Reviving 'The Dead'

Fantastic Fest 2010 zombie horror returns this weekend

"A real cannibal passed by on a bicycle." Director of 'The Dead' Howard Ford will be in Austin this weekend

The revenant have risen again! Fantastic Fest 2010 fave The Dead returns for a highly limited run this week, and hell – and director Howard Ford – is coming with it.

The man behind the African-set undead creeper is visiting Austin this weekend for a series of special screenings and events, including a special midnight screening at the Alamo Village tonight, complete with Q&A hosted by our own Marc Savlov. Then at noon on Saturday, Oct. 8 he'll be at the Best of Austin-winning cabinet of curiosities the Museum of the Weird as part of their zombie weekend. That will include screenings of old and rare zombie flicks, plus a special signing by Greg Lawson, author of Zombie Advocacy, and starts at 2pm Friday, Oct. 7.

Savlov sat down with Ford before Fantastic Fest last year to talk about the perils of shooting a horror film in a combat zone. Here's a taste of what they talked about, but this barely scratches the surface of Ford's incredible tales of this unbelievable shoot.

Austin Chronicle: Can you remember the first zombie movie that you saw – when, where, and how it affected you?

Howard Ford: The first zombie movie I ever saw was George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. I must have been 12, I think, at the time, and it had an incredible impact on me. I vividly recall going home afterward so terrified that we literally walked in the center of the road because we felt like at any moment we could be grabbed by a zombie. It just felt like the horror was all around us. I've never forgotten that.

AC: Was Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie an influence on The Dead? Virtually all of your zombies look and move like undead kin to Darby Jones' titular revenant in Tourneur's film.

HF: Actually, I don't think either one of us has ever seen that film, although it came up in discussion while my brother and I were writing the script.

AC: I think it's a stroke of genius to return the zombie mythos to its birthplace in Africa.

HF: One of the very first zombie legends comes out of Benin, in French-speaking West Africa, in fact.

AC: The Dead was shot entirely on location in one of the poorest and most dangerous regions in the world. That had to be a challenge.

HF:It's really hard for me to put into words how tough it was trying to get this movie in the can and out of Africa. We didn't just take the safe route or the relatively safe route even. We went into the middle of nowhere. We shot in locations where people from the Western world have quite literally never been before, let alone actually shot a movie there.

AC: How'd that work out for you?

HF: How much space do you have? I was mugged at knifepoint on day one. I had a huge hunting knife put to my chest and another small knife put up to my ribs. All my cash and cards were taken, including my driving license.And then they tried to put me in jail for driving without a license. So we were constantly paying off armed police. We'd encounter a whole number of guys with AK-47 machine guns while driving through the middle of Africa. We were stopped at gunpoint probably on average every other day, in our time in Africa. Money was extorted from us. Some people call it corruption; some people call it doing whatever is necessary to put food on your family's table in a poor country. Whichever way you look at it, it's very frustrating when you're trying to get a movie in the can.

AC: Are you sure Werner Herzog wasn't orchestrating all this from afar?

HF: I've never seen worse. Our lead actor, Rob Freeman, contracted malaria, collapsed on set shortly after we got going. He started convulsing and was rushed to hospital. He had full-blown malaria so much so that the doctor said he would have been dead within three days, possibly two days, but most certainly within three days had he not been treated immediately. He was on an IV drip for a total of two weeks at the shoot.

AC: Not exactly the kind of dead you were going for.

HF: Not really, no. And we actually met real cannibals.

AC: No.

HF: Yes! It was very strange; we were filming a scene when Murphy, the main character, is hiding in the corn fairly shortly after he gets to shore. And, um, a real cannibal passed by on a bicycle …

AC: Okay, retract what I said about Herzog. This is obviously Alejandro Jodorowsky's doing.

HF: … and our local translator revealed to us that this guy was, indeed, a local cannibal. He saw our white-eyed, flesh-eating zombies, and he was really excited about what we were up to. So our translator revealed to me that this guy eats people in his village when they die. Apparently he doesn't kill anyone, you know, as far as we are aware, he just eats the dead. Someone made a joke about, you know, had he tried some white meat? And the cannibal sort of laughed and looked at our thighs, kind of thing. Actually, we were kind of uneasy.

AC: What kind of difficulties did shooting in the heat of equatorial Africa present for the makeup effects? I imagine latex melts.

HF: Yeah, you're absolutely right, and that's exactly what happened. All the props outside of the costumes, the equipment, the generator, the lights, everything else was shipped in from the UK. Max Van De Banks was our special makeup effects artist, and, along with Dan Rickard, he created all the body parts. Everything from fake hands to fake limbs. And yes, they started to melt incredibly quickly. So sometimes they're just seen on the ground as a bit of mush.

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