies, but as a short. I disagreed as no one would see a short film but a feature was more interesting and had commercial potential.
From my experience at festivals, short films are more often the case to be financial suicide or a calling card at best.
Absolutely and you won’t be able to do something as a short with the same idea – but as a feature, you might have something to go on. Admittedly it’s going to be difficult to hold someone’s attention for ninety minutes following one group of people with a camcorder in a zombie apocalypse. So we decided to have three shorts where we follow different groups of people in different times from the outbreak of the virus through to three months later when society in Britain has collapsed. Going back to digital video, I think you’ve got to use what you’ve got to your advantage. If you try to become something more than what you’ve got, you’re in big trouble. Most independent movies don’t have too much money, and with “The Zombie Diaries,” we achieved a really good production value with the money we had; shooting within a documentary context that helped us out even more. If you’re trying for a Hollywood movie with DV equipment and a couple of grand in your pocket, you’re going to fail – you’re doing something that’s beyond you and it’s not going to work.
Being a filmmaker used to working with low budgets, do you find the lack of finances to be crippling on a creative level or an enhancement with the sheer necessity of improvisation?
I think it can be an advantage. An example comes from my painting background; you’re asked to produce a piece of artwork, you can do anything you want but once the limitations are imposed upon you, a boundary has been set in place. And the same goes for filmmaking – if you have a limited budget, you have to know what you can achieve within that budget, within that script. I can always write to a very low budget. I always think of a scene and ask myself if it’s realistic or not to what’s available. If not, I’m not going to bother writing it as there’s no point, it’s beyond the scope of the film. So I am aware of that but I don’t think it limits you so much. In a way, if I was offered a two million dollar budget to make a movie, it would be beyond me. But if I had a much lower budget, I would look at it and see what I could do realistically. If the sky’s the limit, that would make it even more difficult whereas if you are limited in what you can do, so long as you’re realistic and know what you’re doing and what you can shoot, you can use that to your advantage, as a writer and director, definitely.
I have to say that splatter-wise, “The Zombie Diaries” is reasonably restrained in that department: so much so, the dreaded “15” certificate may look likely. Were you not tempted to show more scenes of hardcore gore?
I think we could have gone further. When you’re scripting, you think there’s loads of gore in the film, but when you come to shoot it, there’s perhaps not as much in it as you’d like to think. That said, the film was never meant to be a gore movie. It’s funny: some people have said that it’s not really a zombie movie which may seem to be quite a criticism (laughs). But it’s more about the survivors and how they adapt to their situations, and the zombies are there and they’re a threat and are dangerous, but they’re in the background more, which was what we intended to do.
Interesting but what about the certificate? Were you aiming for an “18”, for example?
Certainly – for the UK, it’s borderline “15” and “18” but there are scenes in the movie that are gratuitous but it’s not over the top. I was not interested in making a hardcore gore movie as there’s too many of those films around. It’s gore for gore sake which really is not good filmmaking. I mean, I’m a big fan of the Italian horror films but even some of them… Look at Luigi Cozzi’s “Contamination”: it was banned in the early Eighties and is now released as an uncut “15”. So what does that tell you? (laughs). I’m a huge fan of Fulci, Deodato, Lenzi – all those films – and were all a big influence on me in the past ten years when I was able to get hold of the movies.
For the budget, the zombie make-up is amazing. Who did the make-up effects and how much did the effects budget eat into your production?
The guys responsible for the special make-up effects were Cesar Alonso, Mike Peel and Scott Orr. Scott has worked on a number of big films recently such as “Children of Men,” “The Da Vinci Code” and a Coldplay video recently where he designed a large tin robot… It’s not Alfonso Brescia’s The Beast in Space (laughs)! I met Scott though The Unseen as did Mike Peel who also worked on “The Descent.” The other guy, Cesar, worked on “Evil Aliens” as did Scott for reasons unknown. A very talented team of effects guy: always willing to experiment.
What attracted them to work on a low-budget movie like “The Zombie Diaries”?
They’re all young guys and all the work they have done on major movies, they are not the main people. They were attracted by the premise to “The Zombie Diaries.” For some reason, everyone loves zombie films to some extent and it’s every effects person’s dream to do zombie make-up, but obviously on a level that’s credible and convincing. To do something which was good, we had the “hero zombies” as the effects people like to call them – which is a term I believe Greg Nicotero refers to – which are the main zombies in the foreground with full prosthetics. For all of the hero zombies, we had to get the people who played them, mostly friends, to have complete head casts so that the prosthetics could be applied properly. The background zombie were more paintjobs, you know, “grey zombies” with blood splattered on them and we probably zoomed on them too much. Doesn’t “grey zombies” come from the original “Dawn of the Dead”… or should they be called “blue zombies”? (laughs).
