Category Archives: Schoolgirl Apocalypse Director’s File

Making a Zombie Movie in Japan

When I was writing the script of the film some four years back, I didn’t really think of this film as a “zombie” film. Although it definitely should fall into the greater “zombie horror” genre, the film is much more about the journey of a girl faced by a perplexing threat that doesn’t always follow traditional zombie rules. I won’t elaborate on this here since it would be too many spoilers. Having said this, I still think calling this section “Making a Zombie Movie in Japan” is about as precise as it can be though.

The real question is – Do you really care? Probably not, but if you happen to fall into that very thin slice of humanity that wants to make a zombie film in Japan or you just love all things Japanese, then maybe you’ll want to read on. For me, the making of the film was such a fascinating, stimulating, grueling and traumatic process that it just makes sense to write about it if even for catharsis.

Zombie Film Horror File: Elephantine Land Leeches!

One day the line producer, my wife and I were location scouting around the Chiba countryside for locations for our upcoming zombie film, we came across a locked, decrepit looking gate that said “Elephant Park” or some such. It should have read “Elephant Graveyard” but I’ll tell you why later.

At that time we were still in early stages of location scouting doing what the line producer called “scenario hunting”. For a low-budget you often have to take what you can get. If you come across an interesting landscape or element you might be inspired to rewrite your script to get what big-time wannabes label “production value”. Having a rogue elephant lumbering through my film sounded cool though so we stood outside the locked gate for a while trying to think of a way to signal anyone inside the hilly, forested area beyond.

Finally my recent bride crawled over the three-meter high barbed wired gate and disappeared over the hill. I shuffled about a bit feeling guilty and nervous that I hadn’t gone inside in her place. I muttered something inane to the line producer but he just stared grimly at me and said something about me “being the director”.

It piqued enough for me to hoist myself over the gate and stumble to the other side. Somehow I managed to drop down without major injury and went off looking for the wife.

Zombie Film Horror File: Elephantine Land Leeches Part Two

Elephantine 300x223 Zombie Film Horror File: Elephantine Land Leeches Part Two

On our journey to seek out locations for the eventual production of our zombie film, my wife had moved on ahead.

She hadn’t actually gone far. She was near an empty shack with an elephant themed exterior, looking down the hill where the woods got all dark and deep-ish. I was a bit creeped out too but we heard voices coming from down below so I finally volunteered myself to look for someone and asked my wife to stick to by the shed. Why should we both be arrested or trampled after all? I ventured about a hundred meters down into the darkening foliage.

When I finally saw an elephant lumbering freely about and heard what actually sounded like Thai voices calling out, I high-tailed it back out of there.

Back outside we decided the line producer would contact the owners of the place and see if a visit could be lined up. The visit happened a couple weeks later.

The operation had two locations. One was a recreational zoo where younger elephants performed various ponderous acrobatics and tricks such as painting representational art with brushes coiled in their trunks.

We wandered off the beaten path to find the place was actually complete with a small Thai shanty town where the imported trainers and handlers lived pretty much the way you’d see them living in Thailand. This part of the scouting was a bust though. No matter how hard I thought about it, elephants painting flowers didn’t make much sense in a zombie film – even as “alternative” as mine would eventually be.

Finally the owner’s son took us back to their other tract of land which is where the older elephants “retired”. Yes, the place we had first stumbled across was an actual elephant’s graveyard. (To this day I still don’t know what they actually did with the mega-corpses though.)

Zombie Film Horror File: Elephantine Land Leeches Part Three

In our continued search for locations for our zombie film when we finally went down the hill into that deep dark-ish forest it didn’t turn out to be that filmic after all. There were a couple elderly elephants (I even think I remember one of them doing that repetitive head swaying thing that only captive elephants do – but that might be my mind projecting an overlay on the whole memory to make it more interesting). The fact is there wasn’t much going on there besides a few shacks and benches and a lot of mud all covered by a high canopy of trees that didn’t let enough daylight in for low-budget lighting to handle anyway.

