I’ve been a zombie before. A couple of years ago I visited the set of Dylan Dog: Dead of Night and was made up as a pit-dwelling undead that tried to take a bite out of Sam Huntington’s ankles. I never saw the movie, even though I’m told you can totally spot me in the scene. Somehow it didn’t seem worth sitting through.
Hopefully my next zombie acting gig is more watchable. Last October I went to frigid Montreal, where Jonathan Levine was shooting Warm Bodies, a zombie romance. The drill: I would show up, along with a bunch of other online journalists, at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where I would be transformed into a zombie, appear in a scene, and do some on-set interviews.
Side note here: Olympic Stadium is a pretty historic place. It was built for Montreal’s 1976 Winter Olympics, but get this: they didn’t finish it in time. Only half the thing was complete for the Olympics. They didn’t actually finish the entire structure until the late 80s. Along the way lots of famous rock moments happened there, the coolest of which was a 1977 Pink Floyd concert. Roger Waters was so pissed off at a group of noisy, boisterous Canadian fans in front of the stage he spit on them; after the show he was talking with the rest of the band about how he hated playing stadium gigs and wished he could build a wall between himself and the crowd. From that conversation sprang Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
A decade and a half later, rowdy fans struck again, rioting after a Metallica/Guns n Roses show was cut short after James Hetfield burned his arm on pyrotechnics and Axl Rose whined about having a sore throat.
Who knows, maybe history was made again in October of 2011. After all, I was pretty good as a zombie.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the beginning of the day: we were bused over to the stadium, where we began the process of transformation. Step one was surrendering our cameras and phones and stuff. Reception was for shit in the stadium anyway. Step two was wardrobe; we had sent along our measurements, and the wardrobe people had picked out some tattered, grimy clothes that could help us slip into character.
You can’t be too vain when choosing your walking dead wardrobe, but you do have to understand the guy you’re playing. The clothes you’re wearing will be what you wore when you turned into a zombie, so it says something about you. I opted for a wardrobe that said overweight, lazy guy who doesn’t care much about fashion. I felt like I could nail that character, alive or dead.
Next came the hose down. We stood on plastic tarps and were sprayed down with airbrushes, giving our skin an unhealthy, grey pallor. Well, unhealthier and greyer than our usual blogger pallor. Once the spraying was done, we moved on to the make-up chairs.
We were among a hundred or so zombie extras that day, and not all zombies are created equal. For the extras who will be in the deep background the spray was enough. Some people just had white powder on their faces. But for those closer to the camera more care was taken. Veins were painted on. And for the lucky few - like me! - gore and grue were added.
I made sure to ask for that. I’ve been an extra a couple of times in movies - my favorite movie to not actually feature me identifiably is Observe and Report - but it’s taken me a bunch of years to realize I should speak up and try to get myself featured in some way. Eventually I’ll be dead, and all that will be left is some 1s and 0s in cyberspace and my extra appearances in movies. Better make those count at least.
Ideally I would have had part of my jaw torn away, or an eyeball hanging out, or some other sort of festering wound, but Warm Bodies is PG-13. I know, a PG-13 zombie movie! What’s the world coming to? At the beginning of the day I was pretty skeptical of the whole thing, assuming I was going to walk away from the set visit with a low opinion of the film. It turns out I quite liked what I saw... even if I think it should have been R-rated.
I’m actually interested in seeing how they wrangled a PG-13 for the film. After all, Nicholas Hoult insists there’s brain eating in the film.
“There was one day where there was a scene where I crack open Dave Franco's head to eat his brains. We used a dummy, and I actually pulled some of the dummy's hair out and it was on the brains so I ate a load of fake brains and the dummy's hair which wasn't the most pleasant experience.”
The brain eating thing originated in Return of the Living Dead, and it’s become a part of the general zombie lore. Everybody assumes zombies eat brains, but that wasn’t introduced until 1985, well after George Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead defined the behavior of ghouls. And it can be argued that Return of the Living Dead contains one of the last two additions to zombie lore, being the brain eating. The other addition: running, as seen in 28 Days Later (although technically the zombies in Night of the Living Dead can run).
Weirdly Warm Bodies, in all its PG-13 glory, is going to be introducing the only other really new element to zombie lore in a long time: they can get better.
