Zombies, lacking any profound intentionality, just create the environment to let us see the worst of ourselves come to the fore. Adam William Cahill
Writer-director Adam William Cahill’s first feature, the highly entertaining zomcom Follow The Dead, looks at how a family of soft Millennials in Ireland’s County Offaly cope as unverified viral videos claim that zombies have overrun Dublin. But even if it’s true that’s not even the worst the weak-willed Whelan family have to deal with, as vigilantes take advantage of the undead distractions and start kidnapping and killing the local police.
I spoke to Adam about his steep filmmaking learning curve, what Millennials think of his movie… and most importantly, who would be most successful against zombies: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, or Gen Z?
Where did Follow The Dead come from? Did it really come to your star Luke Corcoran in a dream?
Yes indeed, the initial concept came from a dream Luke had, wherein he experienced some drama with a zombie visitor at his apartment in West Dublin. He wrote a bit of a farcical comedy around the incident, and then asked me if I’d come on board to help him bring the script to life. I particularly loved the humorous tone, and I helped develop the short script by giving it more structure and developing the themes. However, when trying to get the production up and running, we kept encountering road blocks that left us at a stand still. When we decided to take some time to let the disruptions settle, I asked Luke if I could work on the script further by myself. He was more than happy to let me do so.
I was so captivated by the prospect of doing an Irish Millennial version of a zombie film, and fleshing out the idea of seeing a particularly dependent generation dealing with real trauma in tandem with their petty issues — in a fake news generation no less — and in the end I came back to Luke with a 100-page script about a family of four living in rural Ireland. It was obviously a completely different story, but the spirit of the original idea very much lived inside it. And Luke was only too delighted to get on board with becoming the lead actor of a feature film that he didn’t mind the course correction whatsoever.
The initial premise is a bit mean about Millennials — and you are one! Have you had any pushback or have they all so far understood what you’re saying?
Not only have we had no pushback, but according to our reviews Millennials have responded the most positively to the film. Millennial men especially, and they’re the ones who get the hardest time in the movie. My hope is that, as we’re not beating anyone over the head with the message of the film, but rather just poking fun at some home truths, that we can all just have a laugh at ourselves and say, “Yeah, that’s so true!” And if anyone walks away thinking, “Actually, maybe I need to take on more responsibility in my life,” then that’s just a bonus.
Zombies have been done, pardon the pun, to death. What made you have them as the “horror outside”? What do they bring that werewolves or ghosts or vampires don’t?
They bring a lack of agency. The zombies don’t have a corporate desire or strategy or a philosophy or values. They just want to feed. Which makes them a threat, but not really an antagonist. This means that zombie movies require that humans be the real enemy of the scenario, as we watch how everyone reacts differently to the chaos that unfolds.
George Romero’s social commentary was in relation to a consumerist generation’s response to a total societal meltdown. Edgar Wright’s take on Gen X demonstrated their apathy. And Follow the Dead for me reflects Millennials’ loathing of responsibility. And zombies, lacking any profound intentionality, just create the environment to let us see the worst of ourselves come to the fore.
The film came out “properly” this year, but it’s dated 2020 — and I read on IMDB that you actually shot it in 2017! How did it take so long?
This is a simple case of naivety on my part. I had never made a feature before, and I had no idea how to properly budget for everything that was required. Initially we shot about 60% of the film in April of 2017 on a budget of €2,000. But when I realised that doing all of the technical jobs myself (camera, lighting, sound) was doing no justice to the performances of the actors and the scope of the story, we decided to shoot everything again in August of the same year. I took out a much more substantial loan and hired the outstanding Stephen C. Walsh as director of photography (This is all documented in our BTS documentary, Are We Making A Film? Behind the Scenes: Follow the Dead, available on YouTube.)
After the shoot, I was then faced with the fact that the post production budget just wasn’t good enough to hire the people I needed to do the same quality of work that we’d done during the filming; we really didn’t know what we had on our hands until it was in the can. So the following two years was spent saving my own money again to hire a fantastic sound designer in Robin Sherry Wood, and a tremendous music composer in Steven McKenna, while I edited the picture myself. Come the end of 2020 we were ready to get the film out to festivals, and of course Covid played a big role in us biding our time with it, so we let the festival circuit run for another two years. Only now are we finally getting the film to exhibitors because we can now go out and physically promote and market the film. That being said, with the knowledge I’ve learned from this entire journey, I’ll never have to let the process take this long again, pandemic or none.
There’s some proper darkness in your movie and it’s not coming from the zombies. How did you tackle those transitions from comedy to tragedy (and fear)?
We have a very morbid sense of humour here in Ireland. We’ve learned culturally that an effective way to navigate grief is through humour. You’ll find all Irish comedy to be very dark in nature. So when you’re willing to make a joke of absolutely anything, there’s always a through-line of humour you can cling to as the spinal tone of the film, and a joke and a tear are never too far from one another. Truth be told, whether you’re terrified, embarrassed, or just fed-up, there’s always room for a witty comment.
