SXSW Interview: Alexandre O. Philippe (Director) & Tom Savini (Makeup Artist) – ‘Doc of the Dead’

Brought to the screen by the creators of the hit doc ‘The People vs. George Lucas,’ ‘Doc of the Dead‘ delves deep into the evolution of the zombie genre in film and literature, as well as its impact and influence on pop culture, to deliver a comprehensive, fast-paced, highly entertaining look at a contemporary social pandemic of global proportions.

Doc of the Dead’ hosts a rich and entertaining dialogue with zombie authors, filmmakers and scholars, and features a host of zombie icons (Max Brooks, George A. Romero, Simon Pegg, Robert Kirkman, Bruce Campbell, and many more!)

Anticipating the ‘Doc of the Dead’ SXSW Film, Interactive & Music Conference screenings, we interviewed the film’s Director Alexandre O. Philippe, as well as renowned makeup artist Tom Savini about all things Zombie culture.  ‘Doc of the Dead‘ screens as part of the Documentary Spotlight program on Monday, March 10, Tuesday, March 11 & Thursday, March 13, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

‘DOC OF THE DEAD will also premiere on EPIX on March 15th at 8PM EST

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Doc of the Dead’ at SXSW FilmHERE

What was your first introduction to Zombie culture?
Alexandre O. Phillipe: I was exposed to horror films when I was a kid and have always loved it.  For me, the original ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ was my gateway to the Zombie film, so the genre has always been very close to my heart.  Now, as a documentarian and someone who focuses on pop culture, when Zombies became incredibly popular is when I thought a documentary had to be made.  To me, it is not just why but rather why now?

Tom Savini: I was a kid in the 1950’s and, for me, it was ‘I Walk With a Zombie‘ or ‘White Zombie‘.  The first Zombies were skinny black guys and I put out a homage to them when I directed ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (remake).  I am going to direct a movie called ‘Death Island‘ where all the Zombies are black.  It has a Haitian voodoo feel like the original Zombies were.

Tom Savini (Makeup Effects: 'Dawn of the Dead', 'Day of the Dead')

Tom Savini (Makeup Effects: ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Day of the Dead’)

As a documentary filmmaker, how did you want to approach the narrative of ‘Doc of the Dead’?
: It was important to me to look at the history of Zombies and, obviously, the history of Zombies in movies.  First of all, to understand how the impact has grown in popular culture so the story is about connecting the history of the movies to popular culture, as well as all the different movements happening now, whether they be Zombie walks, preppers or…

TS: (To Alexandre) Why did you look at me when you said Zombie preppers (laughs)?  He knows I have bars on my windows and guns & ammo.  Not because of Zombies but because of people.  Crazy people are what I am afraid of (laughs)!

Tom, when you were approached to do ‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’, how did you strategize your effects and makeup?
TS: On the simplest level it was from a telegram I got from George A Romero.  It said we had another gig and I needed too start thinking of ways to kill people.  ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ was black & white.  This was in color so all I did was make them grey. This was so you could distinguish the Zombies from real people.  It backfired because the lighting would make them blue.  I made up for that in ‘Day of the Dead‘ where they were all different. They would all legitimately appear to look of post-death.  If a coroner came in he would say they looked genuine.  80% of the deaths were not in the script so my effects guys and me created them, which was fun.

What was the level of trial and error?
TS: When the SWAT team blows the head off a Zombie, we had some effects crew build that with breakaway glass and squibs. They tried to blow the head off from within and it just imploded.  I said “give me that god damn shotgun!” and just blew it off. The guys who did that effect went on to do ‘Scanners’ and used a shotgun in the famous head exploding scene.

As far as trial and error, that was the only example. The rest was slapping grey makeup on.  In ‘Day of the Dead‘, we had an assembly line.  We would get a memo that said, for example, the next day we needed 375 Zombies.  I said great and made as many as we could; the costume department did their thing and we also had masks for the background Zombies.  The only problem was, when the press would come to the set, all the people with masks on would crowd around George Romero, so there are tons of pictures of him surrounded by these horrible masks meant for the very background shots.


Robert Kirkman (Creator: ‘The Walking Dead’)

You present a comprehensive timeline of the evolution of Zombie culture.  For example, in the 1980s the genre veers a bit into pseudo-comedic territory, but then 9/11 hits and we see this significant rise in Zombie media and interest.  This speaks to the original ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ being released in the Cold War era environment of the 1960s; Can you speak to why the genre’s popularity spikes at these points in our history?
AP: What we are talking about is an evolving genre but, to me, 9/11 is still the most crucial point in presenting greater fear in society.  We live in a world that is fundamentally different from what it used to be.  This is what I see as being the tipping of Zombie culture.  It is not a surprise “The Zombie Survival Guide“, ‘The Walking Dead‘ and ‘Shaun of the Dead‘ came out within the years directly following 9/11.  In pop culture you need a certain amount of elements to bring it to a tipping point and there is usually something that happens within society that creates it.  The way I see it is 9/11 helped create the perfect storm and the perfect time, enabling Zombie culture to snowball.

TS:  You said something yesterday I thought was interesting because I did not understand what you meant by 9/11 changing things. You were saying how during the depression, when things were horrible, masses of people went to see early horror like ‘Frankenstein‘ and ‘Dracula‘.  Throughout history, if life was horrible it would be a diffusing element to see a horror movie because it was more horrible then what was going on.  How do you top 9/11, which was such a horrible thing? Well, you have to be more horrible.

Speaking to the idea of the tipping point, do you see a specific piece of media which crossed the genre over into a more mainstream culture?
TS: That is an essay question (laughs).

AP:  It is!  I think you really have to look at Zombie culture as being a tapestry of a number of different elements.  ‘World War Z‘ the book, is very much part of the equation and it would not have existed without “The Zombie Survival Guide”, so that was a key component of the equation.  If you go farther back, ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ going into the public domain is also part of the equation.  ‘Shaun of the Dead‘ is a Zombie event because it opened a new era of Zombie comedy; ‘Return of the Living Dead‘ also. Here was the first big time Zombie comedy.  Then you have the zombie rom-com; ‘Warm Bodies‘, whether you like it or not, is still important because it opens a new pocket of the culture, just like kids Zombie films like ‘Paranorman‘.


George A Romero (Director: ‘Night of the Living Dead’)

As media evolves, this also affects what enters into popular culture.  Video games have had a strong impact on the genre as well…
AP: Yes, the participatory aspect is key.  When there was the first Zombie walk in Toronto in 2003, only 7 people were there.

TS: Wow! We have more here today!

AP: There were over 17K in Denver this year.  The fact the fans are taking the genre beyond the confines of media and literature and participating in the universe is also part of the equation.  Is there a major city in the US that does not have a Zombie walk? Around the world even.

I remember two years ago, at the height of Occupy Wall St, there was a huge rally in Times Square with tens of thousand of people. Interjected within that rally was a Zombie walk which led to an interesting dynamic of personalities…
TS:  That is wild!

Finally, what are your personal favorite pieces of Zombie-related media?
TS:  Definitely not video games!  My 12 year old grandson plays and I am appalled by what I am seeing on the screen.  I do want to read ‘World War Z‘.  What I liked about the movie was the scares were suspense scares.  It made you nervous as a viewer.

AP:  Max Brooks talks about the fact that they are not the same thing but they share the same title.  The book is very smart.

To answer your question, I am so passionate about pop culture I look at it as a whole.  What I care about is that Zombies keep going and in ways we have not seen before.  Some of it will be great and some of it will suck but we always have to give it a chance.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed On-Site @ SXSW by Steve Rickinson
Facebook: /docofthedead


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