Thursday, July 19, 2012

Zombie Chill

I finally made my way onto the set of a zombie movie. I’ve had several opportunities over the years, but last weekend the planets were finally in alignment. My friend Frank, who works at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, rung me up to tell me that a movie company was filming zombie scenes that night in the graveyard. Would I want to come by? Do zombies feast on human flesh?

Demons and Zombies
When I arrived, the actors were getting their makeup applied – fake brains oozing out of the top of baseball caps, torn clothes, fake blood spattered over flesh. After a bit of this fascinating scene, Frank  and I walked through the cemetery to the place where the scenes would be shot. A generator was running, power cables lay in the grass and a few barn door movie lights were on. This part of the cemetery looked quite eerie with the tombstones lit up white and the background pitch black.

Laurel Hill at Dusk
We chatted a bit about his previous night’s work – on Friday the Thirteenth – helping to set up for an outdoor screening of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and a 1937 court-ordered exhumation film made at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The latter a fascinating story involving a will valued at twenty million dollars that was thought to be buried inside a woman's coffin, which you can read about here (someone had actually found the film at a local flea market!). Believe it or not, nearly a thousand people showed up for movie night at the cemetery! (Read this if you think I'm exaggerating!)

Evening, Laurel Hill Cemetery
In comparison, this mid-July zombie evening was very quiet. It was also quite warm, about eighty degrees. The sky was cloudy, and their reflection of the distant city lights gave a luster of midday to objects below … well, maybe not quite that bright. It was light enough at 10 p.m., however, that you didn’t need a flashlight to navigate your way around the cemetery.

Frank, about to be demonized
Frank is Laurel Hill’s night man – he’s the guy called upon to do all the night work at the cemetery. Night work? There are many people who request night access (when the gates are locked) to do model shoots, music videos, movies, and paranormal investigations. Frank lets them in, shows them around, helps get them set up, and is available for any issues that might come up. He also lives on the grounds (well, in a house on the grounds) and serves as night watchman for the cemetery. So he’s seen a lot.

As we chatted, waiting for the film crew and actors to arrive, I was thinking I should’ve brought of few beers, it was so hot. About that moment, I felt an unmistakable coldness on my left elbow. It was brief, about two seconds, but I felt it. There were no breezes that night. I stopped Frank in mid-sentence and told him, after which he replied, “The paranormal investigators always say this is the most active part of the cemetery.” Out of seventy-eight acres, odd that the zombie folk chose this spot. In all my cemetery travels, this is the first time I ever experienced the “ghostly chill,”  which I did not feel again that evening. I've looked up the "rational" explanations for the cold sensation, and none of them wholly explains what I felt. I had no goosebumps, and I wasn't scared (consciously or subconsciously).

Film makers at Laurel Hill Cemetery
The rest of the evening was uneventful, as far as ghosts were concerned. I was intrigued by the fact that the cinematographer (videographer?) was using a professional-grade DSLR with video capability, which seems to be the equipment of choice for even some high-budget motion picture projects (see link to read more on this technology). After my initial fascination with being on a movie set and seeing zombies wore off, it was all rather tedious. Multiple takes of every scene kind of wears on you, as an observer, anyway. Still, it was a bit weird having zombies come up to me in a graveyard asking if I was afraid …. I was actually afraid they would continue telling me bad zombie jokes.

Beetle incineration
The more interesting part of the experience was seeing parts of the cemetery artificially lit with movie lights (of a temperature balanced for daylight, by the way), which made it apparent to a photographer (me) how cinematographers use light to create mood. The kind of creepy thing was seeing all the night beetles crawling up the marble obelisks all around us. Every once in a while, one would land on a hot light and be slowly incinerated. The first time I saw this, I thought the light was burning up, there was that much smoke! I alerted a member of the crew, who went over to examine the burning hot surface of the light. He picked it up by its stand, shook out the beetle parts, and the show continued on.

I shot a few of the scenes that were being filmed, being careful not to click my shutter after the “Quiet on the set!” proclamation was made. Some of those images you see here. Having my camera with me made me feel somewhat official, like it was a press pass or something. It’s interesting how the camera, as writer Susan Sontag puts it, can make everyone a tourist in other people’s reality – and eventually in one’s own.

Further Reading and References:
Secret Cinema at Laurel Hill Cemetery
Graveside Movies Draw 900+ to Laurel Hill Cemetery
Ed Wood's Film