Alexandre O. Philippe and Tom Savini talks Doc of the Dead, Zombies, and what really scares them [INTERVIEW] [SXSW ’14]

There isn’t any aspect of popular culture that hasn’t been infiltrated by zombies, leading to both positive and negative consequences. Seeing a rise in interesting zombie movies, TV shows, and books is great, but along with those come awful zombie movies, TV shows, and books. Documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe managed to combine his love of filmmaking with his love of zombies and horror with the film Doc of the Dead, which serves as a great introduction to the history of zombie culture. Although some of the information presented might sound familiar to horror experts, I think Philippe did a great job of incorporating zombie experts, both past and present, and presented the most pivotal entries into zombie canon while also making the whole film fun. Alexandre Philippe and zombie expert/special effects legend Tom Savini attended South by Southwest to promote the film.

doc of the dead 2014 movie poster

WolfMan: I feel like your film covered a lot of bases–

Tom Savini: Everything you’ve always wanted to know about zombies but were afraid to ask.

WM: Or that no one would give me the time to answer. It really approached the subject from a lot of angles. What caused your infatuation with zombies?

Alexandre O. Philippe: I’ve been into zombies since I was a little kid. I would say I’ve been into horror since I was a kid. I love, love, love horror films. The past 12 years, I’ve been making documentary films. Very specifically documentary films that look at pop culture through a different lens. I believe in the importance of pop culture. It was just inevitable, at some point, that I would make a documentary about zombies because you can’t really turn on the TV anymore or open a magazine or newspaper or go down the street without seeing zombies.

TS: Especially if they keep running that Sprint commercial.

AP: Yesterday, I was walking down 5th street and there were just seven grey zombies walking around. It wasn’t a zombie walk or anything related to us or to anything going on at South by Southwest, it was just seven zombies walking down the street. Basically naked, just grey zombies, and it was cold.

TS: “Let’s be zombies today.” That’s what they were thinking. “Let’s be zombies today.” They could be anything.

WM: I saw some of those people on 6th street and it was late at night and they were near some “Jesus Saves” signs and I thought it was a new, aggressive campaign for the Christian church. Putting zombies in there.

TS: Well, Jesus was the first zombie.

WM: That’s exactly what I said! You and I are on the same page.

AP: At the Denver zombie walk, just a few months ago, where there were 17,000 zombies, and I saw 3 zombies dressed as Jesus.

TS: Well it wouldn’t be authentic unless he was wearing a crown of thorns. It would have to be after he died.

AP: Well they were.

zombie commercial Sprint

Sprint commercial featuring a zombie

WM: Okay good, the story checks out. The film wasn’t necessarily a celebration of zombies as much as you were documenting how zombie culture has permeated all aspects of our society. Do you guys see negative ramifications from zombies being so popular?

TS: Maybe the zombie preppers, the ones that believe we’re going to really have a zombie outbreak. You can’t be very bright to think that. I hate to say it, but these are the people who believe in wrestling, that wrestling is real. They’re the scary ones, to me. People in general, when they’re reduced to their lowest base, their instinctual things, are scarier to me. They’re stocking up on guns and who’s to say that if they believe that, a drunk walking up could, to them, be a zombie. BA-BLAM! “Well I thought it was a zombie!” Well, you’re going to an insane asylum, I’m afraid.

AP: To me, it’s a particular kind of zombie prepper that’s scary to me. You get the sense that they would love to see a zombie apocalypse happen. Now they can be the hero. There are people out there who secretly, or not so secretly, wish that something like this would happen.

TS: Well we show them how much fun it would be. In my Night of the Living Dead, we hung them upside-down and they were being shot by arrows and beating them up. It was target practice. I haven’t seen The Walking Dead episode where The Governor had a corral or something.

AP: The zombie movies that I love, or the moments in zombie movies that I love the most, are the ones where you start empathizing with the zombies. My favorite moment in The Walking Dead series, which, I’m a big fan of the comic and I think the comic is far stronger or goes places where a series won’t go, but the one moment that I still think is phenomenal is when, after the whole second season they are looking for Sophia and she finally walks out of a barn and is a zombie. Oh man, that just…it kills you. You know and they know that she no longer is this little girl, and yet it’s just so difficult to put her down.

