As of late, there has been so much spoken, written, screamed and moaned about when it comes to the subject of zombies and the undead. We here at the Zombie Research Society have been writing, screaming and moaning about it for years, so we ought to know. And now a brand new film is here to educate those who are not in the know, or for the rest of us fanatics, justify why we love it so much.
Doc of the Dead (2014) begins with intrepid documentary host Jonathan London of Geekscape chatting up the man on the street to see what the average person knows about zombies. After all, zombie culture has crept into every corner of society and taken a permanent place in our psyche — we should all be experts right? Well, if you believed that, you would be wrong. Doc of the Dead aims to set it all straight.
Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead waxes poetic: “They’re us having succumbed to our worst fear, which is our own death… Even if you’re a mile ahead of them, while you’re snoring they’ll catch up and eat you. It’s like death itself– you do everything you can to stave it off… but it’ll get you in the end.”
Matt Mogk of the Zombie Research Society cuts right to the chase: “Zombies are a relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by a biological infection.”
Doc of the Dead is a documentary directed by Alexandre O. Philippe. The film examines the rise and evolution of zombies in film, television and literature and the impact on pop culture. Many of the genre’s most influential figures are featured in the film, including the “Godfather of the zombie genre” George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead), actors Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) and Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead), producer Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) and acclaimed author Max Brooks (bestsellers The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z).
What brought this phenomenon to our governments and cities, schools and streets is all covered in loving detail; from its earliest inception in antiquity, through folklore and superstition, to its invasion of literature and film, and finally to it’s outbreak in our games and “live” events. The burning question of what exactly makes a zombie a zombie is tackled, if not entirely answered– but can it ever be? As evidenced in the documentary’s narrative, everyone has an opinion.
The science behind the undead is explained, revealing just how close we might be to an apocalypse– perhaps not exactly like the one we often see in zombie movies, but one with a very real scientific and biological basis. This and the state of today’s society at large might go a long way in explaining the apprehension that is behind the very real preppers’ movement, the film postulates.
What struck me throughout this film is how much real depth it has. All of the research and incredible hard work is there on the screen. And in what must have been a licensing nightmare, Doc of the Dead includes scads of clips and footage from many different movies in front of and behind the cameras– from White Zombie to World War Z, further illustrating their points and entertaining us at the same time.
Doc of the Dead is complete and up-to-date, fat with detail and substance. I have no doubt it will become the preeminent standard from which any subsequent documentaries about the undead will be measured. This is an out-of-the-park home run for director Alexandre Phillipe. who also directed the equally impressive The People vs. George Lucas.
It is witty and fast paced, but most importantly, it succeeds in doing what a film, especially a documentary needs to do– it both entertains and informs. Bravo!
Doc of the Dead premieres at the SXSW Film Festival on March 10 and on EPIX on Saturday, March 15, at 8PM ET.
We managed to wrestle director Alexandre Philippe and on-screen personality Jonathan London to the ground and talk to us about Doc of the Dead.
Here are our interviews…
DOC OF THE DEAD – Alexandre O. Philippe Interview
Alexandre O. Philippe is a director and writer, known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Left (2006).
There are quite a number of documentaries covering the rise of zombie culture– why did you decide to make this movie?
There’s that Night of the Living Dead Documentary that came out recently. There’s one about zombie walks which is very specific. The idea was to make the definite comprehensive doc about the state of of the culture today.
Obviously the past 5 years have been tremendous in terms of zombie fandom and how things have changed. I really believe we’re IT in terms of a documentary that takes a look at the culture and asks the question “Why zombies” and “Why now?” I really don’t think there’s anything else out there like it right now.
I agree. Tell us a little about getting the film finished and getting it premiered at SXSW.
It’s been a crazy two year journey — just a lot of work. And making this particular kind of doc– it’s very very challenging.There’s just so many aspects to it; so much licensing involved. So many fans you have to deal with in terms of getting their content. It feels great to be done and finally releasing it. SXSW is really the perfect place to premiere it. SWXW premiered The People vs. George Lucas— we’re very glad that they’re giving us the stage again.
