It’s usually out of the ashes of failure and disappointment that the future arises, which is exactly the story behind the making of Dead/Undead, a genre flick that trades on the rich history of the horror film. Co-directed by four guys from the Royal Oak area, the locally made indie was conceived by Daniel Casey and Mark Thomas Elliott on a trip up North after a local television show the pair was working on folded when funding disappeared.
“We all were broke, so Mark and I took a weekend trip to clear our minds. We didn’t want to work in TV anyhow — we want to do film. The deal was to take whatever money we had left over [from the show] and scrounge together what we could and make something of it,” says Casey, who attends the College for Creative Studies. The two came up with an outline of a story and began enlisting friends (including co-directors Richard Ferrando and Brett Pierce) and family to help, which eventually brought them to Fox Valade.
Valade, a local actor-slacker-philosopher king (although he insists that last title belongs to co-star Thomas Galasso), who was in the late-’90s band 57 Waltz, agreed to be in the film only if he could write the script.
“I was their hired gun. I just didn’t get paid,” Valade jokes. “I’m living the rock-star and movie-star life without the actual ‘star’ part.”
It took him two drafts to produce a shootable script, which isn’t bad considering he had to contend with four directors, two producers and a Wiccan technical advisor. “They wanted more blood, more killing,” he says.
But Valade inserted his wit into the material he was writing after realizing that it was well-nigh impossible to make a low-budget horror movie without having a “self-awareness,” as Casey terms it. “I said, ‘OK, I’ve got a bunch of stereotypical characters — I have to make fun of them.’ It turned out a little bit of a half-and-half thing,” says Valade.
“The whole time I felt like I was writing it for [the directors], but in the course of writing it for them, I started writing it for me. I like
to think the movie has comedic elements. It wasn’t originally supposed to be funny. That’s the only way I could make it through it.”
The movie that Casey, Valade and company ended up making is something of a miracle befitting its gestation. The actors and crew shot the entire film in four days up at a private cottage and the surrounding woods in Onaway, about four hours north of Detroit. After all was said and done, Casey figures that a movie that on paper should have cost $30,000 actually cost about $2,000 to make. Everyone involved deferred payment for a piece of the back end; the directors’ parents cooked and handled craft service, and Casey borrowed an RV from his dad.
“The idea of shooting in four days is ludicrous,” Casey says, but somehow he and his co-directors were able to make it work. “We had four directors out of necessity. That came out of wanting to break up the production into four units because four days to shoot doesn’t allow much time. A lot of the preproduction that went into it was just making sure we weren’t going to shoot four different movies.”
Each director shot a different slate of scenes simultaneously, sending the actors hustling back and forth through the woods to the different Dead/Undead sets. And though the movie the four shot isn’t completely cohesive and at times is a bit hard to follow, that’s a small price to pay for such a cheaply made film that looks surprisingly professional and stylistically coherent.
Dead/Undead uses typical horror-comedy conventions and mores to its advantage, for the most part, as it follows four rich juvenile delinquents and three adult supervisors (who include a cheesy camp director with a dark secret and a ditzy coed who, of course, spends most of the movie running around in her underwear). The group spends a petrified evening battling and hiding from a monster called the Sorcalak, who is either a vampire or a zombie or some other nasty creature that returns bigger and stronger each time it’s destroyed.
Dead/Undead screened last fall at the Main Art Theatre in a sold-out showing, and the producers and directors took the film to Sundance in January on the advice of Film Threat’s (and native Detroiter) Chris Gore. They haven’t sold the movie yet (although negotiations are rumored), but Valade, Casey and all of the Dead/Undead promotional material agree on one thing above all else: You know you’re on the right track when Michigan’s patron saint of horror, Bruce Campbell, says your movie, “didn’t suck as much as I thought it would.”
Dead/Undead shows at 7 and 9 p.m. at the Main Art Theater (118 N. Main, Royal Oak) on Wednesday, April 30. Tickets are available at Thomas Video (122 S. Main, Clawson). Call 248-280-2833.Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org