It’s been said the Internet will rot your brain. Now, thanks to Justin Parlette and Eric Haven, it will also eat your brain. Their upcoming Web series, the zombie outbreak saga “Dead Wait,” gives literal new meaning to the term “viral video.”
Inspired by the undead canon of legendary “Night of the Living Dead” director George Romero, “Dead Wait” follows the travails of three zombocalypse survivors holed up in an apartment building as the flesh-eating hordes gather outside. While its content is vintage zombie genre, it’s the innovative format and distribution of “Dead Wait” that’s receiving so much attention.
“What we want, the business plan as it were, is to put this up online and use social networking as a way to generate buzz and interest,” says Parlette, Kansas City resident and Kansas University alumnus, who wrote and directed the series with Haven. “We’ve had media interest, distribution folks have been contacting us — and we haven’t even put an episode online yet….
“One of the most important things for this whole series is social media. We selected two of our Facebook fans to be killed in season two. The interest and excitement for this thing just because of a stinking Facebook page and Twitter account is amazing.”
The low hurdle for entry into online filmmaking and the resulting creative freedom it affords was also a major allure for the amateur auteurs, who each have a background in screenwriting and music videos, but have never tackled a production of this scope.
“Last October, I was trying to develop a Web series, because we wanted to create something we could create ourselves and distribute ourselves within our means,” says Haven, another former KU student living in K.C.
Haven and Parlette were also attracted to an episodic format that lends itself well to YouTube, and online viewing in general, where the audience is more accustomed to bite-sized (no zombie pun intended) installments.
“The content of zombies led to that,” says Haven of the serialized nature of “Dead Wait,” which features episodes five to 10 minutes long. “Justin and I got into a conversation where a lot of zombie stories fall short is that they focus on the zombie infestation, and we’re more interested in what happens as a result of that — human interaction, new government, new rules, what you do when everything you know is gone tomorrow — that sort of dynamic. When you do a feature, you’re kind of confined. Even if you do a sequel, you’re still confined by that three-act structure. This way, we can explore a little more.”
Web distribution is as much a necessity as it is a luxury for “Dead Wait,” which was financed out-of-pocket by the writers/directors and made with time donated by the cast and crew.
“The thing that saved ‘Dead Wait’ was we were surrounded by a group of professionals, both actors and technical crew, who were able to save our [expletive] when our inexperience might have become an issue,” Parlette says. “They sometimes knew what we wanted before we did.”
Innovation and improvisation, as with most shoots of minimum means, was the norm. “The crew that we had was probably more of a reason than we were that everything went so smooth,” Haven says. “We have engineers that made a steady cam out of lamp posts and Mountain Dew bottles. There could have been a lot more crises were it not for our crew.”
The bare-bones production was shot over the course of four weeks in January and February. One of the cost-cutting measures was to film the first season entirely on location in St. Joseph, Mo., using a former Mead factory that has been converted into an ominously industrial apartment complex as a set. Since it is an occupied apartment complex, this led to a few awkward encounters.
“There was a scene we filmed in a huge loft building in front of an elevator,” says Vanessa Severo, the Kansas City-based actress who plays one of the besieged survivors. “It took about 20 takes to complete because right at the end of each shot, the elevator would open, and people unaware of the filming taking place would wander into the scene. I’m sure there are a great deal of outtakes that came from it.”
Despite the micro-to-nonexistent-budget, the cast and crew feel like they didn’t have to scrimp on the end product, including that all important aspect of every zombie tale — gory makeup effects.
“Well I don’t want to give too much away,” says Daniel Hillaker, the Kansas City actor playing the paranoid protagonist of “Dead Wait,” who was coy regarding the quantity of blood in a climactic zombie battle. “But to give you an idea, at one point I was laying on the ground as we filmed a scene, and when I went to get up my hair stuck to the floor. I will let you imagine the rest.”
That particular scene notwithstanding, “Dead Wait” — at least for the first season — will be more about cerebral scares than splattering.
“Season two and three are going to be absolutely gory,” Parlette says. “That’s when we get waist-deep in it. Season one is building, where we meet the characters and everything goes to hell. Season two will be more of a comedy of errors and gore.”
Even though they’re still frantically editing all of the footage in an attempt to release the first episode in early April on dead-wait.com, Haven and Parlette can’t wait to get to season two. And three. And four. And all the way up to 11, interest and resources permitting.
And for those zombie-philes in Lawrence who feel left out by the Kansas City and St. Joseph locations of the production: “A little bit of a spoiler here, but for seasons two and three, ‘Dead Wait’ will be filming in Lawrence,” Parlette says. “And we will need extras for zombies.”