Might of the Living Dead

Zombies, Other Monsters Help Georgia Film Lurch Back to Life


Burt Reynolds in the 1972 Georgia-lensed thriller Deliverance

Call it “The Gator Effect.”

In the 1980s, Georgia ranked as the No. 3 state in the nation for film production, after California and New York, largely because of the roguish charm of Burt Reynolds, the era’s box-office alpha dog. Citing a “violent urge to get behind the camera” and “say some nice things about the South,” he committed to shoot Gator, his 1973 directorial debut, entirely in Georgia. During that same year, then-governor Jimmy Carter, noting the economic boost from Deliverance, established the state’s film commission, one of the first such agencies in the nation.

For years, Reynolds influenced our local projects in spirit, even if his name was nowhere near the credits, in that movies and television shows generally adhered to traditional Southern content, themes, and moonshine-and-mayhem archetypes–paunchy lawman vs. good ol’ boy–against a humid backdrop with nature’s most evocative prop, Spanish moss.

“Some of the people leading the industry now are the children of people who worked in film during that Burt Reynolds period–they’re people who grew up in the business,” says Lee Thomas, director of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. “That’s one component of the growth now: a deep base of experience and expertise.”

The main catalyst, though, for the current film boom was the Entertainment Industry Investment Act of 2008, which offers a 20 percent tax credit for productions that spend $500,000 or more in the state, and an additional 10 percent if the show includes a Georgia logo in the credits. (Essentially, producers get a credit equivalent to 30 percent of their in-state production expenses.) So Atlanta seems to have supplanted Wilmington, N.C., as the “Hollywood of the South,” always preening for another close-up with increasing savvy and professionalism.

The economic impact of the industry in 2007 was estimated at $244 million; last year, it topped $2.4 billion. “That’s a 1,000 percent increase,” Thomas marvels, making film an economic and cultural engine that runs like a bootlegger’s souped-up car.

“We have a temperate climate that allows for year-round filming, unlike some of our competition in Canada and Michigan, and we have Hartsfield Jackson International Airport that makes us accessible, so there’s this combination of factors coming together to drive the growth,” she says.

The “lights, camera, action!” infrastructure continues to sprawl with EUE/Screen Gems Studios, a 33-acre film and television campus that houses “Stage 5”–one of the largest in the country at 37,500 square feet, and the brand new “Stage 6,” a 30,000 square foot facility. These world-class buildings, combined with five smaller sound stages, offer more than 150,000 square feet of production space on the campus of the once-neglected historic Lakewood Fairgrounds. Two new 20,000 square foot stages have also just been completed in Paulding County, as the new Atlanta Film Studios also expands the region’s production capacity. Meanwhile, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 479 has tripled its rolls from its 2008 membership of around 370, and enrollment in academic film programs is increasing.

 Zombies declare Atlanta ‘livable’

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 1. Photo by Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead – Season 2, Episode 1. Photo by Gene Page/AMC

With such an infusion of talent and resources, the movies here have diversified in ways that are, well, dramatic–heavier on moonlight but without so many magnolias. Atlanta has stood in for Detroit, New York and New Orleans, among other idiosyncratic American cities, as well as Rio de Janeiro in Fast Five–an object lesson in the globalization of Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard.

“The flavor of the films used to be distinctly Southern, and we still have those projects, but we also offer sets and resources that can be totally generic and universal in tone, or recreate another place and time,” Thomas says. “The varied terrain and architecture of Georgia helps–the mountains, the coast, small towns, old buildings, a big city–there is something here that works for just about any scene in any project.”

And, happily, there is finally enough urban grit to simulate a post-apocalyptic dystopia. To see how far we’ve come, compare the capital’s skyline from Sharky’s Machine (the famous window-shattering, 220-foot plunge from the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel still holds the record for longest outdoor free-fall, even though that building is now dwarfed by the surrounding high-rises) with the panoramic view from Freedom Parkway that sets the nerve-rattling stage for The Walking Dead, AMC’s blockbuster television series currently filming its third season in and around Senoia’s 120-acre Raleigh Studios complex. There’s a new sheriff in town. Buford T. Justice, meet Rick Grimes, a deputy who wakes up from a coma to a world besieged by zombies. The rugged Grimes (convincingly played by Andrew Lincoln, a Brit) is handy with a rifle and speaks with a twang, but he exhibits more postmodern angst than any of his constabulary predecessors as he leads a small, ill-equipped band of survivors.

Vampire Diaries, Episode 31. Photo courtesy The CW.

Vampire Diaries, Episode 31. Photo courtesy The CW.

So many of the projects in Georgia fall somewhere under the “horror” or “monster movie” rubric–Teen WolfVampire Diaries, and, arguably stretching the definition somewhat, The Real Housewives of Atlanta. More specifically, though, they focus on zombies. Bubba Babbitts, take note: In addition to Atlanta’s other hallmarks and nicknames in its long history of boosterism, it is widely considered the most livable city for zombies and their enthusiasts.

