Michael and Peter Spierig have accomplished the (seemingly) impossible. The polite Australian brothers were able to make their expansive and visually stunning zombie feast, Undead, in relative obscurity and without the help of high-end visual effects houses. Instead, using their PC laptops and off-the-shelf software, they crafted their "splattertoon" at their home in Australia, where they saved money by pushing their portable computers to the limits.
The experiment has paid off for Michael and Peter. Two years after its release in Australia, Undead will hit U.S. shores at the beginning of July. The film was picked up for distribution by Lions Gate Entertainment, a company that has recently made big hits out of smaller horror films such as Cabin Fever, Open Water, and Saw.
In the grand tradition of outrageous slapstick horror, Undead at once elicits laughs and intense gross-outs. Fans of the genre will immediately compare it to Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead. Unlike a lot of low-budget horror films, however, the Spierigs' Undead does not look its budget. The camera moves are smooth, the visuals slick, and the effects seamless. With this film, the brothers have made their mark on low-budget filmmaking and painted a clear picture of what filmmaking technology can do today and in the future.
Back Stage West: Why zombies?
Michael Spierig: We wanted to make a zombie movie because they just weren't being made anymore. Perhaps everybody had that same thought back then. [Laughs] We hadn't seen a great zombie movie since Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, and it's taken us four years to get this thing to the U.S. So by the time we got [it] out there, there's a dozen other zombie movies. It's really weird how things work out that way.
BSW: Why is it we're frightened by zombies, and at the same time we want to laugh at them?
Peter Spierig: I know why Michael and I find them funny: The idea of a slow-moving, brain-dead being that eats people's brains is pretty funny.
MS: The fact that they're an unstoppable force, basically. Their only purpose is to eat you. That's probably quite frightening…. But again, zombies walking slowly, looking to eat people's brains…I always thought that was kind of funny.
BSW: How did you keep the horror from ruining the comedy and the comedy from undermining the horror?
MS: Our film basically is a "Roadrunner" cartoon. It's violent, but it's funny because it's so over the top. We figured, as long as we can do something that's really over the top and absurd, and try not to get too nasty with the violence—graphic but not really brutal—we'll be okay. As long as we make the characters almost caricatures—they're so over the top and absurd and have so many ridiculous things to say—then we're heading down the right path. We don't take this film seriously. We don't have a lot of social commentary in this film the way [George] Romero does with his movies. We just make it crazy and fun.
PS: There is a fine line, and, to be perfectly honest, we weren't quite sure if we were getting it right. You don't really know until you put the thing together and ask, "Is this working? Is it too ridiculous?"
MS: I always thought grossing people out was kind of funny. When you're kids, grossing each other out was always kind of amusing. That was what we thought of when we did Undead: "How can we really gross each other out?" That's what we're trying to do.
BSW: What's the independent film scene like in Australia?
MS: The majority is government-subsidized. The government basically finances our industry, [but] I don't think we've had a hit in years. Even the films that are released through these government-financing bodies tend to fail. Australians don't want to go see Australian movies. There is a small independent film community, [but] it's virtually impossible to make an independent film that has success in Australia. We were aware of that when we started the film. Our thoughts were always, "If we make an independent film, we have to make sure that it stretches beyond Australia. We have to make a film that has a global appeal."
BSW: Did you do a lot of festival screenings before you picked up international distribution?
MS: We started to pick up a lot of international distribution before a lot of the festivals. We did go to a lot of festivals. Toronto was amazing. We went to festivals in Korea and Spain and all over the world, and those festivals certainly helped. I think the Internet was a huge asset for us when it came to selling the film. We set up a basic website, and got good reviews from aint-it-cool-news.com, and darkhorizons.com helped us out. That's how we generated a lot of interest here in the U.S. and got a sales agent for the film. Film festivals were great, but the Internet was really the key to getting this film sold.
BSW: Was there any imperative to tone down the gore and violence when you brought this film to the United States?
PS: We didn't have to make any cuts in any of the countries [where the film has opened] because of the tone of it. I was quite surprised, because I was expecting to have to cut things for the U.S. release. Not a single cut. We did cut about 10 minutes out of the U.S. version. Michael and I wanted to do it. We approached Lions Gate and said, "Look, we really want to tighten this film up." The U.S. version is actually the director's cut. I think it's a better film, too. It's much tighter. It flows a lot better.
BSW: What emboldened you guys in 2001 to make this film on your home computers?
PS: The technology wasn't quite ready [in 2001]; we were doing stuff that was pushing our computers right to their limits, and they were constantly crashing. Nowadays it's less difficult, due to the speed of the computers and the way they handle such massive file sizes.
MS: We used digital effects to try to expand our movie. We wanted to make a relatively large-scale movie with no money. We been learning that technology for quite a few years. We'd done a lot of short films where we experimented with digital effects. We did the digital effects on our home computers.
PS: It was the only way we were going to make this thing. We wrote the script without limitations. We just said, "Let's try and write something that we think is going to be good." Later on we tried to figure out how the hell we were going to do it…. Even while we were in postproduction we were still trying to figure [it] out. Up until that completed shot—it was only then that we knew we could do it. It was a pretty scary time because so many things were counting on the effects working, and if they didn't work, we were in big trouble. We would be broke, unemployed, and living in our parents' house.
BSW: What computer programs did you use to finish your movie?
PS: The film was edited on [Adobe] Premiere, which is a difficult program to use. We used [Adobe] AfterEffects to do all the compositing work and [Adobe] Photoshop. For 3-D (CGI work) we used [NewTek] Lightwave. They're all fairly standard programs, nothing that was overly expensive.
MS: We shot the film on 16mm [film], and we went through a process called Digital Intermediate, a pretty common practice nowadays. We shot the film on film, then put it through a digital tape process where we could do the color grading [and] bring down the grain. Then we blew that back up to 35mm. That was a great way to blend the visual effects, because the effects are fairly seamless in the film.
BSW: Are the tools out there for anyone to become a do-it-yourself filmmaker?
PS: I think it's getting easier to produce with digital video. Every computer that comes out these days has some kind of editing package built into it. It's definitely easier, and the quality of the production will be better, but that doesn't mean the stories will be any better. It is getting to the point where you can create Hollywood-type effects, and sound, and all that kind of stuff, on a home computer.
MS: There is this new wave of filmmakers that are going to start coming through who are really young, because they've had the technology ever since they were little kids. They've had the access to editing software and digital video cameras to go out and shoot films, edit, and learn how to put a scene together.
BSW: What's next for you guys?
PS: It's another horror film with Lions Gate called Daybreak. It's a vampire movie, but it's very different in tone to Undead. It's a serious, dramatic, dark movie. It's something that we've been working on for over a year now. Everyone at Lions Gate is really excited about it, and hopefully there will be some big announcements made. BSW