I know that I try to come across as professional as possible when it comes to discussing horror films (that’s not really all that true), but sometimes I end up fucking things up. As some of you might know, I live in Chicago, which isn’t really the epicenter of the film industry. When I’m scheduling interviews, I always have to convert from East Coast time when filmmakers are in New York or to West Coast time when people are in Los Angeles. In the case of Matthias Hoene, director of Cockneys vs. Zombies, my conversion was the latter. Let’s try this little experiment: if you were scheduled to do something at 9:45AM on West Coast time, what time would that be in Chicago? Well, I woke up earlier than I normally do to wake up at 7:45AM because I am a huge fucking idiot and don’t know how to do time or know when to do addition instead of subtraction. When I finally got in touch with Matthias, at the correct time, he politely asked if I was located in Los Angeles, to which I replied with the story you just read. Despite knowing how dumb I was right up front, Matthias didn’t hang up and continued to talk to me about his film about a heist gone wrong and pitting a bunch of arrogant Englishmen against the living dead in his horror-comedy hybrid.
WolfMan: The marketing campaign around Cockneys vs. Zombies, especially to try to market it towards American audiences, is describing the film as Shaun of the Dead meets a Guy Ritchie film. I can see how that’s helpful, at least marketing wise, but I found the directing style and the humor to be different from those films. What did you feel were your stronger comedic influences or horror influences?
Matthias Hoene: Of course I don’t have any influence on how it’s marketed, and marketing departments love the big, British horror comedy and the big British gangster films, so if you put that on the poster, it makes it easy for marketing, but you’re right, they weren’t really influenced as such. Really what made me want to make this film was a few different factors. One of those factors happened in nineteen eighty something when I was in school and a friend of mine gave me a grubby VHS copy of a film that had been ten times copied called “Dead Alive” by Peter Jackson, or Braindead as it was called in Europe. It was illegal at the time, it was literally outlawed and banned where I grew up and you couldn’t buy it anywhere. I watched it late at night, after my parents had gone to bed, secretly in the living room, and it really blew my mind. Not only was it super-mega-gory, but it was really funny as well. Good characters and animatronics, the stop-motion with the rat monkey. To me, that was my introduction to horror comedy and “zombie comedy”, really. It’s still one of my favorite horror comedies, and of course Peter Jackson has done a couple of bigger films since, I believe. From that, I started watching things like Evil Dead 2 and became a big Sam Raimi fan. On the horror side, those were kind of my big inspirations, horror comedies of the 80’s. In terms of the humor, the one film I always reference was Withnail & I, which is sort of a small, British comedy, but I don’t know if anyone knows it on this side of the pond. It’s this really good, terrific little film. The comedy is very unforced and it just comes from the characters doing what they do normally, but it’s hilarious. Those were the two cornerstones in terms of the tone, and also, I was working with a couple of Cockney actors on a webseries a few years ago, and they only had a tiny part in the script, but they were so funny with their attitude. I don’t know if you’ve met a Cockney, but Cockneys never show fear, they walk around with this swagger, this spring in their step, always joking, never be phased by anything, whatever life throws at them they greet with a good sense of humor or a shotgun in their hand saying (in a Cockney accent) “Aight, ‘andsome,” cock the shotgun, “‘ave sum a this!” BANG! They defend their turf against anyone who tries to invade it, whether it be the Zulus or the cops. They’ve never faced off against a supernatural enemy, which is such an interesting concept. Here you have a protagonist, sort of like Ash in Evil Dead 2, that takes anything. Okay, zombies, well let’s deal with it. That’s what I liked about the concept, these Cockneys and these zombies and let’s make it a big romp. If you go back to the references, Shaun of the Dead is amazing, but it’s a romantic comedy with zombies, and I felt this was more of an adventure movie. A Cockney adventure with zombies. A zom-venture.
WM: One of those bigger differences from those marketing comparisons was that your film had a lot more physical comedy than those films, and especially now that you mention Dead Alive being one of the influences, I notice the scene that paid homage to Dead Alive in how they handle a zombified toddler. Now it seems completely obvious.