“I think Pittsburgh probably still reigns as the zombie capital because of The Night of the Living Dead, and its record-setting zombie walk,” explains artist Stan Woodard, “but just as New York is our country’s cultural capital while Washington is the political capital, I would say Atlanta is currently the trendy center of zombie-ism, mostly because of The Walking Dead.”

 The brains behind the zombie invasion

In 2009, Woodard organized the Atlanta Zombie Symposium, which screened several movies at the Plaza Theatre, presented academic panel discussions of arcana from religion, history, finance (the waning vitality of banks), and science (insects and fungi mimicking the undead), and culminated in a campy danse macabre. He is tentatively planning another symposium this autumn to capitalize on the surge in zombie scholarship and the popularity of The Walking Dead. The show has enjoyed next big thing critical acclaim and commercial success since its debut on Halloween 2010, becoming the most-watched drama in cable TV history, with ratings that have surpassed those of Mad Men. Its plot perpetuates the flesh-eating or brain-eating stereotype, popularized by Night of the Living Dead, when American zombies turned more rabidly aggressive than their voodoo forebears, who were corpses revivified to work as noncontagious slaves.

“Sure, most zombie films are pure entertainment, filled with action, blood, guts and gore. Providing an audience with a great experience has to be the core of anything on film or television,” says filmmaker James Kicklighter, whose company JamesWorks Entertainment, based in Port Wentworth, Ga., explores issues of social conscience. “Simply put, I think people are interested in the undead because people fear death, and I think the zombie genre remains important because humans always fear losing autonomy and control.”

Madison Lintz as Sophia (turned zombie) in The Walking Dead. Photo courtesy AMC

Zombies work on many levels as all-purpose metaphors. Kicklighter’s company shot a film in Macon called Followed that explores the creatures as a manifestation of guilt for those mortals who fail to alleviate suffering in underserved communities of the developing world–these zombies hurt your heart in ways more profound than eating it. The title alone of The Crazies, a big-budget gore-fest also filmed in Macon, prompted quips about a “large and colorful pool of local talent” for casting agents.

The Walking Dead, which strives for small-screen high art rendered from a comic book series, is similarly ripe for analysis and extrapolation, sometimes in ways that are not necessarily flattering to its mise-en-scène. TWD is firmly rooted, onscreen and as well as off, in Atlanta. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played by the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, gets blown up at the end of the first season. The actual CDC has gamely joined in the hype, nicknaming its disaster preparedness task force the “Zombie Task Force” and selling T-shirts and posters with a zombie logo–just one of many entrepreneurial spin-offs.

“Atlanta is the poster-child microcosm of American culture, which focuses on consumerism, and zombies are the ultimate consumer, stumbling mindlessly from one need to another without being satisfied,” says Woodard, who prefers the more spiritual, less predatory, old-school zombies of African and Haitian derivation. “Also, these are not monsters but humans attacking other humans, and with all of our so-called weapons of mass destruction, there is ?a lot anxiety that makes this myth easier for us to relate to. You could also look at the show as a commentary on ‘white flight’ and the social mobility of some demographic groups. The uninfected humans, even though they’re hunted, can move from place to place; the zombie hordes, who come in every hue of flesh, move very slowly but very relentlessly toward them–like some of the migrations from inner city to suburb and back again that have characterized Atlanta to some extent.”

The writers of TWD are hip to such reactions. Ultimately the show explores less about the threat of zombies than about our own flawed, often brutal nature, which is truly scary. “The zombies have a pretty straightforward agenda,” Woodard notes, “whereas it’s the regular humans you have to watch out for in The Walking Dead–their motives are not always so clear.”

The moral center of TWD is Dale Horvath, an owlish, older man who declaims portentous lines like, “Keeping our humanity–that’s a choice. … How are we better than these people we’re afraid of?” Unnecessary spoiler alert: Like most agents of moral courage, Dale is doomed.

 You Go, Ghoul

Feeding off the status of this series is a loose association of collectives such as the Atlanta Gorehounds, which organizes the annual downtown zombie walk and helps with the Atlanta Horror Fest, an autumn celebration of music (bands like Dead to the World, Johnny B Morbid, and the Love Buzzards) and indie films, including dark comedies and “expERIEmentals.”

Another tourism group is about to join the frenzy. During the last Dragon*Con, visitors kept asking downtown hipsters Carrie Sagel Burns and Patti Davis to show them around the TWD’s sites. “It dawned on us that we could do this for a living,” Davis says, so they’ve formed Atlanta Movie Tours, working in conjunction with Hennessy Transportation. Burns and Davis launched their company with a “Big Zombie Tour” in March, and plan eventually to expand into other themes, such as sports (The Blind SideWe Are Marshall) and The Real Housewives.

