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Continuing our conversation with Howard J. and Jonathan
Ford, writer/directors of the acclaimed African-set zombie thiller THE DEAD
(opening today in select theaters), which we began here…
FANGORIA: Making THE DEAD on African locations turned out to
be a nightmare experience…
HOWARD J. FORD: I can’t explain how tough it was to shoot
this movie. It took five weeks just to get our equipment into the country, and
after the whole cast and crew arrived we were constantly stopped by armed
police for money, and held up by so many things you could never plan for. I was
mugged at knifepoint on the first day in the city of Ouagadougou, and all my
money, credit cards, driving license, everything, was taken from me. Then I was
nearly put in jail for driving without the license that had been stolen from
me! It became clear that to the locals we looked like a moving cash machine,
with our people, equipment, generator, etc. Sometimes we literally would not
make it to the location as we would be stopped at gunpoint, for seemingly no
On top of this, when we did finally start shooting, our
fantastic lead actor, Rob Freeman from Canada, collapsed with full-blown
malaria and very nearly died. He was a really tough guy, a fitness fanatic
even, but this little bug put him in hospital for a total of two weeks. He was
meant to be in every scene, so you can imagine we were a little restricted at
this point. In fact, all of us became ill, which is perhaps not surprising
given some of the locations we had to film in, including real village huts,
some of which contained the remains of dead relatives that had been stored in
pots. I remember shooting in a dark hut and having giant cockroaches crawling
over my hands and up my trousers, and Jon and I would sometimes discuss camera
angles in between bouts of projectile vomiting!
We used real voodoo in the film, as we wanted everything to
be as authentic as possible, and it took us many days and a lot of complex
negotiation to secure a real witch doctor’s outfit and capture the actual
spells that are featured in the film. Although I was never allowed to know what
was being said, I was told it was strong and powerful and very real.
We also met some real cannibals who told us how they eat
people—but only if they’re already dead and not decomposed. One of them stopped
by the set and watched our white-eyed zombies pretending to eat human flesh,
and they loved what we were doing! I asked my translator to find out if this
cannibal had ever tried white meat; he said no but he would love to if he got
the chance, then made a local joke while eyeing us up and down. It was getting
dark at this point and we were in the middle of nowhere; it was an ominous and
uneasy feeling. There was so much horror in making THE DEAD that I’m writing a
book about it, covering every single painful incident that happened. Altogether,
it was very depressing, and a lot of people wanted to go home, but I was going
to return in a body bag before I went back without a film in the can! We
carried on, and there were some nice moments too, don’t get me wrong; the cast
and crew were on a journey of their own while making this movie, with all its
ups and downs.
JONATHAN FORD: We did what we thought was a fantastic
Steadicam shoot when Murphy [Freeman] finds the battered truck, and when the
roll got back to the lab in England, there was nothing on it—an entire 35mm
film roll. Strangely, it was number 13! We then had to go back and reshoot this
section, but unfortunately the nearby cornfield had since been cut down, so we
had to spend all day planting the corn stalks back in by hand in the searing heat.
I myself was then diagnosed with malaria, so I couldn’t lift the Steadicam
anymore; we really began to think the shoot was cursed! I can’t tell you how
many times I wanted to just go home, but Howard would always talk me out of it,
and I’m glad he did. I lost nearly 30 pounds in weight and really didn’t have
it to lose to start with; we took loads of pictures on location, of course, but
were too scared to show them to our parents because we knew they would worry
about how thin we looked. Now, from a distance looking back, I have no real
regrets, just amazing and vivid memories.
FANG: Fans of George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci will really
appreciate your slow-moving ghouls.
HOWARD: They are the zombies in all the movies we love, and
what directly inspired us to make THE DEAD. One important thing is that when
you show fast zombies running at you, the scene instantly has to become an
action sequence and you loose suspense. Whereas the tension you gain with
slower zombies is a much more powerful tool, and ultimately a more satisfying
experience. Of course, you can have all the fast cuts when they get right up
close and you’re struggling to get out of there, so you get a little bit of
everything. Running zombies are the film equivalent of slamming in the meat! There’s
no foreplay! Slow-moving zombies are the only way; Jon and I agreed on that
before we even put pen to paper on the script. That’s not just because it’s how
our inspirations did it, but also because I believe you loose something
fundamental with these “running zombies.”
