Telling the story of austerity Britain through the medium of zombies

The residents of the Firs and Bromford estates in north-east Birmingham wanted to steer clear of a documentary. 

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The residents of the Firs and Bromford estates in north-east Birmingham had received a steady stream of bad press – for anti-social behaviour, mass unemployment, substandard living (two “iconic” tower blocks stand idle and condemned) and even an outbreak of rickets. When they got funding to make their own community film project through the National Lottery’s Big Local scheme, it was natural that their chosen genre was zombie. They wanted to steer clear of a documentary – some of them knew people who’d been in Channel 4’s Benefits Street, filmed five miles away in Winson Green. Why not wear latex wounds and embody a group on the margins instead?

A cult film expert from Birmingham City University was brought in to help them: they were innately drawn, he tells me, to the through-line of dispossession and exclusion in the motif of the undead. This week, their three short films go live on the university website: two tongue-in-cheek mock docs and a horror. One resident in Brombies deadpans: “The film is very close to our estate. Because most people look like zombies half the time.”

“The old are afraid to come out…” says another, not being entirely serious. “Neighbours don’t talk to each other any more.” The residents unearthed Super 8 footage of life on the estate in the Forties and Fifties to see how former tenants talked about their sense of geographical exclusion. In one of the new films, a lawyer from Zombie Legals represents the marginalised undead, coming in from the outside world as a social worker might.

The project’s facilitator, Xavier Mendik, was born in nearby Erdington. He has a specialist interest in the politics of zombie films, particularly Italian video nasties – an unlikely treasure trove of social comment during the country’s “Years Of Lead” in the 1970s, when 53 left-wing terrorist cells fought a similar number of neo-fascist groups in a decade of kneecappings and car bombs. The former prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and murdered. Racially tinged antagonism thrived between the Italian north and south.

All the while, zombie movies reflected what mainstream films dared not touch. In George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), distributed after the assassination of Martin Luther King, a black hero fights racist redneck sheriffs. Dawn of the Dead (1978) begins in a housing tenement where the dwellers – African-American and Puerto Rican – harbour the undead rather than hand them over to racist law enforcement.

Mendik thinks that negative press has smothered the sense of intergenerational and interracial accord at Bromford, where an emerging eastern European community mixes with Afro-Caribbean, African and Asian residents. Religious ceremonies are celebrated in a “trans-religious sphere” – anyone can go to the estate’s Eid events – and you can attend a Wild West weekend, or Nigeria week, should you want to. Among the 25 residents who made the films, the interest in zombies was not in racial difference but in the eternal battle of the haves and have-nots. “In zombie films the rich get their just deserts,” says Mendik, “and the poor and dispossessed, even if they have to take a bite or two, come up smelling of undead roses.”

This “seeding project” will continue with monthly workshops in which residents get media training (to help them reflect on negative press) and learn a few more film-making skills. They trailed round the estate with their ears cupped – a technique that sound designers call “elephant ears” – to find the best places to record. They’re now planning an “extended, interracial, uplifting zombie piece” called The Spire – if they can get the lottery funding.

In the meantime, we have their shorts. They Live Outside explores the most dangerous zombie archetype of all – the Hoodie. Two spooky residents peer at youths from high in the condemned Holbrook tower block: “I know they’ve never hurt us but they could. Look at them out there, looming about the place!” The question is, who’s the real threat. In zombie films, the normal and abnormal merge. The undead generally have more morality than the so-called living.

Watch the films at bcu.ac.uk

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?