(Article by Lee Karr ©, added 30-Nov-2006)
What follows is Lee Karr's experiences on the set of "Diary of the Dead". Read the article then come and discuss the film over at the dedicated forum.
Stepping onto the set of Diary of the Dead was like "deja-vu all over again", to quote a famous baseball player. Just two years earlier I was in the city of Toronto, on the set of a George A. Romero zombie movie. That movie was Land of the Dead and I was a member of the living dead trying to break into BCE Place(aka Fiddler's Green) for a hot lunch. That was a life long dream come true and an adventure I will never forget. Tonight would be a completely different experience however, but just as memorable.
[Before getting started, I must mention one of the esteemed super moderators of this very site, Eric Kent (aka Axlish). Eric had contacted me a few days prior to this about directions to locations used for Land of the Dead. He mentioned that Neil (I assume we all know who Neil is) had arranged a visit to the set of Diary of the Dead for him, and he was going to be conducting interviews with some of the cast and crew for Homepage of the Dead. I told him that I might be able to meet him up there and we could go check out location spots together. Well lady luck was with me during this entire series of events, as I would soon find out. It just so happens that Greg Nicotero was going to be in Toronto for filming that same day. Greg told me to call him when I arrived and that I might be able to come to the set- while Eric did his thing for HPOTD. Unfortunately for Eric, his plans fell thru. He asked though if I would be willing to fill in for him as a representative for HPOTD. What to do? Of course I said yes! Eric then sent me the name of the production publicist, Kim Yu, and her contact number. So now only 5 hours and 330 miles separated me from a date with the dead...once again.]
Sitting outside the Humber River Regional Hospital, in the west part of Toronto, I'm looking at a bright orange poster board sign with the words "DIARY ----> To Set". Inside the front sliding doors I find a trail of signs directing me towards the set. I'm hoping that I'll run into Greg Nicotero, after not being able to reach him on his cell phone. I ask a production assistant if Greg is available and he informs me that he is in the middle of a scene being shot. I knew I should have called sooner! Oh well, just then another p.a. goes by with a mop and bucket. I can just imagine the bloody happenings going on down the hallway. I decide not to push my luck by sneaking onto the set anyway. Publicist Kim Yu had told me earlier that we would meet around 6pm and not to attempt to go on set without her, since a publicist had to be present when the "press" was around. The "press"? Me? I had visions of becoming Hugh Grant from Notting Hill, and informing the stars of the film that I was from "Horse & Hound". Oh well, it's almost 4 o'clock and I decide to follow Ms. Yu's instructions and go back outside to wait patiently. Seeing that I had some time to kill I decide to go back to the car and think of some brilliant questions to ask for my interviews to come later. Are there any zombie attacks on horses in this picture?
6 o'clock finally rolls around and I head to the set base camp, located behind the hospital, to await Ms. Yu's arrival. I've got my questions and mini recorder, so I'm ready to go. As I wait, a set security guy who looks a lot like Charles Manson, keeps telling me about a singles website named plenty of fish and how you can meet some really wild women on there. Soon after this I see Ms. Yu drive up, thank god. She is accompanied with a writer from Fangoria and Rue Morgue. We exchange pleasantries and head inside the hospital. She escorts us to an empty room next to an operating room set. From here I will conduct my very first "on set" movie interview! The feeling of being slightly out of my element keeps popping up in my brain, but I just decide to ignore the thoughts. Luckily for me Ms. Yu gives me one of the nicest people on the set to interview right off the bat, Costume Designer Alex Kavanagh.
"We're not really doing any sort of major break down or distressing for our un-dead, because they are fresh dead. On Land of the Dead we did a lot of break down. We made all their clothes look decrepit and decayed. Where on this it's just mostly fresh blood, the odd bit of dirt. You know, whatever might have killed them." Speaking with Alex is just what the doctor ordered for a newbie reporter. She is pleasant, sweet, and very down to earth. She is also an admitted geek and a loyal fan of George Romero who counts Day of the Dead as her favorite of all his films. This is not her first time working for George either. As she mentioned above, she was Costume Designer on Land of the Dead two years prior. Her work can be seen in other horror films like Saw II, Saw III, and the Ginger Snaps films as well. And for all the pot heads out there she was costume designer on one of my favorite guilty pleasures Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.
