Every so often, something comes along that really freaks my geek. By that, I mean I see it, and know I’ve seen something special. Super Zero is just such a something. A short film that is huge fun, I was approached by director Mitch Cohen to support it and give it some blogging love. So here we are. Blog love away! Here at Fernby Films we always try and support the up-and-coming film-makers when we can, and in our own small way, I can honestly say I was blown away by what Cohen and his crew achieved with this little short.
To wit: when does a short film make you wish it was a full-length feature? Super Zero is your answer. Without wanting to sound like I was paid to write this (I wasn’t), I’m a huge one for independent film-makers being given opportunities for their work to be seen by as broad an audience as possible, and I was dead-keen to have this short reach as many people as it can. Usually, short films from aspiring film-makers are “love jobs”, the passion for a particular story ensuring that a director, producer and/or writer’s enthusiasm for the project is at its zenith – typically, a director’s first film is his or her best, because they’re impassioned about it.
Super Zero isn’t Mitch Cohen’s first short film – he’s made several, in fact – but that doesn’t mean this is a lesser effort. The story revolves around a terminally ill loner (played by Umberto Celisano) who finds his life’s purpose at the end of humanity, with most of Earth’s population wiped out by a space-borne virus (as is always the way), and in the 15 minutes it takes to tell, Super Zero did what a lot of short films often fall short on: it made me want to see more. Often, a full length feature can’t even accomplish that. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this review (feels a tad weird writing a review for a 15 minute movie….) here’s the film in all it’s YouTube glory!
So that’s it. Pretty sweet, right? As a reviewer, I’m pretty happy with that. It’s short, punchy, tells its story well, and gets out leaving me wanting more. From a technical perspective, this ticks all my geek boxes. It’s kind-of a mixture of Zombieland, Shaun of The Dead, and Warm Bodies, all rolled into one, and as a fan of the zenre (my appropriation of the term “genre” with the term “zombie genre”, please use as much as possible) Super Zero hit me right in the feels.
With its brief but concise set-up, and stylish film-making style, there’s a lot to like about Super Zero (subtitled Badass Journey Into Zombie Awesomeness). As a basic premise, it’s not exactly new, but Cohen works hard at making it at least feel kooky, the kind of “zany, madcap cartoon” adventure style so in vogue these days. The “romance” subplot, something I find typically skewed towards awkward in most zombie flicks (excepting Warm Bodies, of course), is handled well here, with star Umberto Celisano doing a great job at being nicely infatuated (but not in a creepy way) with the film’s “It Girl”, Paige Reynolds (Giselle Gilbert).
If there are any faults to be found, most of them stem from budgetary constraints (and the fact it’s a short film, not a feature). Some wonky CGI sprinkled throughout is generally handled well, considering everything else going on (a weird CG billboard is probably the most egregious moment for me, while the “crashing spacecraft” has a B-movie sense of humor to it that I actually found cheesy-enjoyable), but the film succeeds in its practical effects department. Zombiefied humans are notoriously difficult to pull off well (you wouldn’t think so, but they are) and Super Zero’s “fast moving” zombie cast look and feel authentic. At least, as authentic as I suspect zombies will ever be. The gore and “kill shots” for the creatures are terrific, so much that I couldn’t tell if they were primarily practical or CG in nature. Well done.
The cast have little to work with in 15 minutes and change, so you could hardly say each one here is given much time to develop. They’re more big-brush archetypes, although lead actor Umberto Celisano (as Josh) has the most to do given he’s the primary protagonist. Celisano makes a good “nerd”, with Josh coming across as a kind-of Tony Stark via Leonard Hofstadter via Jeffrey Wright. Giselle Gilbert, as Paige (tapping into the fact that most innocent virginal girls of an unrequited nature are named Paige or Scarlett or Tiffany; at least in my mind they are) does her best Sarah Connor impression, while Tyler White (as Paige’s cousin Nate) and Al Bernstein’s Gary (looking a lot like Peter Stormare, if you ask me) provide ballast to what could have been a simplistic narrative. Everyone here does as they’re required, with nobody sticking out for being particularly outshone.
A minor quibble might exist in the editing of this thing: often, the humor elements were a tad heavy-handed, as shots lasted a few frames too long, dragging out the wink-wink audience meta stuff and forgoing narrative zip. Daniel Meyers’ editing was obviously keen to preserve as much of the film’s footage as he could, but on the odd occasion does he leave a moment hanging just a second or so too long. It’s a minor thing, but a sharper razor in the edit might have really made this work even better. That said, as a long-time zombie geek, I really had a blast with this short. It’s geek love without presumption; a film by genre fans, for genre fans.
Overlooking some of the production kinks, the film works on a number of levels, especially as a fan of The Walking Dead, of which this feels like a scaled-down web-version. If by saying that I’m indicating Super Zero’s DNA might not be entirely original, you’d be correct, but there’s a fanboy zeal behind the camera here that works even in spite of moments derived elsewhere.
If money was to come for this to be turned into a short web-series or something, I’d be quite happy to sit down and give it a shot. Considering the lead character’s terminal prognosis, I doubt it’d last more than a single season, but I’m sure a “limited series” effort would be something people might watch.
Super Zero reaches high, misses a bit but gets by with sheer fun. Is it perfect? No, but then, that’s the fun with these kind of projects. They’re just entertaining from sheer enthusiasm. And Super Zero, while borrowing liberally from the genre it’s set in, is purely entertaining.
I had the chance to sit down with director Mitch Cohen (and by “sit down”, I really mean “send him a bunch of dumbass questions via email”) and pick his brain about the creation of Super Zero. Here’s what we came up with!