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Old Boy

The son kept talking about some great view at the top of the mountain that rose above their camp. He insisted it was amazing so we followed him and a couple of rugged looking Thai guys into the denser forest and up the mountain. After a short time we city dwellers were drenched in sweat and covered in mud as the trail became almost non-existent. The guy kept plowing forward so I figured this view must be worth a million bucks because it would cost us that to get all the equipment that far anyway. Finally the line producer hit his limit and decided to wait behind. My wife and I kept slipping and sliding forward as the Thai guys nimbly hopped like mountain goats up the mountain (wearing only flip-flops I might add!).

Finally we reached the summit and although the view wasn’t bad I was long past believing we’d ever get our gear up there without a helicopter. There was a scene where I wanted to show the main character finding the ocean a long way off after climbing a mountain, but even on that relatively clear day, the ocean was obscured by the dense humidity hanging over the forest.

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Hard earned view from the top.

So we turned around and trudged back to their base camp.

It was at the bottom of the mountain that my wife felt an odd feeling on her foot.

On that day she was wearing flat shoes and pants that left her calves visible – something more suited to a picnic in a mid-city park than mountain trekking. When she pulled her shoe off blood spilled out and there was a strange little thing that looked like a grey caterpillar clinging just below that little knobby ankle bone thing. (What’s the term for that bone anyway? Exterior facing ankle bone?)

When she tried to pry it off it just clung tighter somehow. Blood trickled down from the little pernicious creepy thing. It made me panic a little and I tried to dig it off from her leg as well. She suddenly cried out as the thing really clamped in with some kind of sharp mandibles.

Already blood was spilled and we had just started on the road to making our zombie film.

Zombie Film Horror File: Elephantine Land Leeches Part Four

Continuing on our quest for suitable locations for our zombie film we found ourselves in a Thai run elephant park in Chiba Japan! And now my wife was being eaten alive by a bloodsucking creature of unknown origin.

The owner’s son said it was a “hiru” which means leech. The odd thing was, this thing didn’t look like any leech I’d ever seen and also we had purposely avoided the standing pools of water as any sensible human would. How had it ever latched on in the first place? Had it dropped from a tree like a tick? But that would be tick-like not leech-like right?

Anyway, one of the Thai guys, who didn’t chew his fingernails down to the nub like I do, had these long nails that functioned like perfect pincers sliding under the little devil’s mandibles or claws or whatever to flick it away. Then I started feeling more panicky myself thinking that where there was one of these vampires there were probably more. I started checking my own trembling body and sure enough, there was a little bastard crawling up my pant leg! (I still wonder sometimes if the Thai guy had inadvertently flicked the one from my wife’s leg onto my pant leg or if maybe these things can hop!)

land leech Zombie Film Horror File: Elephantine Land Leeches Part Four
Ugh!

My wife and I finally went into one of the shabby shacks and undressed to check ourselves over completely. Luckily we found no more parasitic vermin draining our blood. You’d think this would be the happy end to a story of personal horror but it’s not. For almost an hour and a half, the wound on my wife’s leg kept trickling blood. We asked her if she wanted to go to a hospital but this was the day that I realized my wife was not your average Japanese city slicker. She never freaked out once through the entire leech ordeal and even after she just kept swabbing away the blood until it finally congealed enough to seal up the wound.

When I got back home I was shaken enough to do some research on the Japanese land leech (AKA Haemadipsa Zeylanica, Yamabiru and/or Japanese Mountain Leech). It turns out that these things have lived in the hot, sticky forests of Japan since the beginning of time plaguing the deer, monkeys, and wandering ronin samurais but avoiding roads and civilization. For many years now, most of Japan has been tamed for agricultural purposes but lately farms have been increasingly abandoned as people flock to the megalopoli. As rural townships fall to ruin, little by little these land leeches have been riding deer and the odd tusked boar into more populated areas – gradually making their way toward the outskirts of Tokyo!

If you want to see the horrible bloodsucker in motion check out this startling link!

