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The Living Dead

thelivingdead1Young Santa Cruzans show off their zombie flick at the Rio

I usually detest gory films. And zombie movies. Puh-lease. What about gory, zombie student films? Could prove to be a bloody mess (both onscreen and in the production value). But when three young filmmakers (two recent UC Santa Cruz grads and one current junior) came knocking, and knocking, and knocking on GT’s doors, we knew their film had some life.

With about as much self-driven energy behind them as a major studio would have behind its next horror flick, these three twentysomethings are about to introduce Santa Cruz to the living dead. At 8 p.m. on Friday, June 8, Before North Studios will present The Beginning, a feature-length film directed, written and produced by young Santa Cruzans. Much of the film was shot in Santa Cruz and stars a predominantly local cast and crew. Just another “amateur student” film? Hopefully not. And the way they’re hyping it, definitely not.

Footage is being safeguarded like this is the next Star Wars movie, but two trailers have been released on the Internet and fans are beginning to spread the word that in the cult world of zombie films, there’s something deadly on the horizon.

thelivingdead2I resistanted watching the trailers, but I was pleasantly surprised. The acting, for the most part, is strong (and after all, it’s quite a feat to come across believable in a zombie flick). Across the board, the cinematic quality is an oozy blend of raw, vulnerable footage, exceptional sound quality and the ambiance of a rather well made zombie movie. Considering that the young people at the heart of The Beginning have literally poured their ‘blood’ and the last three months of their lives into this production, the trailers reveal their hard work, courage and unwavering drive.

The supporting cast? The people who make it all happen “behind-the-scenes”? It’s that threesome: Jono Schaferkotter as director, Devin Fearn as writer/producer and Laura Greenwood as assistant director/all around organized woman.

On a breezy Santa Cruz day, the trio walks into GT’s offices with so much confidence and professionalism that you’d think they’d been at this for a while. They have, sort of. But in the fledgling stages. Still, their presence is that of “we’re going places, now pay attention,” with a smile.

Interestingly, none of them are or have been film students—just young people with creativity, an incredible amount of verve and enough dedication and spunk to become homespun filmmakers.

It all started in 2005, when Schaferkotter and Greenwood were living in the north end of a dormitory on the UC Santa Cruz campus. He was majoring in art, she in literature. They struck up a friendship and soon after a business relationship was in the works, as the two school friends started batting around ideas for “what if” they were to make a film. It was their junior year at the university and the pair quickly set to work, forming their own company, Before North Studios. He took a film class and got the basic know-how. They wrote a script, he pored over DVD director commentaries and they moved forward with not a short film like most newbies do, but a feature—a docudrama about college life. It had its ups and downs, they were beginners after all, but the pair trudged forward. Next on their self-starter plate was an existential cowboy feature. By then, they had graduated from college, with two feature films under their belts, but no degrees in film. That didn’t stop them from pursuing their most ambitious project yet—The Beginning.

The pair, and another non-film major, Fearn (who is still at UCSC), tossed around another film idea—this one about zombies. Fearn, an admitted zombie aficionado, thought he could write a solid script. Turns out, he did just fine, and Schaferkotter was pumped to direct the flick.

In February of this year, the trio set out to make The Beginning, shooting in Santa Cruz, Lodi, Pescadero and other nearby locations. The three crewed the film, along with two other sturdy helpers, and in practically every free second they have had over the last few months, they have put together a grizzly look at life after death.

The story is about four friends who go on a road trip and come across a zombie outbreak. “What’s lacking in some zombie movies is that you don’t get to know them, so when they die, it’s kind of like no big deal,” Fearn says. “If you spend the first half of the movie getting to know these people, before introducing zombies … you feel a connection to these people.”

In order to ensure that their zombie film isn’t just another cheesefest, the cinematic team raised about $10,000, upped the ante on professionalism, assembled a solid sound job and required good performances. “It’s realistic and as scary as possible,” Schaferkotter says. “Most zombie films are pretty campy. We’re going serious.” And they’re also going for a character-driven story, not just mindless entertainment.

As a result, the film and its filmmakers are already generating a buzz—among the zombie-following community. In fact, Fearn says that a zombie fan is coming from Texas to watch the June 8 screening of The Beginning at the Rio.

And speaking of zombie fans, what makes them so unique? The filmmakers go off the record at this point and laugh, but they do acknowledge that there is a world out there—think  vampire culture or the Dungeons and Dragons crowd. And then there are just those ‘regular’ folk who enjoy a gory film from time to time. Finally, there are those who came out to be extras in the flick. “We had like 60 extras who let us cover them with blood,” Schaferkotter says.

As for the future of this film—its filmmakers plan for it to have a long and prosperous life. Don’t expect it to die anytime soon. They’re hoping to get it into festivals, including Screamfest, one of the biggest horror film festivals, staged in Los Angeles. They’re just at the beginning.

The Beginning plays at 8 p.m. Friday, June 8 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $5 and go on sale at 7 p.m. For more information, visit schaferkotter.com/thebeginning.
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