Fernby Films: What was the genesis of the film? The zombie genre has been fairly well hammered in the last five-to-ten years, from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, to Brad Pitt’s World War Z, to television’s Walking Dead, amongst others. Were those projects the inspiration for Super Zero’s overall aesthetic? I get the sense the “blockbuster” look was designed to showcase that sort of offbeat Zombieland sense of ironic humor.
Mitch Cohen: I love genre films and get excited about stories that take place in those worlds so that’s partially what drove me to make the film. However, as you said the field is so over-saturated, I wanted to find a hook to do it a little different, to inject my own sensibilities and voice as a filmmaker. If a tiny low budget short film was going to get any attention in this space, it has to be different, but visually look just as good as everything else. Because Super Zero has so much going on in such a short period of time, I knew if it had high production values, viewers would be willing to stick around for the off-beat story. Also, if it didn’t have a strong cinematic feel, then I thought the film would come across Lampoonsish or silly and I didn’t want that.
FF: Josh portrays the “regular, normal nerd” character (which is most of us these days, considering the influence of geek culture into the mainstream); how close is he to your real self? How close is he to Umberto’s real personality?
MC: I think working with the right actor and that translating to a genuine person as a character it has to be a combination of both. Josh is based on a lot of things that I feel that I am and there are parts of him taken from my own life. I also wanted him to feel real and most of the time you see nerdish characters as one dimensional caricatures and I always hated that. Umberto brought life to the character and tapped into his own experiences and personality traits to give humanity to Josh. The only way a viewer would buy into this film is if Josh felt completely relatable from the real world.
FF: How easy was it to find an actress (Giselle Gilbert) willing to be covered in zombie goo?
MC: Well that conversation or even the idea didn’t happen until after she was cast and we were in pre-production. Giselle is an amazing actress and by the time we got to that scene in production we had shot most of the film. She knew the type of film we were making and how great it was coming together. She was all game for anything as long as it made sense for her character and the scene. Half of the gag isn’t the blood at all, her performance is what sold that moment so it didn’t feel like a cheap gimmick.
FF: The production is spectacular on this one – love the shot with the doors closing and the zombie goo sliding down it in particular – how easy was it shooting around what I assume to be Los Angeles (correct me if that’s wrong!)? The crew you assembled seem to be fairly on-par with your thinking on this film, how did you… er… assemble the Avengers, so to speak? Kudos specifically to Conor O’Brien for his DP work, I thought it was stellar.
MC: So we shot this around Los Angeles and making a film is incredibly hard, no matter what level you are doing it at. My goal from the beginning was to surround myself with the best people I could find. It’s one thing to get a crew to help you make a film for no money, it’s another thing to get amazing craftspeople to do the same. It also started with the producers Devon Byers, Alex Moran and Bryan Hwang. The put me in the room with amazing people and the leader of that crew was Connor O’Brien the cinematographer. He knew exactly what we were trying to do and he took all my ideas and made them better. Same with all the other departments, you assure there people they will be in good hands and will be given the platform to show off their skills and hit a homerun, then they will bring the magic.
FF: Super Zero borrows liberally from previous genre efforts, in terms of tone and some of the “kill shots”. Were you conscious of trying not to repeat material you’d seen, or did you just say f@ck it and cherry-pick the stuff you thought would work best knowing the genre’s been nearly tapped dry?
MC: It all came pretty organically. It was great to work in nods to other films, but it was never at the sacrifice to what our vision was and how we executed things. It’s fun to be able to show some homages, but again the idea for Super Zero was to do something different and find our own path and always ask ourselves, “Okay, how can we do this different?”
FF: the film features some CG effects (I admit, some worked better than others…), how were they realized and was any consideration given to reduce them in favor of practical effects instead? Anyone in particular we should thank for their work in this area?
MC: We did our best to make them a combination of CG and practical first I always think effects come across more naturally when done as a combination, but because of our minuscule budget it limited us to what we could actually accomplish in CG. I think people would be surprised that some instances that you didn’t even think had any visual fx in it, but are actually practical elements and CG working in harmony. The two people responsible for all this stuff are Steve Han and Clayton Douglas.
FF: More broadly, what are your own influences in film? Favorite directors? The kinds of films you grew up watching, the kind you watch now?
MC: My tastes are really varied, I grew up watching a combination of 80’s horror and high school movies, but also a ton of old Noir movies and war films. I think my favorite directors are the ones who bring independent spirit to mainstream films. P.T Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller.
FF: The future: do you see Super Zero leading to any kind of web series or possible film and/or television production? Where would you see these characters (particularly the terminal Josh) going in future installments?
MC: From the beginning this was supposed to be a proof of concept for a long form story. There are a lot of things to mine from these characters and the world that has always been part of the plan. Centrally speaking it all happens under the ticking clock of Josh growing into himself while at the same time he is dying. Super Zero is a humanistic story set in a genre world. We explore our main characters and learn things about them that takes their journeys into really unexpected directions. Plus as an overall show, Super Zero is a fusion of Horror, Sci-fi and Super Hero tropes and it gets deep into each one of those and the story evolves and becomes something quite unique over the course of the series.
FF: Assuming Super Zero doesn’t go anywhere, what else would you like to be, or currently are, tackling? Any future projects we should know about?
MC: Right now I’m working on two other projects that I want to bring to life. The first is a straight Sci-fi horror film that takes place just as mankind finally cracks the secret to traveling great distances across the universe. That ability is quickly exploited by corporate interests and exploration of what’s out there isn’t done so carefully. The other film I’m working on is the polar opposite of that. It’s basically a movie that happens over real time that takes place in pretty much one location. Can’t really give much of the conceit, but it explores what people do in desperate situations and I think viewers will not only think what unfolds is insane, but that they would honestly react the same way as the characters do over the course of the film. The story is totally plausible and taken from various real events and I think the big twist at the end is going to give people pause and question their own morality in a very real and honest way.