At Sitges 2014, I had the distinct pleasure of happening upon a mini keynote address on the subject of zombie filmmaking. There, I was introduced to a surprisingly expansive and often academic discourse on everyone’s favorite undead monster, much of the wisdom courtesy of Alexandre O. Philippe, the director behind the enjoyable and darkly playful documentary, Doc of the Dead. Unfortunately, the film had already screened at the festival, so I was worried I’d missed a grand opportunity.
Fate, though, smiled upon me in Sitges. A day or two later, I bumped into Philippe after a matinee, and he agreed to speak further with me about zombies, filmmaking, zombie filmmaking, and geek culture in general. And he sent me a screener of the film, which I highly recommend, by the way, if you dig on pop culture.
Philippe is best known for his zombie doc, as well as other quirky, pop culture documentaries such as The People vs. George Lucas and The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus. He’s also a comic book storyteller, and one of the co-founders of FRIED Comics, a purveyor of twisted, edgy comic books. Beyond this, he’s a scholar of geek culture and extremely knowledgeable on pop culture and the fictional worlds that make up much of current media.
It took a few months to find a spare hour in which the filmmaker wasn’t on tour with Doc of the Dead, and finally we had the chance to speak on Monday. I could never have expected the revelatory cultural commentary you could glean from zombie culture, and am pleased to present to you now the edited version of our rousing conversation on all things geeky, sexy, and brain-hungry.
Before Sitges 2014, I’d always been into zombies and that sort of thing, but never knew that so many people cared about the discourse of it, and the intricacies that go into making a zombie film really yours. Before we get into zombies, though, I wanted to know, what’s your background in film?
I actually got into film through a rather convoluted route. Initially, I was really a writer, and wanted to be a playwright, and I went to New York University’s Dramatic Writing Program, where you don’t have a choice, you have to write plays and screenplays. So, I was in a way forced to write for the screen, and that’s when I started realizing that I’m much more visual and that [screenwriting] seemed like the perfect medium for me. One thing led to another, and I eventually ended up moving to Denver, and really out of frustration, from not getting my screenplays produced–I got a few optioned, but never produced–I thought, screw this, I’m going to make my own films. I started with very low budget films, and started getting attention at festivals, and each film got enough attention to get the next one made. Now I’ve been doing this for 12 years.
What have you been trying to show audiences? What do you believe you bring to film that no one else does?
There are really two facets to my filmmaking. The first one is very clearly about pop culture; in fact, my very first film was about this very strange little phenomenon in Colorado, Mike the Headless Chicken, a chicken that lived for 18 months without a head and became a national figure. So, you know, I also made a film about Klingon speakers, and obviously the film about George Lucas, then The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus, so all those films are about quirky aspects of pop culture. I like to look at topics that the general public might poke fun at or point their fingers and say, “Oh you guys are just geeks.” I try to make people look at it through an amused lens but also seriously, to make people realize that pop culture matters. That’s what Exhibit A Pictures is all about, looking at the defining trends and icons of pop culture. I’ve also made a career making short, experimental films, much darker, much more, “artistic” if you will, and it’s definitely a very different side of me. If you look at them side by side, you think there’s no way this could be the same guy.
That’s awesome. So, zombies. What drew you to zombies?
Well, there’s a couple of things. When I was six, I was introduced to a couple of horror films. One was Scanners and one was Night of the Living Dead. Those were the two horror films of my childhood, if you will, and I always had a soft spot for zombies. Again, the reason I decided to make this film was that I was at San Diego Comic Con in 2009, I pretty much go every year, and I remember distinctly realizing that there were a lot more zombies there than there ought to be. Zombies really started going from a very powerful underground culture to the mainstream. And so, when that happened, with my interest in pop culture, I made a note of it and I thought, I have to make this film. I was still finishing The People vs. George Lucas, I’d committed to making the film about the octopus, so I had to wait two years, but that turned out to be pretty good because of World War Z and the whole explosion of The Walking Dead. That was the right time to release the film.
When you were making the film, what was most striking, or did you find anything you really didn’t expect in this world?
What was really a surprise for me was the fact that George Romero doesn’t understand how this thing that he, in a way, created, has become so huge. He says it in the film, he has this beautiful quote when he says that Hollywood is banking on the fact that zombies are that big. He says that for him, they’ve always been just the little guy. This is something that has gone so far beyond the creator, but beyond the creator’s comprehension. That was surprising. I guessed he would have an answer to [why zombies were so popular], and actually there’s no clear cut answer. There are a lot of possibilities and theories, but no clear answer.
