Friday, March 20, 2020

The Making of a Zombie Movie

a short story by Bill Adler

“Rats?” Anne raised her black baseball cap so she could look Sebastian in the eye. She leaned forward in the canvas chair, resting her palms on her legs. “There’s nothing in the screenplay about rats.” She surveyed the set. While scouting for locations, she had found the perfect spot for a zombie movie — the concrete yard of a seventy-year-old school in Albany that was as filled with rot and decay as the theme of their movie.

“I say we need rats,” Sebastian said. “I know it’s not in the script, but the schoolyard looks sparse. It’s bigger than I thought. We need to fill out the space, and rats are just what the doctor ordered.”

“Or what the director ordered.”

Photo by Dale Cruse. Licensed under Creative Commons
“Yeah, that’s me.” He savored a long look at his Rolex Pepsi, his pupils widening as he let his eyes drift out of focus, the bezel’s colors melting into each other in a way that reminded him of marshmallows melting onto graham crackers at summer camp. It was a comforting sensation. The Rolex was an extravagance that had cost him $20,000 he didn’t have. He was paying it off in installments, just as he was paying off his ex-wife in monthly alimony. Sebastian’s Rolex was an artistic masterpiece of red and blue on black, an engineering marvel, too. It was his gift to himself for enduring nearly ten years of marriage to Mrs. Director, bought the day his divorce was final.

His director’s salary wasn’t going to cut it, but the bonus for completing the movie on time and the potential of a percentage of the profits might pay off his watch and then some. He hoped. You never knew with zombie films. Some days he thought Zombie Revenge would become the next World War Z. Other days he thought that there was as much chance of this movie becoming a moneymaker as there was of a Hyundai spontaneously transforming itself into a BMW. God doesn't play dice with zombie films. He had no idea what that meant, but in some way it made sense.

Completing Zombie Revenge as quickly as possible was of paramount importance, but filming it with a paltry $400,000 budget was as difficult as rowing across the Atlantic.

“You want to shoot the scene—” Anne paused, thought, and continued “— in a few hours, right? So there’s no time to order plastic rats from Amazon.”

Sebastian shook his head. “No, no, no, no, no, my fair lady.” He slipped off his Yankees baseball cap and ran his fingers through his thick, red hair. “No plastic rats. Audiences can spot a plastic rat in a horror movie a mile away.”

“So what are you saying, like CG”

“No. Real rats.”

Anne grimaced. “Yeah, I don’t think so,” she said.

Sebastian clasped his hands together. “Look, Anne, we need all the help we can get with Zombie Revenge. Every dollop of realism we add sharpens our chances of making a splash. We’re all in this for the percentage, so let’s do this, okay?” He ran his finger over his Rolex’s bezel.

Realism is why he’d hired two amputees as extras. Realism is why he’d hired actors with limps — pre-injured. Realism is why he had hired actors with few, if no, previous movie roles — they’d be fresh and react naturally to the terrifying scenes. Plus, these types of extras and actors were also less expensive than regular ones.

“How am I going to get real rats by this afternoon?” Anne hoped there was no answer to that question.

“Give me a moment.” Sebastian rubbed his hands together and tilted his head up. He leaned back perilously in his chair, balancing on two legs. “Okay. You’re going to make a mash and attract them.”

“A mash?”

“Yes. Isn’t there a butcher shop a block away? I remember seeing it. And a pet shop around the corner? I recall that, too.”

Anne shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I guess.”

“Pork bellies, sheep intestine, mice — yes, you’re going to have to slaughter the mice — some lizards, maybe a big spider or two, a Snickers if you want. Get it all. Lots of protein. Put it in a pail, mash it, mix it, stir it, and then spill it over there.” Sebastian pointed to the far corner of the yard, where the next scene was to be filmed. “If there’s enough protein, sugar, and especially stink, the rats will come out of hiding promptly.”

Anne shook her head even more vigorously than before. “This is not in my job description. This is not what an assistant director does.”

“An assistant director does whatever the director tells her and she does it fast, without complaint, and with a smile on her face.” Sebastian offered Anne his smile as an example. “Or an assistant director finds herself teaching acting to spoiled high school students at summer school instead of working on a movie.”

“Yeah, okay. Got it.”

“Well?” Sebastian cocked his head forward. “Get going.” He shooed Anne. “Git!”


“Whoa. Check out those rats!” Sebastian said. He pointed to the yard's far corner.

“Did you have any doubt?”

“I always have doubts.” Sebastian scanned his watch: 5:05 p.m. There was enough daylight left to film the movie’s big panic scene. The actors’ and extras’ screams would be made hyperrealistic by the circling rats.