"Land of the Dead was a concept film. It was huge. Our budget was I guess five times what we have for this, or four times at least. But we were tight for money, in that it was such a huge scope for the film. All the costumes had to be distressed. Where on this one, it's easy enough to get the clothes. Were not having to break them down. So, even though it's a much smaller budget...it's a much more contained film. So, I think creatively we have a little bit more freedom to make these characters people that you might know. As opposed to trying to imagine people in the future who have spent their lives, at least the last few years of their lives, sort of fighting the hordes of the un-dead just to stay alive. For me, of course it's always a challenge when I have a very limited budget. But I think George has been very smart by keeping the script very contained and it's very doable for the money we have." And speaking of limited budgets, Alex informs me that the corset costume worn by star Amy Lalonde in the film, is the same costume from Ginger Snaps III worn by Katharine Isabelle. Limited budget indeed.
And how is it to work for a man that you have been such a big admirer of for years? "When I got the call to meet with George for Land of the Dead I was thrilled! It was a dream come true. To actually get to meet the man who has created a whole genre of movies. He is a genius, the classiest man you will ever meet. He is so smart. He's funny, he's so funny." She continues. "He's really collaborative. Working with him is a real pleasure. It's definitely creatively very fulfilling working with George."
Before I even have the chance to turn off my tape recorder I'm steered in the direction of star Michelle Morgan who plays the character of Debra in the film. "Debra is a film student who is part of a film program in Pittsburgh. Her and her friends are making a mummy movie when the dead awaken and start to walk. So she's just a girl who's trying to get home." Michelle is an attractive, mid-twenties actress who has done a good bit of theater work in the Toronto area. This is her biggest production to date and she, along with the rest of the cast, brings something that has been missing in previous Romero dead films...youth. "I think young people often want to go see movies about young people. So in today's youth obsessed media I can see that sort of being a draw for sure."
And what about concerns over being in a gore fest? "No, I was not at all worried about the gore. I love gore. I don't like torture films, but I love gore and I love zombies. When they're doing the set dec' and my wardrobe, I'm always like, 'More blood! More blood!'. I like it, I think it's cool."
"The shoot has been amazing. Everyone in the crew wants to be here; they like working for George. He's cool to work with. Compared to things that I've worked with before, you can't even compare. When you're working with George you can really see that you are working with this guy who has such a clear vision and he's so passionate. He's really serious about it. Where as a lot of the other directors I've worked with before, you can just tell, they're commissioned to make this movie of the week and they're gonna make it; it's not half the heart behind it. You know?"
And what of the fans? What kind of reaction should we expect this time around? "I would guess that they're really gonna like it. Because it's so raw and because it's so much of George's vision going into it. And also the script is really good; like it's just a really cool script. Even though it's maybe not as gory as Land ; there are fewer zombies. I think it has the potential to be even scarier. And also it has those elements of comedy that are always in George's films. So I would guess that the fans are gonna love it."
Unfortunately it's time for cast and crew to get back to the set. Also, Fangoria has brought a camera crew to do interviews for Fangoria T.V. and they are setting up lots of lights making the once empty room now very cramped. My set visit might have come to an end at this point but, like I said earlier, lady luck was with me during this adventure. I spot an old friend in the unused operating room set, Michael Felsher. Michael was a long time fixture with Anchor Bay Entertainment and now runs his own company that does documentary work for dvd releases. He is working for the production itself, doing a documentary for the future dvd release. Michael has that classic WTF? look on his face. So I explain why I'm there and we sit down to bullshit. Michael even spills a little info on a major upcoming dvd release that he has gotten the rights to, but only in the U.K. So if you are not in England and you have been wishing for a special edition for a certain beloved Romero film, get a region free dvd player soon! After a long talk about his work on the newest Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1 & 2 dvd releases, Michael steps out for a few minutes. I decide to take a peek down the hallway to see what is going on. Just then Michael waves me in his direction to come to the set. Here we go!
Inside a large hospital room, I enter to find film crew and cast members spread out all over the place. Over in one corner I can see the legend himself, George Romero. Near him is Executive Producer, and Dawn of the Dead screw driver zombie, John Harrison. I'm soaking in as much information as possible when I spot Greg Nicotero. Greg is sitting on the floor in bloody zombie makeup and wearing a surgeon's outfit. I check my call sheet and see that Greg is listed as a zombie surgeon. Greg tells me to come over because he wants to show me something. I walk over and he takes me to a hospital bed surrounded by a curtain. He pulls the curtain back to reveal a stunt guy lying on the bed with his stomach torn wide open and guts everywhere. Yes! After this cheap little thrill, I get surprised with another. The man himself, George Romero, walks by and with a big smile points to the Monroeville Mall t-shirt I'm sporting and says "Hey!". I've met George many times in the past, including on the set of Land of the Dead, but when you meet a legend on the set of a movie it's an even bigger thrill. Hey, it's almost 8 o'clock and lunchtime!