What are some of your favorite theories?
One of these is the simplest one, in that it’s fun. People enjoy just putting on the makeup, it’s cheap and easy to do, and going out to a zombie walk, where there’s ten thousand of you. It’s a communal event. There’s a theory by Sarah Lauro, the zombie expert and scholar, that I found really interesting. She says that the zombie walks are essentially a tacit message to our government. She compares it the occupy movement, to those big popular movements that have emerged in recent years, and she talks about the fact that we’re sending a message that “Here we are, we’re zombies, we’re having a good time together, but if we wanted, we could start a revolution.” I think that’s an interesting theory.
That has to do with the fear of zombies, too. They could be anyone. I remember from your film and a talk you gave at Sitges about how they are the collective. It’s like one minute everything’s fine and the next, you’re shooting your zombified mom in the head with a shotgun. They’re scary, but they also have that appeal to them. The bigger thing to me is that zombies have transcended nerd culture. Suddenly everyone likes nerd and geek stuff, and the identity has kind of corroded.
Either that or everyone is turning into a nerd.
Yeah, nerds suddenly have this immense power, now that this stuff is more widespread.
Not just power but sex appeal too. And people are really playing off that. Nerds have come a long way.
What do you think of nerd culture now? Go back ten or fifteen years, and nerds are getting their heads dunked in toilets, but now they have a sex appeal. What’s happening to change all this?
I think part of that is, first of all, the explosion of so many different universes and franchises. What we consider pop culture or geek culture has expanded to a point where there’s pretty much something for everybody. And so as a result, we’ve been sucking in, bringing in more people, and it’s like everything, where there’s a tipping point. Now there’s almost a gravitational pull that’s too strong to resist. I think that’s what’s been happening. I also think that a lot of the people who were making fun of geeks were really dying to check out those things themselves. There were probably a lot of closet trekkies and comic book geeks back in the day when it wasn’t so cool. There’s a point in culture where you can’t ignore 200,000 people coming to San Diego and saying we love this. If it’s ok for 200,000 people, then gosh, it’s ok for me. I think that’s a reaction. Now that it’s no longer stigmatized and people embrace it in such large numbers, people are coming out of the woodwork and saying that I’m one of you too.
Why is the whole movement so pleasant? At Sitges, I saw a lot of gruesome stuff, but the people are so fun and playful.
It’s dark but there’s a lot of humor in it too, and for me it’s a kind of domestication of those things that we fear. By finding the humor in this thing, which is death, we are sort of telling each other that it’s ok. We’re all going to go through this at some point, let’s have fun, we’re alive right now, let’s make fun of it. Because this is something we all have to go through at some point, sadly, then it becomes a communal thing. We can all relate to that on some level.
I wanted to chat about Joanna Angel, who you interviewed in the film. I’ve never seen a pop culture documentary like this interview a porn star, understanding that it’s an inexorable part of pop culture and media. What was your opinion of getting to speak with a porn star and director?
That interview was actually conducted by our co-producer, Jonathan London at Geekscape, and he’s the one who came up to me and said that we should put a little porn in there. He sent me a stack of DVDs which I went to. The thing that is really interesting to me about zombie porn is that there’s nothing attractive about it. The sex with zombies is, you know… look, I’m sure people get off on it, but it doesn’t do it for me. What I really, really enjoyed was, especially in this Walking Dead porn parody, is just the dialogue. It’s absolutely priceless, and the situations, the parody is frickin’ great. That’s what I enjoyed, and from what I can tell, those films have been doing quite well. They’re some of their biggest hits.
What do you think people find sexy about it? Is it part of the whole zombie walk thing, like fucking your own mortality?
Yeah, you’re totally right. See, that’s the question. I’m not entirely sure that the appeal is that it’s sexy, maybe there’s something about those particular movies, like people enjoy the parodies. I’m not really sure. You may want to talk to people who find that attractive. Those scenes with the zombies are so gross to me.
I’m interested in your opinion on it, as everyone’s flocking to have their own interpretation of zombies. What do you think about zombie purists, and people who stake their claim on having a certain level of geek knowledge?
