Night Of The Living Deb isn’t “a shitty Shaun Of The Dead”

Kyle Rankin on making a warm and funny zombie comedy with Night Of Living The Deb

Deb 1
Deb 1
Maria Thayer and Michael Cassidy in Night Of The Living Deb

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s not a lot of life left in the zombie comedy subgenre (sorry), but every now and then a film comes along and surprises you. Kyle Rankin’s Night Of The Living Deb is one of those films.

It’s a warm, sweet and genuinely funny movie (from the writer-director of the massively underrated creature comedy Infestation), about a girl (Strangers With Candy‘s excellent Maria Thayer) who leaves a one-night stand and meets the zombie apocalypse, it avoids the usual pitfalls and we definitely think you should catch it at Film4 FrightFest.

We spoke to Rankin about creating a movie his daughters would want to watch, how Kickstarter acted as his sounding board, and why Shaun Of The Dead comparisons don’t bother him.

How did Night Of The Living Deb come about?

I wrote about 20 pages of it and it had a male lead at the time, and I was realising, “This is just going to be a really shitty version of Shaun Of The Dead,” which is a movie that I really like. I knew I couldn’t do that so I gave the script to a buddy of mine, Andy Selsor, and just said “I think this should be a woman,” and we talked about where it could go. He went away and wrote a very funny script and then I tried my hand at this whole Kickstarter thing.

Which I’d always been nervous about, the idea of failing publicly. But then I thought, “Well, if we’re successful publicly then that could really help a little movie!” It’s almost free advertising, it gets the word out. That was successful, and it really gave us the lion’s share of the budget, that got me very excited. I didn’t know if people were zombie-d out, but another great thing about Kickstarter is it’s a great way to test the marketplace and see if people even want such a film. The response was really positive and that kind of encouraged me to keep going.

And I’m in Los Angeles but I’m from Maine, I used to make movies there before I moved out here about 12 years ago, so it was really fun to go back there because I knew that we would get free locations and lots of people excited to come put zombie make-up on. There was just a lot of excitement there. Whereas if you try to make an independent low budget film in Los Angeles there are a lot of people that are jaded. “Oh, another movie? I’m not interested!”

I can see that Kickstarter would be great for instant fan reactions.

Yeah, it’s really neat, it’s very democratising to have that direct connection with your fans. I am someone who has made some studio pictures in the past where then the distributor takes it and you just never really hear…if a fan finds you, you can get some engagement or an email here or there, but it’s really great to post an update and have an ongoing dialogue with people that care about the movie from beginning to end. And I would sometimes use them, it could have gone one way or another on a poster design and it was really fun to email everyone and say “Hey, do you like a or b?” I would use them to break ties and things!

Maria Thayer is ready for the zombies as Deb
Maria Thayer is ready for the zombies as Deb

One of the things I loved about the film was the way the stereotypical comedy gender roles are reversed. Could you tell us about that decision?

When I started writing those 20 pages I was like “Oh, it would be really funny if a zombie apocalypse happened right after an awkward one-night stand.” That was what the original idea was. And then as soon as I started writing a kind of affable but a little ditzy kind of guy, that’s when I realised “Oh this movie will just be lost in the shuffle and kind of panned,” and also it didn’t really interest me. My own writing didn’t interest me because of the male lead! My wife and I just had our second daughter, we’re having a little girl now, and I want to make something that she’d think was cool when she was 14 or 15. I hadn’t really seen a female type Shaun Of The Dead.

It must be tricky to find something new to do in the zombie comedy genre.

Yes, indeed. That’s a nice thing sometimes, a liberating thing about having such a small amount of money, because this really was a very inexpensive film, sometimes you feel like “Hey, even if we get compared to Shaun Of The Dead or another great movie, well that’s great because we’re making this for such little money!” Sometimes you don’t mind the comparison because you’re like “Great!”

