For the past year I have been following the hype around Thomas Newman’s Bong Of The Dead. All I kept hearing about was this epic $5000 zombie movie soon to be “cult hit”, made by one man in his basement. If you’re a die-hard zombie fanatic then you’ve probably already heard about this up and coming visionary first time director. According to Thomas Newman he has been paving the road to his own success one single digital frame at a time, with his scope set on busting into Hollywood. The filmmaker claims he had literally locked himself away for over 3 years working vigorously holding hours suitable only for the undead.
His journey began back in 2008 when he had apparently only written 7 pages of a script, with no title, and had only shot a single sequence involving 3 zombies ascending from a dark tunnel. The whole sequence was beautifully orchestrated to Darren Arinofskys “Requiem for a Dream” sound track and was gory enough to make you squirm and scream for more. The sequence had mass appeal and production value due to the realistic gore and zombie make-up provided by Mike fields. Newman pitched Mike Fields on the concept for his film then sealed the deal by offering him a co-producer position. It was impressive to see what Thomas Newman had achieved for zero dollars and proof enough that perhaps he would be able to pull off an entire feature length movie of the same caliber with only $5000.
The mini sequence or “Hook”, as he called it, worked according to his plans because he was able to quickly attract a cast and crew consisting of friends, family and local talent recruited from Craigslist. Once he had assembled his team and secured the locations he set out to shoot the entire movie in an ambitious 15 days. He was also determined to shoot the whole movie on a single borrowed HD cam which in his words, “some people laughed at” at the time. The result is a very stylistic polished film that one would not expect given the circumstances and equipment or lack there of. That said, now that the film is finally complete and out there, the praises are pouring in from fans, critics and major festivals from around the world.
May 12th, 14th and 15th of 2011 were all pinnacle moments in the filmmaker’s rising career. Within a single week he was able to get the attention of the ever so prestigious Cannes Independent Film Festival. The film was shown at Cannes for the first time ever and was selected by the committee as part of their official selection. He also managed to get comedic pot icon Tommy Chong not only to wear his cool movie shirt but to also drop him a quote to plaster on his movie posters! To add to his ongoing success his movie also ended up with a full-page article in the Rue Morgue magazine based out of Toronto! How did he do it? The filmmaker says that he plans on putting his entire journey and the “how” into a book, currently titled “How to make a cult hit for $5000”. He explained that he has been keeping a video diary as well as literature over the past 4 years about his daily struggles trying to make his movie. He also mentioned that it was always his intentions to create such a film by studying other cult hit favorites like Evil Dead and Dead Alive in order to see what made them cult. By analyzing such movies he was able to come up with a perfect “formula” as he calls it for his own success.
So then, how does someone with no money get the word out? All the recent notoriety does not happen on its own, nor easily according to the filmmaker. He say’s he spends endless days and nights pouring in countless hours online sending e-mails to fan sites, talking with webmasters, supplying DVD screeners to critics and simply self promoting himself to anything zombie related. He’s even managed to get spots on talk radio, CBC Radio interviews and even local TV shows. He credits his online popularity to social networking websites such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Wire Service Canada. All of which he uses religiously to self promote himself by answering Q&A’s and supplying photos from the film for bloggers who feed on the information in order to bring people to their own websites.
Weeks prior to the actual screening of the film, Thomas Newman hit the streets of Vancouver with a couple of close friends and key cast member Mark Wynn who plays genius toker “Edwin” in the movie. They walked the streets dispersing flyers and posters while promoting and spreading the word about the film’s premiere to come.
Obviously the filmmaker wanted to prove a point by debuting his film during a Vancouver Canucks playoff home game, which by the way could’ve ended horribly for him leaving him on stage facing an empty theatre! Anyone who lives in Vancouver will tell you if its hockey vs. movie – canuckleheads will most certainly always chose hockey!
Despite the Canucks game and bad weather a massive lineup ensued, stretching a block down the street! Fans of all walks of life came out to also see if the hype was real and stood in line for almost an hour before being shown to their seats. Some even showed up in full zombie make-up and costumes in their support for the movie which was somehow already dubbed as a “Cult hit favorite” before even being shown! How does one make a cult hit when no one has even seen the movie? Maybe something for Thomas to cover in his upcoming book.
