May 11, 2006
Zombie illustrations by Matt O'Brien
I STUMBLED FROM BEHIND the hedge, brain-dead — my mind blank, eyes deep in their sockets, staring ahead, lifeless. My face had gone green, skin peeling away in places. My body was stiff, yet I managed to put one foot in front of another, plodding forward across the lawn, one step at a time, my arms reaching forward, pawing at nothing, my body moving onward on its own. I was a zombie.
What had brought on this condition? It wasn't totally clear, what with my muddled mental state and all, but apparently there'd been some sort of blinding flash. A meteor or an asteroid or something like that had collided with our planet and somehow erased the conscious minds of others like me, who now walked the Earth as zombies lusting for flesh. At least that's sort of how the director of the video explained it. For, you see, I was actually a zombie with a purpose, and for a reason: I was a zombie for The Buffy Swayze, or to be more specific, for a Buffy Swayze rock video illustrating a number from their latest album, a song called "Warning Sign."
Not that the members of the band were anywhere nearby. They'd already had their first zombie vid shoot and were off at their day jobs. But Jon Olsen, the man behind the camcorder and the director of the film, explained that only two zombie extras had shown up for the band's lip-sync session, "and two zombies does not make an apocalypse."
Right: The Buffy Swayze music video. Photo by Bob Doran.
Recruiting zombies for the follow-up shoot, he'd put the word out to friends and co-workers and posted something on an Internet bulletin board. Jon O (as he is identified in the From: area on his e-mail) sent me a personal invite that was hard to resist. "Be a zombie in the Buffy Swayze video" was a pretty compelling subject line.
The formal invitation gave the time (a Monday afternoon) and the place (Jon O's flat on the west side of Eureka) and ended with word of warning: "[B]e prepared to spend a few hours with zombie makeup on your face." I figured there was nothing to lose (aside from a short vacation from my conscious mind), so I signed on.
I've been an on-again-off-again amateur filmmaker since I was a teenager. I even studied moviemaking in college and got a Theater Arts degree for my trouble. While I did not pursue a career in film, I continued to experiment after graduation, signing up to become a community access television producer, which gave me access to expensive video recorders and editing decks that allowed me to produce short documentaries — at least a few dozen people must have seen them.
I was curious to see how things have evolved since videotape has been supplanted by purely digital filmmaking. Today, with the advent of digital camcorders that can cost as little as a couple of hundred dollars and easy-to-use editing systems that run on your home computer, anyone can become a filmmaker, for next to nothing.
There are no-budget filmmakers all over the country — in fact, all over the world — shooting long and short movies, sometimes just to share with friends and family, although more and more are seen by wider audiences due to the ease of uploading and downloading via the Internet. Some more ambitious projects are available for sale and can be found in your local video store, at least providing the place has a buyer with broad taste.
Olsen, who is 30 but seems younger, has nerdish black-rimmed glasses, non-descript clothes, a general softness and the pale look of someone who spends most of his time indoors. (The paleness may just be his English blood; he was born over there.) I'd met him a couple of times before the zombie shoot, but mostly knew of him by reputation. He's been making low-budget video films locally for years, and lately he's been showing his and other low-budgeters at regular Sunday night screenings at a Eureka bar. (Actually, low-budget may be an exaggeration when it comes to the movies Olsen makes and champions, which tend to fit more in the no-budget category.)
Olsen's Number One claim to fame is a feature-length video he directed titled Ape Canyon, a tale of Sasquatch lust set in the redwoods that I found at Video Experience filed under "cult/midnight" movies. As Olsen notes proudly, the film garnered a favorable review from none other than Joe Bob Briggs, king of drive-in/B-movie reviewers. Describing the film as "a sort of ultra-low-budget cross between King Kong and I Spit On Your Grave," and "the finest Bigfoot rape-revenge flick ever made by people with way too much time on their hands," the low-brow Texas-based critic gave it two and a half stars, concluding with his thumbs up: "Joe Bob says check it out."
Fair warning to those who might follow Joe Bob's advice: Ape Canyon's comedy is far from politically correct, tending towards overt grossness and scatological humor — we're talking fresh Bigfoot scat — and don't expect the plot line to make sense. It doesn't.
While he had partners in crime for Ape Canyon, Olsen was the sole producer/director/writer/cameraman/editor for the Buffy Swayze zombie video. Aside from the volunteer actors, the only other crew was Kaitlin Hoy, the novice make-up artist who gave me dark, deep-set eyes using strips of cotton and some sort of putty, then made my skin peel with gelatin painted green. Like a couple of others at the shoot that day, Hoy works with Olsen at Mill Creek Cinema in McKinleyville. She's one of the managers; Olsen, a projectionist, typically runs eight projectors at once showing movies that cost millions to make.