But yeah, you do want someone to feel like you gave them something unique. Otherwise what’s the point? I often just try to think about how I’m leaving the viewer after those 90 minutes in general, how do I leave them feeling? And it was important this time round; I just wanted to make a positive movie. At the end of a tough week, leave people with a half smile on their face. “Yeah, that was fun!” That was all I really wanted.

I liked that it was warm and sweet as opposed to snarky or crass.

Yeah, more of a Planes Trains And Automobiles than The Hangover, something more snarky and dark and edgy I wasn’t really interested in. I actually wanted something more like a John Hughes-ian type feel. Generally positive but just disparate people thrown together.

Michael Cassidy, Maria Thayer and Kyle Rankin
Michael Cassidy, Maria Thayer and Kyle Rankin

Maria Thayer is wonderful as Deb, could you tell us about casting her?

Oh my gosh, yes. She’s just great and would work with her again in a heartbeat. She’s just so sweet on and off set, very positive, very much like Deb when I met her. I cast Michael Cassidy [who plays uptight male lead Ryan] first because he was a friend of a friend. I met Michael and I was like “Oh man, finding the Deb is going to be tough.” I met Maria and hit it off, we ended up laughing for hours, I was like “OK, she’s the one.” Very positive, witty, entertaining without really trying to be. One of the first things I noticed about her in person is her laugh; it’s like a cartoon laugh. She actually says “ho-ho-ho!” and “he-he-he”, but she means it! It’s not put on, I’ve been out having a couple of beers with her and the crew and she’ll do the same laugh.

And you’ve got Ray Wise and Chris Marquette, both of whom were in Infestation

Oh yeah, Ray I love working with. And then Chris was just so fabulous. And I didn’t know if he’d be interested in a smaller part but he was immediately interested and I felt he came and made it more than it was on the page for sure. He added some of my favourite lines. And we’re talking about maybe another project together, another scary comedy thing. All good people too, all people that I enjoy when the cameras are rolling and when they are not. They made it better than the sum of its parts.

Infestation and Night Of The Living Deb are both really fun comedy horrors, what is it about the genre that you love?

I guess they’re something I’ve loved forever. Movies would come out and I was like “Man, I wish I had made that!” like Men In Black, or even Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I just love the blend of horror comedy and, I just really think they cleave quite close to each other in real life too. I think whether we are at a funeral or whatever; I think the urge to laugh is always there. I think it’s the way that we cope with things. I’m not a big watcher of humourless movies because I just find them very draining. Even something like It Follows, which I love, very, very moody and dark and wonderful, but then also the girl with the glasses and the little iPod-y device, she has some jokes here and there and it just eases things off and actually makes it feel more like real life than not.

DEBstill5I’m assuming that Deb was easier to make than Infestation, given that you had zombies rather than killer bugs!

Yeah, completely. I think there were around 300 effects shots in Infestation and a lot of technical type shooting. This time around we just didn’t have the resources, and also I knew going in that I was delivering comedy and then maybe some romance and then third I was going to worry about a little bit of horror, because I just knew that I couldn’t deliver a lot of the visuals needed. There’s parts of Infestation that I think are genuinely creepy, I’m not sure the same is true with Deb! Much easier to shoot.

Any movie is an undertaking and like climbing a mountain because you’re working with the resources that you have at the moment but a huge difference was that it was between a year and a year and a half to do the effects shots on Infestation. That was kind of onerous and it was much better just to edit this. Even still I think we have like 90 visual effects shots with Deb, a lot of it’s like clean up work and that kind of stuff.

Finally, do you have a favourite zombie movie?

I should really have that answer ready! I mean, I gotta give props to Shaun Of The Dead. 28 Days Later too, has really had a great effect on me. And then there are things that aren’t zombie movies officially but feel like it, I guess that’s 28 Days Later too because that’s more of a virus, but even Day Of The Triffids. I love that kind of thing. I’m more of a post-apocalyptic guy, I love that subgenre.

Night Of The Living Deb is playing at Film4 FrightFest on Saturday 29th August and you can find information about that screening here. Find out more about the film at its official website. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.