“I’m going to be a zombie!” I excitedly told my friends last January. “Huh?” was their usual response. Once I’d gotten the email, I sped to Facebook and trumpeted it for the world (at least as represented by my online friends) to hear. Funny how many people added, “Congratulations” after the “huh,” as though becoming undead was a desirable thing.
A lot of people hadn’t yet heard about the filming of a new zombie parody movie here in Valdosta. Word spread quickly, even though the whole thing, from extras auditions to wrap, was pretty covert. The rumored locations for filming were at Wild Adventures and a couple of undisclosed locations in town. Star Woody Harrelson made his presence known, though, even showing up at my favorite bar, Charley-Os (unfortunately I was not there that night). Oddly enough, I wasn’t as excited by the star power, but more at the sheer delight of (a) being on a movie set and (b) getting to run around and act crazy. Being a zombie extra was a free pass for normally frowned-upon behavior. Plus, it was like Halloween had come early!
I spent six nights, some going until 7 in the morning, on-set, running, stumbling, staggering, lurching, and bleeding. Believe me, it wasn’t glamorous. Extras don’t have personal assistants who bring you custom-made salads and extra rutabaga when you want it (Harrelson is on the “raw” diet). Also, since you’re basically part of the scenery, you get to stand there while thousands of light adjustments are made, cups of coffee are poured, and makeup touchups are done. It was February when we were filming, by the way. And zombies don’t really need parkas. Also, the zombie makeup we all looked forward to was comprised of concentrated coffee, soy sauce, and red goo. Not pleasant especially when it’s cold. They made it up to us, though, with a king’s feast of hot food every night. We got to eat like stars, even after being herded around like cattle or left standing in the cold for an hour. Plus, our makeup was done by professionals whose hands had touched major stars. My artist, Lee Grimes, had worked with Christina Ricci and Michael C. Hall. Senior history/anthropology/women’s studies major Samantha Bryant says, “I loved sitting there and getting stuff poured on me or getting airbrushed in trailers by [a] real make up artist. I was the kid [who] bought a gallon of fake blood every Halloween and drenched myself in it.” (Believe me, that was the case. One night they took two spray bottles of blood to my face, Old West-style.)
But let’s get to the good stuff. Besides the meager but much-needed monetary compensation, what made being a zombie worth it? Let’s hear from the crowd: sophomore theatre major Jessalin Smith says, “[I]t was fun to watch what goes on behind and in front of the cameras in the set of a movie.”Admittedly, most of what happens on-set isn’t really visible because of the huge scale of operations. But you do get a sense of the rhythm and process of filmmaking, and of course it’s fun to bump into the actors (the stunt zombies were pretty interesting too). Sophomore theatre major Isaac Huntington says, “The best part of filming was probably getting up close with the stars.” Most of us got pretty close by Harrelson and co-stars Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin (who smiled at me!), and Jesse Eisenberg. Sam remembers, “A bunch of us huddled together and discussed what we’d say to Woody Harrelson if we got the chance. I shrugged . . .‘Natural Born Killers’ had been great but I’d never watched ‘Cheers’ and was afraid to bring up ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ so I decided to keep my mouth shut and smile. [Then] I heard someone say “Hey. What’s up?”. . . I spun to greet them with a large smile and hearty ‘Hello.’ I was met with Woody Harrelson, cowboy hat and all. Fear set in and my smile contorted to an awful look of shock and fear. Add that to the zombie makeup and well…. He reared back just as shocked as I was and I quickly scampered off.”
There was also a certain prestige and intrigue to life as an extra. We all got asked what we had seen on-set, what the stars were like, what we knew about the movie, could we show pictures. Of course, it was in our contract to not talk about the movie (like in “Fight Club”) or take pictures of our makeup. Whether the leaks of certain events (e.g. the Hummer crashing into the lake) were intentional or not, I do not know. Even extras were as fooled by rumors (e.g. Matthew McConaughey being a zombie) as the general Valdosta population. Smith says, “The crew was very closed mouthed about the plot and scenes, and when the extras weren’t filming, we were put into a ‘holding room’ where we weren’t allowed to see the rest of the movie being filmed.” Despite all that, being on a secret set gave us extras a certain privilege, and being a zombie automatically made us cool: “I’ve become some strange celebrity amongst my family members,” says Bryant.
Now the film’s release is upon us, and unfortunately for us former extras, most of the secrets are out. We’ve all seen the trailers, and Valdosta natives can point out Wild Adventures scenes, and on occasion their friends and acquaintances (two people I know are in the trailer for a second). Most people hope to have a glimpse of themselves or their friends on-screen. I myself got to run right in front of the camera several times, and I’m wearing bright pink and purple, so here’s hoping. Even if we don’t make the cut, we still get to be cool. And as Bryant says, eventually “annoy my friends with the pause button when the movie reaches DVD.”
Originally published in Oct. 1 issue of the VSU Spectator.