Fresh off of its premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, the EPIX documentary Doc of the Dead, directed by Alexandre Philippe, examines the rise and evolution of zombies in film, television and literature, and their impact on pop culture. Many of the genre’s most influential figures are featured in the film, including the “godfather of the zombie genre” George A. Romero, actors Simon Pegg and Bruce Campbell, producer Greg Nicotero, effects guru Tom Savini and acclaimed author Max Brooks.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Alexandre Philippe and Tom Savini talked about how this documentary came about, when they both became aware of zombies as a storytelling device, why torture porn isn’t entertainment, why people identify with zombies in a way they don’t with vampires and werewolves, how they feel about remakes, Savini’s desire to redo The Most Dangerous Game, and what the greatest representation of zombies is to them. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
ALEXANDRE PHILIPPE: Yeah, this is something I’ve been wanting to do. I originally came up with the idea to do this about five years ago. I distinctly remember being at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, and seeing a lot of zombies and zombie magazines. I thought, “Okay, there’s something happening here in pop culture that deserves to be explored.” At the time, I was still finishing The People vs. George Lucas and I was going to start working on my next film, called The Psychic Octopus, so I had to dely. I’m really glad I ended up delaying production on this because, as a result, we were able to include a lot of key components of zombie culture. So, I came on board at just the right time, and here we are.
Because this is not an expose on a real person that people could worry about upsetting, if they talked about them, so did that make it easier to get people at the top of the zombie game to talk for the film?
PHILIPPE: It was a lot easier to get people to talk about zombies than it was to get people to talk about George Lucas.
Tom, how did you get involved with this documentary? Were you just asked to speak about the topic of zombies?
TOM SAVINI: It was Mike Ruggiero from EPIX who said they were going to show up at my house, and I better be ready to talk. He said, “A crew will come to your house on Friday. Be there.”
When did each of you first become aware of zombies as a storytelling device?
SAVINI: Through the stories that I saw when I was a kid. I’m much older, so I saw White Zombie and I Walk with a Zombie in the movie theater when they opened.
PHILIPPE: For me, it was when I was a kid, watching a lot of horror films. I certainly remember watching the original Night of the Living Dead. I can’t think back on a time when I didn’t see zombies as a storytelling device. Ever since I was born, they already were.
Zombies are used in so many different types of metaphors, and there are so many different types of zombies. Was there something specific about them that solidified it for you, as far as the impression they made on you?
PHILIPPE: I think that’s precisely what is so great about zombies. They can serve so many different purposes. I think they’re a lot more versatile than vampires or werewolves, or any classic movie monster can be. You definitely can make the argument that they are us, and by being us, you can use them to enlighten or bring forth a certain aspect of who we are, at any given time in history, and that’s really fascinating. It took awhile for zombies to become mainstream, but now everybody is going, “Zombies are great!” They’re interesting. You can even do comedy with them.
SAVINI: Because they’re us, you can also have the wrestler zombie, the clown zombie, the Jay Leno zombie and the nun zombie. I’ve never seen the clown werewolf or vampire. But because zombies are us, at the lowest possible level, they’re a lot more versatile for storytelling.
PHILIPPE: As it’s stated in the film, werewolves are the jocks of monsters, vampires are the fraternity boys, and zombies are the nerds and geeks. But, I would go one step further and say that zombies are the everyman of monsters. When you look at a vampire, you’re looking at something that’s definitely not you. When you look at a zombie, there’s some kind of reflection of you, on some level.
SAVINI: In Dawn of the Dead, there was some sadness in a human being on one side of the department store blasting a zombie. But then, there was the little girl on The Walking Dead. Only then did you relate humanistic qualities because you cared about that girl. When you see a zombie movie, every zombie is just some generic dead guy, but on The Walking Dead, it’s personal.
PHILIPPE: You’re projecting something onto a zombie that’s not necessarily there. Like with our pets, are we protecting things that aren’t really there? Your dog looks at you a certain way and you go, “Aww,” but is that really going on versus the dog just wanting more sausage.
The George Romero movies caused people to get sick and walk out of the theater because they hadn’t seen gore presented in that way before. But hasn’t the inception of torture porn and the way that’s changed audience expectation for gore made those movies tame, by comparison?
SAVINI: Maybe some people got sick, but what I saw was people applauding the effects. When the helicopter zombie stood up, people applauded. When a guy gets the top of his head lopped off, are they applauding that some horrible thing happened to a person, or are they applauding how it was technically pulled off in a realistic way? That is true in a lot of cases with my effects, with the unique ways in killing people, in Friday the 13th or Dawn of the Dead. If they got sick over pig intestines coming out of a zombie in Dawn of the Dead, that’s an extreme example. But it’s almost like magic tricks. They’re applauding and enjoying the magic tricks. I own Saw and I own Hostel, but I’ve never watched them and I have no intention of watching them because I don’t give a shit about torture porn. That’s not entertainment to me. The new Maniac movie, I will not watch because I know what it’s like. It’s going to show a guy what it feels like to chase a woman down, and rape and kill her, from the killer’s point of view. That’s not entertaining to me. I don’t need that in my brain.