From my perch in the makeup chair in his kitchen I could see into the living room, where extras drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and entertained themselves while waiting to be zombified.
Before heading outside to shoot, Olsen cued up the first zombie video he directed, one set to the delicate music of "Empty Alcohol Bottle" by The Ian Fays, a band from Arcata led by identical twins Lizz and Sara Fay. Among the zombies emerging from their graves to romp in a graveyard were Theresa Ireland and Nate Pierce, two actors who, at the time of the Buffy Swayze video production, were also in the cast of Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of Bus Stop.
Olsen's casting call suggested would-be zombies "wear clothes you can get dirty, preferably '80s-style clothing, if you've got any." For Teresa Ireland, a vivacious redhead with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, that meant a shockingly bright raver outfit.
The rugged-looking Nate Pierce sported a faded, tattered punk rock tee-shirt that may well have dated from the '80s. He came into the kitchen looking for scissors or some other tool that might help him make new holes in his jeans look as authentically tattered as his shirt.
Pierce noted that he had met Jon at The Shanty, a Eureka bar frequented by in-the-know 20- and 30-somethings, where Olsen regularly screens selections from his collection of no-budget films.
"Jon showed his Ape Canyon movie and was showing others. That's how I found out he was into cheesy low-budget movies, so I was like, `Dude, I'm a local actor around here, I've done a lot of theater and I'm really into this kind of stuff.' It was funny, he totally blew me off that first time I met him," said Pierce, struggling to control his laughter. "He was like, `Well, we'll see.' He even asked me for a head shot and a résumé."
That was a couple of years ago. The day of the Buffy Swayze shoot Pierce was taking a break from serious theater (and his day job at Hurricane Kate's) to volunteer his acting services gratis.
"You don't make money being an actor in Eureka," Pierce explained, adding, "I enjoy it — I love acting — it's a chance for me to escape what I do in my regular day-to-day life. I can forget that I'm Nate Pierce and become somebody else for a few hours a night, or for an afternoon."
Of course there are occasional paying gigs for local actors, and Pierce's Bus Stop co-star, Theresa Ireland, is living proof. When the short Ian Fays video ended, she slipped another made-in-Humboldt DVD into the player and told the story of her relatively well-paid part in the making of The Making of an Awesome General Lee, a low-budget film shot in Humboldt that has actually made money. (See sidebar.)
Left: Jon Olsen, behind the lens. Photo by Bob Doran.
Olsen has no real plans for making money from his series of zombie videos featuring local bands. The bands do not pay for his service — he's happy if they agree to let him use their music and then show up at the appointed time for shooting.
He says the idea came to him impulsively. "I had this Ian Fays song stuck in my head and pictured zombies making out to it. I thought, `Shoot, I should make a music video.' I'd never done one before. I e-mailed the Ian Fays a couple of times and didn't hear back from them. Then I bumped into them after the screening of Rural Rock & Roll and talked to them at the theater."
Both The Ian Fays and The Buffy Swayze (whose name pays tongue-in-cheek homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and cheesy actor Patrick Swayze) were featured in Jensen Rufe's low-budget documentary Rural Rock & Roll, described on the DVD box as "a 60-minute look into the varied and vibrant underground music scene of Humboldt County." And, as fate and the small world syndrome would have it, I was in the movie too, serving as a pundit and offering historical context.
According to Olsen, the fact that he knew Jensen Rufe earned him some cred with the twins and showed that he "wasn't some crazy person." They agreed to work with him on the video.
"We shot it in a day and I was happy with the whole process," said Olsen. "It was fun making a music video — it has these limitations that make things easier. For one thing your soundtrack is all laid out for you, which means you don't have to worry about sound — bad sound is a challenge that plagues low- and no-budget filmmakers."
Then there's the length. "You'd think having a two-and-a-half- to three-minute framework would limit your options. And it does, but that kind of works to your advantage. It forces you to make ruthless, decisive edit choices. Another bonus is that you don't have to have a plot. It can make sense, but it doesn't have to. You have to leave room for messing around."
Judging from my experience working with Olsen, there is plenty of room for "messing around" and making things up as you go along. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"If you start from a script, it'll be the death of the thing," said Olsen. "It'll never get done. I like to have some sort of basic plan, but I never expect what I shoot and edit to resemble that plan."
