Zombie films have been with us since 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE; they always offer us one sure-fire way to frighten, a battle against mindless, unstoppable blood thirsty monsters. There is no reason why these creatures want to kill us, they just do. Even if the reason is because they want to eat our brains, does that make them any easier to reason with? Zombies themselves seldom are interesting characters, but the world around them, the world that created them, and the world they create by their very existence is often very rich and compelling.
Consider The Walking Dead, the highly rated television series is less about the creatures in the title, and more about the last remnants of society that band together to survive. Ben Wagner attacked the Zombie genre in a similar manner with his film DEAD WITHIN, which makes its US Premiere on Thursday, September 4th in Austin, TX. The small budget indie follows a couple attempting to wait out the Zombie Apocalypse from inside a small cabin. Their marriage coming apart due to distrust and delusion, Kim and Mike have no one but each other. Everyday Mike leaves the cabin to forage for food, everyday Kim expects him never to return. She doesn’t even know what’s out there. But what’s out there knows where they are. It’s a psychological thriller as much as it is a horror film. I had a chance to speak with writer/director Ben Wagner just before he boarded a plane for Austin about his post-apocalyptic relationship drama.
“With all good SciFi and Horror, the construct, the gimmick, the conceit is usually just a metaphorical way of telling that story, sort of exaggerating and accentuating the elements of the story and heightening it,” Wagner says. So DEAD WITHIN began not with the artificial surrounding pieces, like the two people in a cabin setting, but instead, a desire to explore the distance that separates two people stuck together. “The elements of a zombie drama compliment the story we were trying to tell, which was this story about a toxic relationship that was falling apart that was being held together by extenuating circumstances,” he says, “in this situation, these people survived an apocalypse for six months, by boarding themselves up in a cabin, they are dependent on each other for survival.”
According to Wagner, the story of Dead Within is rooted in the characters and that was the driving element of what we see on screen. In fact, in my mind, it could be anything outside, it could be a pack of wolves, or aliens, but what the film needs is that Kim is trapped here, and Mike knows just a little bit more than she does about the outside world. This tiny bit of knowledge is enough to start driving them apart, even though it comes from a place of caring. Mike doesn’t want her to worry when he goes outside to look for food, so he doesn’t tell her the extent to which society has fallen apart. Unfortunately, she’s left with her own imagination and paranoia. It’s enough to slowly corrode their marriage. “These are two people that are going through the motions and sort of trapped in their relationship,” Wagner says, any problem they had in the past is clearly amplified under these circumstance. So, though this is clearly a zombie story, don’t expect scenes of heads chopped off with swords. “That’s really just the baseline, the architecture we used to give people something to grab on to,” the director acknowledges,
In fact, many of the influences on the script are not from zombie films at all. “People trapped in a cabin, you think of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD but that’s a very simple trope that people like to lean on,” Wagner says, “so I like to think that we got beyond the limitations of that because that’s sort of become a cliché.” He cites the 1963 Mario Bava film BLACK SABBATH starring Boris Karlov as a stronger source of inspiration. “Each of the three short stories in that anthology have their fingerprints all over this film,” he says; “there’s someone who harasses her over a telephone, she’s haunted because she stole jewelry by this spirit who keeps moving things around her room, the last scene is really about vampires, and there’s a father that gets infected and comes back in and the rest of the family has to question whether they can let the father back in.” The zombies of Dead Within, he describes as “mentally fit,” and having “their faculties about them” more like 28 DAYS LATER, but also drawn more from “the book I Am Legend, which is sort of the last survivors in a world taken over by vampires, and I think that had more of an influence.” Because the film is so contained, and rarely deals with the details of what actually happened, it was easy to keep from slipping into too many standard set pieces of a film with this setting. “I think that being driven more by the mood pieces and the tonal sort of suspense things were really more important than trying to fit it into any specific box of a zombie genre,” Wagner says.
The lack of knowledge of the extent and cause of the outbreak plays directly into the story of Dead Within. “Because we wanted it to be about paranoia and uncertainty, its intentionally ambiguous in the movie,” Wagner says, “we’re in a society where the infrastructure has broken down; there are a lot of unanswered questions.” In fact, with a working process that involved a great deal of improvisation, even the actors playing Kim and Mike didn’t fully understand what happened outside the cabin. “We don’t know the science of how it spreads, but they have hints and little pieces of information we gave them as actors to think about,” the director says, “so it ends up being a trial and error trying to discover what the rules actually are.” In crafting the actual ‘scientific effects’ of the infection, the team went right to what the story is about: “it was based on delusion, anger, really sort of the worst aspects of a personality, and going back to the idea of this toxic relationship,” he says, “sort of the poisonous parts of your personality that comes out when you are blindly angry at somebody.” These ‘symptoms’ became the ‘rules’ of the disease and help drive the story from tension to desperation.