As a horror filmmaker, do you think you can go too far in your portrayal of onscreen violence and physical mutilation?
Yeah, I think so. There are independent horror movies out there shot on video which are just about gore. There’s no point to them. Who the hell is going to want to watch a film with nothing but crap gore effects? I do think you can go too far. With “The Zombie Diaries,” there are some gory moments, certainly, but it’s more restrained in its execution – probably due to the pseudo documentary style where we take a step back from the action and not to glorify close-ups. That type of hardcore gore doesn’t interest me, but I do love Fulci’s movies which are labelled as gore classics. If you look at a movie like “Zombie Flesh-Eaters,” there are around four or five gore scenes in the film and it’s not really a gore movie if you compare it to others: it’s been labelled incorrectly, I think. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great movie and starts off with a great gore effect and for thirty minutes, nothing happens.
The zombie movie has been going through a bloody renaissance lately: everything from “28 Days Later,” Land of the Dead to movies in production such as “28 Weeks Later” and George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead.” What does your movie bring to an exhausted genre?
It’s a new spin on a fairly over-saturated genre. And to think of the timing of Romero’s latest movie which was only announced last year, it’s amazing. If you look at potential crossovers of films, it was inevitable that someone was going to do a similar movie. I do think it’s a very good idea and I am surprised that no one else did it before up until this point. So when Romero announced his new movie that’s been described as a cross between “The Blair Witch Project” and “Night of the Living Dead,” which is exactly the same as The “Zombie Diaries,” I thought it was great. I didn’t think, “S**t, he’s nicked our idea. I’m really pissed off and am going to cry in the corner!” No way! It can only help our film. As a director, Romero is a hero of mine and for him to do a movie that’s similar to “The Zombie Diaries” is great. However, on the other side of the coin, if Romero wasn’t doing this new movie, mine would be unique. It could be like “The Last Broadcast” which was made before “The Blair Witch Project,” but being the smaller movie, it got less attention from the press. The same goes for “The Zombie Diaries”: Romero is a well-known auteur and his film will be out there whereas we’re unknown filmmakers. Realistically, it could flag behind. It doesn’t bother me at all but I’d like to think our movie is a lot better than “The Last Broadcast” (laughs).
What does “The Zombie Diaries” bring to the genre that’s new and fighting fit to a market full of the living dead?
The hook is that it’s a documentary approach which is very contemporary; everyone is watching reality television. So we have that popular spin on the zombie film, but also, it’s more from the point-of-view of the survivors, humans rather than the zombies. This is what’s different about it – it’s not about the zombies as much, they’re there in the background. It’s more on the humans and how they react to society collapsing. We see this in three separate segments. The first part starts in London with everything relatively normal. The s**t hits the fan pretty quick, society collapses and goes downhill quite literally in a day because of the speed of the virus. The other stories are set a month later on that chronicles on the survivors and how they adapt to the circumstances that they’re in. This is what’s different about it – the zombies are there but they’re there in the background as a growing and constant threat. And this is what’s interesting about “The Zombie Diaries”: out of all the major characters, hardly any are killed by zombies. The basic premise is that in a world where ninety-nine per cent of the world’s population has been wiped out by a zombie plague, the most dangerous element are going to be humans to each other – that’s what we want to say in the film.
I am totally against the implementation of CGI in many movies as it can destroy a filmmaker’s imagination and blast the screen with colours and images. It was refreshing to see that you used a minimal amount of computer effects for your movie.
There are CGI effects in “The Zombie Diaries,” but yeah, I totally agree with you. It can enhance a movie or scene but it can also ruin it. I mean, the last thing I want to see is a CGI “Creepshow.” In twenty years time, these films with CGI are going to look so dated, but if used subtlety, it can look pretty good – I’m not a CGI artist but I know what can work. The CGI in “The Zombie Diaries” is mainly used for gun flashes and gun smoke. Some of the zombies had contact lenses: the second zombie you see in the movie had white contact lenses with a little black dot in the middle where the pupil is, and I removed that by using Photoshop. We also used CGI for additional blood shots when zombies have been hit by bullets. In my living room, I lined a sheet of white canvas against a wall, squirted blood on to it and filmed it. As the blood is a dark image, I keyed out the white, superimposed it over the main image and bingo! And the fact that hardly anyone has picked up on the fact that we used CGI for the movie means that it does work. It’s not meant to stand out and is only there to enhance the scene – it’s minimalist CGI and that’s definitely the way forward for independent filmmakers.
We were chewing the fat in having Richard Johnson and Ian McCulloch appearing in “The Zombie Diaries” with small cameos. What happened?