The truly horrific thing about these monsters is that not only do they inject a powerful anticoagulant to engorge themselves more easily on your blood, they also inject a local anesthetic so you don’t notice a thing until there’s blood pooling in your shoe. They hang out on stalks of grass just waiting for you to wander by then latch on for a ride as they swell up to ten times their original size feasting on your fluids.

Will there be a day when these beasties finally adapt to the urban habitat like their crafty cousins, the rat and crow? Only time will tell…

Zombie Movies: Getting the Ball Rolling Uphill

One of the pivotal experiences in the uphill battle of getting the film produced happened in 2010 after we’d been developing the script for about a year and a half. The project was accepted in the Korean Puchon Film Festival’s NAFF project competition. We would be one of the very few zombie movies that year.

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2010 NAFF Project Competition in Puchon, Korea

It was a truly amazing experience to attend this event packed with producers, film-makers, distributors, journalists and sales agents – all of them long term professionals with high degrees of success in bringing Asian films to market or in film promotion. In contrast to this, a family atmosphere was encouraged by the organizers who joined us every evening for communal activities such as karaoke marathons that effectively dissolved national, cultural and other sundry nocuous barriers that prevent international collaboration.

In all, 15 projects were invited to compete and since then several of the projects have been completed and released.

Especially formative for the film’s development was the experience of having the jury interview us and make comments on the merits and demerits of the project. Thanks to their input, we were able to vault over some of the more difficult, extra-sticky plot problems and achieve a near final draft of the script through “getting back to the basics” by sticking to the main theme of the film.

Not a complaint really, but as a new director you might find participating in one of these events something akin to being a seriously ill patient being looked after by a team of health care pros. You can see in their eyes a certain level of restraint or detachment as they wonder, “Will this guy actually pull through and make a film or will his project croak and I’ll never see him again…” It didn’t really bother me that much since I knew that I’d have the same look in my eyes if I were in their shoes – it just made me want to finish the film all the more so I’d have their less restrained company the year after. Does that make sense?

In any case, if you have an Asia based genre film in the works I highly recommend this event.

Zombie Film Horror File: Swarm of the Rock Roaches! Part One

A critical scene in our upcoming zombie film needed a distinctive coastal view (yes, I’m still reminiscing about location scouting) and the line producer, the wife and I were still considering the area of Chiba for shooting. It was here that I saw some of the creepiest beaches I’ve ever seen.

On a side note, I would have definitely shot in Chiba if the film commission had been a bit more low-budget friendly. In the case of the Chiba office, it was an afterthought folded under the office of tourism. Hence if a film location scout ever shows up, some poor guy in the tourism office who probably wears a thousand other hats has to shift gears and draw some circles on a map as he tries to dredge up some picturesque locations from his overworked memory.

The other problem with Chiba is that there was really no inherent enthusiasm in the locals to launch off (exploit) of either. No use playing either the “movie-making glamor” card or the “exotic gaijin” card there since no one really seemed to care beyond how high a fee they might be able to charge. Fair enough really. So many people have been exploited horribly by jokers playing “movie glamor” cards or “exotic gaijin” cards that they’ve probably wised up and at least want some cash to get ruthlessly exploited.

Back to the real life horror beaches though… Chiba has all these craggy rock formations that look like a backdrop from a Prometheus Bound painting along with a lot of other macabre, eroded remains.

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Crows in Japan actually look like this and probably eat human flesh given the chance too!
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Promethius Was Here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In one place I noticed the flat shelf of rock extending out to sea had stone ruins on it. Looking more closely I could see the worn remains of stone houses complete with outlines of entryways, rooms and so on. The stone was somehow welded to the rock, but don’t know how that could be. I still have no idea what those ruins must have been. Who would build right there at the edge of the sea? My best guess is these were shore defenses from WWII. What did they call them, pill boxes?

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Coastal Ruins – Look on the far side too.
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Ruined wall with my shoe as unintentional reference

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This theory of war ruins would be supported by the fact that there are many caves, both man-made and modified natural ones, dug into the sea cliffs as WWII air raid shelters. Now most of them are concreted over or used for storage by local fishermen. We toyed with the idea of the main character of the film, Sakura, hiding out in one of these caves but later settled on something more visually interesting instead.

