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Matt O’Day & Zombies: From Paper to Screen

In the past I’ve interviewed book authors, illustrators, and actors…now I’m adding a script writer to my list.

Since Zombie Apocalypse Redemption was released on DVD this month, I thought it would be interesting to sit down & chat with the writer, Matt O’Day, who is behind this thrilling indie film.

You and the director Ryan Thompson worked so closely together on this….did he have any hand in writing the script too?

Matt O'Day at booth for Zombie Apocalypse

Ryan and I had wanted to collaborate on a feature length project for quite some time, especially after the blast we had working on “Anthology of Terror” together. So when Ryan mentioned wanting to do a sequel to his first Zombie Apocalypse movie it just seemed like a no brainer – no pun intended, haha – to work on it. And Ryan and I were in it together from that point on.

We hashed out a brand new story together, and whenever things got hairy in the writing process Ryan was always there to right the ship and get us sailing in the right direction again. And that started from the very beginning, because I didn’t have much interest in working with the characters from the first movie, and Ryan didn’t either. And I say that from a position of massive respect for a super-duper low budget zombie flick, but we both wanted to do something bigger, better, and smarter than the first Zombie Apocalypse movie.

Matt O'Day with director Ryan Thompson

So once Ryan gave me the greenlight to do a brand new story under the “Zombie Apocalypse” banner, I got to work and wrote the first draft of the screenplay over the course of about two months. I slapped some cuffs onto a guy I was calling John Knox in my head, threw him out into the desert, and went from there.

How different is the process of screenwriting from writing a short story or novel?

It’s a completely different animal. And that’s not to say I prefer any one over the other. Screenwriting feels much more like a team effort than the other two. It’s a lonely business staring at a blinking cursor, and just watching it blink over…and over…and over…and over. So it’s nice to have other people around who’re just as passionate as you are about what you’re working on, which is one of my favorite things I took away from this project.

We all worked really hard on the screenplay, and John Tillotson and Ryan Lieske added some great stuff along the way, and what you get, after four really smart people stared at that blinking cursor for a while is something that’s thoughtful, fun, smart, and action packed. I’m really proud to have worked on it with such a great group of guys.

A lot of people think there is an overkill of zombie independent films, simply because zombies are easier to produce than werewolves (and we’re all fucking sick of vampires period); many of our own viewers have said, “Enough is enough.” Why should zombiephiles add this movie to their collection? What would you say makes ZA:R stand out from the rest of the Romero wanna-bes?

The short answer is this: People want to watch good movies. And I agree with you about the overkill thing completely. You can make your friends look like fairly gruesome zombies for pretty cheap, and these days you can even buy a decently nice camera to shoot a movie with for pretty cheap. That’s why so many people do it. The problem is, nobody wants to watch a boring movie you shot with your friends made up to look like zombies in it. People want to watch good movies – ones with good stories that are driven by dynamic characters that go places and do things. They want to root for and against the characters that are thrown into a universe where there are flesh eating monsters everywhere.

It’s our job as filmmakers to make it easier for the audience to forget about their lives for a while because they’re too caught up worrying about our heroes, and hating our villains, and wondering what’s going to happen next in the story. And that’s where I think ZA:R stands out. Our characters go places and do things that make sense in the world we’ve created around them. Not a lot of zombie movies (or movies in general, honestly) do that enough these days. All the Romero wanna-bes can’t get past the shock value inherent to the zombie genre. They want to make movies where people get torn apart for no reason at all and assume that it’s fun because it’s zombies. But I think it’s really as simple as this: tell a good story, shoot a good story the right way, and you’ll have a helluva time along the way. And I think ZA:R is a helluva good time.

How involved were you in the making of the film, and how much influence did you have casting the characters? And how in the hell did you guys snag Fred Williamson?!

I was on set most every day, mostly just helping out wherever I could. Running cables, helping set up, tear down, talking to the actors. That kind of thing. Trying to help out whenever and however I could. Then, at the end of the day – which could sometimes be at 5am or so – a few of us would meet up at Ryan’s place or my place, and we’d discuss how we thought that day’s shooting went. A lot of stuff was changing on the fly, and I was re-writing things constantly – some of which were fairly major – just based on how we felt the performances were turning out…which was one of the joys of working with Fred, cause he literally gave us tons and tons of material to use every time the camera was on.

We were really lucky to have met him at Comic Con about six months prior. We had a booth there, where we were selling the first Zombie Apocalypse and Anthology of Terror DVDs. Fred had a booth there too, where he was signing autographs, doing his thing, just kind of being awesome in general, and Ryan went up to him during the Con and told Fred about how he’d always dreamed of having him in one of his movies. Fred, of course, was the coolest guy on earth and said that he loved making movies and was always looking for work. Ryan and I geeked out over this for a while, and that literally led to us getting serious about doing a sequel. I wrote the first draft based on the fact that Fred sounded willing to work with us, but I was still completely dumbfounded when I got the call after Ryan sent him my first draft and said Fred was really going to do it. It’s still one of the coolest things to happen to me. Hands down.

Fred Williamson with some of the cast & crew of ZA:R

I bet you were thrilled when you won the award for Best Movie Made in Michigan. What was it like to see ZA:R on the big screen? Do you feel like the movie lived up to the vision in your head?

It was completely surreal. And of course it was awesome that we won. It’s always nice to see something you’ve worked so hard on do well. It was really satisfying to hear a lot of people with genuine surprise in their voice, saying things like, “Wow. That movie was actually good. Way to go guys.” It felt like proof that hard work and dedication pay off in the end. Cause there were so many people that worked so hard on this movie that it’s ridiculous.

We beat the living shit out of Johnny Gel in this thing, and the guy just kept on bringing it day in and day out. We threw Jerry Lynch over a balcony with a chain around his neck for crying out loud. Things got broke. People got mad. Friendships were forged and broken. At the end of the day, it’s all worth it because you get to see the magic in people’s eyes when the lights come back up and the credits are rolling. The cast and crew, Ryan and I, the whole ZA:R family, we all got to live in that magic for a while making this thing. And sometimes you get so close to it that it’s easy to forget that making a movie like this really is magic when you do it right. But when you see it up on a big screen, when you can literally watch the audience holding its breath in the dark….yeah, I’d say it lived up to the vision in my head.

Do you plan on anymore zombie screenwriting projects? Any desire to get further involved in the zombie community, or have you had your fill of the undead?

I’m always working on new projects. I’ll never get my fill. But if I’m being honest, I did have to take some time off zombies after working on this project. I started working on a couple other things, but as a matter of fact I was just kicking around the idea of starting a draft of the next Zombie Apocalypse adventure with Ryan just the other day. I have no idea how it’ll go yet, or who exactly will be in it, but…it feels right.

The ground where that story lives in my head is starting to feel fertile again and I kind of want to start digging. Find out what’s going on in our heroes’ lives again, y’know? And, of course, we’re always on the Detroit Con circuit. Our fans come out every year, and they’re the best. The absolute best. They’ve loved the franchise since it was a movie Ryan made in college on a shoestring and a prayer, and I think they’re going to be blown out of their seats when they see what we’ve done with ZA:R. I’m really excited to see what happens in the very near future, and can’t wait to work on the next project in the Zombie Apocalypse universe.

Ads of the Living Dead.