Director Howard J Ford talks about his modern classic zombie horror flick, THE DEAD, and its, shall we say, rather tricky shoot...
Had you always been into zombie movies?
I wasn't even aware of zombie movies until my brother Jon and I watched Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead' when I just hit my teens. It scared the absolute hell out of us and for me, brought horror into the light. Not just hidden in dark corners. It could be anywhere and anyone...
You'd made a couple of movies before you got to The Dead. How did you come up with the idea for it?
At the age we saw 'Dawn', we were already out making short movies on super8 film with friends as actors and all that and we fully intended to make a zombie film after the terror turned to inspiration. Jon still has the original notes on a 1978 diary about one man in a desert type landcape with the dead everywhere. But at that time, zombie movies were largely laughed at in the film industry, people forget that. It was extremely hard to get taken seriously. Thrillers were more acceptable so we shelved it until we started shooting TV commercials, some of which were in Africa, then 'The Dead' was formed!
How do you and Jon develop an idea together, writing and directing. Was it easy working on The Dead together?
I almost laughed here at the thought of working on The Dead as being 'easy'. The script process was fine, that was Jon and I in the room and I believe our different views actually complimented each other. However, being on location in Africa with so much illness, Malaria, threats at gunpoint - knifepoint muggings and all the cast and crew had to endure to make the film was close to unbearable. Many times I thought we would come home in a body bag. I even wrote a book about this ('Surviving The Dead')
How did the plot and ideas come together?
Essentially, the dead was a metaphor for death creeping up on you. No matter how far you go, where you hide and how many 'shrewd' moves you make, you can never escape it... So that basis formed how we went about the plot. We also wanted to keep it moving and not be stuck in one location, barricaded in, which we had been getting bored of. We also wanted sparse dialogue, not a talking heads movie.
How hard was it to get the film to shoot over to Africa?
Africa is a beautiful place with some lovely people in it but it's a harsh environment and that was part of the point of the plot. Sadly though, it was near impossible to get the shoot done. For example, if the sound recordist wasn't puking up or with dysentery, we could do dialogue that day. That's how we rolled!
It must have been an amazing experience in a strange way...
It wasn't an amazing experience. It was one of the worst periods of my life and there was so much real death, starvation and all so close to us we couldn't wait to get out of there. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to love about Africa and we have some great friends there now, but we faced so much corruption on a daily basis, I reckon about one third of the budget went on bribery and corruption just to keep us alive and moving.
You wrote the book about the making of the movie firstly as a cathartic exercise, but you realised it was actually a good account of the film didn't you?
I initially wrote the book just to get the experience out of me and I planned to burn it as an exorcism type thing. I felt I needed some healing after what we went through, but then someone in a coffee shop picked some up and read it and laughed about our misfortunes, I laughed too and that was it. It was a healing of sorts. They made me promise not to burn it and to get it out there. I did so, but I have not done any promotion. It's out there if you look hard enough!
The film gets in a lot of top zombie movie lists. You must be so pleased. Are you still happy with it?
It's lovely to see that, and we are very grateful to all those that supported the film, but I'm afraid Jon and I are bitterly disappointed with most of it. It's a shadow of what we would have made had we even had access to the equipment, props etc. we shipped in and all sorts of other horrific goings on that derailed a huge portion of our intentions. We probably got 35% of what we set out to do!
People even say it's the best zombie film since Day of the Dead. What is it about it that appeals to people?
Happily, many understood at least the 'vibe' of what we had tried to create. To take the zombie film back to it's roots and we even hear about new people discovering it for the first time and calling it a cult classic etc. Hugely appreciative of all these things, but, perhaps ironically, it eats Jon and I up as we know most of the opportunity was missed. It didn't help that we watched it shoot to number 1 selling horror movie in the world at one point but we got royally screwed over it and watched the smart distributor's contract eat up all the money!! Right now, both films sell in the US, UK and pop up on TV all over the place and we get absolutely Zero. This is one of the main reasons part 3 will never happen.
Then you went to India for The Dead 2. Were you happy with the sequel?
I can be honest now. We made part 2 to get paid for part 1! We knew the distributor in the US thought they had the sequel rights but the sales agent had signed them the rights even thought they didn't have them to sign in the first place. India was beautiful though and when we realised none of us were going to go back to Africa to shoot the Dead 2 there, we looked for the most beautiful country in the world and there it was. It was a much nicer experience and we only got threatened with death on one or 2 occasions so it was a breeze compared to The Dead 1!
Finally, could you name me your personal fave zombie movies?
For me, it really is Dawn of The Dead, even the re-make is pretty good and I think I wanted to hate that. I also appreciate Night of The Living dead 2 for it's originality. Jon is also a fan of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. We both liked the potential of Zombie Creeping Flesh but that seemed like another missed opportunity. I wonder if they had a fun shoot too!! I should have mentioned that the late George Romero sent is well wishes on the dead’s theatrical release. I met him in Cannes and was able to tell him of his inspirations. By the way this is my last interview on The Dead. It’s 10 years ago at this very moment we were out in Africa and our poor star Rob Freeman nearly died of cerebral Malaria!