You mentioned about the fans. Did you find that when you were putting together the film, that there were a lot of different disparate opinions pulling you in different directions. A lot people have different views on what the culture is, what it should be. Very strong views. Can you tell us how you dealt with putting them in the film or leaving them out?
When people are passionate about something it usually comes with a very specific set of ideas and values, and zombies are no different. The main thing where zombies are concerned — is certainly the fast vs. slow zombie right now.
On the one hand you have the zombie purist who are all about George Romero. I think that’s fine. I think for a new genre to evolve in a meaningful way, and to become what zombies have become, it has be played with by a lot of different people. It has to become participatory. That means that zombies are going to be in PG-13 movies… there’s going to be in romantic comedies, there’s going to be in kids movies— there’s going to be all kinds of different versions of the zombie. From my perspective, it’s very healthy.
You know, I certainly prefer the classic zombie in a movie, but I can certainly also appreciate the new kinds of zombies that are emerging these days. My one message to purists is that, you don’t have to watch any of that stuff. The beauty is that we’ll always have the classic Romero films. I think it’s a waste to get all pissed off about where zombies are going.
Absolutely. When you think about it, even the purists who love the slow Romero-type zombies have to agree that George created a social statement about the time. Zombie culture seems to evolve with society– the culture and evolution of zombies changes with what is happening in real society.
Yeah. In fact … what we said in the film — after 9/11 our fears were greater. The slow moving zombies didn’t do it for us anymore. We needed the fast zombie. I think it’s really interesting, and of course that’s true across the board of film history. You look at the kinds of films that are coming out at a certain time, it says something about us. That’s why the fast zombie can’t be dismissed. The fact that we have faster zombies now may be a reflection of how great our fears are.
Back to George Romero (and Night of the Living Dead) which you covered a lot in the film, for good reason. What are your impression of these guys (Romero, Russo, Streiner) and the crap they’ve had to deal with in regards to the copyright stuff. What happened there?
Honestly, they are all extremely gracious– I can’t say enough wonderful things about all of them. Their heart was really in the right place at the time. They just wanted to make a good movie, and that’s what they did. And unfortunately because of the copyright SNAFU they lost control of the film. As an independent film maker, I can only imagine how that feels. I certainly feel that these guys deserve to make a lot more money on this landmark movie than they have.
On the flip-side, of course, the fact that the movie became public domain is exactly what enabled the zombie genre to take off, because then the people screen the film, broadcast the film everywhere, so it made it much more readily available. I think that’s what took it out of the shadows. It was a very revolutionary film at the time– there was no kid out there who was allowed to watch it. But the fact that it became public domain made it more accessible. It took a while for zombies to become as truly mainstream as they are now. It was always very strong in fringe culture for several decades, but without that event, which is the loss of the copyright, I very much doubt that zombies would be as huge as they are today.
It’s kind of ironic, I guess?
Yeah, on the one hand it’s a great thing, on the other hand you have to feel for George. You really can’t look at it one way or the other, it’s really both. I just hope that George realizes how many fans he has, and how grateful people are for what he’s done. I mean, just the fact that he’s still giving interviews– that he’s still willing to talk to people about it, in spite of what happened, I think that it tells you a great deal about the kind of man he is.
Yeah– every time I’ve spoken with George– he has a really healthy view of what happened. I guess you could dwell on it until you’re a miserable, bitter person.
Tell us more about the production.
I look back on this production, and it’s been a huge challenge. There were several times throughout the process where we thought it just wasn’t going to get made– it isn’t going to happen. But to meet these great zombie icons and to be able to pick their brains — that was fantastic. We finally got it made, it feels like such a relief to be perfectly honest.
How is the zombie apocalypse going to happen?
