At a recent pre-Cannes film social, we bumped into writer and director Howard J. Ford. He was there to promote his most recent film The Dead, and took some time out to chat to Roobla about what inspired him and his brother Jon to make a zombie road movie set in Africa.

Cannes Howard J Ford Karyn Louise, © Ruby Photography London.

From a young age, the Ford brothers were fascinated by the work of director George Romero, known in some circles as the King of the Dead. Romero has produced many zombie genre films over the years, beginning with the classic Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Ford was, and still is, ‘blown away’ by Romero’s work, saying that it ‘took horror into the light’. He was intrigued by the idea that other humans, possibly loved ones, could become the new horror enemy.

The cinematography and overall style of The Dead also reference the Spaghetti Westerns of Italian Director Sergio Leone, as well as J. Lee Thompson’s 1958 film Ice Cold in Alex, which is set during WW2 and also features a dangerous African road trip.

Ford told us that he had always wanted to make a zombie film, but kept getting waylaid by other projects (he has directed over 150 television adverts, as well as two other feature films, Mainline Run and Distant Shadow). The Dead is his third feature film, growing out of ‘…the zombie itch we never scratched’.

The idea to set the film in Africa came when Ford was there shooting for another project. Africa is where the zombie myth originally arose, allegedly from religious rituals involving the taking of hallucinogenic drugs which caused participants to engage in zombie-like behaviour. According to Ford, there are people in Africa who still genuinely believe in zombies.

While The Dead is very much a zombie film, it has several layers. Like many film-makers before them, the Ford brothers have used their zombies to denote much more than just cheap thrills and violence; the script was also inspired by the tragic political and humanitarian situation in Africa. Ford wanted his film to have heart as well as zombies; ‘I don’t see The Dead as a horror,’ he told us, ‘the zombies are the context.’

Ford also said that he had tried to make a film which is ‘both beautiful and horrific’. He wanted the film to function on two levels, to be a classic zombie genre film, but also to include elements of true horror, not just extreme gore; ‘I want people to feel uneasy,’ he said.

The shooting of the film, which took place in Burkina Faso, French-speaking West Africa and Ghana, was fraught with danger and difficulty. So much so in fact that Ford has since penned a book about the experience entitled Surviving the Dead. Many films have suffered extreme setbacks during their production, perhaps most famously Apocalypse Now, which was plagued by huge delays and technical failures. Ford describes shooting The Dead as ‘hell on earth – give me Apocalypse Now any day of the week!’

He’s not kidding – the film-makers had to deal with everything from delays to muggings at gunpoint to lead actor Rob Freeman contracting deadly cerebral malaria. Many other members of the crew also became severely ill, including both of the Fords: ‘My brother and I would have creative discussions in between projectile vomiting,’ Ford told us, grimacing at the memory.

After almost three months, cast and crew came through the desert with one completed zombie film for their trouble, and Ford is now able to look back at the whole experience with humour – black humour, but humour nonetheless. The whole insane story is told in Surviving the Dead by Howard J. Ford, from Grosvenor House Publishing.

Ford’s next move will be to head down to this year’s Cannes Film Festival in his newly acquired Gran Torino. Cinematically, he is currently writing a screenplay and is also set to a direct a supernatural thriller to begin shooting in September 2012. There has also been a fair amount of demand for The Dead 2, he tells us, but it won’t be his next feature film, as he wants to avoid being typecast as a zombie director – however, he did promise us that ‘The Dead 2 will go places no other zombie movie has been before.’

Meanwhile, The Dead is available on DVD now.

The Pre-Cannes event was organised by Paola Berta, Sheepish PR, Beverly Hills UK – Film Society & Events.

Photos by Karyn Louise, © Ruby Photography London.

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