COVINGTON, Ky - Decaying, bloody, brain-hungry walkers are crawling their way to the Madison Theatre. And they are dying to eat… meet you.
The undead are ready to take over Covington Thursday night for the "Revelation Trail" premiere, which was not only in large part shot locally, but also directed, produced and cast by many locals. It's an indie passion for producer and director John Gibson, a lecturer at Northern Kentucky University.
Approximately 40 percent of the 1-hour and 43-minute movie was shot in Northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, over 22 days split between the summer and winter of 2011. Most days were 18- to 20-hour days, through the sweltering heat and the teeth-chattering, bitter cold, not too mention days of being knee-deep in mud.
"This area is just beautiful, and folks are very supportive," said Gibson.
"This is a regional film, tried and true. We have great filmmakers in this area—not just on this crew, but all over this region. Be proud. Be supportive. It's amazing what's going on in your own backyard—sometimes literally."
Northern Kentucky has the rolling hills that they needed, especially down near Berry, Ky., where they shot at Mullins Log Cabin. Southern Ohio lent its Old West Festival in Brown County. They also set up shop in western Kentucky and southern Illinois, where they built a period-accurate fort in 17 days from discarded barn wood for some of the scenes.
"We lived and died by the quality of the production, and that carried over into post-production, which actually took about a year to a year," said Gibson, revering the 4-5 person skeleton crew who worked on effects, score, audio, color and editing.
Many of the 200 extras and cast members are Cincinnati-based actors, and a majority of the 30-member crew are local filmmakers and former students of Gibson, who co-wrote the flick with fellow Murray State University grad, Daniel Van Thomas, who also plays "Preacher" in the film.
An Indie Filmmaker Is Made
A self-taught editor and film composer, Gibson's appetite for filmmaking stemmed from early middle school and high school projects, but his real passion was conjured in college, where he was actually a political science, history and mass communications major. But filmmaking stole his heart.
"The first time I heard an audience of 200 laugh at my jokes in a film, I was hooked on the exhibition aspect of this, and thought, ‘OK, this is something I want to pursue further.'"
"Revelation Trail" is Gibson's first full-length feature, however, he boasts shorter films and projects, including two 48-hour film projects.
But why the undead?
A friend called him six years ago about creating a zombie western, however, Gibson was not sold. After much thought, he countered with the idea of a western with zombies in it. And a silver-screen idea was born.
Old West Meets Zombie Apocalypse
The production, he reiterates, predates the current cult-classic, "The Walking Dead" TV series, and he admits that he had never heard of the comic until they were well into the writing stages of his film.
"To see the past years and the emergence of the zombie into the mainstream has been both good and bad. Good, because obviously it's a genre that's hot now. Bad, because we could be on the verge of an oversaturated market, so the challenge as a filmmaker is to have a story that stands out. I believe we do," said Gibson.
It stands out, he said, because there are no other features about a western frontier invaded by the undead… you know, zombies. But the zombies aren't the main characters, rather the background to a story about their human counterparts.
Set in late 19th-century America, the film follows a preacher, (Daniel Van Thomas) whose life is destroyed. He is joined by U.S. Marshall Edwards, played by Daniel C. Britt, of Hamilton, Ohio, who is a veteran lawman haunted by an incident from his childhood. Together, they must find new purpose in a world without order, among the undead.
This is their story of redemption and resolution, said the director.
"Many times in zombie lore we see a tale of survival. Run and gun. Kill the creatures and move on. With the preacher, we have the story of a man who has to reconcile his faith with killing these creatures, which he still sees as possibly human. Or at least, ‘stuck in a hell of their own,'" said Gibson.
It's "Unforgiven" meets "Dawn of the Dead" with a dash of a classic road tale worked in, said Gibson.
The Villain Takes A Bite Out Of The Silver Screen
Isaiah Bannon, played by Paul Morris, of Cincinnati, opens the movie, alongside character Jakob, his brother, by raping a woman and attempting to harm her child, until fate steps in.
The film is a story about its characters, he said, not a typical blood-n-guts flick.
"It's not a gory fest like most zombie movies, but the characters are rich in development. And, hey, it's western to boot!"
Being a bad guy in a western or zombie movie doesn't usually end well for them, he said. And since this is a western/zombie movie he realized, that he "was doomed from the start," said Morris of his role in the film.
As the "star zombie" the make-up crew took an hour and a half to complete his alteration from Morris to Bannon, the brain-hungry zombie in search of his next meal.
"I found it funny that 40 years after my mother took me to a drive-in and made me watch ‘Night of the Living Dead', that I would get to play one."
The Making Of A Zombie
Bud Stross, of Newport, Ky., dubs himself as the "Father of the Zombies" or "Dad of the Dead!" since he supervised the making of 30-plus zombies on a daily basis.
His job was to make sure that every zombie that passed through make-up was bloody enough to venture out onto the next scene. Mission accomplished.
The self-taught make-up artist and co-owner of Dent Schoolhouse said that once he got into make-up, he realized, "I was really good at making people look ugly."
Making the ugly and the undead was, by far, one of the most gruesome and grueling tasks on the set, especially since depending on the level of zombie sitting in the make-up chair, could take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours to transform.
-Blooders were fresh, fast and bloody, taking no more than 15 minutes to fix up. These were used in large hordes and helped fill out the crowd.
-Mid-Grown Zombies were a little more decrepit. They were more in frame and got more attention, and took between 15-45 minutes to make up.
-Hero Zombies are the showboats of the zombie world in "Revelation Trail"—‘Dead Divas' if you will. They had the most blood, screen time and maggots, of all the zombies. These zombies could take 45 minutes to three hours to complete.
To create the scary, nightmare-inducing walkers, the B.A.M. FX make-up artists used the same as Hollywood pros: latex, silicone, prosthetics and of course "Ham Brains".
"Ham chunks mixed with fake blood, and other ingredients looked just like brain matter, and tastes pretty darn good!" said Stross.
"There is also an instant where a solder's stomach is ripped into by some zombies and his guts were exposed and eaten. The guts were actually a mix of chocolate cake, potato chips and blood. The visual on screen is very disturbing."
Aside from the brains and guts, you cannot forget about the blood, the staple of any good horror flick. To concoct oozing blood; they used corn syrup, said Stross. However, for drippy, bloody mouths, make-up artists used cherry syrup, which was "both flavorful but realistic."
When they yelled the final, "Cut!" Stross estimated that they made up at least 100 undead characters.
That is something to be proud of, as is the production as a whole, said Gibson.
"I honestly do hope that folks can walk away from this film, and the story surrounding it and say, ‘You guys spent six years to get to this point. There's probably 30 times you should have turned around and let this script gather dust and call it quits. But you didn't, and now you have this to show for it.' If that can help one or two storytellers out there struggling, then I am happy," said Gibson.
"Revelation Trail" premiered in April in western Kentucky to five sold-out screenings. Seating is limited for this one-night event in Covington.
Tickets are available online through the Madison Theater website, www.madisontheateronline.com.
Doors open at 7 p.m., and the film screening begins at 8 p.m.
Other screenings nationwide are in the works as is distribution and home media, said Gibson. Stay tuned.