I have people very close to me who have been diagnosed both as schizophrenic and bipolar. Having to balance those rather toxic delusions with the overwhelming positive feelings I have for them has opened the door to some pretty dark questions over the years.
And now a filmmaker, I find myself drawn to stories with characters struggling to make sense of experiences that are outside of the norms or reality, but still steadfastly rooted in it.
The backbone of Pretty Dead is built around one of these kinds of questions. In a nut shell: What a man might do if the woman he loved with all his heart turned into a monster against her will right before his eyes. My wife, who is not at all mentally ill, nor a zombie of any kind, God bless her, enjoys the implications inherent in the fact that I wrote the script for Pretty Dead within months of proposing to her and shot the film within months of the wedding itself.
But isn’t that what filmmaking is? Some kind of bizarre collaborative public therapy? Isn’t that why we like it so much?
For the record, Joe Cook, the producer, and I had been developing the concept of a “scientifically plausible” zombie for almost a year before we decided that we were going to make that concept into a film and longer still before we decided I would write the script.
But I have to admit that as we got into the production of the film, it was that dark question, not the scientific plausibility that was the most fun to play with. Though, isn’t there something to be said for the fact that cordyceps fungi actually exists? That it does actually manipulate the behavior of its hosts?
When Joe showed me a clip from the BBC show Planet Earth where an ant is forced to climb up a beanstalk after being infected by a mind-controlling cordycepts fungus and said the words: “scientifically plausible zombies,” it like creative lightning struck us.
The mission was clear: To create a zombie film like nothing we’d ever seen before – one that asked the question — what would really happen if you just woke up one day and had all the symptoms of being a zombie.
I can still remember how excited Joe was when he found it Planet Earth clip on YouTube – there was literally a comment stating somebody should make it into movie, not to mention hundreds of comments about how scary it would be if the fungus evolved to attack humans.
Well, Pretty Dead is for those 1.3 million plus viewers of that BBC clip on YouTube and for everybody else out there who has seen the modern concept of zombies beaten into the ground again and again – don’t get me wrong, there have been some great zombie movies since Dawn of the Dead for sure, including Zack Synder’s remake of it, but don’t you think it’s time to raise the stakes a little
I’ve always kind of believed that man’s worst enemy is his (or her) intellect. If the classic Romero films were commentaries on the out of control consumerism of the 70s and 80s or the ineffectual nature of our government to respond to a crisis, or whatever the critical studies students are claiming these days, then I’d like to think Pretty Dead could be looked at as a commentary on mankind’s collective ability to rationalize the ridiculous, the dangerous, and the immoral in lieu of doing something that would actually solve the problem – which for me is a whole other subtext of a horror story buried deep in the subtext of this one.
We wanted to capture realism of that ant climbing the beanstalk at the will of the fungus in its brain (and we wanted to keep costs manageable), which is how we decided to do the film in a mock documentary style as if all the footage had been “found.”
But, for the most part I’ve always hated found footage horror movies because I’ve never been able to accept that a real person stops to turn on a camera when they are faced with their worst nightmare.
So for us, for the story to work, the filmmaking and filmmaker’s would have to stay innocuously on the sidelines.
This concept proved to be a great opportunity creatively. Unlike films such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity where the camera, filmmakers and the filming are the reason the story is being told, Pretty Dead had to actually look like it was put together from literal “found footage.” Yet it still had to have the kind of story telling, production value and cinematic style an audience would recognize as a “movie.”
I took this “no filmmakers allowed” concept to the extreme when it came to integrating the shot design, composition and visual style into each individual character’s performance. Because I would not allow traditional coverage, every shot had to say something specific and be compelling enough to keep the audience involved without cutting to a new shot and I think this results in a profound sense of tension being maintained throughout the film. It feels real, looks real and sounds real at all times.
The chance to tell this remarkably disturbing and realistic zombie story from such truly unique point of view, felt like the perfect opportunity to for my directorial debut.
This isn’t the first film to “document” its protagonist’s transformation into a zombie and I am sure it will not be the last, but what I hope really stands out about Pretty Dead, is the real world response to Regina’s situation and the incorporation of the Cotard’s Syndrome – also known as “Walking Corpse Syndrome,” which is a real psychological disorder in which the patient believes they are dead. The mental illness side of the equation is one of the best things about the film, in my opinion. And certainly what makes the story such a personal and important one for me.
In fact, I am hoping there are people out there who will be surprised to hear Pretty Dead called a zombie movie at all; people, who even as the last frame of picture fades away and the lights come back up, believe the story was about a girl with a weird mental disorder who does horrible things to prove to herself that her delusions that she is in fact dead are not delusions at all. Because for me, it will always be the dark questions from the mental illness side of the story, not the fact that she turns out to be a zombie in the end, that really matters.
Of course showing the tragic death of “patient zero” and the inciting incident of what I think could be the beginning of one of the most brutal depictions of the coming zombie apocalypse is pretty awesome too.
Yet of all the things in the film that I am proud of, it’s the fact that, through Pretty Dead, Joe and I found a way to do justice to the unique experience of loving and accepting the people in their lives who do terrible things to the people who care about them the most, but are wholly incapable of controlling their actions no matter how badly they want to do the right thing, that resonates with me the most.
– Benjamin Wilkins