AFF: Diagnosing Why 'Harold's Going Stiff'

Keith Wright explains the anti-zombies of his domestic drama

Keith Wright on 'Harold's Going Stiff':
Keith Wright on 'Harold's Going Stiff': "The horror is about that fear of getting old, of being alone and ill." (Image courtesy of Frisson Film)

The best zombie movies use the flash-craving undead as a shambling gateway to metaphor, like consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or postponed adolescence in Shaun of the Dead. The same goes for Harold's Getting Stiff, which picked up the jury narrative feature award at the Austin Film Festival.

Like many British horror buffs, writer/director Keith Wright grew up in the era of illicit VHS copies of the infamous video nasties, but the unnerving inspiration for his low budget drama was much more personal. "I had a grandmother who had dementia, and over the course of 15, 20 years she became to me zombiefied. It was in a quite horrific way, obviously, because that's a real person who disappears. I was really intrigued that it could work for a zombie film, that you could project it onto the genre."

Harold's Going Stiff reinvents zombieism as a degenerative neurological condition called Onset Rigors Disease. Rather than focusing on the oncoming flesh-eating horde, Wright said, "I thought it was much more interesting to look at the process of becoming zombiefied and see how that affects people."

Don't expect much gore and ichor: Harold's Going Stiff takes a quasi-documentary approach to the story of Harold (Stan Rowe), a retired man in the North of England suffering from the early stages of ORD, and his physiotherapist Penny (Sarah Spencer). "I don't think it's a horror film in a traditional sense," Wright said, and the result is far closer to Ken Loach than George Romero. Instead of a supernatural and instantaneous transformation into a flesh-rending monster, Harold and Penny are dealing with a disease that begins like arthritis and eventually robs the sufferers of logic and mobility, leaving them staggering, stiff-limbed and in maddening agony. "You see Harold in his world. He is old, he is ill, and this shining light comes into his life in the shape of this nurse," Wright said. "The horror is about that fear of getting old, of being alone and ill. Those things scare me the shit out of me more than any film I've ever seen."

So if this is a domestic drama about a degenerative disease, should we be using the z-word at all? Wright said, "I started to become aware that calling it a zombie film was a little bit dangerous, the reason being that people have a certain expectation. So I tried to find a way out, and I think the way out was to suggest that, if this was to happen, the media would run with, 'They're zombies.' If you describe them as zombies or zombielike, the newspapers would pick up on that and they'd use it. It would become the zombiefying disease."

Even while he was rewriting the rules of the ghouls, Wright has found the horror community to be very supportive, as shown by an early screening at the prestigious Dead by Dawn horror fest in Edinburgh, Scotland. Wright said, "I was really bloody nervous because this is a horror crowd, and really it's a bit of a love story, it's a comedy, it's not really that horrific, but they absolutely loved it. I think it's a bit shortsighted to think of horror fans in a specific light, that they just want blood and guts. They're not that narrow minded."

Austin Film Festival presents Harold's Going Stiff, Oct. 26, 9:30pm, Regal Arbor.

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Harold's Going Stiff, AFF 2011, Austin Film Festival, Keith Wright, Zombie, ORD, Onset Rigors Disease, O.R.D., Dead by Dawn, Frisson Films

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