When I Became a Zombie

June 23, 2010

The things I do. I was never a teenage werewolf, but, on Saturday, June 19, 2010, I became a zombie — a "real" zombie, in the carnival/circus sideshow sense of that word: with real makeup, real fake blood, real phony trance state.

This was for a new horror movie, The Final Night and Day , produced by DefTone Pictures Studios (Hamburg, New York) and scheduled for March 2011 DVD release. I had read in The Buffalo News (June 17) about the filming, which would transform downtown Angola into "Metzburgh." There, according to the script, a group of inmates, being transferred from one prison to another, become stranded after their bus crashes. As it happens, the town has been taken over by hordes of hungry, cannibalistic zombies, and — well, this is where I come in.

The News had reported days earlier on the selection of some 300 extras, and I cursed the missed opportunity. Nevertheless, on the appointed day I decided to visit the set anyway, thinking I could at least get a photo of some zombies for use with articles and my forthcoming book, Tracking the Man-Beasts (Prometheus 2011). What is it they say about making your own luck?

I approached an information/registration tent where I found the movie makers could always use a few more extras. Only the faraway positions were still open, though, not for the mid-range or, especially, "hero" zombies who would get the best makeup since they would be closest to the camera during filming. I was happy to sign up anyway. My foot was in the door.

With my color-coded and numbered position card in hand, I went looking for an upgrade. When a crew member recognized me (by name or voice from appearances on a local radio program), I mentioned how useful it would be to get nicely made up for a photo to use with some of my published writings. He checked with a higher-up, and the hint of potential publicity did the trick. I was soon scheduled for advanced makeup and, when I tried for a bit more upgrading, was assigned to the top artist.

Rod Durick of Zombified Studios in Lackawanna, New York, selected some of his own silicone (not latex) prosthetics — "two pustules and a sore" — which he carefully affixed, then had makeup artist Tammy Janinum color and blend into a look suitable for a ghoul (see photos). Later, on the set, I got liberal applications of "blood" from a guy with a pail of the stuff. In all, the crew used gallons of the red liquid (made from corn syrup and food color, then thinned for use).

For the next few hours, from dusk to midnight, we shuffled and lurched along "Metzburgh's" main street, doing take, after take, after take. "Action!" "Cut!" Generous applause from the sidelined actual residents of Angola. We were instructed not to hold our arms out but to walk rather in the manner of drunks. At this, one lady quipped to me that she and her husband (a hard-hat-wearing zombie) had "spent our lives preparing for this role!"

We zombies had little to do with the entities from Haitian vodun , or voodoo, of which there are different types. The common zonbi (sic) is the spirit of a dead person that is captured and contained in a bottle adorned with magical charms. Another, rare, type of reputed zonbi is the exhumed corpse, magically reanimated and set to work for the sorcerer or bokor . Then there are those who are supposedly zombified by drugs (for a critical look see Terence Hines, "Zombies and Tetrodotoxin," Skeptical Inquirer , May/June 2008, 60-62). The zombies of today's popular culture, reflected in books and horror movies, are a type of ghoul who have taken on, so to speak, a life of their own. The irony is that they may be just as authentic as any.