This post contains spoilers for the Z Nation TV series.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Mark Carr and Doug Dawson make a reappearance in episode 7 (“Welcome to the Fu-Bar”) as their Sketchy and Skeezy characters! I was really impressed with what the two local actors did with their characters in episode 1 that it was cool to see the writers decide to improve their characters’ fortunes and use them again!
Episode 8 (“Zunami”), which is supposed to take place in Nebraska, was actually filmed in Sprague, about a half hour west of Spokane. I “discovered” Sprague on an earlier shoot due to bad planning. I had intended to stop for petrol before leaving Spokane, but the shoot went late, and I forgot. By the time I noticed I was on empty, I was half way past nowhere, and the only place to get petrol was Sprague.
Sprague has a population of 350 people in a town with one school, one post office, and no stop lights. I was filling up my car at the only gas station in town when the distinct smell of bacon wafted by, and I realized how hungry I was! Seth and Brittany who run The Viking, a small burger joint across the street from the gas station, were just closing up for the night, but turned the grill back on to make me an excellent burger with bacon, egg, and grilled onions, and a side order of hot chips (beautifully done!), to eat on my drive home. Awesome! So I was a bit biased in favour of Sprague by the time I showed up there to shoot episode 8.
60 zombie extras show up for the zunami episode, and Jen Gatts, our usual Zombie Wrangler, not only knows every one of us by name and face, but she also knows who’s been on set before, and which episodes they’ve been in! Pretty amazing! 30 zombies including half a dozen teenage ones pile onto a bus as I arrive, and within an hour, the remaining herd has arrived for makeup and costume.
Tess Garcia (who constantly sings “Everything Is Awesome” from the Lego Movie) does my makeup, minimizing the blood and lightly dusting me down in a coating of red dirt. Neither of us is aware of the actual storyline except that it takes place in one of the Corn Belt States of the mid-West, hence the dirt.
We take a bus to Sprague where all the zombies gather in the Town Hall to receive directions from Vanessa Driveness, one of the Assistant Directors and onsite Z Wrangler: “Most of you have done this before, so be nice; be quiet when you’re not on set; and most importantly, don’t be dicks!” The day is heating up quickly, and the Town Hall doesn’t have air conditioning, so we’re happy to only be there for half an hour before we walk the three blocks to Downtown.
They decide to film the fast zombie scenes first, before the day gets too hot, and spread us down the street for a block before the intersection where the cameras are setup. A lot of time is spent looking from the camera vantage point and arranging us to vary height, look, etc. On “Action!” we run down the street, past the camera intersection, and continue on for half a block before slowing.
Reset to start.
Do it again.
We get rearranged a couple times – faster zombies in the back, slower zombies in the front. Each time we reset to our starting positions there is always waiting, and we slowly migrate to any available shade on the street. Zombies are pressed up against walls, hang out in doorways, and some of us sit in the “abandoned” cars used in the scene until “Places!” is called.
Ricky Giles, the onsite EMT, walks around passing out bottles of water to everyone (“Everyone’s hydrated, right? Drink some water, people! It’s free!”), while Damon Vanhee heads up the onsite makeup team who touch up blood effects, darken teeth, and dust everyone down in yet another layer of red dust that we all come to despise by the end of the day. Damon’s pretty funny with some sharp insights into people and the filming process that he delivers deadpan and does a great job of keeping everyone chuckling and motivated throughout the hot day. They have a much thinner version of the mouth blood now – instead of a rootbeer syrup flavored mouthful from a squirt bottle, it’s now a minty fresh spritz sprayed onto your teeth. MUCH better after multiple takes!
The first commercial for Z Nation aired the night before during Sharknado 2, so we’re all a bit pumped about the series finally coming to air soon! Zombies start comparing what episodes they’ve appeared in, whether or not they’ve had the chance to kill or eat someone, and whether or not they’ve died on screen. Turns out that the majority of us haven’t died or eaten actors, so those that have gain instant “celebrity” status. The Oily Zombies, and the ones that spent time lying in a swamp, or were shoved up under the hood of a truck, enter an elite level of Zombie Extra stardom.