PHILIPPE: To a certain extent, we’ve learned to domesticate that fear. I think the reason we have zombie comedies now is that it’s a way to tell that story that we were so freaked out about, 40 years ago. Because we live in such terrifying and uncertain times, the zombie walks, the zombie runs and the zombie fashion shows is a way to domesticate and impersonate that one thing we’re so terrified of, and that we all know we are going to be one day, and that is dead. We are all going to die. So, by playing that role of the zombie, it makes it okay. It’s a way to exorcize that fear.
Out of zombies, werewolves and vampires, zombies are the one category that seems to be the closest to being possible, like through a plague or an infection that leads to people to become something that resembles it. You want to justify it or make yourself feel better about it because you see ways that it could possibly happen.
PHILIPPE: You don’t see the CDC talking about werewolves and vampires, but you do see them talking about zombies.
SAVINI: That’s very true. Unless you’re a psycho, there’s no such thing as a vampire and there’s no such thing as a werewolf. But there certainly are people who could be controlled by a drug like Scopolamine, to lose all will and do your bidding. That’s what the whole voodoo zombie thing was about, with chemical mind control, so it is possible to have real zombies. Maybe the [doomsday] preppers weren’t so wrong. I thought they were idiots. How can you prepare for a zombie apocalypse?
PHILIPPE: I think a plague is possible, where tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people are going to die. But, a plague where people are going to start attacking each other or start eating each other would require an extraordinary set of coincidences and circumstances to happen.
SAVINI: I’m going to venture to say that we’re not going to get a zombie apocalypse.
Tom, after so many years in this business, is it fun to get the label of Special Effects Icon that you have in this film?
SAVINI: So much fun, yeah. I’m here in Texas at SXSW, and I can’t go anywhere without somebody stopping me and wanting to get a picture, or saying how much they enjoyed something I’ve done. In fact, Kevin Bacon was here and I’ve not seen Kevin Bacon in 35 years, since I killed him in Friday the 13th. That was a great day, for me to finally get the picture with him that I should have gotten 35 years ago. So, it’s great. It’s just fun. I love it.
You remade Night of the Living Dead and you were in the Dawn of the Dead remake, and there’s such a craze in remaking movies now. How do you feel about remaking movies, especially when someone wants to remake a classic?
SAVINI: Look at the position that I was in, when George [Romero] came to me and said that he had financing to remake Night of the Living Dead. I thought, “Great, I’m gonna be creating some more zombies.” He said, “No, I want you to direct it.” Directing a remake of a classic is not greeted very well. There have been some great remakes, and there have been some really piss poor ones. If I believe the publicity I read, people really enjoyed the Night of the Living Dead remake because you got a little bit of a sequel, at the end, it was in color, and I wanted the characters to look almost exactly like the ones in the original, except for Barbara who I wanted to turn into a hero, compared to the Barbara in the first one. So, I love them when they’re done well. You just take a chance when you see it, but that’s what the money makers do. They take something that was popular and made some money because they think there’s possible more of a guarantee for it to be successful when they remake it.
PHILIPPE: I’m a big fan of the idea of remakes because you have a chance to do something different and new. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it works. You’re putting the spotlight on an aspect of the original that people didn’t see before. To me, it can be a companion piece. I really like that Tom went in a different direction and did different things with Night of the Living Dead.
SAVINI: The other night, we saw the pilot episode of the new From Dusk Till Dawn series. That is a remake, but I can’t wait to see more. I was prepared not to like it, but it just floored me. It was wonderful. It can show more of something that was only touched upon before. And there are some movies we just wish were done better. For me, it’s The Most Dangerous Game, the movie from the 1930s. I’ve been writing a screenplay for that, for the last four or five years, where the lead guy is a stuntman and he believes he can take care of himself. And then, he meets the villain, who’s like Osama bin Laden or Gaddafi, who you believe would hunt human beings. That’s a story that could have been a lot better back then. That’s why I want to redo it and make it a swashbuckling spectacle.
What would you say the greatest representation of zombies is, for you?
SAVINI: I think what Greg Nicotero is doing on The Walking Dead is great. World War Z was a great zombie film because those were zombie performances. It wasn’t just a bunch of people walking around slow. They did close-ups on zombies who were performing, as a mindless dead thing. They were creepy and scary.
PHILIPPE: For me, it’s Bub in Day of the Dead. It’s a combination of the make-up and the performance. There’s really something there that’s extraordinary, exceptional, beautiful, scary, pathetic and moving. It’s one of those special movie moments.