Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with a special AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. I got a whiff of THE DEAD probably about a year ago. Something about it just made me NEED to see it. There was a genuine quality to it as well as a kick ass story and a locale that was ripe with metaphorical commentary. I had a chance to talk with THE DEAD directors Howard and John Ford not long ago. Enjoy!
And here’s what The Ford Brothers, Howard and John had to say about THE DEAD!
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): Okay, I have heard about THE DEAD for almost a year now and I’ve really wanted to see this film. Could you tell the readers a little bit about the film just to start off?
HOWARD FORD (HF): Yeah, sure. It’s essentially about one man, An American, whose plane crash lands out in West Africa in an outbreak of the living dead and he crashes off the coast and basically washes to shore and finds himself in a land full of zombies with absolutely nothing to defend himself and he has to get from one side of Africa to the other if he’s got any hopes of seeing his family again.
BUG: This film was all filmed in Africa, is that correct?
JOHN FORD (JF): Yeah.
HF: All of it. We filmed in Burkina Faso and Ghana in West Africa, mainly Burkina Faso which is French speaking West Africa very near to Bening where the original zombie legend came from, you know Bening and Haiti and that kind of thing. We kind of wanted to take it back to its…you know, as close as we could to what we believe would be its original roots.
BUG: Okay, and as far as filming was concerned, I heard that filming was pretty difficult for you guys. What was going on trying to put this film together?
HF: Can we swear?
HF: It was a fucking nightmare trying to put this film together. I can’t tell you how tough it was.
JF: I mean, basically we just couldn’t get any equipment into these parts of Africa which there’s no technical back up whatsoever, so you have to shoot every bit yourself and obviously you’ve got the corruption by the customs at the ports and I mean it took five weeks until we could even get shooting…
HF: Yeah, we had issues getting the cast in. You know, for about five weeks every single day it was our cast and crew staying in hotels thinking we were about to start shooting the next day, but we would always come home without the equipment, because we were getting stopped every day.
JF: And then when we finally did get the equipment through some of it was sabotaged. Someone had tried to smash up the generator. They drained the oil from the van, so they tried to seize the engine up. It was an absolute nightmare and then on top of that whenever you would try to go anywhere the police would stop you at gun point waving an AK47 in your face and extract money from you. There was no choice in that and then we had a lead actor collapse on set in the middle of a take with full-blown cerebral malaria and he went to the hospital where there were no beds, so he had to be stuck on a slab of wood in the doctor’s office covered in his own shit and vomit. For two weeks he stayed there on a drip and he very nearly died.
HF: I remember. I remember there was a moment he was staying the hospital, this infested hospital, and the doctors were treating him with a drip, but “He still might die within 24 to 48 hours” and I’m thinking “We are actually going to kill people. The irony of what we are doing here. We are going to kill people.”
BUG: Oh wow.
HF: And we all got horrific food poisoning as well, so every meal was playing Russian roulette, you don’t know if it’s going to feed your or kill you and we all…I mean, I think I lost a couple of stone in weight, you know? I lost a huge amount of body weight in a short space of time.
JF: And he got weaker to the point where he couldn’t actually lug around a camera anymore.
HF: Yeah and we were trying to remain optimistic in between bouts of vomiting and when you are doing a project like this there’s no staying in bed, you’re lucky if you even go to bed, but we slept in wicker tents in the desert and things like that, but yeah trying to remain optimistic while being violently ill is no fun.
JF: That was the thing, Mark. We were trying to make it first and foremost, in a strange way, a beautiful film as well as a horrific film, so we were all trying to make something that looked really nice and done artistically. It was so hard to keep your eye focused on that with all of this crap.
HF: That’s why we went to the dangerous part…the real reason was the authenticity. Everything you see in the film obviously apart from the dead returning to life had to be real, hence we went into the ridiculous situation.
BUG: Well it sounds like you guys went through hell just making this. How did you keep optimistic and keep going? Was there ever a time during filming that you said “alright, screw this. This is way too much. I want to turn around and go home”?
HF: I think John said that many…
JF: Yeah, all the time Howard kept persuading me to stay. I mean I’ve got to be honest, before I had even gotten off the plane, because so many things had gone wrong before we even entered the country, I won’t go into all of those, but it was a nightmare also, I didn’t even want to get off the plane at that point. I wanted to just turn around and go straight back home, but Howard talked be into it. “Hang in there. Keep going. Just keep going!”
