Local screenwriter and English teacher puts her filmmaking skills to the test
Cheryl Battles’ front yard looked like hell. LITERALLY. People sat decayed and bloodied in clusters, attended to by equally ghoulish types. But this was not judgment day. And these people were definitely not dead. Undead would be a better description—they peeled flesh from each others’ faces and limbs while blood spattered generously about.
With her laid-back attitude, black shoulder-length hair and cargo pants, Battles wouldn’t be pegged as the Suzy-Homemaker type—but she was definitely the mom of this operation, popping in and out of her house, bringing towels to people caked in blood, while occasionally checking on the pasta dinner she was preparing for the dozen or so who spent the day getting messy.
“It’s the least I can do for people when they dedicated their afternoon to this,” Battles said.
Battles is a first-time filmmaker whose yard was now a set-piece. Despite the fact that many of the actors and crew members were not acquainted, they acted like old friends. From the tattooed to the graying, the actors bridged generation gaps, smoking cigarettes together and arguing about the best old punk rock bands. Once it was time to shoot the scene, director Michael White shouted directions to the cluster of zombies, cutting occasionally to add more blood.
Filming of Amazombies wrapped in early October. The movie, which also looks to tackle some touchy issues, is the brainchild of Battles, who teaches English at Butte College and Chico State. While it’s not the first script she’s written, it is the first that Battles has actually attempted to film … and the first to include zombies.
Amazombies follows a fictional Amazonian tribe that, over the course of 1,000 years, splits into sub-tribes of different sexual orientations. The heterosexual group is the first to become infected with a zombifying virus after a treasure hunter steals the coffin of a mummified zombie.
The lesbian tribe unknowingly possesses an anecdote called the “lily potion,” an aphrodisiac the group uses in ritual ceremonies. It can be passed either by sharing the potion or by kissing, and exposure makes people immune to being zombified.
“The lily potion is kind of like HIV,” Battles said. “Only it has positive effects.”
The tribe discovers the curative qualities of the lily potion after one of the more promiscuous members gets it after kissing a man. The potion quickly spreads through the population, giving them immunity.
“It’s all very complicated and very silly,” Battles admitted.
Calling Amazombies low-budget would be an understatement. The movie was produced with whatever funds could be scrounged up—volunteers built the limited sets, costumes were made from piles of thrift-store clothing, and cameras and editing equipment for the special effects had to be borrowed.
Auditions were held in July, when a large group of men and women turned up to try to secure roles in the film. The majority of the applicants were amateurs, with nothing more than goofy home videos to claim on their acting résumés. Some were unemployed and looking for something to pass the summer months.
Many of the actors were simply thrilled to have the chance to dress up and strut, or rather stiff-leggedly stumble, around. The cast and crew included some 70 volunteers, all of whom have pledged anywhere from eight to 80 hours of their time to getting the movie rolling.
“People come out of the woodwork to get to be in zombie films,” Battles said.
Battles is no aficionado of zombie flicks, but she felt that the corny premise would be a good way to cover weightier issues like deforestation and drug abuse. There is also a strong LGBTQ thread throughout the movie.
Battles and a friend, Joanie Bassler, got together hoping to write a screenplay in which lesbians are the heroes, because of the way the group is usually depicted in a negative or stereotypical way in mainstream movies.
“We wanted those kind of characters [gay and lesbian] to save the day, because you just don’t see it and it never happens,” she said.
And although the film intends to promote a positive image of the LGBTQ community, particularly lesbians, Battles said poking fun at straight characters is not intended to bash men.
“We don’t have anything against men,” Battles said. “We really like men: gay, straight or otherwise.”
The majority of the actors in the movie are straight—as is Battles—but coming to the set with an open mind was one of the requirements. In fact, it was even listed in advertisements for auditions.
While the movie does have overt sexual themes, Battles says it is not exploitive. But it wouldn’t be a zombie flick without some nudity, including men and topless women.
“It’s not pornographic,” Battles said. “But it’s R-rated.”
One of the actors, Alex Anton, appears in a scene fleeing from zombies in his birthday suit. Anton said he’d go above and beyond for Amazombies because he feels strongly about the LGBTQ theme
“I’m straight,” he said, “but I’m willing to make out with a guy.”
Starting with such a modest project isn’t stopping Battles from thinking big. She’s optimistic about the possibility of receiving filmmaker grants that promote films with LGBTQ themes. And she hopes that by producing and premiering a 10-minute version of the movie she will be able to raise enough money to crank out a full-length feature film.
From there Battles said she’ll hold auditions in January so Chico State students who weren’t around during the summer can be included in both acting and production positions. She also wants to start up her own production company, with Amazombies being the first film, and her goal is to eventually produce one movie a year. She even plans to sell shares of the production company starting at $5 per share.
Battles is seeking out local businesses that might be willing to sponsor the project. Campus Bikes has already agreed to have a part in the film. To promote the locally owned bike shop, Amazombies will include a scene in which someone is attempting to escape a zombie attack on a tandem bicycle, unaware that a zombie is riding on the seat behind him. Although the movie has a very indie production, Battles doesn’t mind testing the waters of commercialism.
“I’m not opposed to shameless product placement.”