Ahead of its theatrical release, Screen chats to director/producer Howard Ford about near death experiences whilst shooting zombie film The Dead on location in remotest Africa.
When brothers Howard and Jonathan Ford set out to make a zombie feature in Africa they could have taken the easy option and shot in film-friendly South Africa.
“We could have ticked the Africa box and then gone back to our nice hotel for a massage and a beer. But we wanted it to be authentic. The original zombie legend began in French speaking West Africa, so that’s where we wanted to go. And we went through landscapes and villages that no other film has,” says director Howard Ford who got the bug for zombie films after watching George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead as a teenager with his brother Jonathan.
20 years and 140 commercials later and the pair finally decided to seize the day whilst shooting an advert for nappies in Africa three years ago. “We felt like we had sold out. And then Jon mentioned the zombie film again and one of us said, why don’t we do it in Africa. It was one of those moments, where my heart missed a beat. We realised that we could do a zombie film but say so much more,” says Ford who chose to focus his story around an ordinary American engineer who survives a plane crash but finds himself battling against flesh eating zombies whilst travelling across the African continent.
The brothers had their own battles during the perilous shoot which saw Ford being mugged at knife point on his first day in the capital of Burkina Faso and the film’s lead actor Rob Freeman being diagnosed with cerebral malaria and put on a drip for two weeks.
And what was meant to be a six week shoot turned into three months, due to a five week hold up at the port in Ghana while they pleaded with the authorities to let them take their equipment into the country, and the fact that most of the crew were too ill to work.
“It got to the point where I would come down in the morning and find out who was well enough to shoot. So if the sound recordist was well, it meant we could do a particular bit,” says Ford who admits that “half the money we had went on bribes and corruption.”
Despite all of that, Ford says it has not put him off shooting in Africa again, largely due to the generosity and spirit of the people he met along the way. “Even though it was tough I would do it again, although on a bigger budget. The real people of Africa we met were so lovely and full of pride, I feel privileged to have captured their unique place on film.”
Ford, who has more projects in development including a Sixth Sense style supernatural thriller and a “fish out of water adventure story about a sex tourist”, is keen to point out that The Dead is more than just a zombie movie.
“There are layers in the film. We are tapping into something about Africa that an average zombie movie can’t do. It’s about a metaphor for death and people trying to get home and realising what’s important. Yes, it’s a zombie movie, but it doesn’t matter if you like zombies or not.”
The Dead is being released theatrically in the UK by Anchor Bay Starz on Sept 2. Global Cinema Distribution are releasing in North America in October.