Even the Undead Gotta Dance, Gotta Sing

John McLean's labor of love, 'Z: A Zombie Musical'

(L-r) Joe Ely, Sara Hickman, Jimmy LaFave, and Michael Fracasso
(L-r) Joe Ely, Sara Hickman, Jimmy LaFave, and Michael Fracasso

Let's make this clear up front: John McLean is not a big fan of the undead. Ooky, slimy zombies screaming for brains do not him excite. But have them burst out into a show tune, and the director of the locally made Z: A Zombie Musical is quickly grinning. Blame it on his dad, who was pushing 60 when McLean was born and a fanatic for musicals. Dad packed his young son along for frequent trips to Las Vegas to take in the shows. Thus Z, in all of its goofy, low-budget glory, is more a quirky paean to Singin' in the Rain than to Night of the Living Dead. A major modern-day influence is Cannibal! The Musical, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone. "I like musicals, and this just happens to be a musical with zombies in it," McLean says. Oh, and throw in a little gratuitous nudity and dancing nuns.

The film shot off and on for more than a year to accommodate the schedules of its large cast, which includes cameos from Joe "King" Carrasco, Dale Watson, Joe Ely, Sara Hickman, Jimmy Lafave, Michael Fracasso, former Austin Mayors Jeff Friedman and Bruce Todd, and current Mayor Will Wynn. It was shot on the fly in the film equivalent of the punk DIY movement: You help McLean on his film, and he'll help you. Seriously. He helped one actress move her belongings from one residence to another. Twice. "The thing about Austin is it's such a wonderful place to make art," says McLean, who cut his teeth in Los Angeles reading scripts and writing coverage for Roger Corman, serving as a grip on independent films, and even casting for a topless kickboxing film. "Everybody wants you to fail in L.A. In Austin, people want you to succeed, and they help you."

Z began as McLean's idea for a short film. He'd already lensed his first feature, the Austin-shot mockumentary The Perfect Man Contest, and was fiddling around with the idea for a short about zombies who could talk but only did so when humans weren't around. A casting-call posting to Dan Eggleston's listserv, Austin Film Casting, drew more than 300 responses, and McLean revised his plans. He also pulled Eggleston, a retired middle school teacher, into the mix, eventually promoting the bearded film industry megafan to producer. Song and dance became the real underlying focus of the film (some of the principal actresses and choreographer Amy Jordan were inspired enough to create the burlesque show the Jigglewatts). Six months were spent creating 14 original songs, and the film was developed around them. The biggest number, "Zomberia," features a Pflugerville-esque suburb populated almost entirely by the undead – the singing undead. The final day of filming, long delayed by a ban on outdoor fire in Austin at the time, featured lots of dancing around a bonfire sans various articles of clothing. "Some of the cast started naked, and we ended naked, and there was a lot of silliness in between," McLean says.

Z: The Zombie Musical premieres Monday, June 16, 7:30pm at the Arbor (9828 Great Hills Tr.). Tickets are $5. Joe O'Connell can be seen in a cameo role as a zombie casting director.

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Z: A Zombie Musical, John McLean

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