HF: I have to say, I had met the investors. I had met the people who put the cash into the film. I had shook their hands and I was now involved. I would rather have come home in a body bag than without this film. I would rather have died than had come back and suffered the embarrassment of coming back without the film. I was never going to stop and so it became my job to persuade everyone else to stay and do the film, but I must say this: Rob Freeman, when he got out of the hospital John and I thought “well, he’s definitely going to want to go home and it’s probably best he goes home…”
JF: We started to write him out of the script, didn’t we?
HF: Yeah, we did. We were going to do a PSYCHO thing where he would just suddenly shockingly die and…so we were shooting chronologically and it’s a journey movie, but actually he was like “I’m not going home” and good on him for that, because I doubt there’s any other actor out there who could have suffered the way he suffered and still do the film.
BUG: Well given that this is a zombie film, what type of films did you…did you look at films for inspiration? What other films, even outside of the zombie genre, did you kind of look at to kind of help you along?
HF: There is a wide variety actually. (laughs) Obviously there’s the classic zombie movies that were the original inspiration for heading up…
JF: It’s also a survival movie and journey movie. Strange things like the adventures of Michael Strogoff and LOST IN THE DESERT…
HF: And the…of fear. You know that was a real, I suppose, an influence. Sergio Leone movies were probably more influential than a lot of the obvious.
BUG: Okay. What are the rules of your zombie film? Every zombie film has rules. Are they fast zombies? Are they slow zombies?
HF: Yeah, I mean we knew right from the start…I mean, I had been writing this thing for over 25 years on and off chipping away at it, not solidly obviously, so it was inspired by the earlier ones and it had to be slow moving zombies. We always agreed for that right from the start. We do love running zombies, don’t get us wrong, they are good fun, but for us the fear factor and the suspense…you can really crank it to a higher level with the slow moving zombies, so yeah, we were both originally blown away from Romero’s zombies. That’s when we were very young, 13 years old I think, and that sort of stayed with us. That’s what we wanted to do.
BUG: And how about head shots and things like that? Is that still the rule? Shoot them in the head?
JF: Yes, definitely it had to be a shot in the head. I love RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD’s version where you could never kill them no matter what (laughs), but yeah, we went for the shot in the head stuff. Again, we did stick to Romero’s rules. We felt like he wrote the rulebook, so we definitely wanted to stick with those and I thought those were an amazing set of rules, so we loved that.
BUG: I also wanted to just ask about the fact that with zombie films there are so many out there, so how does this film kind of distinguish itself from all of the other zombie films that people can choose from today?
JF: What you are going to get when you watch THE DEAD is you are going to be taken on a journey through Africa and events that you haven’t seen before in any other movie.
JF: There’s a lot of Africa in this…with THE DEAD, I think we didn’t just focus on the blood and the gore, we wanted it to be a movie with a bit of heart and soul if you like to really involve yourself in the characters and to also…spirituality and the culture of the deepest darkest Africa, so there’s a lot to explore in that and hopefully we have been able to do that. I mean the people that have seen it so far have come out of it absolutely shocked, not due to the gore, but because it wasn’t what they were expecting from a zombie film. If there’s one thing we can guarantee, it’s definitely going to be different from any other zombie film you’ve ever seen before.
BUG: Just setting it in Africa brings up all of these other issues that can come up, things like apartheid, things like AIDS, and other things like that, famine…are those issues addressed in there or is it more of a metaphorical sense?
HF: Yeah, it’s more metaphorical, but they are there. John and I were very much aware of that.
JF: Yeah, we sort of wanted to tap into that. I mean we are all used to seeing the newsreel footage of slaughter and starvation and politics and that sort of stuff. We managed to, I think, tap into some of that with THE DEAD in a way with the zombies becoming the starving masses if you like and if you notice in the film all of the zombies are emaciated and starving and to be honest when we found these people, they were literally just starving to death and we were able to feed…
HF: Some of them hadn’t eaten for several days and yeah, it was really shocking. With the horror there’s a reality in it, with the film you are actually witnessing, even if you’re involved in the plot or whatever, you are witnessing real horrors right in front of your face and you know they are real. Audiences are very smart and they can pick up all of these things and they can see beyond just what’s going on on the screen and I think, Mark, you hit on the point exactly when you asked “What are people going to get out of THE DEAD that they are not going to get in another zombie film?” Your next question kind of answers that, because all of these things are present and when John and I first sat down and got the idea to set this film in Africa, that was a moment when we thought “My God, we could actually not only make a zombie movie, but we can do something really special with it.”
