A decade on, the cult web show returns as a big screen feature. Ellis Reed reviews the Zomblogalypse movie and catches up with the filmmakers...
Zomblogalypse was an online serial that ran between 2008 and 2011, making enough of a splash to build a cult following and appear in books like The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Volume 2: 2000-2010 (Peter Dendle, 2012). A feature length sequel – partly the fruit of a successful Indiegogo campaign – is now touring festivals, reuniting fans with the bumbling York-based trio of Tony, Miles and Hannah.
The original series had them sharing a flat in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, knitting, improvising weapons and uploading videos to pass the time. When we rejoin them, they’ve moved their base of operations to a local library. Hannah is sat in a tent, doing a blog about graphic novels; Miles is trying to unblock the toilet with a baseball bat; and Tony is entertaining himself by knocking out zombies with a dodgeball. All three are concerned that, after ten years of the new normal, ennui is starting to set in. Following a disastrous trip to a garden centre, they decide to make a self-aggrandising film about their exploits, offering a wealth of unrealistic perks – ‘a great big fuck-off tank’, ‘a lifetime supply of Wagyu beef’ – to mobilise a ragtag crew of other survivors. In a bold move, they decide that the best way to ‘do’ the zombies on screen is to simply corral the actual zombies around them.
By design, the setting and characters aren’t grounded, and the fact that the internet still works is credited to ‘lightning or goblins, or whatever it is.’ In the world of Zomblogalypse, comedy always trumps realism; lots of the set pieces evoke Horrible Histories sketches, or even the absurdist flare of Monty Python. Our heroes are incredibly blasé about death and gore, and many of the characters belong to the same comic tradition as Father Dougal. Even our three leads are arguably more Baldrick than Blackadder, but their cheery optimism and mild sense of peril make them comically immune to the chaos around them.
Comedy lives or dies by its gags, and luckily, the film scores a very respectable number of laughs. Hits include a visual joke with a cardboard box, the first appearance of ‘Alan Grenade-Hand’, a bravura performance with two rubber arms, ‘fastards’ (fast bastards), and plenty more to keep you entertained. Given the ad-lib nature of the performances, some scenes land better than others – one man’s Alan Grenade-Hand is another man’s poison – but there’s a huge amount for comedy fans to enjoy. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with juxtapositions of tone, tossing in the occasional baffled everyman to look on in disbelief. ‘It’s been trying,’ one admits, after being given a job on the madcap production.
For zombie enthusiasts, the film doesn’t hold back on the ‘zom’, serving up some brilliant lo-fi effects, as well as a charming ending that will delight any fan of the genre. People who’ve supported a crowdfunding campaign, dabbled in microbudget cinema, or tried to shoot a student film will find extra amusement in the film-within-a-film, although none of those experiences are necessary. My sole minor criticism is to observe that, given the semi-improvised nature of the scenes, Zomblogalypse might work even better with a more ruthless edit, bringing it down to a lean eighty minutes. Regardless, it’s hard to dislike in its current form.
Zomblogalypse is clearly a passion project, which benefits enormously from the energy and rapport of Miles Watts, Hannah Bungard and Tony Hipwell in the lead roles. Fans of indie British horror will also recognise Lyndsey Craine from Book of Monsters and Joanne Mitchell from Mitchell-Brunt Films. The film is bound to please fans of the original show – although no prior knowledge is necessary – and will also entertain fans of absurdist humour, gory slapstick, and the mockumentary format. Keep an eye out at festivals or catch it when it goes on wider release in 2022.
As well as watching the film, we took the opportunity to interview the filmmakers about their work…
Ellis: What was the genesis of the original web series, and what made you return to it now?