I guess I should say first that if you’re a zombie purist and you watch the Walking Dead porn parody, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s so funny to me that zombie purists would watch that stuff and then criticize it. It’s like, guys, what are you doing? But I think the idea of embracing an aspect of culture as sacred text is extraordinarily common. It’s what I explored with Star Wars fans. This is what people do at every level. When something strikes a chord, a cultural chord with you, and is then considered something important in culture, then the impulse is to preserve it, and to say this is how it began. This is why Night of the Living Dead is such an important film. The zombie purists really look at those Romero films as their bible, their sacred text, and anything that veers from that is sacrilege. But that’s the danger. I think the beauty of culture is you can absolutely look at the milestones and see them as important, but the moment you say you can’t veer from that is the moment you become intolerant. We see that happening in religion all the time. We’re having wars because of it, so let’s not have wars over zombies, for gods sakes, or movies, or fictional universe.
Do you think there’s a point at which zombies will sell out?
I think that zombies have already sold out. Sadly, I think the main intent is to make a zombie film because it sells. There’s a point where that’s not going to work anymore. Of course, there are still some great zombie films coming out. I watched Dead Snow 2 recently, which I thought was fantastic, really a lot of fun. There’s a lot of good stuff that’s being done, but I think we’re starting to reach a point of oversaturation, but season five of The Walking Dead is breaking records. Even zombie experts are stumped about the over-saturation.
Going into geek culture, because zombies are a part of that, I want to talk about how geek culture, at least to me, is something pure. It’s really the love of fictional things and a counterculture that’s not built on being counter to anything; it’s such a loving world.
It’s interesting that you mention this. You should go to a Comic Con. The thing that’s amazing to me, especially at San Diego, where there’s so many people, is there are all these fictional universes and different pockets of fandom, and a tremendous amount of fun and respect of the other. I’ll tell you one thing that gets under my skin every single time I show up at the San Diego Comic Con. When you cross the tracks going from the city to the convention center, you have four or five guys holding those big signs about Jesus Christ and how we must repent. And this judgment on people that are having fun, it gets under my skin. They’re completely missing the point of what geek culture is. Geek culture is actually about respect of the other. And not being judgmental. It gets to me, because who are they to judge?
There was a moment in my university life comes to mind. I played Humans vs. Zombies, a big campus-wide game, and the students who ran it wanted it to be as lovingly apocalyptic as possible. There was another student, an obvious jock, who made a documentary about campus life, who was filmed walking near dorms and had two of his friends dressed up as players of the game run by. His comment to the camera was, “Heh, virgins.” That stayed with me for years. What is your reaction to that, in conjunction with the religious protesters? What are people afraid of with geek culture, and why is sexuality used as an insult?
To me, that’s a typical reaction of someone who, as a result of their social situation or upbringing, somehow feels like they’d never be welcome in that kind of world. Clearly, they have eyes to see that we’re having fun, but there’s something that says, I can never be part of that, so if I can’t be part of that, then I’m going to make fun of it. Because it validates my position as above this. If you can’t participate in something that’s really fun, you somehow in your mind have to be above it. It’s envy and jealousy. It’s someone who basically says, damn I would love to be playing with you guys, but I can’t, because I fucking suck.
Why do you think “virgin” is used as an insult?
That’s the stereotype, right, that were so busy playing video games or watching movies or reading comics, that we’re not spending time hitting on ladies. This is what I love about geeks, is that we’ve managed to shift entirely that stereotype. Now, the geek girls are embracing the sexiness of all the superheroes and cosplay and all that. By the way, this is a reason why I think a lot of males who are not “geeks” are starting to flock toward that kind of culture. Because they’re like, damn look at those babes wearing those hot costumes at Comic Con. Maybe I should go there and see if I can get some of that. It’s really that shallow, but I believe that’s what’s happening.
In the last few years there’s been a sexual liberation among geeks. I think a lot of the costumes at cons are getting racier and, look, it’s fine with me. It’s cool. If it helps to sort of make people think differently about geek culture, then I’m all for it.
Tell me a little more about Fried Comics, is this stuff that you’re writing? What’s your part in the business?