TS: Well if you imagine it was your grandson or your niece or somebody else, how sad it would be to put them down.

AP: This notion that the zombie apocalypse would be fun because you’d be shooting people in the head because really they’re not people, they’re just zombies, to me it misses the point. It’s a terrifying thought. It’s an excuse for people to do horrible things to other people. Because there are no rules, it would be a world of anarchy and chaos.

TS: I wonder if George Zimmerman was a zombie enthusiast.

WM: Well he’s actually my next interview so I’ll ask him about that. I agree, I do feel like there is something in these people’s minds that think this will happen, not even just to have an excuse to commit violence, but I think people just enjoy the idea of a reset button on society.

TS: Yesterday we were talking about this. In a way we sort of envied them. If you’re involved in movies, let’s say, it’s because of some magic you felt when you saw a movie. You wanted to be involved as a movie maker or a filmmaker. What you don’t realize is that you destroy that magic forever by getting behind the scenes. I almost wish I could see a movie again through the eyes of somebody that is not tainted and believes what’s going on. The eyes of an eight year old child. A famous actor, I read an interview, in a grocery store he was attacked verbally because of a part that he played. They don’t make the distinction that he’s an actor, a working actor, and that he’s playing a part.

the walking dead sophia barn zombie

Sophia’s reveal on The Walking Dead

WM: Since you have worked behind the scenes for so long, when was the last time you saw a movie, could be horror or anything else, that you did get to experience that magic?

TS: Alien. Alien and The Exorcist. Two movies that scared the hell out of me where you didn’t get the chance to think about director’s choices or camera angles. Being raised a Catholic had a lot to do with it, because it’s in you somewhere. You’re brainwashed and it brought that out. Those two movies. It’s really difficult to see a movie, you have to see it eight times before you get to the story. Or you get stoned (laughs). You become a child, I feel, when you get stoned. Your focus narrows. Not only are you sitting there pretending that what you’re seeing is actually happening, but the people doing it are pretending that they’re doing it. There’s this bond, this agreement, that you have to make in your mindset to enjoy a movie.

WM: You generally go in wanting to enjoy it. You pay money to commit to it.

TS: Everyone’s pretending.

WM: A thing about the movie that I really enjoyed, is that I get to go to these conventions and talk to these people, Doc of the Dead gave you a sense of what it’s like to go to these conventions. You got to see some of the experts talk about subjects like slow zombie vs. fast zombies or whether zombies have to be dead or not. How did you go about compiling the people you chose to interview?

AP: It’s always a very organic process. This is what documentary filmmaking is really all about. We were really lucky, from the get-go, because Simon Pegg was our very first interview. Or next interview was with George Romero. We were in pretty good shape because we could go to anyone and say we had interviewed Simon Pegg and George Romero and they would want to participate. It really opened the doors to a lot of people. I don’t think there were too many people who I was really hoping to get or dying to get. You can always get more. For me, all of the icons that I wanted to get, including Mr. Savini, are in the film. I’m very thrilled about this. The one I would have been very interested to hear what he thought was Danny Boyle. He denies that he made a zombie, and Tom is with that. Tom says he didn’t make a zombie movie. I think he sort of made a zombie movie.

TS: They’re fucked up people. What is it, a chemical or a virus?

WM: A rage virus.

TS: Is that what it was? But by definition, then they are zombies.

AP: By certain definitions.

WM: There are people who argue that they’re still alive so they can’t be a zombie.

TS: The zombie ants are still alive, it’s just a parasite. The zombies in voodoo Haiti, the drug-induced state of mind, they’re still alive but they’re zombified. You meet people today and say, “That guy’s a fucking zombie.”

WM: And that’s another thing I thought was interesting. Was even Romero was saying he didn’t refer to them initially as zombies, he called them “Ghouls”. The rules change when people try to cite Night of the Living Dead.

TS: Ghouls are what, grave robbers, right? Like Boris Karloff when he played a ghoul.

WM: And you mentioned you wish you could watch a movie through an eight year old’s eyes–

TS: But not my daughter’s.

night of the living dead george romero ghouls zombies

The “ghouls” in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

WM: I couldn’t help but take it literally. I’m sure there have been situations where you’ve had to do special effects with kids.

