by Pablo A. Tariman
The director and members of the cast of Block Z have varying exposures to zombie movies (Train To Busan, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Zombieland) and many others.
The comparison ends there.
Now on his 7th feature film, Direk Mikhail Red said the main challenge of his latest horror film is that he has to do a zombie movie with Philippine context and relatable to his millennial milieu.
The choice is a typical Philippine campus with recognizable characters from strict school officials to repressed librarians and barkada groups from one of which he singled out a group he named Block Z.
In this setting, a zombie epidemic breaks out and both students and teachers and school heads have to find a way to put the crisis under control and survive.
“It is a very contained movie,” said Direk Mikhail. He transformed a school campus into one big horror house full of zombie characters and his creative juice started flowing from there.
It is nothing totally new to him because as early as age 15 when he studied under Marilou Diaz-Abaya, he would fancy doing zombie films using ketchup as make-believe blood. “So when I was given the opportunity to do a big, studio-funded zombie film, I jumped at the idea. It took a year and a half to prepare and shoot it but it is all worth it. This is the big zombie movie I’ve always wanted to do when I was younger. I started by planning the mechanics and then choosing the cast and closely working with the creative team.”
One thing he figured out is that the film involved a lot of speedrunning for the cast and training a big zombie crowd. “In other countries, there is already an assembled zombie crowd for hire but in our case, we started from zero. We trained our own zombie extras since day one and you’d be surprised they delivered.”
He admits doing a zombie film is not a walk in the park. There are so many things to attend to from working on the rapport with the cast and overseeing prosthetics work on hundreds of zombie extras and building their individual characters in the movie. “We had zombie classes instead of zumba sessions. It can’t be helped that there were lots of stunts and lots of speedrunning, a lot of screaming and gore.”
The zombie mother (Ina Raymundo) gave a sample of her character in the presscon and indeed, she horrified!
Ina said it took four hours to do prosthetics before the shoot and at times, she was seized by panic. What if an earthquake happened and she couldn’t remove that prosthetics and she would be mistaken for a real zombie and ended up beaten by a crowd? “I felt like I was possessed every time my sequence was taken,” she added.
Red said the horror film is a battle of survival with the characters faced with tough choices and in the process testing their humanity.
From his own experience thus far, it takes quite a lot to do a good horror movie.
“Every horror film is an adventure into the unknown and working with all the elements that make up the genre,” he pointed out. “For one, it has a very visual language and the script should conceal and reveal at the same time. Early on, I have very good exercises doing the visual language. Then you work with your actors and make sure they jell with their characters and looking believable especially in their argument scenes. It is a test of concentration to be able to deliver lines facing a lighting crew. Then you figure out one scene still needs something to look real and you suggest the sound of footsteps in the sound design. True, filmmaking involves closely working with a lot of talents and you make sure your vision is articulated. It is also a test of dynamics working with the young and the older ones. You have to enjoy the process in order to survive the tiresome process. When the work is done, you realize you have actually made a perfect barkada movie.”
Mikhail has a memorable 2019.
He made his first studio blockbuster, he acquired his first car and first condo, he figured in his first Hollywood connection, he did his first Netflix original film and first HBO series.
A college dropout by choice, Mikhail is now 28 and the power and the passion to do good movies still consume him.
“In the beginning, it was just a hobby and I figured that since I dropped studies to focus on filmmaking, I have no choice but to make a career out of it and to make sure it works for you. I treat every project as an opportunity to learn and I make sure I am doing something new and enjoying the process.”
Produced by Star Cinema, Block Z opens in cinemas on January 29.