This is the brainchild of myself and my friend Clay Adams. We’ve known each other for 20 years now, we met at the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU and we became instant friends and started writing stories together. We have a very particular warped sense of humor. When we’re together, there’s something very unique that comes out. I made a career as a documentary filmmaker, and now he’s an actor and voice actor. There was a point where we realized that we should turn this stuff that we’ve done into a comic book company, because we love comics. We launched the company about a year and a half ago. It’s a huge labor of love. If I had to pick something out of everything I’ve done, this is what I would pick. I’m really passionate about it. The cool thing is that all of our books are part of the same universe. We’re essentially building this humongous universe.
What do you think are the next steps for geek culture? What’s the future of geek-dom?
I think geek-dom is going to keep heading in all kinds of directions. I think the real problem is that there is a plethora of stuff out there. It’s difficult to find great independent films or comics because they’re drowning under so much noise. I mean, of course, I like the Hollywood machine, when they do their stuff well, there’s nothing like a great, huge blockbuster movie. But what’s interesting to me is that at the cons they’re sharing the playground with all the independents that are trying to get their product out. And so it’s a good thing but it’s also a problem. I’m a geek and I can’t even begin to tell you how many things are out there. It’s overwhelming.
Have you ever thought of making a zombie film that’s not a documentary?
No, I’m so zombied out. I’m ready to move on. I’m actually starting to shoot the next film in December, and I’m really looking forward to it.
What can you say about this next film project?
It’s actually kind of a departure, documentary-wise. I mean it is pop culture, but it’s not, it’s very different. It’s actually a black and white feature documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. So, and that’s going to hopefully be the first in a series of documentaries of very stylized, very artistic, about very minute aspects of the cinema. Really sort of analyzing certain scenes or moments, and making people look at them through a different lens.
We start shooting in December, and if all goes well, the film will be ready by the end of 2015. We’ll see how that goes.
Last question about zombies and violence. There’s so much violence in all these movies, and in video games. So many critics say that this stuff is what prompts people to commit violent acts, but then you go to a Comic Con and the people there wouldn’t harm a fly. What is your response to that criticism about being a bad influence?
I feel very strongly that it’s not a bad influence, and I’ll tell you why, from my perspective. Human beings have a certain amount of darkness, that’s just a fact. And it’s also a fact that the people who go on a rampage aren’t able to flush that stuff out of their system. They keep it in, and they keep it in, and they keep it in, and then, look, if you look at all the shootings going on in the United States, it’s always the nice boy, quiet type, and then he went fucking berserk. But the fact of the matter is that I think we all need fiction to purge every now and then this need for violence or darkness. Maybe it’s not so much a need as it is a confrontation. You’ve got to look through a glass darkly every now and then. So this is the function of storytelling. People can talk all they want about the virtue of beautiful little tales. The fact of the matter is, fairy tales back in the day were rights of passage. And if you read the versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” or any other fairy tales from centuries ago, they are way, way darker. Because that’s part of the process of becoming an adult, you face the darkness. You’re coming into this world, and there’s a lot of darkness, and part of being an adult is confronting that, and owning it. I would say it’s fucking vital, a vital function of storytelling, and if we start sanitizing the violence, then I think we’re going down a pretty scary path. And this is coming from a guy who will not hurt a fly.
It’s also the role of parenting. If you have kids, you have to be careful about what you expose them to, when you expose them to that, but when you start to expose them to something more violent you need to, as a parent, have that conversation. There’s a real world, and a fictional world, and these two things are not the same. Things can happen in fiction, that you do not want to happen in the real world, and you have to be able to know when to draw the line.
Now that’s dark. I want to take a moment to ask one more question, so we can end on a lighter note. Who are the most important lady geeks, do you think, in this culture?
To me, when I think female geek, I think of Tina Fey. Because she straddles that line really perfectly, where she’s funny, she’s sexy, she’s elegant. She has all those qualities, and she’d be a great spokeslady for the community. If we had a geek female president, I think she’d be good one.
What began as a talk about zombies and geek-dom became an in depth analysis of pop culture, nerd and geek sexuality, and how further generations should receive and translate culture into their lifestyles and actions. What’s revealed here is that we’re all geeks, or fast becoming geeks, and those of us who resist simply haven’t been to a Comic Con and seen the glory that awaits them.
Doc of the Dead is still in distribution, and either has arrived in cinemas near you, or will at some point in the hopefully near future. Philippe’s comics are available at the FRIED Comics website, and are pleasurably twisted.
Tina Fey for geek president, 2015!