F2: Half-Day of the Dead

Do you see what I did there? Friday Fiction: F2. No flash for you this week.

I was going to post this up last Friday to capture some of that ghoulish Halloween spirit, but this was prevented by computer problems. (In fact, you’re mainly seeing this now because I retrieved it from a sent items mailbox on an old webmail account.) I’ve decided I still want to post it, as you guys deserve a longer piece to make up for my laxity with F3.

This is a 2,500 word story that I wrote about a year and a half ago. Looking over it now some of the writing is very clumsy, although I still like the nested structure. I’ve resisted the urge to change it, because historical revisionism is for politicians and the mass media. So I hope you enjoy this, despite my weak prose. It’s about zombies, and as we all know everything is better with zombies.

.

Half-Day of the Dead

The ghoulish face scowled before him, an effigy of decay and corruption. The flesh was torn from one cheek as though by a serrated edge, and black blood had dried in streams running down from the wound. Ruptured capillaries had flooded one eye and its pupil gazed off at an unexpected angle. The hair was matted with more dried blood and filth. The skin itself was a lifeless grey, speckled with pus and scratches and tiny sores that wept fluid.

‘Incredible,’ he said. ‘It’s so… lifelike.’

The zombie visage bobbed before him, and the mouth shifted into a hideous grin.

‘Isn’t it though?’ the zombie replied. ‘I tell you, Paul, these guys really know what they’re doing. The make-up is amazing! I mean, they don’t have the budget of Land of the Dead, but this-‘

‘So what do I look like?’ Paul interrupted. ‘I’m dying to know.’

Stefan, Paul’s closest friend–and not incidentally fellow zombie film buff–clapped his hands together in childlike enthusiasm. Paul let a smile slip over him when he saw that one of Stefan’s hands had been painted up and sparingly sheathed in thin layers of latex, the tone and level of decay expertly matched to that of his face. The other hand was warm and pink, with the soft skin of an office worker. That hand and the arm attached was to be tied behind Stefan’s back, underneath the costume, during their scene. He was one-armed zombie two, but right now Paul was just amused by the juxtaposition.

‘You look fiendish,’ Stefan said, snapping Paul’s attention back to their conversation. ‘I’m actually having to suppress my zombie-slaying instincts to avoid bashing your brains. Honest truth.’

Paul let his face break into a wide smile. He hated his smile, believing it scrunched up his face so that he looked like a simpleton, but right now that just added to the effect. Paul was rotting corpse three. He was part of a horde of well-aged corpses that was to charge into a group of police officers in a hospital corridor. Best of all, he had a moment of bona-fide airtime. The Second Assistant Director had spoken to the extras during rehearsal to explain how they wanted to mesh together a sequence of split-second shots of zombies mauling the living. Paul was to lunge at a female officer, slapping a pistol away from his face.

They had been rehearsing all morning, but it was only now that they had been put into full makeup. The film’s budget was tight, so they were shifting straight from rehearsal to shooting the scene.

‘Cool,’ Paul said, and held his hands up before his eyes. If he didn’t know better he’d have assumed that those were his bones he could see through ragged gaps in green, decaying flesh. ‘What does my face look like?’

‘Like that bowl of curry you forgot about and found a fortnight later. You look downright rancid. There should be flies crawling on you.’ Stefan’s zombie brow furrowed. ‘I wonder if they can get flies?’

‘They could probably do CGI flies,’ said Paul. He resisted the urge to prod at his face and to feel the fake flesh overlaying his own. It was kind of weird, he thought, that living death concealed life beneath it. But that was part of what made zombie movies so cool. It was no surprise that so many directors and make-up artists made cameo appearances in zombie films.
Stefan opened his mouth as though to say more, but the Second A.D. chose that moment to gather attention by clapping his hands together.

‘Zombies! To your places, as rehearsed!’

Paul, Stefan and two dozen other living dead extras shuffled to their positions on the set. A mock-up of part of a hospital ward had been built inside one of the studio-owned sound stages. It was a fairly cramped set, constructed to encourage a sensation of claustrophobia. The zombies trooped their way into out-of-sight rooms, ready to swarm out when they heard the signal. The three actors playing police officers were already at the opening of the central corridor. They stood on camouflaged crash mats that would break their fall as the undead extras carried them down.

‘This is gonna be so cool,’ whispered Stefan. Paul nodded, feeling self-conscious even under the make-up. He saw the Assistant Director glaring at them, and ducked his head as he trudged out of sight.

#

‘Places, everyone, places!’

