In front of me are three heavy-duty military vehicles, 20 military personnel and 40 assorted zombies. In front of that, stand five armed soldiers holding machine-guns with three torchlights strapped to the barrels. The guns point directly at me. Yes, I’m a zombie, on the set of new British horror-comedy ‘Shaun of the Dead’, and I’m about to be riddled with machine-gun fire.
Casting Calls – March 2003 I first hear about the film in March 2003. Open-casting calls are announced for the new film project from the team behind TV’s cult-comedy ‘Spaced’ (Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg). Describing the film as a “romantic zombie comedy”, the call is for ‘an inordinate number of willing subjects to play legions of the living dead’.
Now, I’ve always harboured a guilty desire to lurch, shuffle, gnaw and be shot to bits as a zombie, so this, I knew, was my chance. I apply straight away, and amazingly receive a call a few days later, calling me in for auditions at Ealing Studios.
Auditions - April 2003 After two weeks of incessant zombie-movie watching and practise zombie-shuffles later, I arrive at the studios with around 20 other ‘wanna(zom)bees’, a mixture of Spaced fans (Spaced Cadets), actors, musicians and horror film buffs. We are numbered, filed and photographed. I am immediately envious of the guy who has turned up in full biker leathers and helmet.
We are taken through to one of the studios, where Producer Nira Park welcomes us and explains what they are looking for; a slow, shuffling (brain-dead) traditional zombie. Great news, I think to myself, I can do ‘Brain Dead’. We are each filmed individually for 30 seconds, before a five-minute ‘zombie free-for-all’ where we wander around freely, moaning, groaning, bumping into each other and falling over. It feels like a night at Ministry and is almost a shame when Nira calls a halt to the zombie stomp with a thank you and a “we’ll let you know shortly”.
A couple of weeks later, and I find out I made the grade. Yes! I’ve been selected to help out as a ‘background zombie’ for four days on location at New Cross during June. Not as glamorous as I’d hoped for my movie debut, but good enough for me.
Filming Zombie Siege (New Cross) - June 2003 I arrive early at New Cross on a sunny Sunday morning in June with over 100 extras (about 25 ‘professionals’ and 75 ‘volunteers’) and we descend on Base Camp Zombie eager for blood and gore action. The mammoth task of dressing and make-up begins. As most zombies try to get good costumes or the best make-up, it takes 5-6 hours before everyone is suitably ‘messy’. Some ‘featured zombies’ received contact lenses, much to the envy of us lesser ‘backgrounds’. One zombie extra is covered in body-piercings with self-stapled metal all over his forearms, whilst one girl tells us she already has zombie experience from 28 Days Later. Both get contact lenses.
We are escorted across the road to the location, a pub in the heart of Millwall F.C. territory. Assistants decorate us around the s et, shuffling us here and there until satisfied. The area is littered with various body parts, a severed leg, a torso, and lots of intestines. A few buckets of blood are poured over the streets for added effect.
Finally, we are ready to shoot the scene where the main cast (Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis, Penelope Wilton) attempt to bypass the hordes of undead as we stand in the way between them and the safety of their local pub, The Winchester. Their plan is to impersonate the zombies, hoping to walk through unnoticed.
The complicated shot takes all afternoon, and with each consecutive take, the zombie army edge closer to the camera, all of us trying distinctive approaches to being noticed and seen on screen. A few hours of shuffling and groaning later, we are finished and return to Base Camp Zombie for make-up removal.
Bright sunny weather on the second day means we hang around at Base Camp Zombie, and get told off for scaring passers-by. One woman is reportedly so shocked she needs a driven escort home. The production team finally catch onto us, and ban us from going outside whilst wearing make-up without an escort.
Eventually, we are taken to the location for the last two shots of the day, including a sweeping crane shot revealing all 100 zombies standing in the street. As the crew set up, some eggs hit the floor near the cast. The culprits are found, a few local kids who are appeased only when caked in blood and brains and given quick lessons in zombie etiquette before joining the ranks of the living dead.
By the time the two night shoots come around, the locals have grown accustomed to the gore and watch happily from their windows as we wander outside the pub. The (film) army turn up to try and restore some order, and we play ‘zombies and soldiers’ all night (a few zombies are killed! Hooray! - Not me! Boo!) until the morning light brings filming to an end. New Cross wraps and the sun rising over the dawn of the dead of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is a fantastic sight. Luckily, I’m involved in the interior shots of the zombie siege at Ealing Studios, so my hopes of squeezing in a death scene are not yet dashed.