“Let me tell you, Sebastian, of all the work I’ve done in movies, this was the most revolting.” Anne’s voice resonated with a gruff, harsh timbre, belying her youthful, soft appearance. “The butcher shop had a pig belly, sheep guts, and they also had calf hearts. I bought two geckos and six mice at the pet shop, along with a bag of crickets. And I know you want to keep the budget down, so I told the butcher that day-old was fine, and he was happy to oblige. Look.”

Photo by pxfuel. Licensed
under Creative Commons
She pointed to the far side of the yard, where cat-sized rodents with oily, stringy tails scurried. Can rats get that bloated that fast from eating in twenty minutes? Yeah, probably. Rats eat until there’s no more food, filling their bellies and fattening like a universe that expands forever. I made them the best meal of their dirty, disgusting lives. “Now all you have to do is get the actors and extras to perform in close proximity to those rats.”

“They will, they will. Low man on the totem pole works the hardest. Besides, it’s a zombie movie, so what do the actors expect? Puppies and kittens?”

“They expect to be paid and to have their names on the credits, in that order.”

“And they will. Are you ready to roll?”

Anne shouted to the camera man. “One minute to roll.” She turned to the actors, put the megaphone to her mouth, and shouted, “Everyone in their places. One minute.”

“Wait!” Sebastian launched himself from his chair. He lowered his voice and turned to Anne. “Do you have any of that left? That slurry you made?””

“Yeah. There’s some left.”

“Good, good.” Sebastian smiled. “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take what’s left and smear it on the actors’ pants, below the knees.”


“You know why. To summon the rats. They’ll swarm the actors, adding even more realism.”

“You’re joking.”

“Of course not.” Sebastian folded his arms across his chest.

“Why don’t you do it? I’ve done my bit with rats and bio sludge.”

“Afraid not.” Sebastian glared at Anne as if he were firing laser beams from his eyes. “Just do it. Put your special sauce on them.”

“What about Leona, Marcy, and Maiko, who are wearing skirts?” Anne waved her arm in the direction of the actors and extras who were in their positions in the far corner of the yard.

“Put it on their legs, around their ankles. Now, Anne.” He shooed her with the back of his hand.

“Screw you,” she said.

“My ex has done that many times over, and not in a good way.” Sebastian rubbed his fingers across his Rolex’s crystal, filling himself with a moment of calm. “Do it. I won’t ask again.”

Anne muttered, “You weren’t asking.” Walking over to the actors, she shouted, “Everyone listen up. There’s a small last-minute costume addition. You don’t need to do anything. Stay where you are and I’ll take care of it.” She slipped on surgical gloves and scooped out a thick, pasty, moist coating of mostly red and brown slime. The actors — all eight of them — and the zombie extras, twenty-two, wrinkled their noses as Anne applied the mashed animal sludge to their pants and legs. A few of them gagged.

“What is that shit?” one of the actors asked. “That smells worse than the men’s room at the New Baltimore rest stop on I-95.” Anne didn’t answer. She didn’t want to open her mouth. She didn’t want to breathe.

Anne backed ten feet away before finally separating her lips and inhaling air into her oxygen-starved lungs. “Done,” she shouted. She dashed back to her chair beside the sound engineer.

“Lights, camera, action!”

Twenty zombie extras swarmed Lionel and Maiko, the romantically entwined couple who met while they were both hiding in an aquarium. Lionel had seen Maiko in the shark tank and thought she was dead, but when he realized she was very much alive, he jumped into the tank and rescued her. This was Sebastian’s favorite scene and the one he believed would shine as a trailer: the hero jumping from one monster, a zombie, to another, a hammerhead shark, and then back to the first monster. It was a great escape, a compelling drama that generated suspense.

To add to this scene's drama, everyone’s ammo had long been depleted, which left them with knives and sticks to fight off the zombies. Maiko brandished a fountain pen that had been given to her by her father.

As a zombie approached Maiko from behind, Lionel turned, leaned to the side, and gave the zombie a powerful karate kick to the knee. Sebastian jotted down a note to add a crack sound when Lionel’s foot broke the zombie’s knee. Maiko spun, dropped to the ground, and sent her fountain pen through the zombie’s eye, killing him. She stood, faced Lionel, gave him an “I want to kiss you now” look and then leaped into the air, landing at the same time her pen pierced the ear of another zombie that was about to sink its teeth into her arm.

“Fuck was that?” Maiko shouted. She dropped the pen and hopped up and down on one leg. “That hurts!”

“Cut, cut!” Sebastian stood. “Maiko, what are you doing?”

