Gilbey on Film: horror at the box office

Is Zombie Undead the lowest-grossing film on record?

I've never been much of an industry-watcher, which is why Charles Gant's box-office digest in Sight & Sound magazine, and online at the Guardian, is so valuable. As well as being a witty read, there's the secondary but entirely pleasant sensation that someone else is doing my homework for me; Gant gets on with all the number-crunching so that this two-time maths flunkee doesn't have to.

There are usually some interesting stories in the figures, as it transpired recently when a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a striking detail in the UK box-office chart. Way down the list at number 89 in the tally for the weekend of 29 April to 1 May was something called Zombie Undead, a British horror movie which had passed me by.

What makes it so distinctive, apart from its tautological title (aren't all zombies undead?), is that it took just £10 during that three-day period. It didn't even have the excuse that it had been hanging around the charts for several weeks or months: we're talking £10 on its opening weekend, £10 from two screens. I'd love to find the two people who rushed out on that first weekend, almost as much as I'd like to know which cinema charges a mere £5 for a cinema ticket.

Perhaps it wasn't two people. Perhaps it was the same person seeing the film twice. Was it the director, or one of his friends, relatives or pets? If you're reading this, and either of those Zombie Undead opening-weekenders was you, or -- even better -- if both of them were you, please do get in touch. I'd love to know what you thought of the film.

A cursory look at some of the reviews suggests that it may not figure prominently in next year's Bafta nominations. Total Film called it a "no-budget, no-brains outing." Time Out found it "laughably inept" and singled out the "uniformly, enthusiastically dreadful" cast, while conceding that the film boasted "a small handful of . . . so-bad-they're-hysterical moments." But, hey -- any publicity is good publicity, right?

Most of the newspapers, as far as I could tell, didn't review the film. A search on the Guardian website asks me: "Did you mean Bobbi Undead?" Woah, I think to myself. Did I mean Bobbi Undead? What on earth is Bobbi Undead? That sounds intriguing. A vision of Bobbi Flekman, the "hostess with the mostest" who presides over the Smell the Glove launch party in This is Spinal Tap, materialises in my mind's eye. Except that now Bobbi is a blank-eyed zombie, foaming at the mouth and carrying a severed arm between her teeth. (Somehow this image is more comforting than the real, non-zombie Bobbi Flekman, of whom Tap's guitarist Nigel St Tufnel later said: "If she hadn't been a cheat, a liar and a bitch, she would have been a great girl.") So I click on Bobbi Undead. Disappointingly, it returns 0 results. Guardian website, you are such a tease.

I'm sure someone will rush to correct me if I'm mistaken, but it looks very much as though Zombie Undead could be the lowest-grossing film on record. Certainly it appears to have taken less at the box-office than the previous record holder, the 2006 thriller Zyzzyx Road, which starred a pre-Knocked Up Katherine Heigl alongside that Hollywood scandal magnet Tom Sizemore (who was arrested for violation of parole shortly before filming began), and boasts the tagline: "What happens in Vegas . . . gets buried on Zyzzyx Road." Entertainment Weekly has the full, gruesome story (and it's a good one) of why and how the film came to take just $30 after being seen by six people during a week's run in Dallas:

One of those paying customers was Sheila Moore, a Dallas-based make-up artist who had worked on the film. "I thought it was a little odd," she says of the film's debut. "I thought it was a joke at first. Yeah, right, of all places they're gonna premiere this in Dallas, so far from where we filmed it? I figured they'd do it in Los Angeles." Moore and a friend were the only people in the theatre. "We got popcorn and a drink from the same lady that took our tickets," she says. "It was kind of surreal. She looked at us like, 'You want to see what?'"

That film achieved notoriety for a time, helped no doubt by the fact that Heigl went on to bigger if not always better things. The best that the makers of Zombie Undead can hope for is that the same fate befalls their work. So-bad-they're-good pictures are a niche market in themselves, notable "successes" in the field including Plan 9 from Outer Space, Battlefield Earth, Gigli and the recent Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Much rarer is the so-bad-that-nobody-goes-to-see-it movie. If I were overseeing PR for Zombie Undead, I would recommend an immediate theatrical re-release -- except that there's always the chance it might jeopardise the low takings which currently represent the film's USP.

Zombie Undead is released on DVD on 30 May

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496