Watching people on movie sets eat lunch is funny. On Land of the Dead, I remember sitting with my buddy Matt Blazi(aka Monrozombi) in full zombie makeup, along with a gaggle of other zombie extras. Next to them might be an assistant director, who is sitting next to the director, who is sitting next to the SFX guy, who is sitting next to a zombie extra. It's just a goofy sight. Well tonight the tables were turned. There I am in normal street clothes sitting next to Greg who is pasty white and drenched in fake blood, complete with a bullet hole to the head. Greg is talking with a crew member about his desire to direct a film himself one day (it would be something small and intimate if it ever happened he says). Greg excuses himself from the table and star Amy Lalonde sits down in his spot. Amy plays Tracy in the film and is stunning. She looks at my shirt and asks what the Monroeville Mall is? So I explain...like the nerd that I am. She says that she loves the original Dawn of the Dead, but I have to wonder if she is thinking of the 2004 remake. Anyway, she looks just like Elisha Cuthbert from The Girl Next Door. Yowser!
Michael Felsher and I decide to head downstairs back to the set. Shortly after we arrive John Harrison comes in and notices the Pittsburgh Steelers hat that I'm wearing and that starts us on a discussion of how poorly the defending Super Bowl champions are playing this season. I met John Harrison last year in Pittsburgh at the Warhol museum for a screening of Effects. He is one of the nicest guys I've ever met and he insisted that I call him John, not Mr. Harrison. You got it, John.
The cast and crew are filing back in and getting ready for filming to start. I follow Michael into another room that is filled with director's chairs and a video monitor. We take a seat to watch some of the filming. The scene being shot is with the character played by Joshua Close (Jason) filming the aftermath of some serious carnage. On the floor is the dead zombie surgeon, Greg Nicotero. Casting Greg in this role is an in-joke by George Romero. Greg had plans to become a doctor, just like his father, before getting "corrupted" by Romero and lead into a career in the movies. Next to him is a zombie nurse played by Donna Croce, who was one of the ill-fated kissing lesbians in Land of the Dead. The nurse was done in with shock paddles that are used to jump start a patients heart. They are held to her head until her eyes pop. The scene involves Jason filming the dead bodies and rationalizing to himself about being involved in their "deaths". He is suddenly startled by the sound of gunfire and screaming. He then hears footsteps coming and in the doorway appears Michelle Morgan (Debra). After many takes, their lines of dialogue are now forever burned into my brain. What is funny is that when you watch the movie, and the camera pans to the doorway to see Michelle Morgan walk into frame, just to the left we are sitting in the room watching all of this take place.
In between takes, I get the chance to speak briefly with stunt coordinator Matt Birman. Matt was also stunt coordinator on Land of the Dead and you may remember him as Dennis Hopper's top security guy who gets head butted by John Leguizamo. I mentioned to him that one of my favorite scenes in that film was Leguizamo's confrontation with Hopper and how the Mozart builds in the background as the scene gets more intense. He said that John Leguizamo was a completely different person that day. He had so much respect for Dennis Hopper that he focused much more seriously than he did during other scenes. Later on, producer Peter Grunwald enters the room having finished an interview with Fangoria T.V., which he seems glad to have finished. "I hate doing those things" he quips to Michael Felsher, who is wanting to do his own interview with him!
It is now closing in on 11 o'clock and my visit to the set of Diary of the Dead is sadly coming to an end. I have a long drive back to the 'Burgh ahead of me and I need to hit the road. I manage to take with me a few souvenirs, including some snapshots with gory Greg, a tiny piece of latex intestine from the bloodied hospital bed and a bag of Halloween candy made by star Amy Lalonde. I say my goodbyes to Greg, Michael, John, Alex, and Ms. Yu and thank them for their hospitality.
A few final observations if I may. Having had the chance to read a tiny portion of the script that was attached to the call sheet, I can say for sure that Romero is still very political. I can also say that this shoot felt a lot different than the one for Land of the Dead. It felt much more relaxed and loose. How that translates to the final product is anyone's guess. I just hope that the film is a success for George and that it gets a theatrical release, which is up in the air at this point. At the very least, we get another Dead film from the master.
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