Back to the brains. In this film (which is based loosely on a book, but is apparently changed so much that you maybe shouldn’t even worry about the book), eating brains gives zombies a very specific chemical reaction. Says Hoult:
"The idea that Jonathan came up with is that because these brains are memories it's kind of like being alive again, it's kind of like a drug to the zombies. The brains is quite a release."
In fact it’s the act of eating a brain - Dave Franco’s brain, to be precise - that sends Hoult’s character down the path to getting better. See, Franco is dating a girl played by Theresa Palmer, and when Hoult eats that brain he acquires an understanding of her. He falls in love with her.
Oh great. Twilight with zombies. That’s just what the genre needed. But even that idea is patently ridiculous; vampires are inherently sexual, with the lips on the necks and the subtle penetration and the swapping of fluids and the power dynamics. Zombies - well, in this movie zombies eat your brains. There’s something sexy about being taken into the arms of another, overpowered and owned. What’s sexy about eating a brain?
“You haven’t seen how I eat brains!” Hoult says, and hahaha About A Boy, good one. But seriously, eating brains is not a basis for a love story.
“It’s challenging,” Levine acknowledged. “I think that makes it fun. And it’s a lot about the actors. For Nick we’re looking more at Edward Scissorhands instead of R-Patz or whatever. Hopefully, and I think he is, he’s endearing enough that people will overlook the eating brains part. Everyone has some negative things that they bring to a relationship.”
This isn’t Levine’s first horror movie. He made a slasher movie called All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a slasher movie that’s inventive and unique and probably would have hit the horror genre like a meteor when it was made back in like 2006. You see,Mandy Lane got bought by the Weinsteins and got dicked around and, to make a long story short, as of 2012 still has never been officially released in the United States of America. For most of us, Levine’s debut feature was the period piece coming of age movie The Wackness. For most of America the movie they first saw of Levine’s was50/50, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt has cancer. One thing that all of these films have in common is that they’re all rated R. Levine’s not feeling the pain of PG-13
“It’s not a big deal because this movie’s not meant to be ‘R’,” he said. “It’s not like I wish I could get that one extra ‘fuck’, you know?. We have our ‘fuck’ and we know where it is and we’re good with it. Yes, we like to push the envelope with the gore and the violence, but this movie’s about heart. It’s not about the gore and the violence even though we’ve shot some of the most disgusting things you will ever see.”
Or more likely not ever see. Levine admitted that he shot lots of explicit brain eating that he doesn’t expect to make the final cut. Maybe the DVD, he says. I suspect that Levine did an old horror movie trick of shooting way too much gore so that when the MPAA cuts it down he still gets a pretty solid amount. The film’s rating does say it contains ‘zombie violence.’
This set visit report is all over the place. Let’s get back to what’s really important: my personal experience as a zombie extra.
After all the make-up was applied and all the crap was put in our hair (looking back at the pictures I can say that my hair looks better as a zombie than it did when I walked into the stadium that day. What the fuck was I ever thinking, wearing my hair like that?), we went upstairs to where our scene would take place.
The lobby areas of the stadium had been transformed into a post-apocalyptic mess. Debris was everywhere, and the walls were covered in graffiti. Levine told us the graffiti had a very specific movie influence.
“It’s kind of something we saw in Children Of Men that we really liked which is the world, in spite of the fact that everything’s going to shit, people are still doing the things they would do in an anarchic society and a society where things just fall apart.”
Even as society crumbles, people gotta tag.
The scene we were in was like this: a zombie horde is shuffling around, led by Rob Corddry. Corddry plays Hoult’s best pal zombie, M (all the zombies have just letters for names. Hoult is R. Think Romeo. Palmer is playing Julie. I wonder if M is short for Mercutio). As the movie goes on, and as Hoult heals up from his zombieness, he begins being able to talk and to walk better and to take charge. In this scene R was asking M to get this horde to help in a battle against Boneys.
What, you may ask, is a Boney? They’re the monsters in this zombie movie. While there are zombies - R and M and D (that’s me. D is short for Devin) being some of the main ones - there are things worse than zombies.
Rob Corddry explained what Boneys are.