Despite the characters not really understanding the epidemic, Wagner and his production team do know full well the world they’ve created, and its all available for enterprising viewers to discover. “We did this elaborate back-story, if you look online,” he says, “on a website that we created called wulffpost.com that sort of tracks what the political and government and authoritative response is to this outbreak.” The related materials include http://cinstracker.net, a time line for the disease, a conspiracry theorist website skullmonkey.guru, Kim’s blog http://kimpearc.com, Mike’s website http://mikejohnsonengineering.com, their wedding website http://kimmikegethitched.com, a tumbler for their baby http://kimpjohnson.tumblr.com, their friend Erika’s tumbler about her cabin http://erikacrowne.tumblr.com, and a website from the elusive doomsday prepper Ranger Mark http://rangermark.com, and of course Twitter accounts for the film and all the major characters. It’s a fantastically detailed world in which to get lost. “I’m of the school of thought that we’re not really filmmakers anymore, I think we’re story tellers,” Wagner says; “and there is a broad spectrum of tools that are available to us.”
Wagner believes that storytelling is an attempt to connect with an individual on a personal level. “You can’t evoke the exact emotion from everyone who experiences something,” he says, “but if you give people opportunities to explore a narrative on their own time, at their own pace and in their own way, you allow them to sort of play with the concept and build the story that they want around it.” The websites work on either side of the film, you can pour over them before watching, and then enjoy the insular and claustrophobic setting of what you see in the film, or you can head to them after watching the film, to get a larger picture of their world. “There is a lot of intentional ambiguity in the film,” the director says, “and then we give the allowance to people to sort of explore that world through the twitter accounts, through the facebook, though the videos, through the various characters and personas in the film that appear on these different forums, give people the opportunity to sort of build the narrative the way it works for them.” In fact, nothing on the websites actually refer to the events of the film, because according to the timeline of the outbreak, all has already been lost when the film begins. The blogs and twitter accounts are ‘frozen in time’ with Mike’s last twitter message declaring ‘MESSAGE NOT SENT.’ “It’s fun,” Wagner says, “I enjoy it. I don’t see this as some sort of cynical marketing thing. I see this as a way of expanding the story.”
All the peripherals not only give a great opportunity for viewers to invest in the story, but for the director to showcase some work that might not otherwise find a home. Dead Within was created using an inventive filming technique over a 72 hour period. Armed with their backstory and the first few scenes, the actors were isolated in the cabin and improvised the second act. Beats were pre-planned and partially scripted, with the actors only provided scripts as the story unfolded. After a two-day hiatus, the crew returned for four additional days of traditional production during which they shot missing scenes, reaction shots, and whatever was necessary to complete the story. Working in shifts, and recording almost 24 hours a day at times, the crew had total control of the location. They also ended up with about 100 hours of footage. “What you end up with, all this great footage, all this great story and ways to invest yourself into the journey of these characters, but truth be told,” Wagner admits, “you don’t need two and half hours of that story. The 45 minutes of additional footage that is strong wouldn’t make it a more compelling theatrical experience.” So the director decided to break it up, into five or six minute vignettes, and use it as webisodes. “In a different format, it does work,” he says.
But the webisodes and webpages and twitter feeds are not the only inventive way to experience the narrative. “When you go to make a smaller, intimate story,” Wagner acknowledges, “you don’t have the opportunity to explore some of the bigger parts of a zombie film, we don’t get see cities being torn apart, explosions, things like that.” These elements of the back-story, helping to define how this infection spread, how these characters got where they are, were “things that we couldn’t have shot in a way that was compelling in a way that really fit the sort of tone and style of the film.” So they made a comic book. Hiring a great artist, Alfonso Ruiz, the team created a short one-shot book that, according to Wagner “explores the arc of day zero of the infection, up to one of the key plot points of the movie, one that predates the start of the film.” As an inspiration for the comic, Wagner credited Alan Moore, who’s new film made its world premiere at London’s FrightFest with Dead With, “we used the format to the best of its ability. We didn’t make a comic book that should be a film, we made a comic book that should be a comic book that compliments a film that should be a film.”
Ben Wagner’s DEAD WITHIN arrives on VOD and BluRay from Millennium Entertainment on September 9th. Those lucky enough to live in Austin TX, can get a signed copy of the prequel comic at the US Premiere on September 4th, sponsored by OTHER WORLDS AUSTIN, a SciFi Film Festival making its debut in December of this year.