It’s not often that the opportunity arises to actually appear in a horror TV series, and when such an opportunity does arise then it should be grasped with both hands. Thus when Steve Matthews, executive producer of the URBAN GOTHIC series asked me if I fancied playing a zombie in one of the season two episodes, my response was instantaneous.
Anticipation is a wonderful thing, and I was counting the days before my chance to star as a zombie approached. Finally, the call came through, it was to be the next day, and they wanted me on location at seven am sharp for make-up and costume. Superb! But seven am? And the location was the other side of London from me, up at a school in Kilburn. Undaunted I took notes of where to go, and said that I’d see them then.
So, five thirty next morning saw me dragged bleary-eyed out of bed and up in the car across London. Luckily at that time of the day the roads are all but deserted and I arrived at about six forty-five. So far, so good. Although the crew was based at the school, the actual recording was taking place a couple of streets away in an empty house – and there was not much room.
As people arrived for the filming, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be interesting. Among those standing and sitting around munching on breakfast bacon sandwiches were a couple of amputees: a chap with only one arm, the other missing from just below his elbow, and another chap with no legs. Other people had, like me, been culled from friends of crew members. There were two people who worked in the reception area at the film company’s offices, another two girls turned up who were friends of someone else … it was a meeting of the enthusiastic all prepared to spend a day being a zombie.
And so to make-up. This is one of the strangest experiences. Watching yourself transformed from a relatively normal human being into a wild-haired and blood-matted creature. The people waiting around were taken one-by one into costume to change into some of the most horrendous clothes I’d seen – I ended up in a pair of caked jeans, trainers and a black jumper which was sticky with blood and other materials. I didn’t like to touch myself! For the make-up I was first made to look really pale and ill, and then blood and other gunk was added to give the impression of having been smacked around the head a couple of times with a hefty plank of wood. I got off lightly! One girl was given a slit throat, another had a massive pustular burn on the side of her face, while the one-armed man was fitted with a bloody prosthetic to give the impression of his arm having been ripped off, and also a gaping knife wound in his cheek. We all looked incredible! I suggested that we should all get in a car and drive it off the road somewhere, and then hang out of it to suggest the most awful accident …
I did mention that this was a children’s school, and, incredibly, the children were there, peering at us from the classrooms. I have no idea what they thought of all these blood-caked and injured people milling around in their playground – I suspect a few nightmares ensued as it all did look incredibly realistic. The blood is made from various ingredients including golden syrup which makes it sticky and realistic, and it also got everywhere. We all ended up with tacky hands, and everywhere I sat was left with a patina of blood on it …
With everyone made-up, we then had to wait for the call to the actual location. This came at about half past ten. The crew had been recording some other scenes first thing, using some zombies from the previous day, but before long we were all bundled into cars and driven to the house – there was no way they were going to let us walk there looking as we did.
Once there, we waited outside until they were ready for us – passers by in cars, buses and on foot giving us the strangest looks. Then it was inside for our big scene.
They weren’t joking when they said it was small. We were in an end-of-terrace house, and recording was taking place pretty much in the entire place. It was dirty, grimy and run down. One of the crew mentioned to me that apparently it had belonged to an old lady who had died fairly recently, and it certainly looked as though no work had been done on this house in many, many years.
The story being recorded was called THE END, and was a sort of homage to BLAIR WITCH and that sort of Cinema Veritie style. The idea is that a normal episode of URBAN GOTHIC starts, but it is then interrupted by live news footage from a group of policemen who are investigating a viral outbreak which makes humans go crazy in seconds, filling them with the urge to kill anything and everything including themselves. All this footage was recorded using a single camera used by the police, and the narrative cuts back to static, to the Channel Test Card pattern, to news reports while the police try and avoid betting killed or turning into crazy zombies themselves.
The scene being recorded was one where the police camera is taken by one of the crazies and carried down through the house. At every landing and every turn there are people moving and milling about – and guess who those people are …? The only problem was that the scene had to be recorded in one take, choreographing all the movements as it went. We were initially all given roles: the girls were set to running about, one chap had to drag the dead body of one of the heroes along the passage, slit-throat-girl was to be lying in one of the rooms, one-arm-man had to emerge suddenly from a room and attack the camera, no-legs-man came on at the end and dragged himself, leaving a trail of blood, across the floor. As for me, the director decided he wanted the tallest of us to slump over the bannister rail, dead to the world: thus was my fate sealed: as immobile corpse number one.
With us all in our positions, we started the camera walkthroughs, making sure that everyone moved in the right areas and that the scene all worked as a continuous pass. Then we started actual recordings, and the problems began.
First, it was very hard to cue everyone as we couldn’t see the camera, and when it turned suddenly to come down the stairs, the girl running down was caught looking for the cue, then there were problems with the crazy dragging the hero along the corridor, the floor was becoming increasingly sticky and tacky with blood and his shirt was riding up, and his back sticking to the floor. Padding was added but this also stuck. The floor was washed and cleaned and more takes were tried. Finally, after about ten or fifteen takes – or so it seemed – we had something which everyone was happy with. But then we had to go again as there had been a digital fault on the tape. Finally, and at about quarter to two, we completed a successful take and the scene was in the can. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The heat upstairs in the house was becoming unbearable, and with camera and sound crews, director, make-up, costume, special effects, sparks, chippies, continuity, assistant directors, cast and the director, there were upwards of thirty people crammed into rooms keeping out of the way of the camera as it made its way down the stairwell to the ground floor.
Add to this the fact that slit-throat-girl had to lie with her head back and down, and I was hanging over bannisters, both with the real blood rushing to our heads … it wasn’t easy. At least I could stand up between takes, poor s-t-girl had to stay in position to prevent the prosthetic from splitting away, and the blood running in the wrong directions. We suffered for our art!
With the scene in the can, it was back to the Unit base for lunch, and to clean off the gunk, blood and matted grime, and to return to some semblance of normality once more.
David J Howe