It’s not. How’s that for an answer? [Ha ha!] Certainly an outbreak could happen, something that could decimate millions of people like the bubonic plague. I’m not envisioning a scenario in which people start chasing each other, eating each other. And quite frankly, I don’t find that idea romantic at all. I know there are some people out there who really want this to happen. I think it’s a bit of a fantasy for some people, but I think it would be the worst possible thing you can imagine, so I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
Nice segue into the survivalist/preppers movement.
Life has to be lived, and if you’re going to spend your time preparing for something that is probably not going to happen– I think a reasonable question to ask is “What are you doing with your life?” I think it’s fair to take precautions. There are also things you can do in life that I think are smart choices for you. Preparing for a zombie apocalypse — I hate to be so blunt– I don’t think that’s a very smart thing to do. If you do it as a fun outlet to prepare for a catastrophe– I could understand that. If you live in San Francisco and you need to do earthquake preparedness– if it’s just more fun to do that and think about zombies — hey why not! But if you’re genuinely worried about the zombie apocalypse happening, and you’re genuinely building shelters — then hey, it’s a free country and people can do whatever they want, but I think it’s a major waste of time.
How did you and Jonathan get together?
I’ve had this idea to make this film for about five years now, I approached both Jonathan and Geekscape and Red Letter Media and I asked them to do some very specific segments for the film and they really delivered. The idea with Jonathan was to stick him out there and have him do some pretty crazy outrageous things which he never shied away from.
Like drinking his own pee?
Yeah– when he told me about that I was thinking I put you out there to see what happens and you go on and do that. [Ha ha.] It was really fun working with this group of guys, and Red Letter Media too were fabulous. We did a lot more than what’s in the film right now, the rest will be eventually available on our international DVD.
Anything you want to say to our readers and people thinking about checking out the film?
If you’re a zombie fan, you’ll get a lot from this film– I think that it is a very zombie-fan-friendly-film. But it’s also equally friendly for someone who doesn’t understand the first thing about zombies, who may have just walked by a zombie walk and gone “What the hell is this?” and you want to have an understanding of what zombies are all about. I really worked very hard to do that. I did the same thing with “People vs. George Lucas” –this idea that to make a film that is accessible to Star Wars fans and non-Star Wars fans.
Thanks Alexandre and congratulations on an outstanding film!
DOC OF THE DEAD – Jonathan London Interview
Jonathan London is a pop culture expert and host of Geekscape (www.Geekscape.net).
Tell us a bit about getting this film finished and premiering at SXSW
I grew up in Austin and still consider it my home so premiering at SXSW is a dream that I’ve had since I started coming to the festival twenty years ago. Alexandre has always known how important this festival is to me and called me first thing when we got accepted. From there it was just a big crunch to get everything finished in time, especially for our editor Chad and Alexandre. I’m proud of the work we all did to have ‘Doc of the Dead’ make it into SXSW. Now I can’t wait for the reaction from my hometown to some of the things we put in the movie!
What are your impressions of George Romero, John Russo, Russ Streiner, Tom Savini, Max Brooks, Bruce Campbell, Simin Pegg?
My biggest impression from any of the people we interviewed in the film is of Simon Pegg. In April of 2012, Alexandre asked me if I wanted to help him with a zombie culture documentary. I was interested but didn’t know if we could do it and make it better than The People VS George Lucas, which I love but Alexandre could just go and do something like that himself. I needed a way we could make the movie even bigger for Alexandre and I.
I had just had Simon Pegg as a guest on Geekscape and had become friends with him. I quickly wrote Simon a message asking if he’d come over to my house for an interview and to be in the spiritual follow up to The People VS George Lucas, which he was a fan of. Oh, and it was about zombies! He replied almost instantly and in a week he was at my house filming his interview… and the first interview for ‘Doc of the Dead’! My wife ended up in a shot in the film and Alexandre broke one of our chairs! It was a good day!
Without Simon, I don’t know think the movie would have been nearly the same. He’s just very generous and truly loves talking about zombies and Star Wars and everything we care about! Alexandre and I decided from the start that all of the interview subjects in the film had to be heavy hitters so that it would be the best zombie documentary ever made. Simon’s involvement from the start set the tone for that and I can’t say enough nice things about him.
