In 1991, Dana Fredsti was sword-fighting for Sam Raimi. She’d fallen in love with zombies long before then, but with the production of Army of Darkness, she had an opportunity to step into the demon-infested skin of their close cousins. She was a Deadite, and her only goal was to kill Bruce Campbell.
Of course she was also an assistant armorer, but that thing about taking down the guy with the chainsaw arm was her main focus. And with a little inspiration from a stop-motion legend, she even had the Deadite walk down to a bone-shuffling art.
Now she’s fallen back into the rotting arms of her first love, writing the Ashley Parker novels that set a very skilled young woman against the brain-munching hordes. Fredsti took some time out to talk with us about how the popular book series came to life, to recommend some Zombie reading/viewing, and to reminisce about her time on Sam Raimi’s set.
What’s your new book “Plague Nation” about?
If you take the titles of the books, you’ve got “Plague Town,” then “Plague Nation” and then “Plague World,” so that should give you a little bit of a hint that in the progression of the series. The zombie threat spreads from a fairly contained, quarantined area out first to the rest of the country and then, you know, “Plague World” [Laughs]. There’s just no way to hide that with the titles. The second book starts after my heroine Ashely and her fellow Wild Cards have managed to put the cap on the small outbreak, and then they discover that things have spread and the stakes have just been raised.
And what’s a Wild Card?
They’re a very small percentage of the population that are immune to the virus. If they get bit, they don’t die, they don’t turn, so it enables them to get into the thick of the action without worrying about infection or being bit. They’re a lot more effective at fighting zombies that way.
But jumping in has still gotta hurt, right?
Oh, absolutely. And you can still die. Basically, Wild Cards have slightly enhanced senses and agility. They aren’t X-Men, they aren’t superheroes, but basically the skills that they had, the sense they had, they can see better, they can smell better. Going to a chili cook-off would be bad for a Wild Card. And if they get ripped to pieces, though, they’re still gonna die. It’ll still hurt a lot.
Which is sort of clever, because whenever you ask anyone what they want in the zombie apocalypse, they always say a cricket bat or shotgun or a cast iron skillet. No one ever says immunity or superpowers.
Yeah, immunity would be a good thing right off the bat.
Where did the concept come from?
Originally I was working with Lori Perkins who is an agent and was an editor at Ravenous Romance, and I’ve also written some genre spicy romances for them. She knew that I was a total zombie-holic, so I got a call from her saying, “So, I want Buffy. With zombies. But different.” And that’s where that came from.
She said she wanted the heroine’s name to be Ashley, and that’s all I was given. She said, “I want you to sit down and write me a brief outline of three books, how you see it as a series,” and that’s exactly what happened. I started thinking about how to do Buffy with zombies, but different. You know, what to use from the Buffy-verse in terms of what types of character interactions, what made Buffy so very successful and popular, and how to integrate that while keeping it original.
And I imagine you’re also a Walking Dead fan.
Absolutely. I actually got all the books. I read it back before it was — as far as I know — being conceived as a series for AMC. My zombie obsession started when my first date movie was the original Dawn of the Dead, and up until the last few years, there’s been very little for those of us who prefer the zombies as our favorite monster. There are vampires up the wazoo werewolves, you name it. Now there’s just tons of [zombie stuff], and yeah, some of it’s crap, but it’s great to have it out there.
My books are spread all over the house. “Patient Zero” is a really good one. Jonathan Maberry. Probably a lot of people have heard of that. “The Dead” by Mark Rogers is an older one that’s kind of like the zombie version of “Left Behind” without Kirk Cameron annoying you.
Dawn of the Dead is a great first date movie.
It basically just started my absolute love of the zombies as my favorite monster. I just found them fascinating.
Can you narrow down a favorite?
That will always be my favorite just because it was the first, and I will argue unto death with people who get all pissy about the make-up. I still think in terms of story and character, the way they handled the mall as a character and not just a place, you have these four characters that are holing up there, and you actually get to see their characters develop. There are so many zombie movies where you don’t give a damn about the people, you’re waiting for them to die, they’re just cannon fodder. Stephen makes the best zombie ever when he comes out of the elevator.
Other than that, I love Shaun of the Dead. It does for zombies what Galaxy Quest did for Star Trek. It’s an homage, but it’s also a really great example of the genre itself. And then I love The Dead which was a recent one that came out of South Africa. It made slow zombies scary again.
