In 1968, George A. Romero made a black and white horror film that was destined to become cult, but also one of the most influential zombie horror movies of all time.
In fact, it is safe to say, the most influential. That film was “Night of the Living Dead”.
After releasing “Night of the Living Dead”, Romero decided to expand his “dead films”, and made “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978, “Day of the Dead” in 1985, “Land of the Dead” in 2005, “Diary of the Dead” in 2007, and “Survival of the Dead” in 2009.
The “zombie master” Romero never made an effort to remake his most popular film, which undoubtedly was “Night of the Living Dead”.
Yet others tried to, releasing the so-called official remakes, and unofficial ones too (Return of the Living Dead series).
Among the official ones are Tom Savini’s 1990 “Night of the Living Dead”, the 2006 “Night of the Living Dead 3D”, and 2012 “Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation”. And yet people still continue to be influenced by the original black and white film, one of which is Samuel Victor – the director and producer of the new film titled “Night of the Living 3D Dead”.
Speaking to BZFilm, Victor said him and his team spent 2 years doing research on the original film, to make sure their remake stays as close to the original as possible, with some new additions of course.
In this exclusive interview, Victor goes deep into details on his new feature film, which hopefully will not get lost among the many zombie films that are being released every year.
Mr. Victor, please introduce us to your new film…
The full title of the film is “Night of the Living 3D Dead”. This was to hopefully distinguish between this and previous attempts to remake or re-master the film in 3D, but also I like the distinction of “3D Dead”, as if our zombies have a more rounded character, so to speak. Regarding the screenings and distribution – it is possible that there will be early limited screenings this October for Halloween, a few large film festivals in the UK have shown a lot of interest as well, so the festival route will probably be where you’ll see the film first.
Our plan has always been to produce independently so that we get as much creative freedom as possible, and can allow ourselves the time to get it right. We have a strategy in place, well researched and tried and tested to get the widest distribution possible. A lot of sales agents have been in contact already and a few distributors offering pre-sales, so we know we’re in a good position to bargain. At the very least we can expect this to get a wide release in North American and British territories on DVD and Blu-Ray, and I’d like to think we’ll get a limited theatrical release too.
Increasingly Video on Demand and digital television are important windows and we have had many interesting phone calls from those areas too. With this film it is the first time that we’ve produced a film that seems to have a true international appeal, and will be the first film we’ve produced with an M&E track, allowing dubbing for foreign territories. We recently received a bursary from BAFTA specifically to help us get a foreign market release in as many territories as possible. I’d love as many people to see the film as possible, as we’ve really worked hard on making this the remake that the fans of the original can truly enjoy for what it is, a celebration of the original.
There have already been remakes on the original “Night of the Living Dead”. How is yours different? What would it offer zombie fans, and horror movie fans in general?
I think the most successful remake so far has been Tom Savini’s remake in 1990, but this was still far from hitting the mark as far as the original atmosphere or believability of the characters and sympathy with their situation. In my personal opinion, using the the name “Night of the Living Dead” you should hold some reverence to the classic original and personally I feel that adding stoner comedy and softcore sex completely turns their film into a different movie. There are also other “Night of the Living Dead” films coming out soon which look promising, yet I don’t feel any of these complete with our film, they are very different projects.
Our film stands completely alone in the field of remakes in terms of taking what made the original film brilliant, shocking and relevant at the time of its release, and only modernizing and updating those elements that are necessary to make it palatable to a modern audience. We spent over two years in the research and development phase and talked to hundreds of fans of the original and several film scholars, trying to get to the essence of exactly what was great about the original film, and if a relevant remake was even possible. We think we’ve made the best attempt so far at a true remake, a love letter to compliment and not replace the original, and hopefully bring it a new audience.
Previously, I have worked in various capacities on over 40 films in all genres and budgets. I’ve worked on some awful projects in the past with writers, directors and producers who clearly didn’t care about the finished project and were just rushing out a film with a cool looking poster and a big name star attached.
