Herald-Mail reporter gets a role to die for, playing a zombie extra in a movie

October 13, 2007|By DON AINES


I wanted a gaping head wound, but aside from early stages of decomposition and a trickle of blood down the corner of my mouth, there was no visible evidence of what killed me.

Instead of devouring human flesh, it looked as though I had just been snacking on it.

About a week earlier, an item, "Maryland Filmmaker Needs Zombies," appeared in The Herald-Mail. Extras would not be paid, but would be fed, get all the soda they could drink and could watch movies between scenes.

On Friday, Oct. 5, I arrived at Hagerstown 10 Cineplex on Leitersburg Pike, where director Gary Ugarek of Montgomery County, Md., was shooting a shoestring budget hi-def video tentatively entitled "Trapped." Standing in line with a dozen others waiting for makeup, I already was yawning, having gone to work, attended a PTA meeting and listened to my daughter Laura read "Barney & B.J. Go to the Zoo" before leaving home at 9:40 p.m.


"Don't tell Megan where you're going," my wife, Jennie, said as I was leaving. Our 8-year-old would have enjoyed being a zombie.

My living dead get-up consisted of a worn pair of khakis, a shirt missing a couple of buttons, a frayed tweed jacket and a soup-stained tie. A 16-year-old high school student spray-painted my face white, then overlaid that with gray tones, dark circles under my eyes and a drool of blood.

Within an hour of arriving, I was sitting in a theater watching the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead." It helped me get into character.

I occasionally watched other "Trapped" scenes being shot and sat through "Shaun of the Dead," a British zombie comedy. Still no call for extras. I dozed intermittently and could hear another corpse snoring a few rows back.

It was halfway through the 1990 remake of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" when the zombie call went out. It was 4 a.m. and the lobby was crowded with the living dead ? 98 by Ugarek's count.

"You look like you've had a long night," said a blond with a masticated left cheek.

"You don't look so good yourself," I replied, envious of her faux trauma. She and a friend, both from Annapolis, learned about the zombie gig on Craig's List.

A college student from Virginia whiled away the hours studying lines for a play, "Twentieth Century."

At 50, I was a decade or three older than most of the extras. There was one other guy about my age with a serious head injury who said he was headed to Annapolis later that day for another shoot.

"Trapped" is Ugarek's second directorial effort. He previously filmed "Deadlands: The Rising." In 2005, he played one of the zombies in "Land of the Dead," directed by Romero, the genre's master.

"If you're a zombie fan, your lifelong dream is to be a zombie in a George A. Romero dead film," Ugarek, 36, wrote in an e-mail. "Zombies are just the living dead version of your brother or sister, your mother or father ... So ask yourself this ... is it scarier to have a killer in a hockey mask chasing you, or your own family hunting you down?"

He's got a point there.

Ugarek, a huge man with a shaved head, went down the line of nosferatu players, selecting "hero zombies" to lead groups of extras as we staggered through the theater parking lot.

"Give me your best zombie walk ... Whatever you're inner zombie tells you that is," Ugarek said.

I used a variation of the grumble-and-stumble of those first few steps taken after I crawl out of bed and the droopy-eyed, slack-jawed look that greets me in the bathroom mirror each morning.

"Don't look at the cameras!" a crew member shouted. That became my mantra, but I found myself looking around making sure I didn't look at a camera.

The zombie march required a few takes, as cars and trucks inconveniently drove by to spoil the shot. Then, Ugarek set up the zombie stampede.

One thing I learned from "Dawn of the Dead" is don't get between a zombie and the human organ buffet table. They put it in high gear at mealtime, so my acting strategy was to break into a dead run when the cameras rolled.

Weaving and dodging through the morning mist, I zipped past a dozen or so zombies, figuring the more ground I covered, the more likely I was to be caught on tape. Two zombies in front of me suddenly parted ways, revealing a cameraman crouched for a low-angle shot 6 feet in front of me.

To avoid a collision, I moved awkwardly to my right, tripped over my own size 12s and fell flat on my face. I think my posthumous pratfall was out of the frame.

"That's a wrap," Ugarek called out as the purple light of dawn crept in from the east.

OK, so I didn't get a close-up of me gnawing on a plate of still-warm entrails, but I can cross Zombie Movie Extra off my list of things to do in this life. I might get around to climbing K-2 next year.

Ugarek said he'll be back to film more scenes at the cineplex on the weekend of Oct. 26-27, and hopes to debut "Trapped" there in 2008.

My kids will be too young to see a living dead cannibal film then, but one day I want them to see it.

"Look kids, it's Daddy. The zombie with the tie."

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