This series of posts depicts the epic journey I’ve taken across the land of student filmmaking. From the deep-rooted plains of the 4:3 aspect ratio to the wonderous tundra of half-decent modern indie cinema, you’ll read about the trials I endured throughout my years of learning.     

The wonderful adventure of non-compulsory education continues…

I’ve always felt that producing a zombie movie is a certain rite of passage into independent filmmaking. Either that or a film about teenage depression that always begins with the monotonous wakeup ritual of getting out of bed and eating a bowl of cereal.

What started as an overly ambitious short film of around 30 minutes in length, ended up a trailer for a non-existing feature length film. This was going to be epic! More epic than anything we had ever attempted in our short introduction to filmmaking and boy did it hit us hard when we discovered our limitations. Of all the low budget shorts I’ve gotten involved in over the years, this one failed to meet our unrealistic expectations the most. ‘Unrealistic’ being the operative word we obviously ignored at the time. Dead Nation was supposed to be a thought-provoking zombie film set in a near future United Kingdom half way through World War Three. Several years before our story begins, an unknown nation had dropped nukes of some description on this former Land of Hope & Glory. The film intended to explore a team of military and civilian personnel, tasked with entering the restricted fallout zone (now apparently safe to enter with no scientific explanation at all) to relieve a previous team who set out to survey the areas. Like true horror movies that begin this way, the previous team had stopped responding to all communication and nobody knows why they’ve gone dark.

I might add that we only wrote half of this epic short and planned to wing the rest. The main protagonist was a wildlife photographer who was supposed to document the birds and the bees of the fallout zone while leaving his two young girls behind in the safety of civilisation. That was pretty much all we had in terms of character development and you could tell he had children because of a conveniently placed story mechanism in way of a polaroid picture he kept close to his heart. Cheesy like Red Leicester but we weren’t to know better until it was too late. It was set in the near-future so god only knows why he’d have such a retro print on him.

There was also a campfire scene which introduced the zombies and ended with our dysfunctional group half getting eaten and half splitting up in different directions. We had a sequence in mind which sent our fleeing characters into a maze of apocalyptic buildings whilst being hunted by the hoard. We actually took a long time and much effort to research locations for said sequence and really came up trumps. We discovered so many listed/abandoned Pripyat like buildings that were all too perfect as a backdrop but for a lot of them, it meant we would have to film guerrilla style. Trespassing to be more exact and although we were committed visionaries, we weren’t ready to commit to a criminal act and involve several cast and crew members in the process. Although abandoned buildings have a certain aesthetic appeal to them, most of them were fenced off with added guard dog security. Filming there (if we made it in to begin with) would surely lead to a prison sentence if we were caught. 

These buildings are also extremely unsafe. Just because they are listed, doesn’t mean they aren’t dilapidated. Though we might have been willing to shoot at these places illegally, we’d have to try and wear safety gear at least. The urban exploration appeal wore off eventually and sadly we were simply too unprepared and poor to pull it off. The closest place to fit the description was actually right around the corner from one of our houses and if I recall, it was a former football club house that burnt down some time ago. Lots of rubble and lots of burnt wood! We shot a sequence there for the trailer in the end so it wasn’t a totally wasted venture.  

Speaking of illegal acts, we also had a bunch of plastic toy replica guns at our disposal that in hindsight, we really shouldn’t have used in public forests. Those zombies aint gunna shoot themselves though, so we asked around and found quite a few willing enthusiasts that didn’t mind volunteering their guns for a cheeky props credit. Everything we scrounged looked pretty real to me, hence the potentially illegal part but it was so varied that I came up with the idea that the war has pushed the country back a bit progressively and like us, the military would have to use whatever weapons they could get their itchy trigger finger hands on. One of our performers actually tripped up during a running segment and landed barrel first into the dirty forest floor. He was holding an AK47 replica that broke coincidently. We managed to fix it but to this day I don’t think the owner new what we did.

You can’t have a zombie film without blood and for what we wanted; we would need a lot. We first looked into buying it in bulk from a theatrical prop company but considering we had no money for this epic, it wasn’t very economical. So, we thought we’d make it ourselves from a funky recipe we found on the tinterwebs! Lots of corn syrup and red food colouring was about all I remember for the gruesome concoction but I remember the delivery mechanism for the fake blood very well. This was from an equally helpful website illustrating how to make a DIY blood cannon for gunshot exit wounds. I was so excited for this as it involved general gardening tools that everyone seemed to own already. Some sponge, a length of hose, a pesticide pressure sprayer and some duct tape were all we needed and luckily, we had.

Before we committed entirely to this cowboy method of practical special effects, we wanted to test it. Our cameraman Matt had a young model friend who said he was more than willing to help us out in this endeavour and quite frankly I was amazed that anybody would volunteer at all. There were zero complaints from me, I just wanted to see how this thing looked through a lens and needless to say, I was far from disappointed. We figured we’d shoot the test in the woods surrounding the college on a quiet day when we wouldn’t be disturbed. Last thing we wanted was to frighten the shit out of any passers-by so this spot in particular was great for privacy. As the camera was being set up, the co-director, Chad, proceeded to hook up our volunteer with the blood cannon by feeding the hose up his trouser leg to his chest. The guy was wearing a cheap t-shirt we bought with a cross cut out where the hose ended. This was so the blood had someplace to go and not build up underneath. The other end of the pipe was attached to the nozzle of the pesticide sprayer which was cleaned out and full of fake blood. The American gentleman on the tutorial video said that to really pull off a convincing gunshot blast of crimson mist, we needed to pump the sprayer about 50-100 times. Chad did this without effort but the more he pumped the greater the resistance and all were worried it might go off by itself.

The moment came and everyone was on standby waiting for Matt to press REC. The camera was rolling and Chad counted down before pressing the release button. What happened next, I can only describe as unrelenting. The effect I had in mind might have been similar to that of an average pistol shot. What we achieved was more in relation to somebody getting shot point blank range with a 50-calibre sniper rifle. It was like the guy was exploded in half, even more so when we played the footage back in slow motion. You know that sound when it just begins to rain and you’re surrounded by foliage? The pitter-patter of water droplets on leaves? Well, that’s the sound that came immediately after we pulled the trigger on our dismayed performer. It was quite literally raining fake blood on the trees around us. Chalk it up to a miscalculation on the hose length or the viscosity of the blood concoction. Either way, we messed up and it was brilliant. 

That test footage actually ended up in the final product eventually because it was so absurd. It was just as well because weeks later when principal photography began, we discovered the tubes were clogged and created a dribble and spurt rather than the desired red haze. You had to laugh at the whole situation, it was doomed from the moment we formed any expectation. 

What we ended up presenting to our lecturers was a pretty shoddy trailer, a couple of minutes in length starring half the students in my class acting like cheap zombies to the piece of music Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell, which was featured in Requiem for a Dream and completely overused for heroic advertising appeal ever since. So, I can’t even show it to anybody on the internet, out of fear of receiving a copyright takedown notice.


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