But I also find that music is incredibly effective for transitions. I think Steven McKenna was really skilled at finding the right motifs for the right moments to let us know as audience members how we’re supposed to be feeling from beat to beat, and guiding us there gracefully. I went through ten different composers before I found Steven, and honestly, he’s worth his weight in gold. A lot of people can compose great tracks, but fitting them into scenes seamlessly… that’s a very different gift altogether.
This was your first feature — what do you wish you’d known before you started, or is there really nothing better than learning on the job?
I’d go back to the budget issues. I definitely know what it takes now to get a feature over the line, but that certainly wasn’t true before Follow the Dead. Although, it’s probably best I didn’t know when I started, or maybe we’d have never gotten off the ground in the first place for fear of the sheer size of the ambition. Maybe the best thing I could have known up front is that it’s best not to make a movie with your own money. Getting distribution that way is incredibly difficult. But again, it may have just put me off.
What’s your favourite bit of the movie? (Mine is Mrs Mooney’s zombie dog’s burial.)
I’m delighted that you like that scene. I remember that was done during pickups and not principle photography. We came back to Offaly sometime after the August shoot to get that shot of the dog grave. We went back to Tadhg Devery’s (who plays Chi) house with some deer paws and I told him how I was going to make the grave look. Night fell and the next thing is he’s calling me out to the garden to see what he’d crafted. I kid you not, when I saw the little mound with the tiny shovel and flower I was laughing for half an hour (You see… morbid humour!)
My own favourite scene is probably the zombie horde sequence at the end. I still can’t believe what we pulled off the night we shot it. But I’m also partial to Jay and Chi having their little discussion on the couch after the intruder disappears. They aren’t half philosophical for a couple of nitwits!
Whenever I ask indie horror directors when they saw their first horror film they usually admit they were about 8 and their older siblings let them watch some bloody slasher. Is it the same for you or were you a late starter?
It depends on what you qualify as horror. I’d argue that my first taste of horror was actually served up by Spielberg. Jurassic Park for me as an 8 year old (you nailed that part) was absolutely terrifying. But I kept coming back for more. Indiana Jones has horror elements. Jaws is a horror. And these are among the greatest movies of all time. So for me I got my best horror training from one of the best filmmakers that’s ever played the game. Scream was my first slasher movie. Pretty tame by any hardcore fan’s standards. But once you get into gore for gore’s sake, you lose me. I’m not about the gratuity, I’m about the story. Alien, Predator, Dog Soldiers, The Shining, Signs, those are my jams.
Is Ireland having an indie horror renaissance?
There have been some cool little horrors made here in the last few years: The Hole in the Ground, Extra Ordinary, The Boys From County Hell, Let the Wrong One In, The Cured… So I suppose there’s an argument to be made for it. But I don’t think we’ve really made a name for ourselves with it. We’re such a small industry here. If only Irish indies had a bigger attraction. But I think we’re working on it.
How much is Follow The Dead an allegory and how much is “Yeah zombies!”?
I think the story is certainly a metaphor for the growing lack of ability among younger generations to properly tackle and withstand trauma. But it only really became allegory retrospectively. You can see some real comparative situations with what happens in the movie and what happened during Covid. People argued over what information was the truth and what wasn’t. You had rioting and the forming of violent factions. You had anti-police rhetoric. And then there was the complete and utter dependency on, and submission to, ever changing government policies and solutions. I think it really made the film more relevant in a strange way, but we could obviously have never predicted any of it.
One of the best things about being Generation X is having grown up without the internet. It’s easier to drop out of online life when it gets too much — or conversely take refuge there for a bit. That and getting to see Wham! in concert in 1984. In your opinion, what are the best (and worst!) things about being a Millennial?
The best thing: my formative years were at the tail end of the ’80s and the early ’90s, so my appreciation of music and film were shaped by the era, which means I have the best taste in both ever hahaha.
The worst thing about being a Millennial is the sense that most of us aren’t living up to our potential, or even know where to start in doing so. I should really only speak for myself, but I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like I grew up in a time where I’ve not been given the tools to be disciplined and go on to be the best version of myself.
You’ve just launched the film in Ireland – how did that go?
Actually, the Irish launch hasn’t happened yet, but we’re looking forward to announcing it soon. Our audience here have been waiting long enough, and we can’t wait to roll out our promotional and marketing plans sometime this summer for that. But for now we’re just available on Amazon in the UK, and Tubi and Amazon.com in the USA.
What’s up next for you, film-wise?
Well, Follow the Dead has a sequel on paper, and I’m hoping for it to become a trilogy. I’m also writing an Irish western, a sci-fi martial arts film, and a Christmas movie, as well as a few experimental shorts. I love genre films, and that’s the goal of my production company; to make original, quality, thought-provoking, and effecting Irish genre films.
And finally… which cohort would be most successful against zombies: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, or Gen Z?
I’m gonna go with Boomers. I think as we progress through the generations we’re becoming more and more dependent and comfortable, and we’re losing a toughness and spirit of perseverance that you’d really need if the world suddenly fell apart.
Read my review of Follow The Dead and watch the trailer here and my (very spoilery) recap article here: No stoner unturned? Follow The Dead explained (sort of)