05 August 2011

Zombies invade Delmarva in Cambridge couple's horror-comedy

From left, Stefan Gural, Wendy Renee Cade, Connor Smith, Lacey Hancher, Brett Cover and Alexis Droke from the locally made movie "Dead on Delmarva" are pictured.
CAMBRIDGE — John McDonald and Karen Harrison had never made a movie. They have no background in filmmaking. But that hasn’t stopped them.

“Have you ever sat around and watched a movie and said, ‘I can do better?’” Harrison asked. “That is what happened with this.”

The “this” she is referring to is “Dead on Delmarva,” a zombie comedy she and McDonald, her fiancĂ©, wrote together and shot last fall at locations in Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline counties.

“I’ve just loved stories since I was a kid,” said McDonald, who is also the director, during an interview at his and Harrison’s Cambridge home.

McDonald and Harrison each write short stories—“She’s a big-time horror freak, and I’m a science fiction/fantasy freak,” he said.

They’ve always enjoyed watching zombie movies together and had been joking about making one of their own when they learned the late ‘80s film “Redneck Zombies” had been shot—on a $10,000 budget—in Delmar and that Harrison works with one of the writers and one of the actors.

A short story idea quickly turned into the 72-page “Dead on Delmarva” script, McDonald and Harrison formed Arkham Productions, and McDonald prepared to direct by reading a handful of books on filmmaking.

“Independent” doesn’t even begin to describe the nature of the production, which took place on six weekends last September and October.

Cast and crew, all volunteers, came from throughout the Delmarva region; McDonald and Harrison set up air mattresses at their house and cooked meals for those who came from out of town.

“It was like one big family,” Harrison said.

Actors auditioned for their roles, but some dropped out and had to be replaced shortly before production began.

The makeup artist bowed out at the last minute, too, and the job fell to Harrison, whose on-set role was to be first assistant director.

Props came primarily from eBay, costumes from military surplus and thrift stores.

And, of course, there was blood. Lots and lots of blood.

“We’ve got gallons of blood laying around,” McDonald said.

“We actually made our own blood,” Harrison said, “two different formulas—one you could eat, one you could wash. They were not interchangeable.”

The edible blood was based on corn syrup, while dishwashing detergent is the main ingredient of the washable variety.

McDonald said they made 16 gallons of blood.

“There was blood everywhere,” Harrison said. “There’s still blood in my van.”

Once the makeup and props were in place, the scene on set was often surreal.

“One girl literally walks around holding her intestines,” McDonald said. “That was condoms filled with blood inside of a pair of nylons. And she just walked around covered in blood. I made this appliance where it looked like her stomach was ripped open and put half of it inside, and she just walked around like that.”

Though Harrison contacted local authorities before each weekend of shooting, that didn’t stop Maryland State Police from responding to the set near the end of production—not because of the people with mutilated bodies covered in blood, but due to concerns from people who had seen the actors in military fatigues with prop guns.

Actors David Edward Cooper, left, and Daniel F. Purcell are shown in a scene from "Dead on Delmarva."
The military plays a prominent role in “Dead on Delmarva.”

“We had watched lots and lots of zombie movies, and in almost every single one of them, all the military does is run away,” McDonald said. “My dad was a master sergeant in the Virginia National Guard. I know what he would’ve done, and he wouldn’t have run away.

“So one of the things we really wanted to do was have a very positive view of the military.”

Shooting locations included Canvasback Restaurant and Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, a farm near Cambridge on Bucktown Road and the General James F. Fretterd Community Center in Denton. Principal production was completed last fall.

McDonald said the Dorchester County Department of Tourism was helpful in finding locations.

At the community center in Denton, zombies attack a group of karate students portrayed by a class from the Eastern Sun Karate Club.

“It took them about two seconds to decide” to participate, said instructor John Liszewski.

Liszewski said it was a fun experience for him and the students. “They got to bleed, fall down and get bitten by zombies,” he said.

McDonald and Harrison are stressing the comedy factor of the movie, and they pointed to the 2004 British film “Shaun of the Dead” as a source of inspiration.

“It was done in a humorous way even though there was lots of guts and gore,” Liszewski said of the karate scene.

McDonald, who has degrees in psychology, religion and computer science—“My family likes to joke that I collect degrees,” he said—and is a database administrator for Quality Health Strategies in Easton, said he is a bit behind schedule as he works on editing and adding special effects. He and Harrison hope to have the movie finished by December.

They plan to submit “Dead on Delmarva” to several East Coast horror movie festivals and possibly the Chesapeake Film Festival, as well, though that will have to wait until 2012.

“We did it as cheaply as possible, but we’re trying to make a funny but good movie and have fun making it,” McDonald said.

“We just wanted to have fun and make a movie,” echoed Harrison, who works at K&L Microwave in Salisbury. “We’re not out to make tons of money or anything. We wanted to make people laugh.”

“I do want to make enough money to recoup my losses and make another one,” McDonald said.

McDonald said he has put about $14,000 into the project so far, and he’s not done yet. Taxes associated with setting up the production company accounted for much of the expenditures, he said.

McDonald and Harrison already have decided on their next two movies. McDonald described one, based on a story he has been working on for 10 years, as a fantasy superhero movie with horror elements and said the other, based on a short story by Harrison, is about a “haunted mansion with an ancient secret.”

“I just wanted to show my parents that, ‘Look, all those horror movies really did warp my brain!’” Harrison said.

Information on “Dead on Delmarva” can found on its Internet Movie Database page.

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