Working on such films allowed to learn the technical aspects of filming, lighting, sound, editing, practical effects, and make a film. Me and my fellow filmmakers tested this theory with four completely zero budget films in a variety of genres, each of which we learned a lot from and was well received.
Once we started seeing this as a viable future for us, several key members, myself included, started writing more ambitious scripts. One project that we were really keen on was a highly political zombie apocalypse film stooped in deep metaphor, relating to the UK being essentially wiped out by a virus outbreak, and the question of whether the American government would be prepared to help out, and conspiracy theories abound, essentially paralleling the “special relationship” and the way our governments interacted in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
The script may sound tounge in cheek but there are a lot of very serious political scenes which require a certain gravitas, and we actually had some interest from some Hollywood A-List who were potentially interested, should the budget be big enough.
We took a course through Hollywood Film Institute, learning to simplify our big idea, making a lower budget version of our passion project to prove ourselves and raise funding for the more ambitious project. So right away we started considering lower budget zombie films, with limited locations, and a strong political undertone.
It was actually me who suggested remaking “Night of the Living Dead”, as it has always been one of my very favorite films. The question was of course whether we could do the original justice, and whether there was even any credence in suggesting that a remake was necessary. We hired out a large building and a projector, filled it with local teenagers, and screened the original. I was expecting chaos to break out, but in other than the odd jeer and laughter at the effects, they all sat riveted through the entire film.
Afterwards we interviewed them all, and the consensus was that the acting and scripting occasionally felt wooden by today’s standards, and they didn’t find the film remotely scary or shocking, more comical. But they all loved the story and the characters. They stayed watching because they wanted to follow the journey of those characters and see what happened. We knew then that a “proper” remake was not only justified, it was actually necessary to continue the spreading of this wonderful story and characters to a new generation of movie-goers.
Are there any new additions plus to the original “Night of the Living Dead” story that you’ve used in the remake?
Absolutely, and this was what took the largest part of research and development. We wanted a film that was quite clearly a tribute to the original, so many iconic lines, shots, camera angles, props etc were brought back. In fact, we even went to the trouble of building an entire timbre frame house to re-create the layout of the original farmhouse. However there were some elements of the original that didn’t translate so well, and needed to be modernized.
Small touches were added to make the character of Ben (played by Duane Jones in the original) even more likable. Also one key point for us was setting the film in the U.S. but having Barbara as the only British character. This is a subtle change, but a key one for various political and social aspects of the script. Barbara’s father was an American serviceman, stationed in the UK who had an affair with Barbara’s British mother.
This explains why she is in America, visiting the grave of a father she barely remembers, and also why her father would be dead when she and Johnny are so young. The fact that she is so far away from home only helps the feeling of isolation and being trapped in the house, and also the small British character in a large crowd of Americans parallels quite neatly our position as small British indie releasing a film that will be seen by a largely American audience.
Some bigger changes revolve around the female characters in the house. The female leads in the original film were portrayed as the “damsel in distress” archetype. Even Helen, the strongest female who speaks back to her husband is still seen as needing protection from the others, and is not involved in important discussions.
When re-writing the screenplay I made the female characters a little stronger and given a more proactive stance in what happens. Of course Barbara has to remain catatonic with fear for the majority of the film, and this is necessary, as she is essentially a metaphor for the audience, passively watching all the other characters in the house, judging them and trying to get the measure of who is right and who is trustworthy.
Of course the most memorable aspect of the original film is perhaps the character of Karen, who has adorned many a poster, dvd cover, and even the skin of many a horror fan in tattoo form. At the time of the original, an evil child, who kills her parents was a very shocking and unsettling thing. Horror films have progressed over time of course and now we regularly see possessed children as almost a cliche occurrence in films, to the point that they are even used as comic relief. We decided if any aspect of the original film needed exaggerating and expanding it was that of Karen – we’ve increased her screen time, a few more lines, and given her a much more dramatic ending, and bearing on the plot. Of course this could turn out to be a controversial move, but I have a hunch that fans will love the new Karen, we spent a lot of time working on this particular aspect of the film, developing and story boarding until our test audiences and focus groups felt it worked.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that there were some elements of Russo and Romero’s original script that never made it to the finished film, either down to budgetary requirements or the actors refusing to do lines, or changing the character. In a few occasions we’ve managed to re-instate those. For example, I don’t think its too much of a spoiler to mention that in our version, over the ending credits, the farmhouse is burned to the ground, something that through ways and means we’ve managed to get done, for real, full scale, and with no CGI.