What about titles that maybe aren’t as well known? What should we be hunting for?
There’s a TV series called Dead Set that not everyone knows about. It’s a British series, and basically it’s Big Brother in England, and the zombie apocalypse starts when these people are inside the house thinking they’re still filming Big Brother. I love that.
Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. That’s got the classic shark vs. zombie. I’m looking at my shelf now. I love Dead Snow. I’m Norwegian, at least half, so I’m proud of my country for coming up with Dead Snow. Le Horde is really good. It’s a french one that starts out as more of a gritty cop gangster film that descends into zombie apocalypse pretty quickly.
As a writer, is it possible to unplug from the research and simply read or watch these things as a fan?
I try to unplug just because I have very specific things in mind that I have planned. I don’t want to…it’s hard because you don’t want to inadvertently copy from someone else, and you don’t want to read something that you’re already planning on doing and thinking, “Oh crap! Someone’s already done that!.” but I can pretty much unplug because so many people have different takes on it now about how zombies originate, whether they’re fast or slow. All of that stuff. So I just read it for what each author does.
For me, it’s more a matter of “Are the characters compelling? Is it fun? Does it succeed in whatever weird zombie subgenre they’re trying to do?” The closest I come to research, a lot of people who write these books are really heavy into weapons and the whole military aspect of it to the point that I call it “gun porn,” but I do enough research so I hope I can keep it realistic, but I write first person for a reason. I only have to know what my narrator knows. Which means I don’t need to know all these technical terms, I don’t want to know them, I don’t even really want to read them, but you can really get some good details in that aspect from some of these books.
And what about the challenge of keeping an old genre fresh?
Well, it’s like vampires. They’ve been around for however long, and people are still coming up with different takes on the story. It comes down to characters and the setting. You can always come up with some new twist on zombie biology, or something, but as long as you’re writing compelling characters, you stand a good chance of succeeding in what you’re trying to do. That being said, I tried to do some different things in my book, and it has to do with various incarnations of the virus, which I can’t get into because it would be a spoiler.
Do you ever get push-back for changing things?
Nope. And if they did, I used to argue, you know, “Fast zombies are impossible!” I was that person, so I know how to argue against myself so I’m fine with that.
[Laughs] And how was it getting to play a Deadite for Army of Darkness?
It’s so funny because when we made that movie, nobody had a clue that it was going to be a cult film. It was a lot of hard work, but it was a lot of fun. Getting paid to sword fight is like having people throw free bottles of wine and See’s Candy at me. We just had no idea. It’s just really fun looking back at the memories of what it was actually like to film it as compared with the way people view it now, and by the way, Deadite’s are not zombies. The whole thing with the Evil Dead movies was demonic possession. They don’t really eat flesh either. They’re just rotting, they rose from the dead. They’re distant cousins from some strange family.
What was it like being on set?
I was also the on-set armorer’s assistant, so I spent my first couple of weeks when we were filming at the quarry which is where Ash ends up after he’s sucked up into the vortex. I spent a lot of time distressing armor, messing it up so it looks real. You use stippling paint and dirt and stuff like that. And I was helping the extras getting their bits and pieces of armor getting put on them. They had the guys with their horses there, and one of them let me exercise his horse at the end of every day, so that was very, very cool.
Then when we moved to the castle set out in Acton, California. I started to train the extras for sword work and get fit for the Deadite costume. That was KNB, so I met Greg Nicetero back then and the other guys at KNB. The most challenging thing was when you’re wearing this one-piece latex outfit with all these pieces of armor and rotted cloth, and you basically have ten minute breaks to try to run to use the bathroom, you had to try to get that damned thing off really fast and run back out to where you were filming.
Sam actually had a day where he wanted to see our Deadite walk. He was saying what he wanted, and wanted everyone to demonstrate how they were going to move like a Deadite, and my inspiration was the Ray Harryhausen skeletons from his old movies.
Let’s see. What else? Oh, if I ever have to hear the line, “This is my boomstick!” one more time, I’ll break something. I was on set for that, and….over and over and over again.
So you probably love that it’s become a household quote.
Uh, yeah. No.
How were Raimi and Campbell?
Every night, Sam always wore a dress shirt with short sleeves and a tie, and he would go around and thank everyone from the lowly extras to everyone and thank them for the job they did. He was very, very polite.
Bruce was very much like Ash.