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Coastal Caves

Zombie Film Horror File: Swarm of the Rock Roaches! Part Two

During the pre-production stage of the filmmaking process for our indie zombie film we explored many locations within a days drive of Tokyo.

Along the Chiba coast were sundry temples and shrines in various states of disrepair but perhaps the most horror inspiring one of all is one that I managed to snap a few shots of.

No way to work this little guy into the film plot really – no matter how much I would have liked to. He should probably have a film of his own in my opinion. This photo should get the coveted Creepy Japan Award (made that up) but the fact is the actual place is even more creepy than the photo.

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No this is not a low budget film set!

I was quite curious as to what purpose this particular shrine had. What did people come to this particular statue to pray for? Obviously someone was taking care of his upkeep as his robe looked pearly white. But was he meant to be a regular jizo statue for helping along travelers and children? Or was he especially helping those lost at sea since he was facing the ocean? Only someone in Chiba knows…

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What’s that he’s holding? I have no idea – this zoomed in shot was as close as I would get.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we finally made the film in a completely different area called Numazu in Shizuoka prefecture, we did include a scene with jizo statues but they don’t look anything like this particular one. Somehow his image still remains imprinted in my memory though… maybe because I keep staring at the photo.

Zombie Film Horror File: Swarm of the Rock Roaches! Part Three

Anyway, I’m finally getting to the point of this particular horror file. Again all these events and creatures popped up during the location scout phase of pre-production for our zombie film Schoolgirl Apocalypse we were making in Japan.

As we combed the shorelines of Chiba, north of Tokyo,  in search of a “creepy beach” suitable for a zombie film, we also found an army of multi-appendaged monstrosities.

 

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You’re probably going to ask yourself, “Why in the hell is this guy so obsessed with insects?”, “Why doesn’t he stop wasting my time and just go ahead and make another insect horror flop?” Perhaps the answer is that I’m too terrified of them or maybe I just can’t afford the CG but who knows what the future holds.

In any case the bug of the day is called “funamushi” in Japanese. I think they should call it “FUNAMUSHI!!!” in all caps with some extra exclamation points because that is how you feel when you actually witness them in action.

There is something incredibly visceral about seeing these creepy crawlies, especially since they seem to move as a flock like birds do. Thousands upon thousands, they lurch forward across the sea-side stones then stop, then go, then stop, then go… all in unison! Doesn’t matter which way they turn, they all seem in on it. It is like they share a hive mind tuned in to whatever makes human beings recoil in the most disgusted horror.

Why they would have evolved this way makes no sense since no creature in their right mind would ever think they looked tasty. This is why in English we’ve had to struggle to find the appropriate name to encapsulate their true monstrosity. Some call them “Sea Slaters” or “Sea Lice” but the best description in my opinion is “Rock Roaches”.

But the thing with roaches is that no matter how disgusting they might be, no matter how much our brain stem is programmed to hate them, the common roach is more of a lone hunter type. You only have to see one or at most two in action at a time. (If you’re seeing more than that then I think you’d better fumigate or just move house somewhere else.) The common house-hold roach, no matter how large or gross they might mutate, isn’t into team sports such as synchronized swimming. The dreadful funamushi on the other hand looks like a miniature version of a nazi rally run at ultra-high speed, goose stepping with their multiple legs over every surface you’d ever imagine possible.

If you want to distance yourself from their utter disgustingness by means of science then you can think of them as a kind of terrestrial isopod with the innocuous name of Ligia Exotica like the guy in this site does (It is vile! He actually picks them up with his bare hands!). Or you could anthropomorphize it and add breasts like the guy on this site does. Hey, whatever it takes.

funamushi 150x150 Zombie Film Horror File: Swarm of the Rock Roaches! Part Three

funamushi thumbnail2 Zombie Film Horror File: Swarm of the Rock Roaches! Part Three