Who knew that to begin to truly appreciate all that makes life great, I first had to know what it is like to be dead?
It’s the first week of filming. Today is day one of a shooting schedule which will last five weekends, an entire Saturday devoted each week for a student film that the producers take way too seriously. The filming process begins with a Dunkin run and ends with my death. Don’t fret. I’m not writing this from beyond the grave. I am very much alive. The film is called “Z Movie”, and I’ve been cast as a member of the living dead, commercially known as a zombie.
I arrive on set, an abandoned textile mill left over from the industrial age. You could house a giant in here with plenty of head room. A weather worn roof lets down the occasional shaft of light, illuminating the rotten floorboards and rusted conveyor belts below. Mice have frozen to death, and litter the ground like wads of chewed gum. The air is so cold, in fact, that the water in the only working toilet is solid ice. It’s the perfect setting for zombie apocalypse, but not the most luxurious of sites for a winter film shoot.
The cast is cold, irritable, but still excited to be here. Zombies don’t have much to say, so mine is a non-speaking role. The living, however, have very much to say. The director and screen writer are at odds. The script is yet to be wholly finished, and there is debate about how well the words will translate to the screen. They tell us we’ll have to improvise. I make my way over to the make-up artist so I can be zombified.
As it turns out, for this scene, I am off-camera. The other zombies and I are on the back end of a ply board wall, rabid and hungry for the flesh of the actors on the other side. Confined to moaning, groaning, and deep guttural shrieks, I am out of my element. Zombies don’t have words with which to communicate. In fact, they don’t communicate at all. Zombies never speak to one another. If they had feelings, they would probably be numbingly lonely. In contrast, people use their words frequently. The cast voices their complaints about the weather and poor lighting. The crew say they will take our notes into consideration for next time, and we take them at their word.
Last week there was no food provided on set. The student producers let that one slip. This week, to remedy the situation, there are donut holes and Papa Gino’s pizza. Hunger is one area where the living and the dead do not differ. The only difference is in desire. Humans eat out of necessity, but they desire much more out of life. They are complex beings, they strive for an A grade on their film projects, they try to connect with one another, and they learn from their mistakes.
Zombies do only as instinct commands, consuming to stay alive. Today the first character falls at my hands, and all his desires, his plans, go out like a shattered lightbulb, breaking like his skull against the concrete. I look at the corn syrup blood on my hands, and wonder who I was before I turned. What dreams did I dream, what adventures did I crave?
There isn’t much time for me to wonder, because as soon as the director shouts, “Cut”, I get my makeup touched up, cold blood splatter painted down my chest, and I must kill all over again. I pretend to bite into this poor extra’s neck until I lose count, and finally the director is satisfied with what the camera has captured. I discover a zombie’s life is much like an actor’s in that respect, mindless repetition.
Today’s scene brings us to the upper level of the factory. I gingerly tip-toe up the steps. There are no working lights on this level. The beam of my phone’s flashlight guides me. The steps are covered in chunks of plaster from the walls that have long given way, revealing wire mesh behind. White flakes pepper the air and stick to my eye lashes. Chances are I am breathing in pure asbestos, but these are the kind of chances you take for a student film. Health and safety goes out the window, and the art takes priority. The fake blood on my costume drips, running down my arm, staining the railing red. Whoever ultimately buys, refurbishes, or destroys this old building, will probably think this was a serial killer’s hideout.
The stairs ascend into a dark shadow. I can’t make out anything above. I remind myself I am not under contract. I can leave if I want to, but the adventurer in me is dying to know what waits in the darkness. Funny that I am playing the monster, and what I fear lurking in the blackness is probably myself. Zombies have little to fear, people are not so lucky.
I reach the top where a couple broken windows illuminate the space. A backless chair and a few wooden boxes sit in a circle, as if a fire once burned in between them. In the furthest corner of the room a pile of newspaper is strewn on the floor and the acrid smell of urine emanates ever so slightly from the pages. I can only assume this was once a home for squatters.
Pretending to be a zombie puts my nerves on edge, but at least I have company. When the camera stops rolling, my nightmares dissipate. At the wrap of a film day, I scrub off my makeup, wash away the fake blood, and sit down to Netflix and a cup of tea. The homeless do not have such luxury. For them, the nightmare keeps on living. I couldn’t imagine being here, in this dark, crumbling, catacomb-like cell, and surviving on my own. A zombie never worries about such things, but loneliness can be the living’s greatest fear.
The film has reached its climax. The brother of the female lead has been bitten. He awakens, zombified, and turns on the other survivors. The actors stage a hit to the head with a pipe, and he falls dead. The girl who plays the surviving sister watches in horror as she loses her last remaining tie to her old life, her only family. Her performance is convincing. Her tears seem real to me, and I can’t keep the quiver in my lip still.
Zombies are one of the most notoriously difficult monsters to deal with, because they look like us, our family, our friends. Even as they bear down on you, fangs bared, you hesitate before delivering the killing blow to the head. Zombies do not cry when someone they once knew dies, they don’t even recognize them. Their impulse is only to consume. They know no friend or foe, only hunger. The living are more complicated. They are weak because they fear death, but they can be strong when it comes to protecting those they love. Family turns them into fighters.
The term “living dead” is an oxymoron. Here, living means animated, but that is not the same thing as life. To live means much more than to move. Zombies lack many characteristics of the living. They cannot speak, they cannot dream, they do not have friends, they can’t remember family, and above all they do not know love.
Today is the last day of filming, and it is the day I die all over again. The mood on set is melancholy. The two leads, who play a couple in the film, are an actual couple in real life. In this scene, the pair express their pain at being the only survivors left standing. Yet, they still feel comfort in each other, embracing as zombies beat at the door. It is an intimate exchange, and a stirring performance, their true feelings shining through. Now I know, love is what keeps the living going.
The pair decide to escape the factory at last, but first they will have to go through me. I stand outside, in the twilight, and at the first sign of their approach I charge. Now is my moment to shine, to steal the show, to make my mark in monster movie history. I barrel down on the only survivors, blood stained, and rabid. I am so close to victory that I can taste their flesh on my teeth, when a blow to the head from a shovel puts an end to all that.
The couple escapes to safety, and the movie is over. We call it a wrap. Lighting kits are snapped shut, scripts shuffled away into folders, baby wipes taken to every surface, and every set piece strapped into the back of the pick-up truck.
I drive myself home, take a long, warm shower, and look in the mirror. It is almost strange to see myself now, red in my cheeks, and blue in my veins. I throw on a graphic-tee, and comfortable blue jeans, and grab my car keys off the counter. I open the front door and step out into the world, ready to re-join the living.