“One of your rabid rats bit me!” She tried to kick the rat, but it scurried away, darting into a crack in a wall. Blood dripped from a deep gash just above Maiko’s left ankle. A flap of skin hung loosely below the open wound. “Does somebody have a first aid kit? Come on people, hurry. This hurts like hell and it’s not getting pretty on its own.” She looked at Sebastian, flicked her long, black hair, and screamed, “My agent’s going to sue your ass off. I’m sure your little rat scheme violated a dozen health and safety laws, not to mention AFTRA rules.”

At the suggestion of a possible lawsuit, Sebastian grabbed the first aid kit. He moved swiftly, hoping that coming to Maiko’s rescue would exile the threat from her mind. He wasn’t sure what he should do with the kit but figured anything was better than inaction.

Maiko sat with her right leg folded and her injured leg extended. Sebastian kneeled next to her, letting loose an “ouch,” when his knees contacted the hard concrete. He opened the first aid kit, found a wash bottle with saline, and sprayed the water over Maiko’s wound. “This will clean it out.” He spoke with a director’s confidence.

What do I do next? Sebastian fished around the kit until he found gauze. He used the gauze to put Maiko’s skin flap back in place and then bandaged it. When Sebastian dove into the first aid kit to see what his next step might be he spotted a pair of rubber gloves. "I should have put those on to protect myself," he thought. Too late. He surveyed the kit to see what else he could use.

“I’m going to put some hydrogen peroxide on now. It may hurt a little.”

“It already hurts a lot, asshat!” Maiko took in rapid, shallow breaths. “Hurry up. It feels like germs are crawling up my leg.” She put her hand on her belly. “Oww! My stomach is like I swallowed hot coals.”

Sebastian placed his hand on Maiko’s forehead. She was burning up, a fast, scorching fever. He touched her arm, which was also hot. All Sebastian knew about medicine he had acquired from watching movies, but he was certain that no fever exploded that quickly. He grabbed an infrared thermometer from the kit and aimed it at Maiko’s forehead. 106 degrees!

“You’ve got a fever, Maiko. Hold on a sec. I’m sure there’s some Advil here.” Sebastian rooted around the first aid kit. “Found it.” He turned to Anne. “Get me a bottle of water.”

Sebastian’s scant but certain medical knowledge also informed him that a high fever in an adult was very dangerous and it was vital to lower the fever as quickly as possible.

Anne unscrewed the water bottle cap and handed the bottle to Sebastian. Sebastian put two Advils on his outstretched palm. “Here, take these.”

Maiko appeared not to hear him. Like lava tunnels being born beneath the ocean floor, veins rose from beneath her forehead and cheeks; her once-porcelain skin mutated into a field of sinewy blue ropes. Saliva dripped out of her mouth. Her neck snapped back, then forward. Simultaneously, her body stiffened and her eyes glowed orange. She snarled, opened her mouth, and bit Sebastian’s arm three times in rapid succession, right over his Rolex. One of her teeth cracked and lodged in Sebastian’s flesh.

Sebastian slapped his hand over his wound, spun and shrieked. 

Maiko wobbled, her legs moving as if filled unequally with hardening cement. She turned away from Sebastian, staggered several steps to Lionel, snarled again, and bit Lionel in the neck, opening a wide gash from which a torrent of blood spilled. Maiko lurched toward one of the zombie extras and bit her neck. She bolted to another actor, a twenty-four-year-old with golden hair and a lifeguard’s chest, and sank her teeth into his belly.

Sebastian put his hand to his face, trying to press his veins back under his skin. His spine went rigid as if  it had been encased in plaster. He gasped, bellowed, and snapped his jaw. He turned, opened his mouth wide, and sank his teeth into Anne’s cheek, ripping the flesh and swallowing it. A few seconds later, Lionel growled, shuffled forward, wrapped his thick arms around another faux zombie, and bit off his ear. Lionel dug his teeth into another actor’s neck, a startled forty-year-old woman with dyed silver hair.

Screams echoed off the school's decrepit walls. Rats, zombies, and people scrambled everywhere, as if a storm were blowing from a dozen directions all at once. The camera crew abandoned their posts, but were pinned against the yard’s far wall. The zombies swarmed and consumed them.

The yard’s rusted gate screeched as a half-dozen creatures crashed into it and broke through the weakened metal. The zombies rushed the crowd of onlookers who had been watching the movie filming from outside the school yard. The onlookers thought that this mayhem, screaming, and blood were all part of the movie, and some of them hoped they were going to be in the film. Maiko and Lionel were the first to find new flesh. Sebastian, Anne, and the others were right behind them.

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