This footage from various angles, in slow motion, makes for a beautiful, haunting end credit. There were lines in the original script about Ben being a family man and wanting to stay alive for the sake of his kids, which reportedly Duane Jones removed as he felt it made the character appear soft. On the contrary, I feel that adds a reason for Ben to be fighting, and gives an inner strength which shows why he continues to cope whilst others around him fall apart. It also gives him a link to the character of Karen, and an understanding with Harry, who although he doesn’t like in the slightest, he understands is important to Karen’s well being.
Stylistically and technically of course there are differences with the original, I’ve studied a lot and read many books on the art of cinematography and a lot of thought and time has gone into framing and shooting things right and choosing the right camera moves – using techniques more associated with higher budget films like crane work, steady cams, dolly moves and the like, and of course the film is also being shot in 3D, which we’ve tried to do without resorting to gimmicks.
One big difference is the way in which we’ve used music and sound, perhaps more sparing on the overly dramatic and intrusive library scores, and using sources such as car radios etc to provide music from a credible source. We’ve kept the infamous crickets of the original and expanded on this idea in that during some scenes inside the house, you can hear the noises from outside the house, symbolizing the fact that the subconscious of the victims trapped inside is always thinking about the danger all around them.
Along with the film you are releasing the “Raising the Dead” documentary about the shooting of your remake. Don’t you think this type of “bonus” to the main film can be regarded as a “look behind the curtain” on how films are made?
This is definitely what we were going for with this. We started making the “3d Dead Diaries” series of Youtube videos to show a little behind the scenes look at exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. There is a large air of exclusivity around the film industry, but nowadays this is a smokescreen. With modern camcorders (and increasingly DSLRs) and computer editing and grading suites being really affordable and producing completely professional results, just about anyone can make a film. The informal tone of our videos is intended to show that we aren’t some untouchable, rich elite, cynically remaking a classic for a quick buck, but rather a big group of genuine fans of the original, making the ultimate fan tribute, having a lot of fun doing it, and getting professional results.
The “Raising the Dead” documentary was originally produced having it in mind as special feature for a two disc version of the film. However we’ve had such a large, overwhelming positive response to the small diary videos we’ve put online that we’ve been offered the opportunity to release it independently on DVD and VOD in the UK and United States at the end of September. We are re-working the documentary right now with a presenter and voice-over to give it a more widely narrative feel relating to the process of making films as a whole, rather than just how we made ours. I hope it’ll be an enjoyable watch for zombie fans, and an informative and inspiring one for people who’ve always dreamed of making their own projects.
The film’s budget is 200,000 GBP, which is approximately $314,000. How was the film funded? Through a studio, private investments, or through raising money online?
A good proportion of the budget has come from team members of the film believing in the project enough to use their own savings, and even defer wages until the project is finished and sold. I’d say that accounts for around half of the money that we have spent so far. More was raised through plugging away on our networks getting investments and donations of money, time and equipment. Some money has come from investment companies who run schemes for people looking to receive tax benefits through offsetting income into other films, and some small bursaries have come from creative schemes. I can’t talk about money without mentioning our Executive Producer Jill Thompson who has been invaluable and behind the project from the start, as without her this project simply would not have gotten off the ground.
You’re completely right that the zombies in the original film usually don’t have a large amount of prosthetic make-up, and Romero has repeatedly said that this was not a stylistic choice and that it was purely a budgetary constraint. However, the fact that the zombies are so clearly recognizable as human goes a long way to making the film creepy, and also helps certain key plot points, especially those relating to Barbara – the fact that the old man in the cemetery is not an obvious monster, and the fact that zombie Johnny is still recognizably her brother are both arguably the catalysts for her downfall – the unknown danger and the allegory that in real life, you can’t tell if somebody is dangerous just by looking at them.
