He probably wouldn’t be your first guess at horror auteur, being as he’s best known for making mums go ‘awww’ (mine, anyway) on Emmerdale, but Dominic Brunt has been shepherding gore into cinemas with the Leeds Zombie Film Festival since 2008, made his chainsaw-wielding horror debut in Alex Chandon’s Inbred, and now makes his directoral debut with emotionally gruelling zombie horror Before Dawn. The director spoke exclusively to SciFiNow about horror films, Shameless star Nicky Evans, and his plan for a Halloween episode of Yorkshire Television’s favourite soap…
Was Before Dawn consciously a counterpoint to slapstick gore films?
I don’t think there’s any point in making another zombie film like that if you weren’t going to try and have a comment on what was done before, and try and do something different really.
We put on Leeds Zombie Film Festival once a year – it’s in its sixth year – and I watch all the zombie films that come out, really, just to choose some to play every year. We try and show classics and new ones, and you can see them beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. And there’s only like one in every five or six that crops up and you’re like ‘Actually, that’s not bad’. I was well aware that there’s not much that needs to be said about zombie films, but saying that it’s like saying, ‘There’s no more chase films that need to be made’. That’s what they are really, aren’t they? They’re just chase films.
But yeah, we didn’t want to make a slapstick zombie film, there’s no point, and half of them work half of the time, apart from the classics like Shaun Of The Dead.
Do you think people get a bit too caught up with the ‘running zombies versus walking zombies’ thing?
They had to be running zombies, because otherwise we’d have been sat in countryside for two weeks before the first zombie turned up! So they had to be running to catch up with us. I’ve come across real anger, one of the reviews we had just saying, ‘How dare you have running zombies’ and this, that and the other. Like me wife pointed out: they don’t exist. It’s like saying ‘People who make vampire films have got to do this, that and the other’ – if it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist.
I like the fact they decided you didn’t have to be bitten by a zombie to become one, you just had wake up to wake up – and that’s the classic example of it, it’s out there to be used – use it. Myths and legends are valuable, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re ghosts, werewolves or zombies, they’re there to serve the purpose of the story really.
Was it difficult as a fan of zombie films to filter out all the influences and ideas you might have picked up?
Not particularly, no. It was kind of more to do with the drama of the couple and what you could throw at them, and it was just more important that he went through a trauma that had to turn him from one person into another, and to see how any human being who hadn’t experienced violence before, how far he’d have to go to redeem himself with his love, and also how different human beings would be at the end of this trauma.
I like the fact zombies were there, that there is that paranormal thing that doesn’t really exist but to throw it at a very real situation, which is why we didn’t have anything for the first 20 minutes – we just wanted to have the story be intriguing human drama first and foremost. And then when the zombies do arrive, the theory is, you just go ‘Jesus Christ!’. The dream would be that there were no zombies on the cover, it was just a normal drama and then somebody stumbled across it one day and when it turns it’s a bit of a shock. Unfortunately we slapped zombies on the front cover. [laughs]
My wife doesn’t watch zombie films, but she came up with the story because she’s sick and tired of watching – well, she doesn’t really watch them. To me it was more important to have that slasher element, pig’s guts pouring out of a zombie while I’m cheering away, but she thought it was dull because she didn’t get to know anybody that got attacked. I’m quite happy about that normally, but she said ‘No, no, you should view these people like normal folk, like me or you’, and so we kinda based it on ourselves as different people.
Was it tough working with people who know you best as an actor – like Shameless and Emmerdale‘s Nicky Evans – and getting them to see you as director?
I wasn’t sure about that, because Nicky does Shameless and when he’d not doing Shameless he just goes off on his motorbike around Cambodia or Japan, and I think he’d just come back from Vietnam or something like three days before. We obviously know each other as friends, but we haven’t worked together in years and years and years, so he got there and ‘Let’s have a cup of tea, come upstairs and we’ll run these lines – if we have to we’ll do it a section at a time.’
But he’d been driving round Vietnam on his motorbike with these lines in his head, thinking about what to do, and he’d brought a costume with him, he’d padded out his mouth – that’s why he’s got a moustache. He took it so much more seriously than I expected him to, I thought he’d be a bit like ‘Right, go on then,’ but he didn’t and I was really, really pleased that he respected what we were doing. It was really hard work and he arrived in the middle of it. We had him for two days and then he was back on Shameless, but he was really amazing – he’s a real trooper that lad.
Was it tough working out the schedule with Emmerdale and Shameless being so demanding?
I could put in about four months before for two weeks off, so I made sure before that everybody else had that two weeks off. It could have been made three or four months before as well, but schedules and people that were available kept falling down, and we really wanted Nicky as well so we had to work that out and find a weekend where he wasn’t working. Then the special effects chaps could give us five days… but then we had this scheduler at work, at Emmerdale, this genius mathematician chap that seemed to work it all out and said ‘If you do it these two weeks, you will have everything, whenever you want it’ so that was a massive help.
Has it being difficult getting horror fans to accept you as sincere in your love for horror, and not treat you like a tourist?
I don’t know really – I’ve been cropping up at film festivals for years and I know my stuff so it’s not like anyone could pull me up. I honestly couldn’t care less, I just want to sit in the dark and watch films. That’s what me and Marc Chargin who plays Marlon do anyway, we sit in our Winnebago or in the backroom of the changing rooms and just watch zombie films and horror films, and that’s what we do. And rather than raise money by putting on some black tie thing that isn’t us – we’re just two scruffy lads, he’s from Bolton and I’m from Accrington, but we managed to get full-time employment – we thought, ‘Everyone else is doing these black tie things for all the charities in Leeds and Manchester, so we’ll do what we do – which is just watch zombie films and horror films in the dark. So we do that and we manage to get 500 people a year, raise a fortune and give it away at the end of the night to this animal charity.
Were you tempted to involve Marc more?
He lives too far away, so the Leeds Zombie Film Festival is the only time we really meet up outside of work. He is in the film though – he does some of the zombies growls and screams. I couldn’t not have gotten Marc involved!
Have you ever tried to convince the powers that be to let you do a Halloween special of Emmerdale?
Yeah, I have actually. I want them to do a Halloween special, I had this image of Edna getting bitten on the shoulder – like that scene in Dawn Of The Dead – and then the Woolpack under siege with all the old people inside and zombies swarming around. And then it would cut to a long shot of the Woolpack and the street, and then slowly pull out to show it was a film set on the moon.