The four-hour zombie tour will start in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood and cover the settings for the first season of The Walking Dead, including the CDC, the Goat Farm and the Mitchell Street department-store redoubt, as well as a drive-by peek at the Buckhead mansion used in Zombieland, a rare comedy on this subject that surpassed Dawn of the Dead as the top-grossing zombie flick. “All of our tour guides have been around or on the set of The Walking Dead,” says Davis, who stresses that the company is not affiliated with AMC. “If we can get clearance, we plan to hire some of the actors who have played zombies as guides.”

Burns and Davis, who both are marketing professionals, hope movie tourism will help the cause of preservation in a city that often takes a palimpsest approach to its history.

“I live in a landmark district, which means things tend to stay the same, and because of the movies, I think people are realizing the value in that and becoming more receptive to the arts,” says Burns, who has worked as a liaison between Castleberry Hill and various film crews. “Tyler Perry is just one of the repeat customers around here because he can simulate a New York loft here. Our company, showcasing where we live, is a way for us to give back to a city that has given us so much. Plus, we’re just hardcore fans of movies and television.”

In a similar spirit, the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office has compiled a detailed digital database of “camera-ready communities,” with photos and local contacts in 136 of Georgia’s 159 counties, searchable by keyword.

“Our office is a sort of combination of 411 and 911,” Thomas says. “We take a script, break down what it needs, shot by shot, using our database–if it calls for a particular kind of school or hospital or church, or whatever. Then we show the movie companies around the sites and, later on, troubleshoot if anything ?goes wrong.”

Adds Craig Dominey, the agency’s senior film location ?specialist, “Filmmaking is not just going on in Atlanta and Savannah–it’s all over the state, from the mountains to tiny towns in south Georgia.”

Dominey, who archives folklore and ghost stories in a side venture called The Moonlit Road, has explored some of Georgia’s most atmospheric and obscure corners and reported back on the scenic country byways and columned, antebellum mansions that caught his eye.

“I think one reason we’ve seen so many horror-oriented projects here is that the South is known for its gothic fiction, its creepy locations and deep sense of history,” he says. “That’s the image the world has, anyway, that the South is a mysterious place to begin with. But our work in the film office varies widely from project to project and does not necessarily involve such loaded images. We might just be looking for a grocery store.”

 Taking the (economic) pulse

Cosmopolitan Atlanta has become almost jaded about celebrity sightings by now, but encounters with Clint Eastwood in Dawsonville (a baseball movie called Trouble with the Curve) or with John Travolta and Robert De Niro, who have been filming Killing Season in Clayton–“John is outgoing, but Robert is so shy!” gush the waitresses, like Variety insiders–still create a stir in ways that transcend stargazing. Initially, some lawmakers fretted that the tax incentives for filmmakers were “giving away the farm” to monsters worse than zombies–carpetbaggers. However, the stimulus effects have been undeniable. The credits do not require companies to make in-state hires, but they usually do. About 90 percent of the crew for The Three Stooges consisted of locals. (Like The Crazies, another title ready-made for a punchline.)

“Movie companies used to arrive here with their own crews who left when they were finished, but now they’re coming in and hiring from our labor pool,” says Dr. Kay Beck, a professor of film at Georgia State University, and a founding member of Carter’s original commission. GSU claims the largest film program in the state and the only one to focus on industry protocol–the heavy-lifting of on-set work, beyond the classroom debates on Truffaut –with an ever-rising enrollment of more than 700 undergrads and 30 graduate students.

Not everybody dreams of becoming the next Martin Scorsese, Beck says, even though some might be headed in that direction, according to Sundance buzz.

“Our students want a place in the industry, and they are more sophisticated in seeking out that place, whether it’s as a line editor or in the art department, rather than concentrating all of their energy on a personal, autobiographical film,” Beck says. “So the university offers a great feeder system of good, reliably trained employees, and our students work all the time, ’round the clock, with so many opportunities in town.”

So expect a glamorous renaissance of the Sunbelt, with our homegrown, starry-eyed strivers, cineastes, and ingénues staying put, and other auteurs returning like prodigal sons and daughters. Thomas, an Atlanta native, went through the GSU program before entering the Ph.D program at New York University, and Tom Luse, who also attended GSU and then went Out West, has come home to work as production unit manager on The Walking Dead. Panavision, too, departed Atlanta in 1998 but since has brought its optics and imaging back to the West Side.

“This industry is about so much more than acting and directing,” Thomas says. “Movies require construction, office space and staff, accountants and bookkeepers, in addition to the crews.”

And zombies.

AMC has established a sort of training academy for ?those performers to perfect their lurching mannerisms without overacting. Here’s hoping for a walk-on role in The Walking Dead for Burt Reynolds, who proved a long time ago that he play a wily survivalist.

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