|Seldom is the idea of a film programs graduation project remotely fun. Bogged down by Kevin Smiths-in-training (take away their cameras and word processors now, I beg of you) or pseudo Woody Allen juniors who think theyre far smarter than they actually are (been there, done that), these students final project films are most often the ones they try hardest to forget.
In the case of this years film production graduates at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), however, the hero-focus has shifted towards horror maven George Romero and cheapie blood merchants Wilson Yip (Bio-Zombie) and Meir Zarchi (I Spit On Your Grave). Helmed by Hussein Juma, School of the Dead promises a refreshing take on that old staple, the zombie picture.
"School of the Dead is different in a lot of ways," she promises. "It features a multi-ethnic cast of African, Chinese and Indian talent, which most zombie movies dont. Plus, ironic or not, they dont die in the first five minutes. Thats part of my Canadian experience the film takes place in a school and when I go to school thats what I see."
Given the miniscule budgets these students must rely on to get from script to screen, the crew behind School of the Dead stretched dollars and ideas into a blood-splattered vision rivalling their big(ger) screen counterparts. Raising extra money through the sale of special School of the Dead T-shirts, producer Travis Cleland is more than impressed with what theyve managed to do with so little.
"Given the budget I think we accomplished more than we ever expected," he says. "Now that principal photography is over, a nice note is that we actually ran under budget."
But of course, one of the hallmark charms of the best zombie films is that lack of big-budget sheen, a factor entirely missing from last years altogether shoddy remake of Romeros classic Dawn of the Dead (the original of which served as Jumas leading influence). "We thought we would have to do a lot of camera tricks to avoid seeing poor effects," she says. "Through selling the T-shirts we raised more than enough money for the 15 gallons of coloured corn syrup all over the SAIT campus. I was able to back the camera up and get better angles. We had pumps and tubes for blood spraying (and) a boxful of body parts." With scenes that include arms being ripped off, intestines falling out and a zombie being killed by a bicycle wheel, you can be sure that there are no Ingmar Bergman or Citizen Kane rip-off homage references here. "Its over the top, its cartoonish, its fun."
Featuring Lydia Lau of Ginger Snaps II in the lead role as Hwang Bo-Yun, School of the Deads social commentary is just as important to the films makers as the spewing red goo. "Weve achieved almost everything that Hussein wanted, plus more," says Cleland. "Important aspects have stayed true, such as an ethnically diverse cast and a female heroine."
For Juma, this kind of honest visual representation and a sense of geography was key. "Theres social commentary and reference to contemporary issues in the spirit of Romeros Dawn of the Dead trilogy. The films also genuinely Canadian there are references in it that only Canadians, even Albertans, will understand."
Remoulding genre hallmarks and underlying commentary aside, Juma hasnt lost sight of the true lure of a good zombie film. "The more blood, the better. Zombie movies for me are kind of like pizza even when theyre bad, theyre still pretty good."