TS: No, I avoid anything that involves kids. And people always say, “Well what about the two kids in Dawn of the Dead that you blew away with machine guns?” Well, that’s my niece and nephew so it’s okay.

WM: Maybe you had some pent-up aggression.

TS: I will not involve children in that stuff. I wouldn’t use eight year old’s eyes.

WM: Good to know. Maybe 12 or 13 year olds, as they’re entering puberty.

TS: Ehh, 18 or 19, something like that. I mention not my daughter because I took her to see Coppola’s Dracula, she wanted to see it eight times, and I’m sure there were people in the audience thinking “What the hell is he doing with that little girl?” And if you sat next to her, she’s saying things like, “Dad, is that human hair or yak hair? Is that gelatin or foam latex?” It’s like, shut up! Now I’m going to have to think about this stuff! She’s not a good example. Having grown up around effects.

WM: Before I came to the festival, I was thinking about whether or not it was a good thing that people were making zombie movies with such low budgets that can’t afford these larger scale movies, but then you have a movie like The Desert here, I don’t know if you got the chance to check that out. It’s a zombie movie starring four people. One is a zombie, and it’s just about these three people who have no immediate fear of zombies. One’s an engineer and they’re just confined to this apartment, and it’s about this love triangle.

TS: And one is a zombie?

WM: There is a zombie at one point that comes in. You see them running out to do missions and coming back with supplies, but there’s no imminent threat. It’s essentially like the montage in Dawn of the Dead where they’re coping with this stuff.

TS: So the zombies exist outside? Wow, interesting. Well, what happens when the one comes in?

WM: They intentionally bring it in. They just use it as like a punching bag, almost. It plays a part, but a movie like that, or a movie like The Battery, these movies come out–

TS: You see, that’s a unique thing. That’s what makes a movie popular. It’s not about the equipment or the materials, it’s about what you can think of and imagine and write it down. That’s what makes it unique.

AP: And what’s The Battery?

WM: It’s about two friends, in relatively remote parts of New England, that they’re roaming around, and it’s more about their friendship devolving as they are relatively safely surviving this zombie apocalypse. It’s really only two guys through most of the movie.

TS: So the zombie apocalypse is more about atmosphere.

AP: It’s on the periphery, that’s pretty fascinating.

WM: I recommend them. The Battery and The Desert.

TS: Those are two unique ways of dealing with zombies.

the battery movie zombies

Adam Cronheim and Jeremy Gardner in The Battery

WM: I had someone ask me, “Do you like zombies?” And zombies I don’t really like, but zombie movies I love. It’s not the creatures themselves, it’s what the creatures cause the other people to do. If you could only recommend one book, movie, TV show, anything, of any period, what would you recommend to somebody interested in zombies?

AP: Can you please say, “Other than the George Romero classics?”

TS: I thought you were going to instantly say World War Z. I haven’t read it but all I hear in interviews is it has nothing to do with the movie. All I hear is how great of a book it is. I have it, I own it, but now I’ll read it.

WM: I guess it’s kind of a tough question.

AP: I’m really tempted to go with Shaun of the Dead.

TS: But you’re asking about a book?

WM: Book, movie, any medium.

TS: Oh! Now I get it.

WM: It’s funny because I watched Dawn of the Dead before having seen Night of the Living Dead. I was young enough to have heard that Dawn of the Dead was a zombie movie but I had never sat down to watch Night of the Living Dead. To me, that still has to be my favorite. I can go into it under the guise of the threat having already happened. It’s about how society dissolves and crumbles.

TS: What’s interesting is you saw Dawn of the Dead first, and Siskel and Ebert had a segment where they would show a scene from a horror movie and a scene from a comedy. One in color, and one in black and white. The black and white horror movie was scarier, the black and white comedy was funnier. You went and saw the black and white zombie movie after seeing the color one. I wonder if it had the same kind of effect on you. How old are you?

WM: 29.

TS: See, when we grew up, televisions, in general, were in black and white. It was a special thing to see a color television. The news was black and white, everything was black and white. When Night of the Living Dead came out, it was black and white. It was like you were watching the real news.

WM: Like a War of the Worlds situation where you didn’t know if it was reality.

TS: It really lent to the experience for most people.

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