Giorgio Giovanni, American-born and Italian-bred horror movie director, watched his Second A.D. scurrying about, chivvying the extras into their places. He yawned and picked up his plastic cup of coffee. An investigatory probe of the tongue told him that it was still too hot to drink, so he put it back down again. He ignored the hubbub of activity around him. He imagined that his crew thought he was immersing himself in the atmosphere of the scene or some other such movie-magic cliché. That was bullshit, of course: he was bored. And tired. More tired than bored, but some of both.

His career had been all about zombies. For some reason, people never got tired of zombies. You just had to keep upping the ante, be ever more inventive in your gruesome portrayals of the dead eating the brains of the living. Giovanni was getting a little tired of the po-faced and over-serious attitude of the zombie sub-genre, and was considering making his next film more in the vein of the Return of the Living Dead trilogy.

‘Send more paramedics,’ he said, to no one in particular.

‘Everyone is already in position, Giorgio,’ said the First A.D., stood at his shoulder. Giovanni was momentarily confused. He hadn’t seen the man walk over. But already the scene in front of him was all in place, with the camera crew ready to roll and the actors poised for action. He must have nodded off for a moment.

He told the assistant director that they shouldn’t waste any more time, and then contradicted himself by looking around for his assistant. What was the boy’s name again? He couldn’t for the life of him remember. He was some fanboy dipshit nephew of a studio executive that Giovanni hadn’t wanted or needed. He especially didn’t like the creepy little grins, as though the kid was aroused by the idea of being in the same room as one of his heroes.

Giovanni spotted him, skulking over by Camera 1. ‘Hey, kid!’ he called. He offered the boy a magnanimous grin. ‘You can do the slate for this one. It’s all yours.’

He crossed one leg over his knee, picking up the little plastic cup of too-hot coffee as he did. Clueless halfwit, he thought to himself.

The intern grinned like a dog thrown a bone, and picked up the plastic slate. He scrawled the requisite information on it and held it before Camera 1. Giovanni glanced around. The other camera crews dotted around the set were watching the younger man, too, ready to begin filming some close-up dynamic footage. The best action montages, Giovanni had always insisted, were composed of incidental clips captured in this way.

He nodded to the First A.D. It was time to unleash a little of that movie magic. ‘Camera rolling?’

The Director of Photography, somewhere behind Giovanni, called out. ‘Speed!’

‘Scene eighteen, take one,’ said the kid. He clapped the slate’s arm down and ducked away from the camera.

Giovanni raised a hairy arm as if in salute. ‘Three… two… and… action!’

#

The three police officers stood uneasily in the deserted hospital corridor. A small amount of medical equipment was strewn across the floor, but little was out of place except for the people, who were notable solely by their absence.

‘I don’t like this,’ said officer Doherty. He edged forwards along the corridor, sweat beading on the back of his neck.

‘Me either,’ said officer Macmillan. She shook her head nervously, setting the red ringlets trembling brightly as she followed Doherty.

‘I have a real bad feeling, Rosie,’ said officer Crane, off to Macmillan’s right. He nudged a drip-feed bag to the side of the corridor with his foot.

‘You always have bad feelings,’ replied Macmillan, turning her eyes back on Crane. Their emerald flecks glistened at him as he met her gaze. ‘And nothing ever happens.’

‘Well I sure as hell hope nothing happens this time,’ said Crane. He looked away from Macmillan, shifting his grip on his sidearm, and checked the safety yet again.

‘Quiet,’ Doherty said. He was no longer advancing up the corridor. ‘Do you two hear that?’

Macmillan had opened her mouth to say ‘hear what?’ when the walking corpses erupted from the rooms before them. Then her cry of ‘oh God!’ was similarly interrupted, as by that point the zombies were on top of them. Doherty went down without firing a shot, collapsing beneath a trio of the living dead. Crane backed off, firing his pistol with some measure of precision. Several of the zombies bucked as the bullets hit them, centre mass, but they were barely slowed by the impacts.

Macmillan raised her own pistol, pointing it at a particularly rotten-looking corpse. It snarled at her. Before she could pull the trigger, it had slapped the pistol aside with a decaying hand and lunged into her. Its weight carried her down. She screamed as she fell.

She felt teeth tear into her lips, and then her voice was drowned by the blood that welled in her mouth. She flailed her arms, helplessly slapping at the zombie, hoping desperately that Crane would rescue her. Then there was a high-pitched scream, and she knew they were all dead.

#

Watching the scene unfold, Giovanni was beside himself with excitement. He’d had no idea his extras would have so much energy in them; they looked far more convincing in action than they had standing about. He wondered if it would even be necessary to shoot multiple takes. Better safe than sorry, he thought, but this is already perfect.