“Zombies are the protagonists so you’re faced then with the lack of an enemy, right? So it brings a new element to the zombie mythology: zombies now devolve. If you’re a zombie for too long, or perhaps for some other reason, they devolve into what they call ‘Boneys’, which are just devoid of any connection to their human side. It’s just a complete new species and they’re all evil. And they can get erections. Rock solid. Really metal.”
The erections thing is less of a non-sequitur than it sounds out of context. We had asked Corddry if his zombie could get a boner, you know, because we’re adult journalists. Spoiler: his zombie cannot get a boner.
So in this scene the horde of zombie is going to fight a bunch of Boneys, who I think will be added digitally. It’s 2012, what are you going to do? The shot has R coming up to M, grunting some instructions, and then M wading into the horde of zombies to prepare the fight.
Wading right in towards where I stand.
If you think this is a big deal for me, just imagine what a big deal it was for the rest of the extras. I mean, I’m a jet-setting trendmaker with big deal Hollywood friends (I already knew Jonathan Levine well enough before this movie that he gave me a friendly hello before the scene. That’s the power of networking in action). These people were local folks with enough time on their hands to spend 18 hour days standing around in a cold, empty stadium.
And man were they great. There were a couple of zombie extras who seemed to have experience, and they were all about making sure everybody was in the same place every time we did a new take. Like, there were guys all but measuring the distance between each of us. These guys were the natural enemies of the guys who were jockeying for position; after a couple of takes it became obvious just where Corddry would wade into the crowd, and all sorts of extras started trying to get into that zone. Corddry really waded into the crowd, too, shouldering people away in a very good zombie shuffle, and you could tell that getting a shove from Corddry was a big deal, and likely a ticket into the final film.
Which is why I’d gouge a fucker’s eyes out to maintain my spot. The jostling got sort of intense, and the number of takes began to extract a toll. People got grumpy. They talked. They wouldn’t shut up when the assistant director was talking to them. Anarchy settled in.
And forget it when we had to react to something. Boneys were to jump through a glass ceiling, and we all had to react, but as zombies, you know? You couldn’t go too big. Just try telling those jokers from Montreal, though. Don’t get me wrong - there were some true professionals in there, a couple of people who I believed might actually be dead (they sort of smelled that way), but there were more than a few who were getting all bug-eyed and going too far.
It’s unclear if I was one of them. That seems unlikely though, right? As a film critic I’m probably an expert on acting. I’ve written about it enough that doing it should be no biggie. And I’m a zombie fan, so I surely crushed it.
Which is why I thought it was so strange that they released me before the rest of the zombie extras. I mean, I was killing it in the crowd. What were they going to do without me? I just assume they were filming a spoiler-heavy scene next, and didn’t want me writing about it in this incisive, informative set visit report.
I want to wrap this up, mainly because I assume nobody has read this far. I should have done this as a slideshow of the Top 27 Hottest Zombie Extras In Warm Bodies or something, and then Buzzfeed would have cut and pasted the whole thing and really given Summit bang for their buck.
In wrapping this up, I want to circle back around to something that I said way at the beginning of this. When I went on set I didn’t have a lot of hope for Warm Bodies, what with it being a PG-13 zombie romance. But talking to Hoult and Levine something dawned on me. This was a zombie movie about something.
That seems dumb, but if you look at the latest zombie revival, so few of the movies or TV shows use zombies to mean anything. In Romero’s films they’re metaphors for other things, for fears of the masses and for consumerism and for nationalism and the homeless and all sorts of cool social and political things. But what do the zombies mean on The Walking Dead? They have no dimension beyond being an occasional peril. They’re cannon fodder to dispatch between scenes of characters yelling at each other.
But Warm Bodies uses zombies as a metaphor. And the film’s big addition to zombie lore - the idea that you can get better from zombieism - advances that metaphor.
Said Levine: “It’s really just about a guy and a girl and the guy is trapped in his own kind of shell and can’t get out of it.” That shell, of course, is a little extreme. But it's using zombies to represent another idea, to add subtext. A zombie movie that brings something new to the table AND that honors the tradition of subtextual meaning? I can get behind that, even if the gory stuff gets saved for DVD.
Hoult summed it up: “R's trying to connect to Julie but he can't. He's wants to say all these wonderful things to her but he can't.” Then he laughed. “That's a lot of guys.”