The usual Saturday-afternoon merchants were lined up along the 125th Street sidewalk, across from the Apollo: the shaved-ice lady, the roots-and-incense dealers, the Senegalese peddlers of ersatz Rolexes. Alongside them was the zombie, bullet hole gouged into his cheek, machete wound on his forehead, lurching forward, stiff-gaited, product in hand.
“Dead Roses! Independent film! Shot in Brooklyn! Not a bootleg! Dead Roses!” the zombie droned, his voice muffled beneath several pounds of latex, Kleenex, and beeswax. “Ten dollars. Dead Roses! Scare the shit out of yourself!”
“Ahhh!” shrieked a shopper, a chunky, plastic-bag-laden woman of about 40, who had pushed her way through the glass door of the Lazarus department store, running right into the zombie.
“Dead Roses!” the zombie intoned.
“Get away,” cowered the shopper, edging down the street.
The zombie followed, carrying his stack of DVDs. “Wait, lady … wait! I’m not a real zombie! I’m only a promotional zombie!” The woman kept running, into the crowd.
“I told her it was only a movie,” said Robert McCorkle. McCorkle is the director and writer of Dead Roses, certainly the most seriously creepy and floridly plotted, not to mention downright kinky, full-length zombie-voodoo movie ever shot on location in the Risley Dent housing projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In this pageant of urban contemporary psychosexual longing, funky zombies rise out of shallow graves from Nostrand Avenue to Coney Island to walk the former land of Carl Furillo. Hence the film’s tagline: “Brooklyn Has a New Evil!”
Until recently a financial analyst’s assistant cooped up in a cubicle at a midtown investment-banking firm, the 35-year-old McCorkle thought if he was going to “do a Master P” (the New Orleans–born rapper who became a hip-hop mogul selling self-produced albums from the trunk of his car), he might as well dress the part. Who better to sell a zombie movie than a zombie? Underground rappers pushing homemade discs, gangsta and not, are a dime a dozen these days. But what brother makes his own full-length movie with his own money? If you were going to make it happen, McCorkle said from beneath his peeling layers of latex, you had to “go guerrilla.”
Guerrilla is McCorkle’s style. He says, “people told me, all the zombies needed was a little talcum powder on their faces. But to me a zombie isn’t a zombie unless he’s decayed. Putrefied. Mutilated. All messed up. I mean, they’re dead, right? So I taught myself how to put this stuff on, from reading magazines and on the Internet. Just because we’re low-budget doesn’t mean it can’t be realistic—at least movie-realistic.”
Whether or not Dead Roses is movie-realistic—or at least Plan 9 From Outer Space–realistic—depends on how you look at those kinds of things. Shot and edited in digital video for a bit less than $5,000 over a year’s time, the film has pithy dialogue that’s occasionally inaudible, a mise-en-scène that is a tad obsessed with ravaged body parts, and lighting that goes blooey every so often. But Dead Roses is still imbued by a defiant sense of the real.
“Night of the Living Dead in the projects? Now that’s a concept I can get behind,” said Dead Roses producer and star Johnathan Tucker when he first met McCorkle at the banking firm where he ran the mailroom. Having grown up in Bed-Stuy wanting to be an actor—and having acquired some street cred for an (uncredited) part in the pioneer hip-hop film Krush Groove—Tucker, a large-voiced guy with a rakish look and demeanor, had tried writing for TV and taken several film-production classes. But he was frustrated.
“I had that pay-bill frustration, work at Home Depot on the weekend, societal fuck-over frustration. Robert changed that. He’s kind of what you’d call a dreamer. Head in the clouds. Out there, man. He told me about Dead Roses and I said: Yeah, fuck the system. Do it ourselves.”
Sharing McCorkle’s fervor for slasher/sci-fi/horror movies, especially that part in the original Exorcist when Linda Blair does that 360 thing with her head, Tucker, a pragmatist who spent ten years selling real estate in Park Slope, also recognized the stumbling-zombie genre as exceedingly budget-friendly.
“We shot mostly at night,” Tucker recounts. “A lot of it was done at the project where Reevse Bobb (Dead Roses’ co-writer and cinematographer) lives near Boys and Girls High School. We got the zombies from the neighborhood. We saw people hanging out and asked them, Hey, want to be a zombie? They said, Huh? We said, Hey, you’re perfect.
“Robert wanted each zombie to be unique, with different running sores and stab wounds. So these street guys have, like, five pounds of junk on, and they say, What I’m gettin’ paid? I said, Nothing. Some got testy: I got all this shit on my head and I’m not getting paid? We gave ’em points. That shut ’em up.
“No one had seen this shit. We had a scene with fifteen zombies and wham, our generator blows out. I got this old lady to let us run an extension cord through the window. Robert says ‘action,’ and the electricity goes out again. The old lady’s granddaughter just got off the swing shift cleaning office buildings and she pulled the plug. She’s screaming, ‘You’ll not be stealin’ my grandma ’lectricity!’
“Another scene had zombies getting blasted with a sawed-off shotgun. Out of nowhere, we’re surrounded by a dozen cops. Someone called 911 and said, They’re blowing the fuck out of zombies down here. The cops have us spread-eagled, zombies too. One of the cops is pointing at the street and says, ‘What’s that?’ I told him it was brains.
“ ‘Zombie brains.’
“Now there’s six cops with their guns out at Troy and Decatur, looking at a pile of fake brains like they’re going to throw up. Finally they told us to get a permit and left.”
It is no small tribute to cross-cultural semiprofessional horror-fan mania that Dead Roses came out more than watchable—way more watchable, say, than Melvin Van Peebles’s pre-blaxploitation “classic” Sweet Sweetback’s. McCorkle has a way with cheesy FX, and Tucker’s final confession of remorse (he plays the gang leader) is kind of touching, at least until he’s ripped apart.
But creation is only the outset of art. It must be brought to the marketplace. “We weren’t exactly going the Sundance route,” says Johnathan Tucker, unloading a stack of DVDs from the back of his Chevy Tahoe in front of the new Target on Flatbush Avenue. Business is brisk; they’ve moved 60 “units” today, and about 1,200 since they started at the beginning of October.
Just then a guy in a Nissan Pathfinder comes wheeling around the corner near the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building. “Saw the movie, man!” he shouts. “Scared the shit out of me!” Watching the Nissan head down Atlantic Avenue, the filmmakers agreed, you couldn’t ask for a better review than that.