Also, our journey takes place in an area where you cannot
hide and you also cannot keep going and going, as you’re short of food and
water, and at some point you have to sleep or rest. No matter how slow
something is, it will eventually catch up with you and eat you, and that is a
scary thing. We didn’t want to falter far from the path of realism; once you’re
past the idea of the dead coming back to life, everything had to feel real—no
guns with everlasting bullets or characters diving through the air firing
double handguns just to get some style, certainly not wearing long coats or
dark glasses in slow motion! We find all that stuff cheesy and unrealistic, and
it takes you out of reality. We also didn’t want to have 500-year-old zombies
coming back from the dead, as we felt the brain and muscle tissue would be too
decomposed, and however much we love the look, it was stretching believability
just a bit too far. The more recent dead returning to life seemed the logical
JONATHAN: Howard and myself agreed right at the start that
our zombies would creep up on their victims rather than run like Olympic
athletes, fly, disappear and reappear or some other ridiculous movement. In our
film, once you’re with the concept that the dead are coming back to life and
searching for human flesh, everything else is gritty and real. Come on! They’re
dead! Rigor mortis is setting in! It’s enough to ruin anyone’s chances of a
FANG: Was the social commentary an element you deliberately
added to the story?
HOWARD: We were very aware when we decided to set it in
Africa that we could make something with a deeper meaning. People are used to
certain imagery when thinking about Africa. So when we have a character using a
machete against a horde of zombies, what would otherwise just be a gore scene
taps into something a lot more powerful, and suddenly it has a much greater
impact. There’s also the issue of the spread of disease in Africa; I mean, the
infrastructure there means it’s not possible to lock down a city. There are no
walls surrounding anything, it’s all open to everyone. So if there was an
outbreak of any kind, there would be no way to stop it from spreading rapidly.
So yes, it’s a zombie movie and a piece of entertainment, but we also wanted it
to have that deeper meaning.
FANG: How did you cast the two lead actors?
HOWARD: Rob Freeman just had the look; you felt he could be
this technical wiz but could also take care of himself. I knew instantly we had
landed a fantastic headline actor. Murphy was such a physically demanding role,
only a few people on this planet could have coped with how traumatic and
difficult it was going to be, and Rob was one of the fittest guys I’ve ever
met. He was in Brighton, on the south coast of England, to meet with a
producer. While there, he happened to meet someone who knew us and we were
introduced to him, so we asked him to read our script, he loved it and we also
thought he was perfect for the part.
JONATHAN: For the role of the local military man, Sgt.
Daniel Dembele, who reluctantly joins Murphy on his survival quest, we were
looking for a particular type of African character, one who has had a hard life
but is shrewd and clever. Prince David Osei had that earthy, proud,
worldly-wise demeanor about him, and was a natural to play Daniel. We found out
after we had cast Prince David that he is known in the Ghanaian film industry
as “the Tom Cruise of West Africa.”
FANG: What’s next for the two of you?
HOWARD: Believe it or not, we’re actually considering doing
another film in Africa, but of course we would structure things differently and
have a larger budget to work with, and the experience we garnered in making THE
DEAD at least allows us to plan for the worst! Because that production was so
difficult, many pages of the script didn’t end up getting shot, and many of the
“wow” moments had to be dropped, unfortunately. There was so much we wanted to
do but didn’t get to, and so there is already talk of another installment of
THE DEAD. There are also a number of other movie possibilities, some in the
horror genre and some not. We’ll reveal more soon.
JONATHAN: There are enough ideas left over from the first
one that could easily fill another script, so who knows? But we’d love to do
another zombie film, so if audiences like it, there could well be more!
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