Miles: Tony and I were enjoying making short films and a VERY low budget feature back in the 00s when we used to work at the cinema in York, and we’re both big horror fans so started talking about things like Dawn of the Dead, going to see Zombieland and working out if we could do our own zombie film. Hannah had gone to Uni with Tony and we started to all hang out after our jobs and invent scenarios. Then we started working together when web series like Dr. Horrible and The Guild came out – we’re all huge fans of Felicia Day – and came up with a zombie vlog show with a silly title. We planned nine episodes but ended up doing six, with enough material for another season, and then another because we’d enjoyed it so much and got a bit of a cult following. The movie was something we’d always planned to do… one day.
Tony: We came to the web series when we hit a lull following an intense period of producing 6 shorts in 6 months. We wanted to keep working and started brainstorming on what we could make with the meagre resources we had at the time. We were keen to dip our toe into webseries which were very much in their infancy at the time whilst scratching the itch that was our love for horror, zombies and the apocalypse. We landed on the notion of making the show essentially ignore the zombies to get around the fact we had practically nothing to work with. This really helped us set our own style and has bled all the way to the film.
The film always felt like unfinished business. We wanted to come back and apply everything we’d learned in the intervening years and do what we’d never been able to before. It became something incredibly ambitious for a time before circling back to something that rekindled what we loved about the show, that home grown essence. This tied in really well with us spoofing the vagaries of filmmaking. I’d always loved movies about filmmaking and placing that within the zombie genre gave it an even more delirious slant.
Hannah: Tony and I studied filmmaking at uni together and had a shared love of post-apocalyptic media. I met Miles through Tony and we all started hanging out and throwing ideas around. They had been working on shorts together and had done a feature and were a bit sick of the planning I think, and wanted to do something a bit more fun, and we’d discussed how eerie the building I lived in was, so that became the start of something. As Miles said, we were watching a lot of web series at the time, so it felt like something easy and fun to try out with no pressure. It was just always so much fun to make that we were always happy to keep making it. We talked about making the film for so many years, we just knew that there was more Zomblog out there waiting to be made, and it was just finally the right story, the right people and the right time.
E: As indie filmmakers, how did you find the funding and production of the film? Was there anything that turned out better than you’d dare hoped? And, at the other end of the spectrum: was there anything that was especially challenging or disappointing for you?
M: We’ve been very lucky with private investors, and the support we’ve had from them has been absolutely phenomenal. We literally couldn’t have made any of our films without them. And then the fans turned out in droves for the movie, both with financial help and also to come and be zombies. In one scene we had about sixty zombies turn up. Amazing. I think we’re all really proud of the script, because it ended up, like the series, being heavily improvised by us and the cast. The supporting cast are the thing I’m most proud of, because they absolutely nailed being part of this insane thing we’d created. They’re all comedy geniuses.
T: The film was entirely funded by some very generous angel investors, crowd funders and our own pockets. We emptied every coffer for this and made the film as big as we possibly could with what we had.
The thing which really surprised me was the ending. It was originally very different and during the initial grade we realised it wasn’t working. We had some time set aside for reshoots and took the opportunity to try something different and now I can’t imagine the film without that ending. What was written initially made sense, but film has a habit of taking on a life of its own and you need to be able to listen to it.
Practically everything about the film was challenging, but what made it manageable was the energy and enthusiasm of the cast and crew. We couldn’t have done it without them.
H: The film was financed by our incredible investors, crowdfunders and by the three of us. The supporting cast really came into their own when improvising and I really love how all of that stuff turned out. Also, you can never have enough zombies, but we were really amazed at how many we managed to get and how ready and willing they were to terrorise the cast. It was great. One thing, which is more about the filmmaking than the film, was that we just didn’t have enough crew, so the three of us, and several others, took on more roles and responsibilities than we should have had to, which was quite stressful at times and pretty challenging. It would have been great to have had a few more people on board, but it’s a lot to ask of people, to give up so much of their spare time to help us make such a ridiculous film. Luckily, enough people did and thank god for those maniacs.
E: Joanne Mitchell (Mitchell-Brunt Films) and Lyndsey Craine (Book of Monsters) both have supporting roles. How connected are you to the UK indie horror scene? Do you want to remain part of it, or do you see yourselves doing a wide range of projects in different styles?