Not Richard so much although I did ask him if he’d consider appearing in future film projects of mine. And I’m not convinced that having him and McCulloch would enhance the movie considerably – perhaps for people like us, but not the majority who would have no idea as to who they are. As for McCulloch, a lot of the themes in “The Zombie Diaries” echoed that of the BBC series “Survivors” and “Zombie Flesh-Eaters,” which he starred in. We did talk about him appearing in a short scene shot in a press office where a senior journalist was warning staff of what was happening to the world due to the virus. We scripted the scene and sent it to McCulloch. He was keen to play in but he wanted a bigger role in the film, and at that point, we had already shot most of it. It was hard to compromise due to that and he had also moved to Scotland so it would have been difficult for him to come down for one day’s shooting.
That must say something about the film’s script in that McCulloch turned down the opportunity of playing a smaller part for that of a larger role.
I think he’s done all that stuff from “Zombie Flesh-Eaters,” “Zombie Holocaust” and “Contamination” and was probably after a more substantial role. He did tell me that he’s done over a million walk-on parts for television, and as a retired actor, would have preferred doing something that was more of a challenge. He’s a nice guy but it sadly didn’t happen. In the end we got a cameo from Leonard Fenton – better known to millions as Doctor Legg from “EastEnders!” He was well up for playing the aging news editor – much like Fulci in “Zombie Flesh-Eaters.”
As an independent filmmaker, and considering that the major studios have been investing heavily in genre movies, where do you think the horror movie is heading?
It’s definitely within the independent scene. Starting with Hollywood, all that’s been made of late are remakes, some of which have been praised, but I don’t want to see remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” As much as I enjoyed some of them such as the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, it’s not the future of horror in recycling old material. Hollywood seems, or is, incapable to go with new scripts so let’s go with the independent scene to try to drive that forward creatively. Just look at “Saw” which was very well received and was made for peanuts, and “Cube,” too. “Cube” is a classic case on how horror can move forwards with a refreshing and simple premise that delivers.
So what’s the next challenge for Kevin Gates?
We’re promoting “The Zombie Diaries” and have been in touch with sales agents who have been very interested in the film. We’re going to some of the major film festivals and plan to go to Cannes – we just want to get the film out there. There’s been a lot of interest and publicity on the Internet, and due to the scope of the movie, may do a sequel. So it’s early days for now but for the moment, it’s all hands to the deck getting “The Zombie Diaries” out there.
I know you’ve been asking about this question: I’m God and I have decided to incarcerate you on a remote desert island. On this island of no return, I have given you a huge plasma television and DVD player with three movies of your choice to watch over and over again till the end of your days – what would they be?
The first would have to be John Carpenter’s “The Thing”: I originally watched the film as a kid from my cabin-bed on a tiny small black and white portable television and can never get bored by it. “The Thing” has been my influence from day one. I think number two would have to be Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”: I love its epic scale of society crumbling. The effects by today’s standards are not that great, but once again, I can emphasise because it’s about the humans rather the zombies. Number three cannot be considered as a classic but it’s a film that I enjoyed for many, many years: it’s got a great cast, it’s cheesy. It’s… “Hawk the Slayer” (laughs). I mean, look at the cast! It’s got Jack Palance, John Terry, Catriona MacColl. I always wanted to make the films that I liked watching as a kid, and “Hawk the Slayer” is one of them. Looking at it now, it’s bloody awful but it’s a cinema that’s lost now – you’ll never see a film like that being made in the UK again. I used to love watching those British “epics” like “Hawk the Slayer” and it’s great fun. If I could have another movie on my island, it would have to be Ciro Ippolito’s “Alien Terror.” It’s no secret that I like watching Italian horror films, but part of the fun in them is discovering other ones. Everyone knows that the main ones are “Zombie Flesh-Eaters” and “Cannibal Holocaust,” and once you’ve seen them, you can delve in to the depths of Italian movies and see the more obscure stuff. And this is when you encounter “Alien Terror” which also has the balls to call itself “Alien 2” (laughs)! The film is not great by any stretch of the imagination but it’s very atmospheric, very strange and has a great score by the De Angelis brothers that one day will dream of releasing. The film is mostly set in underground caves in Southern Italy and ends in deserted San Diego – most of the Italian movies were shot in New York – but “Alien Terror” ends in a futuristic Californian city. It’s bizarre, it’s a real gem and this is why I like it.
And you’re going to need female company, too. So I shall grant you three women. I am a nice god.
Sweet Jaysus! Let’s have a think. Can I have them at any stage of their lives? I’d go for Janet Agren when she was in Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive!”: she’s Scandinavian, tall, impressive, gorgeous. Let’s keep to the Italian theme – Daniela Doria because no one can track her down (laughs)! And she’s also willing to strip off her clothes and was Lucio Fulci’s whipping girl: “City of the Living Dead,” “Black Cat,” “House by the Cemetery,” “The New York Ripper,” you name it, she was there! But they’re all actresses so girl number three would have to be the one that gave me a b*****b whilst I was watching “The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid” on my sofa.