Every time I am faced with an article on zombies I have to restrain myself from inserting the obvious pun of undead critters ‘infecting’ popular culture. Yet, as zombies grace our screens, television and occasionally our streets, digging their soiled nails increasingly wide swathes of culture, perhaps documentary filmmaker and cultural critic Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs George Lucas, Paul The Psychic Octopus) is the most qualified individual to investigate the origins of the zombie phenomenon.
His remedial achievement is Doc of the Dead, an informative voyage through the significant intersections of the ‘zombie’ and culture through a delicious feast of talking heads (Max Brooks, George A. Romero, Simon Pegg. Bruce Campbell) and delivered in Philippe’s signature brand of irreverent humour, populism and alliance with ‘geek culture’. After originally catching the film at Edinburgh Film Festival 2014, Flickfeast jumped at the chance to meet the filmmaker at Frightfest 2014 to discuss zombie culture, survival plans and the most important things in life (and death).
Flickfeast:Following on from The People vs George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012), your films always are on the pulse the ‘nerdy’ side of pop culture. What drew you to make a representative doc on zombies and how did the project develop?
Alexandre O. Philippe: As you said I am obviously drawn towards pop culture and it has something I have been very passionate about for a long time so as a result of that I look at trends. Back in 2009 I remember being up the San Diego Comic Con and realising there were a lot more zombies there that there really ought to be in that environment. That’s when I had the seed of the idea. I had to make a documentary on zombie culture and why essentially zombies have so quickly gone in to the mainstream and why now? Then I was working on Paul The Psychic Octopus so I had to essentially stall production for a few years which turned out to be really good as Walking Dead became huge and World War Z showed up in theatres so as a result of that timing I was able to catch that crest of the wave.
FF: The film went down a treat at Edinburgh International 2014. How do you feel about screening the film at Frightfest and are you apprehensive about screening it to an audience with perhaps an encyclopedic knowledge of zombie movies.
AP: You know you always get criticised for a number of reasons, typically the idea is that when you have zombie fans in the audiences they ask why you didn’t include a number of movies and filmmakers. The bottom line is that my film is not meant to be an encyclopedia of zombie movie history unless I would have a 5 or 6 hour film. If they can let go of that I think we will be fine. I am looking forward to the screening and think it will be fun to screen it to that crowd and get a lot of fan service with the like of Bruce Campbell and Simon Pegg.
FF: Taking the zombie metaphor aspect you touch on in the documentary, zombies seem to consistently have been used to mirror social / political situations from Romero flicks to Shaun of the Dead. Having read an interview with John Russo regarding Night of the Living Dead, he implies that Romero only adopted the theory of zombies being social and political vessels after critics read that into his films. How far do you buy into this interpretation of the zombie metaphor?
AP: I think that is true of every art form. It is very easy to read stuff into it that is just not there in the first place but at the same time when you do make great art there are often certain themes and ideas that are very conscious but as a result of that there are perhaps unconscious ideas too. Therefore I don’t think those interpretations are wrong and after having a long interview with George and getting to talk to him quite a bit I realised that he intends a lot of it and really thinks about what he writes. At the same time I’m sure there are ideas and motifs that didn’t occur to him but showed up as part of the process and I guess that is the beauty of creation really.
FF: Regarding these metaphors you have the shambling consumers of Dawn of the Dead and the hangover London commuters of Shaun of the Dead amongst many examples. Do you have any personal favourites in regards to zombie metaphors and the way they are used?
AP: That’s a really good question and I do tend to flag towards Dawn of the Dead as a perfect example. As Howard Sherman (Bub in the Day of the Dead) says in my film,’ Black Friday’ In the US is this big shopping spree where people flock in every year to get their deal. You compare those images to the original Dawn of the Dead and its striking and amazing and still to this day it stands as a very powerful metaphor for American consumerism. What’s also amazing to me is how current Dawn of the Dead still is.
FF: You mentioned Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 as a turning point from more B – movie zombies to a different brand of zombie movies. What is it about disaster moments that effects people’s perception of zombies.
AP: I think a lot of zombie experts will till you that 9/11 was a turning point because of this idea that it brought the apocalypse to our doorstep and the fears became greater. As one of our experts said in the film because our fears became greater we needed a faster zombie. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know but it is an interesting theory. Certainly since 28 Days Later we have seen that as a trend and it is the first part of the evolution of Hollywood in general. In America things always have to be bigger, better and faster and its to the point that its becoming ridiculous. I mean I look at some of the Zack Snyder films and I just want to throw up when I come out of the theatre you know but that is just a function of what Hollywood does. So it’s not a surprise that we are seeing the fast moving ant like zombies.
FF: Where do you start on the fast vs slow zombies debate?
AP: I personally welcome both and definitely would not call myself a purist. Do I prefer the classic Romero zombie? Sure but I feel that any genre that does not try new things is a dead genre and I think if we want the zombie genre to evolve and thrive then people have to try new things with it. Some things will work and some won’t but the fact that there is that debate is a very healthy thing. I tend to be very inclusive and personally I really like the zombies in World War Z and thought we hadn’t quite seen that before. That is not my favourite zombie film by a long shot but the very idea is interesting to me.
FF: You had an impressive list of talking heads in the movie from Robert Kirkman, to Romero and Max Brooks. How did you secure such a variety of talent for the doc and did you find their own interpretations of the ‘zombie’ surprising?