Zombies are of course often used in film for a metaphor for society, reflecting the general public’s unwillingness to question authority, believe information they are spoon-fed, through news or media, follow the crowd rather than aspire to stand out, and follow mass consumerism trends. It is therefore also highly important for these reasons that in a politically charged film the zombies are to be recognizably human, and not “a man in a latex mask” or some hokey CGI monster.
However, there is an expectation for a modern zombie film to have a certain amount of prosthetic make-up, and for the zombies to have a certain gruesome “gore” factor. We covered this by going into the science of zombies – there are of course those who are dead bodies literally rising from graves, and of course those will be of different levels of decay, whereas a member of the public who was alive until bitten will initial still look human, but become more pale and decayed as time goes by. It was important to me that as much of the effect as possible was achieved with make-up not CGI, and our team of artists lead by Emily Rose Dodge have done a brilliant job. Before making up each zombie they were given a brief of how long that person had been a zombie, and the method by which they died.
None of our zombies have monstrous looks, rather they have believable wounds and damage that would have happened either in death, or through what happened once their turned feral and started attacking things, climbing through bushes, smashing windows and such. I think this works very well.
Whilst I hate the trend of CGI gore and monsters in horror, and I always try to achieve things practically, it would be foolish to not taken advantage of what can be achieved with computer technology, and often we have touched things up on computers, for example if a character needs a hole through their head or a limb removed, we can create the outside of the wound with makeup and prosthetics, then accentuate or create the actual hole with CGI. Another decision that was made was to avoid the use of contact lenses for zombies – we’ve worked on previous vampire and werewolf films and seen how much of a nightmare they can be for actors and with health and safety concerns.
We originally considered using CGI to whiten out the eyes of our zombies, but after much experimenting we actually far preferred blackening out the eyes and essentially giving them empty sockets. Of course, the eyes are the window to the soul, so this look really creeps people out. With the pale skin and hollow eyes, it also works very well to give zombies appearing into the light through the darkness an abstract, skeletal look when they first appear.
Of course the other big decision when making a modern zombie film is to whether to go for the traditional slow, stupid zombies, or the fast, intelligent ones. While the quick zombies can be very effective, as in “28 Days Later”, the real threat in the original film is not the fact that the zombies are particularly threatening by themselves, but the fact that there is an every increasing number of them, and they “just won’t stop coming”.
The early classic Romero films are all about tension and suspense, not quick cheap jump-scares. The one exception to this rule in our film is a single zombie, a particularly resilient human being who really doesn’t want to die. This half changed, mentally unhinged primal human being is the only time any allusion to the faster, thinking zombies is made in our film, and whilst it may sound awkwardly levered into the script, its really not and I think will shock and delight fans of both modern horror and the original.
The last thing to mention about our zombies is this is very much not a comedy film. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland”, and “Cockneys Vs Zombies” looks extremely promising (many of our team worked on the film as extras), there is a tendency for low budget horror to decent into poor B-Movie comedy that doesn’t attempt to scare, or do say anything intelligent.
We wanted the zombies in our film to feel more akin to “The Walking Dead” in that they are painful, tragic shadows of human beings, and not something to be mocked. It is too much to ask a modern audience to be scared by looking at a zombie, or seeing a gory head shot, in fact in theaters it is scenes like this that raise cheers and camaraderie. The scares in our film will come from the atmosphere, the tension, suspense and claustrophobia, the cross examination of the human condition.
The zombies, then, are the way to keep the characters trapped within the house, and forced to face their fears. It is hugely important that though the audience is no longer scared of zombies, they empathize that the characters in the house do, and laughing at zombies ruins that experience. We spent a lot of time researching what it is about zombies in certain films that unintentionally make the audience laugh, and held study groups to analyze cliches to avoid.