JF: It means something on a deeper level and you are getting those levels. We were unsure the people would understand it, but having had the screenings we’ve had it was a huge relief, because I mean we had the premiere in LA a couple of nights ago and had a couple of girls say “I actually cried…” they even felt for the zombies, you know? (laughs) And that’s what we wanted and it sounds like it’s coming through.
BUG: Yeah, definitely. Well what was it like working with the locals there in Africa? Had they seen zombie films? Were they familiar with it or was this just… To make people look like zombies, there’s a process right there, so what was the response?
HF: Yeah, we were worried about that before we went out.
JF: To explain to someone “This is what we want you to do. We want you to walk along slowly with these white eyes and eat flesh” and all of this other stuff and we thought “They are just going to think we are mad and they are not going to like it,” but they absolutely loved it and went at it with everything they had and strangely, because they do have…they’ve bought into voodoo and all of this sort of other stuff and they know of zombies, so it was no great shock to them at all.
HF: I remember going past some tiny little hut and in this hut was this TV and I think it had a sign out saying “Friday night, special screening, EVIL DEAD.” I thought, “Wow, these guys know this stuff.”
JF: That was the moment when we thought, “They are going to get it.” HF: They really appreciated the fact that we were there in Africa, because a lot of these people you see in the villages through the film, those are the real residents of those villages. Those are their real village huts and…
JF: There’s no fakery at all and they were completely appreciative. A lot of people thanked us via the translator or whatever just for coming to Africa to make a piece of entertainment. It’s a beautiful country and the people of these villages were lovely and not to go there and say “Start with the starving boy crying in the village and then we will photograph this person and then we will just leave and go back to our hotel…” That wasn’t what we were doing. It’s not that those things are not essential to raise awareness, but we were there to make a piece of entertainment and they were really appreciative, because the more people who do that the more money is going to go in the country and we took a lot of cash into the country and gave it directly to people who needed it. I know for sure that we helped people out and some are probably alive right now because of some of the money we gave, because some were right at the edge to be honest.
HF: Yeah and also to tack something on to the end of that question, they loved all of the flesh eating zombie parts, because I mean the original zombie in our film has the flesh eating bit that was Romero-ed in and I remember some guy went by on a bicycle and asked what we were doing. We found out through a translator that this guy was actually a cannibal. He seemed like a really nice guy with lots of smiles…
JF: He was one of the nicest guys we met, I would say.
HF: He was, and apparently he would only be eating flesh when the people were dead, so you know he won’t…
JF: And not too decomposed or people from his village.
HF: Yeah, but he watched what we were doing with the zombies and he was loving it.
BUG: That’s awesome. Well, so what about…what type of films are you guys interested in? Are you guys interested in continuing making horror films or are you moving on to other things?
HF: I think we would make another horror, but not immediately. You know, we love horror.
JF: Yeah, horror is our first love I would say, but we do definitely want to do other things as well and then would love to come back to horror again as well.
HF: And you would be more of a true horror fan, I suppose, than I.
HF: The ban lift came out in the UK, and…I mean, I think there is actually talk of a sequel to THE DEAD, but we are going to wait and see how this one goes.
BUG: I was going to ask about that. Were you thinking about revisiting THE DEAD and trying to continue?
HF: We certainly would. If this film does well and if people come out and support it…we are really, really grateful for the support of anybody that comes to see the film on anything other than a pirate download. That will enable us to go out and do it again, do it on a bigger budget, do it with more armed guards…(laughs) Other than that, we still would revisit horror and I’ve got a supernatural thriller screenplay that we’ve just got interest in in the States as well and I’m hoping over the course of the month to kind of chum about the States a bit for the next few weeks with the film and then, yeah, hopefully get some sort of deal while we are out here.
BUG: Even though it was such a trial for you guys, you guys made a really great one, so I just want to congratulate you guys on your success on that and thank you so much for taking the time for the interview.
HF: Thank you so much, Mark. I was just going to say to readers, before you watch the movie, I always worry when people have heard so many good things, stay with it, it’s a slow burner. We take our time. We always take our time.
BUG: Okay, sounds great. All right, well thanks a lot. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today and you guys have a great day.
JF: And you too. No problem. Take care.
HF: Take care.
BUG: THE DEAD is in limited theatrical release all this month. Check out the website to find out where to see it! And find out more about THE DEAD on its Facebook page!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Mark is also a regular writer for FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and will be releasing FAMOUS MONSTERS first ever comic book miniseries LUNA in October (co-written by Martin Fisher with art by Tim Rees) You can pre-order it here! Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the covers to purchase)!
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