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Four score & seven zombies ago
Locals make B movie a fun ride

Here’s the thing about zombies: They’re disgusting. Unlike sexy, sparkly vampires, zombies lurch around like drunk lepers and eat entrails. They are not something to cheer for, or, God forbid, emulate (unless, apparently, you live in Florida. Or Maryland. Or Canada. Oh dear God, what is happening to this world?!)

Even for those who don’t crave human flesh, zombies live on in the modern psyche, dragging their unholy corpses through video games (because it’s incredibly satisfying to decapitate them) and awful horror movies (because it’s incredibly satisfying to see them decapitated.)

And make no mistake, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is terrible. In the best possible way.

Written and directed by Richard Schenkman and filmed in and around Savannah, the low–budget horror flick is set in the middle of the Civil War, a week before the 16th president is set to address the families of fallen soldiers in Gettysburg, PA. When his aides inform him that a cadre of walking dead have taken over the strategic stronghold of Fort Pulaski, he puts his presidential schedule on hold and whips out a rusty scythe to do battle with a flock of skulking flesh–eaters. Blood spillage and quote–worthy bad dialogue ensue. (Prediction: “Masticate THIS!” will go viral.)

An intentional rip–off that aims to ride the tailwind of Tim Burton’s highly–anticipated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hitting theaters next month, this “mockbuster” was created to go straight to DVD. It was released last week to download or rent through Netflix and Red Box and had a rare big screen appearance in back–to–back showings on Memorial Day, causing its rabidly loyal local cast and crew and a few lucky invitees to descend upon the Jepson.

Though Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies didn’t bring celebrities or loads of cash to town like The Conspirator did or the upcoming CBGB hopefully will, it still pumped up Savannah’s street cred as a feature film location. Savannah Film Office commissioner Jay Self helped coordinate the permits and says he treated the Los Angeles–based Schenkman and his crew with the same respect as he would any big Hollywood production.

Because of the measly $150K budget—which would barely cover the snacks in a blockbuster production—Self was also called into action as a zombie extra, along with his daughter, Emily.

“I was happy to help out,” he shrugged at last Monday’s premiere. “Isn’t being a zombie on everyone’s bucket list?”

While it won’t win anyone any Oscars, the gory feature was a boon for local talent. Except for the key roles and crew, everyone else hired was from the Savannah area. As someone put it, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies “had more of an effect on the local film community than Forrest Gump.”

The production company, Asylum Films, brought on local producer/director Jody Schiesser on First Assistant Director (he produced the 2007 award–winning short film The Street Cleaner) and Savannah–based filmmaker Tim Gill as Director of Photography, along with a host of area actors, many of whom had worked together on past projects.

“This brought so many Savannah people together,” said Schiesser. “Working with everyone you know was part of the joy.”

Local actor David Harland Rousseau was bumped from a bit part to Second Assistant Director when the production went into full swing, making him the film’s unofficial “Chief Zombie Wrangler.”

“There were around 60 of them, and it was a long shooting day,” recalls Rousseau. Along with schooling the zombies in set etiquette, he also demonstrated the perfect lurch. (Yes, these are traditional slow–moving zombies, unlike the new breed of lightning–quick braineaters in Resident Evil and 28 Days Later. It is, after all, 1863.)

Cheese factor aside, there is much to love about this hysterical historical drama. Gill’s sunbleached cinematography presents Fort Pulaski and Oatland Island as starkly beautiful and perfectly creepy. And while you will hear some of the worst Southern accents ever documented, there are some standout performances: Bill Oberst, Jr. (some will recognize him from Scheisser’s The Street Cleaner) gives a believable turn as Lincoln–as–badass while imbuing the character with the president’s signature stalwart leadership; his Gettysburg Address is so compelling, you might forget you’re watching a monster movie.

Even the plot contains some unexpected depth, including the creative device of John Wilkes Booth as a double agent (played as charmingly disturbed by Jason Vail) and a rather impressive soliloquy comparing the mindless affliction of zombiehood to the evil effects of slavery.

But choke us in the shallow water before we get too deep. As you enjoy Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies in your living room, you may want to follow the directive of Schenkman, who doesn’t take his bargain basement masterpiece too seriously. In an email read by Scheisser at the screening, the director (who also plays a horse–riding doctor in his own film) suggests a drinking game: Toss one back every time you see a zombie appear that perished in a previous scene.

We say every time you see someone you recognize, make it a double.

A screening of Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies happens this Friday at 7:30 pm at the Averitt Center for the Arts in Statesboro. It’s free and open to the public but seating is limited. Call (912) 212-ARTS to reserve a seat.