Filming Zombie Siege (Ealing Studios) - July 2003 Arriving at Ealing I sign in as ‘zombie’, and confidently head for costume and make-up. The vibe is more relaxed in the studios, and the cast and crew are extremely patient and generous with us. Three days of silhouette action (waving hands at the windows) later, the zombie siege begins. One zombie manages to break through the broken pub window. There is a blast of shotgun fire. Bang! Her head explodes, and she drops down, blood splattering the curtains and other zombies nearby.
The floodgates open. All hands are on deck for the final push, and 50 or so zombies clamour for access, attacking three doors and two smashed windows. Everyone jostles for space as ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ zombies bicker, fighting to get to a part of the set where they can be seen and kept on for another day for continuity. It all makes it look like we are genuinely on a blood-rage, but it’s for fame not brains.
Over the next three days we witness and participate in endless stunts and splatter action, as gallons of blood is required on stage. The list of ‘to-be-killed’ zombies changes daily, and all zombie gossip is about ‘who is going to get it next’. Like everyone else set, I am desperate to be dispatched.
All too quickly it is the last day of zombie filming. There are a few more close-quarter attacks, three final headshot blasts, before a last sound recording of our collective zombie bloodlust moans. Director Edgar conducts us, from low groans to high-pitched frenzied gasps, and we rush him, smothering him with our bloody hands.
And then it’s all over - we’re wrapped. There is a huge thank you from cast and crew for our efforts, we remove our zombie make-up for the last time, and head to the nearest pub with the crew for a final swansong to a fantastically unique experience.
Five months later, after weeks of post-zombie blues, I receive another call from the SOTD production team. They have received extra funds for more zombie-shooting scenes. I am asked if I would I like to return for one more day filming to be used in a scene where several zombies are shot. Err, would I?
Pick-ups (Shepperton Studios) - December 2003 There is a renewed enthusiasm at Shepperton Studios as many old faces return for the final day of filming. We are used in a few background zombie scenes before the SFX team prepare for the final scene by fitting me up with a squib jacket. I find a denim jacket three squibs on the back that fits, and the stunt guys approve.
The last two scenes to be filmed are the final two group machine-gun shots. I am in the first group with three others. We rehearse our routine; the zombie in front of me will receive a headshot, splattering me with his brains, while the other two zombies off to my right are also to receive several body blasts. Finally, made it as a zombie who gets killed, Ma! You must be so proud.
The smoke machines pump out swirling mists of atmospheric fog and the whole stage is deathly quiet. After an age of set-up (lights, camera, explosives) we are finally ready to shoot. The last hour’s work depends on this one moment. The First A.D. shouts for "Background Action!” I shut my eyes, murmur and gently sway in the manner accustomed to ‘being a zombie’. “3! 2! 1!”
My heart stops. “Action!“
The guns fire (deafening noise) and I receive a face full of brain and blood splatter from the zombie in front of me. I jerk my body to the right, as a squib explodes on my right shoulder, jerk to the left, as the second fires. One more squib, then I carry on juddering like a manic scarecrow with a cattle prod up his arse. As the guns stop firing I lose my balance. Blindly I step forward, tread on the stunt guy’s face, and collapse knee-first, completely missing the crash mat. I open my eyes.
It has only been a second, and my back feels wet with blood. The stunt team remove my jacket to show three fist-sized holes in the back. Pumped with adrenaline, I squeeze into the background on set and watch the final five zombies (including a couple of cameos) rehearse for the final shot of the film. On ‘Action’, the machine guns let rip. It genuinely looks like they’re being cut to pieces, as squibs spurt blood all over the studio and the zombies fall in a crumpled heap.
It’s a wrap, and a round of applause on set for both Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who have given everything for this film. We are herded back to wardrobe and make-up to de-rig, life as a zombie officially ends and we board the bus to return to reality.
It was a fantastic experience for all concerned, and come the release of the film, over 400 volunteer extras will be able to able to point to a zombie on screen and say ‘That’s Me!’ And that’s the magic of movies.
Shaun of the Dead is at a cinema near you from 9th April.