Before the show began we were entertained by local indie Spanish Punk band by the name of “Caracas”, as a slide show from the making of the film was displayed on screen behind them. The band was an interesting fusion of contemporary jazz and punk! Once the band stopped playing Thomas took the stage, introduced himself and began his opening thank you speech which was unorthodox yet inspiring and heartfelt to say the least.
He began by thanking everyone in the theatre from fans to friends and all those who helped him on his journey including his family. He even took the time to thank especially all those who had tried to get in the way of his success during the process. To be honest with you I had no idea what I was in store for before he took the stage. I expected the typical sort of boring “thank you for coming to my movie” speech that I’m accustomed to at these premiers. However once he began pouring his heart and soul out, I suddenly forgot why I was there. His speech was so genuine and inspiring that I felt the need to hear him out. The audience cheered and clapped as they too were moved by the filmmaker’s vivid display of passion. At times it felt more like a concert or stand up routine as the he paced back and forth speaking and connecting with the audience.
At first glance the director’s story of being a young filmmaker in pursuit of his dream going against all odds may seem slightly generic and familiar. However I could immediately tell that there was something different about Thomas Newman and his natural ability to connect with those around him. We all know certain individuals whom we feel connected to and compelled towards due to the fact that there is something about them that inspires something within ourselves. From what I saw and heard, Thomas Newman seems to be a genuine passionate filmmaker who only wants his shot at the majors by trying to prove that anyone when faced with hurdles can come out of the darkness into the light by sticking to their goals, being persistent and remaining focused. Not something one would typically expect from a pot smoker.
Once the movie began, the fans immediately started to whistle and cheer! The wait was finally over. Everyone casually sunk down into their seats, locked eyes forward and began to munch away. By the opening sequence of the movie the audience was already captivated, laughing, cheering and clapping. People were smiling from ear to ear including myself!
I was pleasantly surprised and expected nothing less than what I had read from all the previous reviews. In the end the film was not only stylistic and shot beautifully as was said, but it was actually funny as hell! The characters Edwin (Mark Wynn) and Tommy (Jy Harris) were so believable that you actually cared about them. The plot had a perfect mix of humor, gore and even drama during an emotional monologue, which was superbly delivered by beautiful lead actress Simone Bailey who plays Leah Kroaker.
Another key element to the immediate success and notoriety is the special FX make-up. The gore and zombie make-up in the film is just as good if not even better than what I have seen in some big studio films with a budget! The man behind the gory blood and guts of the film was co-producer and Thomas’s close friend Mike Fields who has an extensive resume ranging from famous tv shows such as the X-Files, Masters of Horror and Fringe. Mike Fields has also worked on Hollywood blockbusters movies like Narnia 1, Narnia 2 and most recently Underworld! His make-up wizardry is to the level of other great industry icons such as Dick Smith, Tom Savini and Rick Baker all who are know for their masterful skills.
After so much anticipation I was able to finally see Bong of the Dead with my own eyes. I am now not only a believer of all the hype that I’ve read or heard surrounding this film, but I am also a fan! Also as a side note there is a heck of a lot, and I mean a lot of information about this guy and his movie all over the web. Google ‘Bong of the Dead’ or ‘Thomas Newman’ then get ready to spend the next 3 days in your chair reading all coverage this movie has received. It’s a mystery why this film is not in mainstream theaters yet! I recon it will only be a matter of time. I finally understand why fans and critics alike are hailing it as a “cult hit”. There are rare moments in time as history unfolds and the individuals involved may or may not know what is actually happening at that time. I definitely felt that history was being made right before our eyes, and we all knew it. A “cult film” was indeed being born!
After the movie was over and the roar of an enthusiastic audience dissipated back into silence, Thomas Newman took the stage once again. This time he thanked everyone again for watching his movie and for sharing in the experience. The rest of the evening was spent having fun taking pictures with fans, handing out free T-shirts and prizes to contest winners. If you get a chance to check out this movie and hockey game or no hockey game, I highly recommend it! Congratulations to Thomas Newman and his cast and crew for a job well done! I’m excited to see what the visionary director has in mind for us next. And due to the great success of the first Vancouver showing, a second date has been confirmed for August 19th at the Rio Theatre.