It was surprisingly easy in a way because the very very first interview we got was Simon Pegg through one of our co – producers in LA. He was on a break from shooting Star Trek 2 at the time and had a day off. He loves to talk about zombies anyway as you probably can guess. Through a contact at a film festival in France we got George.A.Romero and we drove from Denver to Toronto and stayed at a guest apartment. So essentially we had Simon Pegg and George.A.Romero right off the bat so it was very easy to acquire other talent apart from perhaps Max Brooks who did take a long time to finally commit to an interview. The only person I would have liked to interview is Danny Boyle but I knew he wasn’t going to because he doesn’t believe he has made a zombie film but other than that we have done pretty well.
FF: Frightfest is an example of horror community bonding in a shared interest of horror but zombie walks seem to attract such a wider variety of ‘normal’ people in a similar fashion to organised political protest. What is opinion on zombie walks and zombie runs as a wider cultural phenomenon and what do you think these events have to say about ‘the zombie’ and popular culture.
Where I live in Denver we have the largest zombie walk in the world now with a good 17,000 zombies. I think what surprises me the most is that zombie walks are very friendly and there are some really good vibes that you get being a part of that. I have not been a zombie myself but have been in the middle of zombie walks and they are a pretty cool social phenomenon. I think what they are saying is that people are becomes empowered now around the world. You think about the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement and of course because of the internet being what it is and people being able to communicate and get information a lot more I think people are more prone to going out in the streets and protesting and groups. To a great extent this very healthy to see that zombie walks are coinciding with those movements its probably not a co-incidence, whether it really is a people for people to say we could start a revolution I don’t know but to entertain the idea of it is interesting.
FF: Many horror fans will get a lot of enjoyment from this documentary but how difficult did you find mixing entertainment, discovery and factual elements for a wider audience. Was the documentary always carefully structured in this way?
AP: That is always a challenge and I had the exact same challenge with The People vs George Lucas and wanted to make a film that hard-core fans would be able to enjoy but also that people who had not seen Star Wars could understand. There are a lot of challenges structurally and for this particular one the main challenge was to find the fastest possible way to culture because the whole premise of Doc of the Dead is to understand why zombies have gone into the mainstream. I didn’t have the luxury to stretch it out and get into the long detailed history of zombie movies so I had to look at the milestones in movie history to shed light and why we are where we are today. That idea and general premise dictated the structure so we had to leave out a lot and budgetary restraints which means you can’t include everything you want to include. You have to make hard decisions and there were a tonne of wonderful directors and zombie movies but at the end of the day it’s pretty tight that way and I feel with zombie fans what’s the entire point of going through the entire history of zombie movie when they know it anyway. Hopefully I think the hardcore zombie fans will learn a thing or two through Doc of the Dead anyways.
FF: How do you feel about being able to make films about the subjects you are a fan of as opposed to a lot of working directors who perhaps don’t have the same privilege?
AP: It’s a huge privilege and I totally get a kick out of what I do and get even more of a kick having audiences like what I do and being able to share that with them and ‘geeking out’ with them so to speak. To me it is also a little bit surreal when you get to sit down with all these people that you have always revered. When I was a kid I was watching these movies and was I awe of George.A.Romero and now you get to hang out and pick their brain. I also feel I have a huge responsibility as I take my pop culture really seriously and I don’t want to disappoint people who have certain expectations knowing at the same time that you can’t please everybody. There are always going to be people who hate your stuff so that’s fine.
FF: What in your opinion is the definitive representation of the zombie and are there any more contemporary zombie movies that have sparked your interest?
AP: There is something about Bub in Day of the Dead as we can really talk about the first fully developed zombie character and the idea that zombies are more than a number and can have feelings and remnants of thought or a personality. It’s a really cool idea and has been used a lot since then successfully and not so successfully. I really enjoyed the Cuban Juan of the Dead which was really smart and we talked about Dead Snow 2 which was absolutely fantastic and I actually preferred it better than the first one because I felt the they actually took it to a place where the first one needed to be in terms of outrageousness. A few years ago I loved Fido and Rec and Rec 2 although you can debate if they are zombie movies. Pontypool also.
FF: Having done so much research and consulted with the current torch holders of the genre, where do you see the future of ‘zombie cinema’. Especially with sub –genres of zom –coms, Nazi zombie films such as Dead Snow can you imagine zombies ever being terrifying to audiences again?
AP: I think it’s great and it goes back to what I was saying earlier. The more people experiment with the genre the healthier it is going to be. I can’t say I was a big fan of Warm Bodies. There is a book called Breathers which is a far smarter better version of Warm Bodies and I would like to see that as a movie. The idea of the zom – rom – com you know bring it on! It’s great to imagine that there will be so many novel sub – genres of the zombie genre which is already in itself a genre. Of course you have Zombeavers too which is another thing entirely.
FF: You travel a lot with your movies and have recently probably received the question what is your zombie survival plan? Trying a different angle, where would your personal worst place to encounter a zombie outbreak and why?
AP: I think Los Angeles would be the worst place to be because people are so bloody selfish there. Everybody will be thinking about themselves rather than working together as a whole to work out how to survive. I think people are going to be more of a danger to you than zombies in Los Angeles.
FF: If a zombie outbreak did occur. What would be your weapon of choice?
AP: As I always say I would like to have a gun so I could turn it on myself or a cyanide pill perhaps (laughs). I don’t think I would be very good at killing zombies and I don’t see myself as a survivalist. Living in that kind of a dark world would probably turn me to suicide pretty quickly.
FF: Rather than end the interview on that dark note let’s look to the future. What projects have you got lined up in the future?
AP: One of the films we are going to start shooting in December is about Kaiju (giant Japanese monsters) and we are going to start shooting in Japan. We are already having fun and I am a huge Kaiju fan as is my cinematographer and we are going to co – direct that one. I also have a comic book company and a Zombie western so we have a lot of stuff cooking.