MH: Very much it’s inspired by the baby scene in Dead Alive. You kick the baby and then it bounces off a protective children’s charity poster, which is very short so some people might miss it. I had a lot of pressure to cut that scene, by the financiers and whatnot, and I kept saying we had to keep it, and of course it’s one of the funniest scenes to see with an audience. Everyone laughs, no one’s complained about it, as of yet. (laughs)
WM: Was there ever a time when you approached the film as a straight horror movie or had you always known it was going to be an action comedy?
MH: I always said to everyone that it’s a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean. I mean, in a very different way, but there are big characters and monsters and fun adventures. I didn’t try to make it really scary. In retrospect, I was very worried about the comedy. Horror-comedy is one of the most difficult genres, because you have those beats that are real and genuine drama that you want people to feel truthfully about, then you have the comedy beats and the action beats and the scary beats. It changes a lot, you know? With a direct thriller, it’s sort of :”We’re tense…we’re tense…we’re still tense.” It’s much easier, tonally, sometimes, but there are challenges to keep it tense for so long. With this film, I was worried that if I made the horror too scary that it would undermine the comedy, I suppose. I think I probably could’ve pushed it a bit more, it would’ve been an editing decision, to make the zombies a little bit scarier, but I wanted it to be a fun romp and a fun popcorn movie. I think I aimed for that. Also, with comedy, I try to never destroy the reality of the situation, I suppose, and not just make jokes for a joke’s sake. I tried to have every set piece organically come from the situation.
From left: Rasmus Hardiker, Alan Ford, and Honor Blackman
WM: You can stop me if I’m looking too much into it, but one thing that stood out about your film was that it featured a group of geriatrics as protagonists. It’s funny to see a group of old folks in an old folks’ home and the difficulty of “outrunning” the equally slow zombies. With something like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and having zombies in a mall, it was reflective of the consumerist culture of that time. Was it a conscious decision to empower the elderly, considering how many cultures similarly view the elderly a mindless, former humans whose bodies are now decaying?
MH: Absolutely. There are a few elements here. When screenwriter James Moran and I were talking about how to make this film and how to earn its keep amongst other zombie films, since when we started there weren’t quite as many out there as there are now…and the decision to go with slow moving zombies was quite radical because everyone was doing fast at the time, since it was before The Walking Dead came out, we knew that we had to go with slow zombies. They’re the traditional zombies, but they’d also let us play out the comedy of the Cockneys as the zombies approach them and joke about them. I’ve lived in East London for 12 years now and I’ve seen it change from this old-fashioned, beautiful community full of Cockneys who have these amazing cafes serving jellied eels and mushy peas and really old pubs that are 150 years old. Some of those places have now been torn down and redeveloped into really bland high-rises as part of the Olympics. In a way, this is sort of a film showing the values of the Cockneys, which is looking after your family and defending your community, know your neighbor, and all of those sorts of things and how they’re sort of being destroyed and taken away. In a way, we symbolized that with the zombie outbreak. What better way to symbolize that than with a pension home being torn down? The people who’ve made this place what it is are now being relocated and not really cared about. I liked the idea of, even though the zombies are slow, the pensioners in their wheelchairs are even slower. It was something I’d never seen before in a zombie film. We both just loved the idea of doing that. And of course Alan Ford was someone we wanted to have in this film anyway, so we wrote him this big heroic arc and surrounded him with this group of gun-toting pensioners. I loved the idea of seeing these old guys with their big mouths and big attitudes and big guns against zombies to make it fun, to make it something different. The older actors LOVED that they had these action-adventure scenes where they’re all together and fighting zombies. Honor Blackman, who played Pussy Galore, was really up for it. Everyone was really up for it because many screenplays only have one role for an older person, so they were excited to be working together. I remember Tony Selby saying, “Matthias, I haven’t worked with Dudley (Sutton) since 1972!” I hadn’t even been born then. They all had a great time working together.
WM: The Cockneys have fought zombies, do we see the Cockneys battling any other supernatural beings? Werewolves? Vampires? Or are zombies the funniest opponents?
MH: Well I love zombies because zombies are inherently funny. Even things like World War Z, when it comes to the end and everyone starts laughing about how these zombies are, maybe not planned. People ask me about a sequel, but in a way, I kind of feel like we put all of our love into this film, this quirky little gem, and I don’t know if I want to spoil that by doing a sequel.