The original “Night of the Living Dead” made a statement with black Duane Jones playing the lead. Since it was 1968, it was somewhat controversial at the time. Does your film offer any of this “controversy” considering modern times?
I’m very glad that you touched on that subject, as it is one close to my heart. Of course in 1968 for a widely distributed film to have a black lead actor, playing the hero, an educated, well spoken man, and one who is in the position to saves a predominantly white cast was very progressive, and the fact that his race is never eluded to or mentioned is part of what makes “Night of the Living Dead” such a historically relevant film. I’d like to feel that Hollywood has gone some way to mean that a positive black role model is not now seen as a shocking thing, but of course it is still a world prone to the occasional stereotype.
In British, low budget filmmaking however, there is a huge air of racism and class distinctions, whether alluded to or not. One of the easiest ways to make money in British cinema at the moment is to produce an “urban, gritty” film, usually based around East or South London gangsters, Football (soccer) Hooligans or youths causing problems dealing with drugs and violence on council estates (the equivalent of American Projects).
There is nothing wrong with producing films like this, but unfortunately these films inspire a flood of weak knockoffs, and the reality is that you have middle class white people coming out of university, writing films about a subject they know nothing about, because they know they can produce them cheaply, and sell them to a distributor who’ll release them straight to DVD without even watching them, because they know this kind of film sells. I’ve worked on many films like this for other people over the years, and fairly often the black actors complain that these are the only types of roles they are ever offered, and even that they feel the occasional line or scene is promotion negative racial stereotypes.
That is not to say that the British film industry is institutionally racist, far from it, but within a certain budget of cinema the tendency to adhere a certain stereotype appears high. Sometimes this is done well and creates a socially or politically valid film. The danger is when a distributor doesn’t care about the script, rather the poster and the names on it. Then the artistry goes out the window, and identikit films get made.
When auditioning characters for the part of Ben, we were inundated with thanks from black actors for the chance to audition to play a part that wasn’t a ghetto speaking drug dealing wannabe rapper. To be honest it felt disingenuous to accept such praise, we have never only auditioned white actors for a part, and have cast actors from all backgrounds in all parts, due to who gave the best audition, regardless of their look or background.
The actor we eventually chose to play Ben is Nathaniel A. Francis, a wonderful actor with many plaudits for stage work who blew us all away with his subtle, emotional character acting in the auditions. In our interviews with him he has spoken at length about this issue of racial profiling of young black actors, and he’s far more able to make comment on this area than myself. He says people watching the film may be confused to see a black character speaking in a calm, well mannered, educated way in a low budget British film, but jokes that it’s ok, because later on in the film, he finds a shotgun!
As for actual “controversy” this time around, to be honest I think it is controversial remaking a film that is so loved and rightfully revered by so many in the first place. Whilst we’re opening ourselves up for criticism, I believe that once the film is out there, whether people like it or not, they won’t be able to say that we’ve massacred it. There are so many things in there that clearly show what geeks we are about the original, and how much love and fondness we have for the original film and characters, that even if people don’t like our version, they’ll at least know our hearts were in the right place. Who knows, people may even be encouraged to go out afterwards and watch the original film again.
—– “Night of the Living Dead” films have never had big budgets. Romero made the original 1968 film for only $114,000 (which grossed $30 million worldwide), and Tom Savini made the 1990 remake for $4,200,000 (which grossed $5,835,247 in U.S.). The 2006 film “Night of the Living Dead 3D” was made for $750,000, but grossed only $215,300 in the United States.
—– Director Samuel Victor said there is currently an indiegogo campaign for pre-orders on a limited edition copy of the DVD, which only has a few days left. Once this is finished the film will be available to order – can be found here.
—– Victor said money raised through sales of this DVD will go a long way to cover the expenses taking the finished film to festivals, conventions and press events to help it sell and get the best distribution possible, so if any horror fans wanting to support this “Night of the Living Dead” remake can consider a purchase of the documentary.
—– The teaser trailer for the film can be seen here.
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