Are there any homages/remakes/sequels to NOTLD that you like?
Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are the great ones!
How do you feel about the varied definitions of what makes a zombie a zombie (Romero, Boyle, O’Bannon etc)– Dead/Virus/Voodoo/Supernatural
My zombies are pretty by the book. Otherwise it becomes a mummy (curse), or summoned dead coprse (supernatural) or doesn’t have to be dead (Voodoo). It’s a flesh eating, reanimated corpse brought back to life by a radiological or viral infection! And you have to destroy the brain to re-kill them!
What is your opinion on fast or slow zombies?
Slow all the way! Come on now!
What was the most fun/craziest thing that happened making the making of your documentary?
Um… none of the serious preppers and survivalists I talked to in the film were willing to drink their pee after putting it through a filter. That’s a survival feature that some of these filters advertised! And it’s a real survival situation! You might have to do that one day! But none of them would do it! So… well, let’s just say watch ‘Doc of the Dead’ and know that I’m tougher than any of them.
Sure! But I learned that if you drink your filtered pee upside down while burping the alphabet the hiccups will go away.
Favorite zombie movie?
The original Night of the Living Dead. I don’t want to sound like I’m not trying! I’ve seen a lot of them (including the weird or offensive stuff like Retardead). But it really is one of the best movies ever made!
Favorite zombie movie moment?
The garden trowel basement scene in Night of the Living Dead, when the daughter turns on her mom and dad. It’s probably one of the most popular choices but that’s because it’s one of the best scenes in any horror movie.
Any favorite zombie games?
Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 are the best zombie games out there! Most zombie games are just kill sprees but those games really nailed the cooperative aspect of survival! You have to work together as a team to make it to the end of the stages… or not! Sometimes it is fun to just leave people behind. I first met Walking Dead show runner Scott Gimple while playing Left 4 Dead 2 online with friends. When he got the job writing on Walking Dead I thought it made perfect sense!
That being said, the scariest zombie game I’ve ever played is ZombieU. It’s the hardest and most atmospheric of all the zombie games (and I’ve played almost all of them). It gets overlooked a lot but I think that one is right there with the Left 4 Dead games.
Finally, Telltale Games’ episodic Walking Dead game is the best version of The Walking Dead in any medium! And I don’t say that lightly! I’ve read every issue of the comic series from the start and have watched all of the TV episodes! But by forcing you to make all of the hard decisions, and with those decisions having long, permanent impacts on the entire story, they’ve created the most engrossing story in The Walking Dead world. It’s incredible. My wife and I play it together and sometimes have to just give up and flip a coin to make some of those decisions. It’s that stressful!
What are your views on Survivalists/Preppers?
I think a lot of them approach survival and prepping from a well intentioned place but are painted to look like crazy extremists living on the outskirts. I met and spent time with a lot of them while shooting our segments for the film and it changed my view completely. Most of them are just worried about keeping their families safe, especially in light of recent events like Hurricane Katrina, 9-11 and the 2011 tsunami in Japan. They definitely got me thinking about my own family’s welfare and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy more than a few things from some of them after the interviews!
Now, did I buy an underground bunker from Ron Hubbard, the bunker building guy I interviewed in the movie? I only want to buy one as a safe place to play video games without being bothered!
How will the zombie apocalypse come about?
A cannibalistic tribe that eats human brains will result in a protein fold that mutates into a Prion Disease like Mad Cow. It’s touched on a bit in ‘Doc of the Dead’ but we interviewed one of the leading neuroscientists in the world about this for the film and it’s real possibility! I don’t think I slept for a week after that interview. It didn’t help that he took a human brain out of his lab’s fridge and started poking and prodding it in front of me. I’m pretty happy with myself that I didn’t puke on camera. I’m pretty sure I’d be dead within 10 minutes of an actual outbreak. Something would make me puke and then I’d die. It almost happened in the film!
Thanks Jonathan and congratulations on an outstanding film!