The three police officers had gone down exactly as he’d planned. The ferocious zombie horde had overwhelmed them within seconds, and was now feasting on the fallen. The number of living dead obscured the actors almost completely, but he hoped that the secondary camera crews would get some usable footage in the can. He glanced around. Everyone was focused on the scene, intent on doing his or her job. Good.

He looked back at the zombies. Some of them had begun to stand, milling about with all the apparent lack of cognition that the living dead were famed for. Giovanni beckoned to them, indicating that they should approach. The extras had been instructed to charge toward and around Camera 1, surging past it in a flood of rotting flesh, but it would all be spoiled if they didn’t move soon.

More of the zombies had stood by now, and they were staring about themselves, looking lost. He beckoned them again, hoping that they hadn’t forgotten. When several of the dead fixed their gaze upon him, he breathed a sigh of relief. Brilliantly, several of the extras chose that moment to let out a low and mournful moan, in unison. Giovanni chuckled; a chorus of the dead had counterpointed his sigh.

The zombies charged. One of them, an armless specimen with a leering face, slammed into the camera as he trotted past it, and Giovanni jumped to his feet. The technician holding the boom mike aloft turned slightly to glare at the extra, but held his tongue and the microphone still. Behind the one-armed extra, several other zombies came to a halt and stared at the technician and cameraman.

‘CUT! You idiot!’ Giovanni yelled. ‘That scene was perfect, and you just ruined it!’ He had crushed his plastic cup in one hand, failing to notice as the hot liquid within spilled over his clenched fist.

Despite the director’s rage the armless zombie didn’t falter. It just kept coming, straight at Giovanni. The director’s brow furrowed in confusion, and then the dead man’s palm smacked into his face, bowling him backwards off his chair. He screamed in anger and confusion. Then he felt cold breath on his neck, and a shiver ran up his spine. He realised with a cold certainty that he was about to lose more than just one scene.

Around him, the cameramen, technicians, and other lackeys began to shout and try to run as the zombie horde spread out, chasing down its prey.

#

‘That was so cool,’ said Stefan. He rubbed at the shredded flesh that hung from his cheek. ‘Finally, I can die happy.’

‘Yeah,’ said Paul. ‘That was a once in a lifetime experience, alright.’

Walking side by side, they pushed open the door that led out of the studio and blinked at the bright sunlight that greeted them. Clear skies offered a beautiful day, spoiled only by the trails of slowly dispersing jet fumes.

‘That’s L.A. for you,’ said Stefan. Paul nodded and looked away, admiring the precise ranks of palm trees that reached out over the sidewalk.

‘Hey!’ they heard someone shout, and in unison looked to one side of the door. A security guard was sat on a folding chair, a newspaper on his lap and a bagel in his pudgy hands.

‘Are you guys allowed outside in that make-up?’ said the security guard. Paul looked at his name-tag. It was so brightly polished it was almost mirrored. He managed to make out “Hank”.

‘Oh, yeah,’ said Stefan. ‘You know what they’re filming in there, right?’ He lifted both arms and mimed limping on the spot.

‘Who doesn’t?’ replied Hank, with a fat-lipped grin. ‘Zombie Uprising 2. I was a big fan of the first film. Proper gore, just like the old days. Say, you two know there’s blood all around your mouths?

‘It’s make-up,’ said Paul.

‘Looks so real, don’t it?’ said Stefan. ‘I thought they’d cut me when I first saw it. But it actually tastes kind of like flat pepsi.’

He ran a fingertip from his naked hand around his lips, scooping up a bright droplet of blood to offer to the security guard. Hank waved his bagel at them.

‘No thanks, guys,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to spoil my lunch. Say, you guys enjoy the rest of the day, now. I’ll see you around.’

‘Sure,’ replied Paul. ‘We’ll see you around, Hank.’

The security guard smiled and picked up his paper, absently waving his lunch at them as they turned away. Stefan reached back and closed the studio door, then followed Paul as he walked away.

‘Time to find something to eat,’ said Paul. Stefan smiled, and it looked like a scowl.

Comments
4 Responses to “F2: Half-Day of the Dead”
  1. Justin says:

    Bloody hell. I’m not sure quite how you managed it, but I was already scared by – “he’d have assumed that those were his bones he could see through ragged gaps in green, decaying flesh.”

    Subliminal foreshadowing for the win!

  2. GLP says:

    Nicely done, especially the touch of making one of the zombies mime “shuffling on the spot”.

  3. Shaun CG says:

    Cheers, guys, glad you liked it. I originally wrote this for a zombie anthology but it was rejected – it’s just been lying around since, so I’m glad someone finally got to read it. :)

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  1. […] (or 40 if you include Excerpts from Eastercon as two, or 39 again if you exclude the over-long Half-day of the Dead). Roll on F3 ’09. […]