A few minutes into the deliriously gruesome gorefest that is new ten-part English-language series Day of the Dead and you’ll be amazed to discover that co-creators Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas hail from a kids’ TV background. But they assure SBS the basics aren’t all that different.
“Creating a scare and creating a gag are very, very similar,” Elinoff says. “It’s all about the build-up and release of tension. The fun of doing a zombie show is that that tension release is wild and crazy and bloody and messy, but what you’re actually doing isn’t all that different.”
Thomas, an avowed fan of the horror genre, agrees. “On a kids show, we’re still trying to write scripts that make us laugh and that we would want to see, but we have to watch our language. When you do a zombie show, you know you can say ‘fuck’ 10 times, and you can rip people’s heads off.”
And there are plenty of headless torsos in the latest reanimation of George A. Romero’s wickedly beloved, shuffling brain munchers franchise. It posits a small town already divided by fracking besieged by the undead when an ancient zombie corpse is uncovered deep below the earth. “I’m from upstate New York, right on the border of Pennsylvania, and fracking is a huge issue that can divide a town,” Elinoff says. “It brings a tonne of money into a place where maybe there is no money, but it does a lot of environmental damage and can cause a huge schism.”
The explosive 2020 election and the staggering insurrection that followed hadn’t occurred yet when they were plotting out the show, but the furious polarisation of the country was already evident. You can see that in the premise of the show where the action plays out in the midst of a mayoral election. The incumbent (Miranda Frigon) proudly carries a gun, while Natalie Malaika’s undertaker is shocked anyone would bring one to a funeral. “We really took inspiration from Romero, especially Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead [where he has] a random group of people who find themselves in the same place trying to survive a zombie attack, and then also having some sort of social commentary,” Thomas says.
Just in case you’re worrying, the political touches are light on. Still, it’s part and parcel of the zombie genre since Romero on for these things to bleed into the plot. “The whole point of this thing was, ‘how does a zombie apocalypse bring a disparate group of people who have very little in common from the outset, together and fighting for their own survival?’” Elinoff says.
As for the kids TV connection, horror and a younger audience haven’t always been separated, particularly not during the way-more-willing-to-scare ‘80s, when Elinoff and Thomas grew up. “Ghostbusters and Gremlins are probably the most comedy that you can put into a supernatural story and still have the supernatural stuff work,” Thomas says. “The sweet spot is when you’re watching a horror film and something just goes a little too far. You’re finding yourself laughing almost as a way to release because, if you take it too seriously, it’s gonna really disturb you.”
The list of things Syfy, the American distributor of the show, said they couldn’t do was short, but included full-frontal nudity and racist language, neither of which they were interested in portraying anyway. Day of the Dead was one of the first shows to get underway last year, filming in Vancouver in August. “And the whole time, we were very aware that we were doing a series about basically a zombie virus that is spreading through the dead in this town and reanimating them, while we were also in the middle of a pandemic,” Thomas says. “It was pretty surreal. And even here in LA, with the empty streets, it definitely felt like we were already in a zombie apocalypse.”
Special effects company MastersFX (The Handmaid’s Tale, Child’s Play) was tasked with realising the macabre mayhem with as many practical effects as possible. “I grew up in the ‘80s, which was the golden age of gore effects,” Thomas recalls. “So you had Rick Baker (John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London) and Tom Savini (Romero’s Day of the Dead) and you were seeing some of the most amazing, ground-breaking practical effects that had ever been put on film. Then in the ‘90s and the 2000s, it all became computer generated. And I think even if it’s really good, your brain knows it’s being tricked and it just doesn’t seem as visceral and gross and disturbing as it should.”
They had to do a lot on a humble budget. “For a lot these kinds of productions, budgetary concerns make you want to keep it small,” Elinoff says of the small-town setting. “MastersFX were amazing and went above and beyond to stretch our budget,” Thomas adds. “It kind of came down to one big gag a day. Are we going to bite someone’s neck out and have the blood go everywhere? Or are we going to run over a zombie and have them explode? They’d bring in a crate of body parts to dig through and we’d be like, ‘I need a hand in here and, you know, blood, liver and some intestines’.”
When they watched the crew squeamishly turn away from the monitors, they knew they were on to a good thing. It was a heap of fun for the actors too, Thomas says. “They have something to react to and it’s playtime. They get to see what the audience is going to see and it’s way more fun.”
Day of the Dead premieres exclusively in Australia at SBS On Demand with episodes 1–3 arriving on Saturday 30 October. Episodes will land weekly on Saturdays after that, fast-tracked from the US. (Look out for Day of the Dead on SBS VICELAND in coming months.) George A. Romero's 1985 Day of the Dead film screens Sunday 31 October on SBS Movies at 10.15pm and will then be available at SBS On Demand.