When I spoke with Olsen at one of his no-budget Sunday nights at The Shanty, where he screened the Buffy Swayze video, he noted that the third in the Zombies of Eureka sequence is a work-in-progress for Eureka's The Monster Women. Originally he had been leaning towards doing most of it with Barbie dolls, thus eliminating the always-complicated human factor. He ran that idea by the Women (who are not all women, by the way), and they liked it, but had another idea.
"They also wanted to film some scenes that would look like Super-8 home movies at a '60s party — with zombies. We got together and shot that, and now I'm editing just with that footage, and I think that might be enough. I still like the Barbie idea, but it may have to wait for another video."
(Note: The completed Monster Women zombie video premieres at The Shanty this Sunday, Mother's Day.)
Olsen would like to assemble an anthology of his zombie-themed music videos — to what end, he's not quite sure. "I think The Zombies of Eureka potentially has a big built-in audience," he said hopefully. "People like zombies, plus there's going to be this Sci-Fi Channel show about Eureka, called Eureka" (even though it's being shot in Vancouver).
Lately he's been tossing around ideas with a relatively new band called The Professional Superheroes, who specialize in covers of very obscure indie rock songs. Garage rockers The Ravens are also interested in doing one.
"And there's another confirmed band, The Invasions," said Olsen "It's two guys — they used to be in a band called Los Banditos Muertos." In that case the music should be a perfect fit: Both Los Banditos and The Invasions play a style identified as "zombified surf-punk."
"It's kind of spooky surf rock," said Olsen. "Most of their songs are instrumental. We've been talking about creating a separate zombie plot thread we can shoot footage for, then edit into episodic chunks to use as a prologue and in between the others. But again, it's all still an ever-shifting rough idea, kind of a modular project, and I'm not sure when or even if it will ever be complete."
Looking back at a life full of half-finished projects that somehow got too complex to continue, he admits that this ever-shifting, ever-expanding undertaking may be turning into a monster.
"The Ian Fays video was so fantastically quick and simple — and that was what made it so much fun. It was made in an unprecedented turn-around time: One day of filming, one day of editing and I had a finished movie. Having that satisfaction, I'm using it as part of something far more complicated than what was originally intended. Hopefully it will work out, but it may never get done."
Almost two hours after I'd arrived at the film shoot, my zombification was finally complete. I donned my version of an '80s outfit: My usual black jeans and a white shirt and tie (as recommended by The Ravens lead singer/vintage clothing clerk Melissa Medina, who dissuaded me from using my wife's credit at the Vintage Avenger). I had become a zombie office worker, ready to roll, or at least stumble.
Olsen had finished shooting for the meteor flash portion of his very loose script. Since I was the first zombie in makeup, Olsen came up with some solo zombie action for me, emerging from behind a bush, moving forward toward the camera. When I sought direction as to how he wanted me to move and act, his instructions were simple: "Act like a zombie." But how? "You decide — however you think zombies act." He then had me attack the camera while he was lying down. Two takes and it was in the can.
At that point, Nate Pierce joined us. He had decided he was not going to go through the time-consuming zombie makeup process — instead he was going to be the Bruce Campbell of zombies, as Olsen put it, referencing the monster-killing star of Sam Raimi's gruesome Evil Dead series.
As the playful method actor Pierce would explain later, "I knew what was going on — I wasn't going to let zombies take over. I wanted to save the world. I was like, 'Zombies must die.'"
He was ready to kill me, but wasn't sure how — not until he saw a rusting rototiller abandoned in the weeds at the edge of the yard. It didn't really make sense, but Nate the Zombie Killer's improvised plan was to till me to death. Olsen played along with the idea, offering a bit of choreography and telling the tiller-wielding Nate, "I want to a look of lustful violence on your face as you tear into Bob."
The scene ended, and I suppose I had been killed, but as anyone conversant in zombie-lore knows, I was in fact undead, and thus available for another scene. In the suburban street in front of Olsen's flat, I tore the throat out of one of the members of The Professional Superheroes, following Olsen's direction, "Now Bob, stumble in and chew on him." One take and I was done.
"Is that all?" I asked, ready for more. "What about the apocalypse?" Unfortunately, delay in the zombie-makeup process had postponed the end of the world — and I was due at an appointment across town. "The apocalypse is something that zombies-on-the-go may not have time for," said my director, and reluctantly I stumbled inside, removed my greenness with baby wipes and headed across town to resume real life.
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