Every film festival has a diamond in the rough. For Austin’s Fantastic Fest the honor belongs to Zombie Girl: The Movie, the story of local writer/director Emily Hagins who made a feature-length zombie movie… at the age of twelve.
Those who enter Zombie Girl expecting to see a fictional tale that belongs on the CW will be disappointed. Shannon Doherty makes no appearance in this film. What the documentary does offer is a journey into the hardships every aspiring filmmaker, much more so for a 12 year old girl, has trying to get their first film done. The process ended up taking two years as Emily dealt with actors who had to leave filming to watch Riverdance, finding a budget and time to shoot between doing homework for middle-school, and self-doubt. You know, the typical stuff every pre-teen filmmaker goes through.
Emily and her mother, Megan (who is easily the coolest mother ever), team up to create Pathogen, a zombie flick that contains decapitations and the youngest group of zombies to ever stalk a human, if you don’t count the baby in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Megan is the Anti-Culkin parent, constantly supportive throughout Emily’s journey to get her film done. Whether it’s holding a boom mic or bringing food to all the cast, Megan is by Emily’s side every step of the way. In a world of softball dads and soccer moms who push their children to the point of burnout, Megan is an inspiration. In the end all she cares about is helping Emily pursue her dreams, something more parents should keep sight of.
Emily, the main subject in the film, is an exceptional person and a budding filmmaker. While she makes the mistakes every student filmmaker does, she possesses instincts many filmmakers decades older than her lack. She’s self-deprecating and never once in the film does she ham it up for the character, instead offering candid details of her experience. Emily isn’t concerned with success or name recognition. “I’ve never been popular,” she said at the film’s Q&A session. It’s simple, she just wants to make films.
What Emily lacks in a budget, shot list, or expensive sound equipment she makes up for with resourcefulness, energy, and a drive that pushes her through the many obstacles in her way. A self-described vegetarian and pacifist, Emily is a great example that graphic films don’t turn youth into psychopathic killers. Sometimes they spark imagination, like the zombie film Undead did for Emily.
Much of Zombie Girl concerns Emily’s pursuit in genre filmmaking, but the triumph of the film lies in the relationship between Emily and Megan. The bond between the two is one of a kind and their honest admiration helps to create a heartwarming story. At the risk of sounding sappy, Megan and Emily’s relationship is touching and inspirational.
Directors Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Eric Mauck, in their first feature-length effort, have made a touching film that is both personal and objective, a hard pair to balance in the world of documentary filmmaking. (Michael Moore anyone?) The directing trio display a maturity and subtle style that is inviting and allows the viewer to grow closer to the subjects on-screen. This is much to the credit of their technique, which they described as a fly on the wall point of view. Consider the fact that they cut down 146 hours worth of footage to an 89 minute film, a process that would make even Oliver Stone cringe, and it’s clear that the group have the patience and ability to tell a powerful story.
The film is given an extra dash of charm from musical composer Christopher Thomas, who creates music that carries the story along, adding just the right amount of humor or seriousness at the right time.
On a side note, one of the rewards of covering a film festival is getting to meet the talent behind films. Often when the actor, writer, or director is approached it’s very impersonal. This isn’t the case with the Hagins family or Johnson, Marshall, and Mauck, who were all engaging and some of the nicest people that you will ever meet. Even if Zombie Girl: The Movie wasn’t a great documentary, which it is, it’d be hard to root against such a sincere and ambitious group.
Much in the vain of the 2002 documentary Spellbound, Zombie Girl offers a glimpse into the world of a young talent feeling the pressures to succeed. But Zombie Girl separates itself by displaying real relationships, moments that will make you smile and laugh, and a story that teaches us age makes no difference when it comes to following your dreams.There will be a ton of films with bigger budgets, bigger names, and bigger advertising than Zombie Girl that will claim to be one of the feel good stories of the year. But Zombie Girl: The Movie actually lives up to that bill.
Have a look at more stills from Zombie Girl: The Movie below. For more information, check out ZombieGirlTheMovie.com.