Sound & Vision Video

Learning lessons from my undead filmography

Meting out scalding reviews of other people’s work can seem like a pretty one-way street, in which the bulk of the risk is shouldered by the artist that has borne their heart and soul to a critic who has nothing to lose by tearing their precious baby apart. It can be dangerously easy to become desensitised to the whole process when you are sitting closest to the trigger, rather than the business end of the gun, so, before Indy Film Library’s Halloween Horror Showcase begins on Monday, I think that it’s only right I expose a level the playing field by exposing a piece of my own horrific past.

As I mentioned on my recent run-down of my Halloween playlist, it’s been a long time since I made any films myself – and looking back I am under no illusions about how ropy my efforts were. Despite that, there are two ‘documentaries’ I produced which I am still somewhat proud of. Dawn of the Red and The Wretched of the Earth are both about the cultural implications of zombie fiction, and as one of them was the last film I made five years ago, I think it’s appropriate to share them here – after all, ‘tis the season.

Dawn of the Red was my first attempt at analysing the political implications of the zombie apocalypse. I had grown tired of the way political and economic theorists in particular had deployed the undead horde to try and popularise their critiques of society’s elite, without really engaging with the literature in any meaningful way. The assertion was that we had a ‘zombie government,’ or our society was structured by ‘zombie economics’ – led by shambling, decaying ideas that didn’t know they were dead.

It was a weak metaphor – and one I didn’t really think was appropriate to the zombie. Marx had rightly made the point a century earlier that the ruling elite of society have more in common with vampires than any other monster – zombies are something altogether different. They aren’t a small ruling elite, decked out in antiquated refinery, serving some centuries old need to exploit the masses – zombies are the masses, and as such they embody an altogether different set of social fears.

There is a duality to mass politics. It can be a liberating force, where a popular revolt sweeps a murderous autocrat from power. In this sense, zombies embody the terror of society’s governing minority – the tiny caste of rulers quaking behind their gates and walls as the rest of humanity rises up to end their exploitative way of life can easily relate to the neo-liberal trope of a rag-tag team of rugged individuals looking to evade the mindless destruction of a zombie apocalypse. In studio cinema this produces films which vilify zombies, and sides overtly with the status-quo (as seen in World War Z), while in more independently minded productions, this is reversed, and the growing zombie threat easily upends the power-structures which have entrenched the power of the world’s political and economic elite (as seen throughout the Romero Dead series). This is very much something I returned to with The Wretched of the Earth.

At the same time, there is also potential for mass politics to be used to entrench those same damaging systems of power. As is notable in Dawn of the Dead, the zombies almost lament at how impulse alone drives them on, ceaselessly pounding at the doors of the local mall with a hunger to fulfil some innate craving they do not fully understand or control. They have lost themselves, and become undying participants in a toxic and destructive culture of endless consumption.Meanwhile, in Pontypool, we see how the communication which we depend upon to facilitate modern society is not innately benign, and can harbour hidden ideological triggers that foster hatred and violence in the minds of thousands of receivers.

The analysis featured in my films is something I stand by then – but as I have often said in reviews of other peoples’ work, good intentions do not always make up for technical shortcomings. I appreciate now that I could have taken more time to produce these films, I could have shot across multiple days or months, and taken on a more collaborative method of production. Certainly my films had input from other people, but I tended to only take on-board the things which fit with my own ideas.

As a result, piecing the film together from start to end became a one-man show, and it showed. The editing is choppy, the sound is often corrupted by wind-noise, and the image framing is askew. I also was utterly unwilling to wait to make my films until I had access to quality software or equipment – instead leaning on out-dated handheld camcorders and Windows Movie Maker to get my intended message out as quickly as possible.

Probably the biggest problem was my own mentality then. I lacked the patience to build my own skills, or build a team I could trust to make decisions of its own regarding quality and construction. After all, what if somebody beat me to the punch and released their own version of my idea? Well, five years down the line, political zombie documentaries certainly haven’t boomed. I realise in that time I could have worked slowly and more thoroughly to produce something polished that could have gone further than the dustbin of human history that is YouTube.

That’s something I’ve often told filmmakers when reviewing their work on here. It might have seemed like easy advice to hand out from Captain Hindsight, but as these films show, it was actually a lesson hard learned from my own experiences. Having an idea is only the first fight – next you need to take your time to do it justice.


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