Most of the morning, I’ve been hanging out with Patrick Arkangelo, Destiny Mitchell, and E. Patrick has been in multiple shoots for Z Nation and is funny and laughs a lot. He’s outgoing and confident, and models clothes and appears in fashion shoots – he is probably the best looking zombie in the entire series! Destiny is a bit more reserved and cynical. It’s her first day on a Z Nation shoot, but her dad has been on multiple ones. He spends the day as the red shirted zombie that Murphy finds “guarding” the apartment. We spend some time watching him and Keith Allan work out their “dance” as Murphy figures out how to get past him and up the staircase. He’s been trying to get Destiny on site for weeks now, but she’s put it off until today when they needed as many extras as they could get. She’s still not sure being a zombie is better than spending the day in an air conditioned house watching TV, but she warms up as the day progresses and starts to come up with her own jokes and comebacks – Patrick’s grin and sense of humour are pretty contagious.
E tells me he’s homeless, usually sleeping on the streets during warmer weather and moving to a shelter in town when it gets cold. He ran into the Z Nation crew when they were filming in Downtown Spokane for episode 3 and convinced them to hire him as a zombie. “I walk around those streets every day, so getting paid cash and a free lunch to do it was a no brainer!” Yes – E made a zombie pun. E is always the last zombie to shuffle past the camera no matter where they put him in the herd: the herd rushes past the camera… pause… E shambles past to end the shoot. Patrick and I would grin and quietly play the “Yakety Sax” song as he would shuffle in. If The Asylum ever puts a Z Nation gag or blooper reel together, I totally want to see the full unedited scene in there!
Vanessa picks out a dozen zombies from those used in the early morning shoots, and sets them up at the front of the herd, just behind a group of actors who are about to be Z Chow. On “Action!” we give the actors two seconds before taking off down the street again, but this time, the actors and chosen zombies turn left down the street towards the camera while the rest of us continue along our usual path. They film it a couple more times before giving the rest of us a break while setting up the cameras for close-ups of the actors getting tackled to the ground by zombies and eaten.
In the episode, you see this group of survivors running towards a morgue where our main characters are hiding. Only one guy makes it, while the rest are taken to the ground and eaten by zombies. There are two things to note from behind the scenes. First, the door to the morgue actually opens to a set of stairs that lead to the apartments above the street where we’ve been filming. The interior morgue shots aren’t even filmed in Sprague. Second, it’s pretty cool to realize how many people are “behind” the camera during a scene. As I said, only a dozen zombies are used to attack the group, so the rest of us are either looking for shade, or standing just off camera, watching with envy as the chosen ones elevate their zombie-cred by taking out this group on camera.
By now it’s about 3 o’clock and the hottest part of the day, so we head back to the Town Hall for lunch. The zombies that were on the early crew are released for the day, and the rest of us head back into town to film the tractor scene with Keith Allan. Andrew and Cassie play the farmer and waitress Hero Zombies in this scene – I recognize Andrew from previous episode shoots we’ve been in.
Originally, this scene is shot with Murphy walking among the zombie herd before ascending the tractor. The scene is shot multiple times from multiple camera angles before they decide to shoot it with Murphy walking AGAINST the crowd. To give the illusion of an unending zombie horde, an AD is stationed just beyond the camera frame to the left and another to the far right. As extras pass the “end”, we run around behind the camera to the “beginning” of the zombie herd and shuffle past the camera again. In a typical take, we pass the camera two or three times. Keith is pretty cool, joking and chatting with extras in between takes while cameras are being reset. At one point, he takes out his own camera for a group selfie, and everyone goes nuts!
Our final scene for the day is the footage that will be used for the long shot of the approaching zunami. We’re arranged into three different groups, and “fast zombie” around the corner of a building, through an empty dirt-filled lot, kicking up mountains of dust, and running towards the camera. We wait 10 minutes between shots for the dust to settle, but it’s still pretty hazy to breathe through it all. At 8:45, they finally call it a wrap for the day, and after allowing all the extras to view the on-camera shot, we pile back onto the buses, tired and caked in dirt, and head back to base to change and clean up – the end of a long hot day in Sprague, but totally worth it.
Most of us know that we might not make it on screen after the episode is edited. We know that main characters are the true actors in the series and carry the plot and storyline. And we know that the only people other than us who are going to recognize us as we flash past the camera, or search for a glimpse of our zombified face on screen, are family or friends or other zombie extras. But none of that really matters. It’s been so cool to be a part of the total experience! And even Destiny finally agreed that it was pretty awesome to be a part of this and know that we were there!