M: I think we’re pretty well connected with the UK horror scene. Joanne’s husband is Dom Brunt, who we’re very good mates with and love his films, and Jo is a dream to work with. As is Lyndsey, who’s married to Stewart Sparke of Dark Rift. Stewart is another good friend of ours who makes cracking horror films with his work partner Paul Butler. We worked with DDFX on the special FX for Zomblog, and people like Paul Shrimpton, Michael Sanderson and the ‘Thirsksploitation’ lot who helped make Alex Chandon’s Inbred. They’re a lovely supportive bunch who all work on each other’s stuff.
T: Jo and Lyndsey are great, and we’d wanted to work with both of them for ages. We only had Jo for a really short window, but I was lucky enough to have her on another project around the same time as well. I’d love to work with both of them again.
I feel like we’re connected to the UK indie horror scene in the way I imagine many feel, which is at the window looking in. We’ve found the address, people inside can see us, but we’re hanging around in the garden with loads of other people hoping we’re going to be let in for the party.
I can’t imagine myself entirely moving away from horror, it’s such a wonderfully pliable genre that can move audiences in ways no other can. There’s fun to be had elsewhere, but I’d never leave it behind.
H: It’s such a great crowd – the filmmakers and the horror fans. We’ve got some friends on the scene, like Jo, and Lyndsey, all doing their own fantastic stuff and everyone is mostly really supportive of each other. While the three of us all have other ideas and other projects in mind, I think we’ll always feel connected to the indie horror scene.
E: The special effects are delightful (especially that early decapitation!) – how did those come about, and what are your feelings on practical effects versus CG?
M: Alan Melikdjanian (Captain Disillusion) does CG gore so well, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t real. We did kind of half and half SFX and VFX for Zomblog to augment the gore when we needed extra blood and so forth, and that’s really the norm these days. You have to use both, really: sometimes practical FX looks nice and solid, and DDFX did a nice job for the film but some of it did need augmenting with CG blood because we couldn’t afford to concoct barrels of the real stuff. It’s all fake in the end, what ends up on screen, but the goal is to make it work together to sell the effect.
T: We can’t take credit for the decapitation, that was all produced by Captain Disillusion who did us a huge favour in opening the film. Most of the effects in the film are practical out of necessity but at the same time, the limit of the budget demanded some digital work which is fine provided you’ve not overly gambled for what is needed on screen. We were very careful to stay within our means FX wise so when we talked about having a big aerial shot of a burning Minster for example, we made sure we could actually get it done before committing to it and clearly set it as one of the big money shots. Likewise, we never tied ourselves to any FX gag in the film, if something didn’t work we could always drop it. That all said, there’s more digital work in the film than I initially planned, but what was added worked well because it was all to enhance something that we captured in camera. If you have something, anything in camera to start with, whatever you add after the fact can build on that. I was actually talking with some of the team at Legacy Effects (formerly Stan Winston Studio) recently and a big problem nowadays is that everyone presumes everything is digital so great practical work can often be missed which is a shame. Practical will always have its place.
H: We’re big fans of practical effects in films, as it gives that element of realism that CG can’t give, especially CG on a budget, plus it’s just really fun to do. We did need Tony to work his digital magic on it somewhat more than we had initially thought, so it’s a blend of practical and digital in the finished film. Alan Melikdjanian, who opens the film as Captain Disillusion, is an effects whizz, so his scene has some great CG in it.
E: The film’s horror influences are pretty clear, but what inspires you in terms of comedy?
M: I’m an enormous fan of irreverent comedy like Mel Brooks’ films. He has this way of being wise as well as utterly daft, such as with Blazing Saddles, which is a spoof that also manages to have a lot to say about racism. Christopher Guest is a genius and we’re all inspired by his improvised movies. Larry David is the funniest at improv too, and Douglas Adams is my main British writing hero. I love his exasperated but witty take on the ridiculousness of human life.
T: There’s A LOT. Comedies like Parks and Rec, Always Sunny and Spinal Tap were key for the aesthetic and performances. For the filmic aspect we had movies like Tropic Thunder, American Movie and Ed Wood. All of those really helped nail the absurdist tone of the film.
H: Zomblog owes a lot to the improvised nature of films like Spinal Tap, as well as the comic realism of shows like Parks and Rec and The Office. I think we’re all fans of Spaced, in terms of its comedy and references, and I love the awkwardness and self-obsession of characters in shows like Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny.
E: I think I’m right in saying that Tony directed Standing Woman, which I enjoyed at the recent Frightfest event. What other projects have you done between you that might be of interest to Horrified readers?
M: All three of us made a movie before Zomblog called Whoops! which is about a British woman who accidentally keeps killing people. It’s on VOD now so you can own it for free: we’ve been told it’s like Hitchcock meets Ealing. It was a great run-up to the Zomblog movie and did really well in festivals.
T: You are correct! Standing Woman had its UK premiere at FrightFest which was great, especially as it was the first in person festival we could attend this year. It could not be more different from Zomblog but still treads in the genre with its mix of dystopia and body horror. We’ll be screening in competition at the BAFTA qualifying Leeds International Film Festival in November and have a lot more festivals to come for it.
I put out a short horror last year called Security about an unlucky night watchman which did nicely on the festival circuit. You can find that on my Vimeo channel along with a number of other genre pieces I’ve done including more than one post-apocalyptic effort. There’s also of course our feature film Whoops! which follows an accidental serial killer and features plenty of blood and mayhem that somehow manages to be a wholesome family comedy as well.
H: There’s Whoops! that Miles and Tony directed and I script supervised – it’s a fun film about a woman who is an accidental serial killer. There’s also the original series of Zomblogalypse, which is all on YouTube. Series 1, 2, 3 and then a prequel series we did, called Zomblog Zero.
E: As indie filmmakers, what advice do you have for anyone else who wants to make an indie horror film? What should you do, and what should you definitely not do?
M: You should definitely just make it. Get your phones or a decent camera and make something you love, that’s important and unique to you, even if it’s inspired by your favourite filmmakers. Put your own stamp on it. Get everything in writing from everyone, even if they’re volunteers. That’s a huge lesson we learned. Don’t act like the Zombloggers do to their crowdfunders! Appreciate everyone who helps you in any way.
T: The best advice I could give to any indie horror director is to just do it. Don’t wait for someone else’s permission, just do it. Build a team of fellow maniacs and make it happen. You don’t have to get it right first time either, every film holds a lesson for the next one.
The one thing you should definitely not do is have a bad attitude. Making films is hard, so the last thing you want to do is make it harder for others. I’ve worked with far too many who have and life is too short to keep them in your life.
H: Use what you have. If you have a friend who can do something cool, use them. If you have access to a place, use it. Work on each other’s projects, help each other out and just go for it. Make something, anything, and take those lessons with you onto the next project.
E: And lastly, what do you all have in the pipeline, either for the Zomblogalypse franchise or anything else?
M: We all have shorts and scripts and movies that we’re in prep for or developing. I’ve written an action movie next, which will be fun to see happen. If we ever got the chance to make more Zomblog, I’d be up for that but it’d have to be made in a less shoestring way than we had to for the first one: it nearly killed us all!
T: In the future I’d love to expand Standing Woman into a feature if we can. That’s something that we will be looking into more as the festival run starts to wind down. I’m also developing a number of features at the moment, pretty much all of which are in the horror mould. No more zombies for me for a while though.
H: Tony and I are always throwing film ideas around and are hoping to write something together at some point in the future. I’ve had a comedy short film in my head for a few years that I’d like to make, so hopefully that will be my next project.
Many thanks to Miles, Tony and Hannah for taking the time to answer our questions! You can learn more about Zomblogalypse here.