Zombies, Bringing Education to Life
By Misty Mathews
Telecommunication and film professors Dr. Matt Payne and Adam Schwartz have one thing on their brains: “BRAINS.”
Actually, that’s not entirely true, but Payne and Schwartz are each teaching a UA course this semester on zombies, cashing in on the monsters’ current popularity to provide students with culturally relevant instruction while teaching them the skills they need to succeed in the real world.
“What’s going to catch people’s attention is the subject matter,” said Payne, who is teaching TCF 444: Zombies in Culture. “At the same time, pedagogical utility is vital. It’s very important to us to underscore what the learning objectives are.”
Schwartz is teaching TCF 451: Advanced Television Production, in which students are producing a television pilot episode. He said the class provides students an experience that closely mirrors real-world production work.
“From the beginning we stress, ‘This isn’t a class project,’” Schwartz said. “I mean, it is, but it’s also for distribution in festivals. I tell my students that if they’re worried about the grade, they’re worried about the wrong thing. You have a job in this class, and there are very specific expectations for the job you are supposed to do. If you do your job, the grade will come.”
“This is not just about studying bogey men,” said Payne, who has previously published research on zombies in pop culture and film. “There’s real work going on here.”
Students will have a chance to use their audio/visual skills but also will learn about things like special-effects makeup and social media campaigns for promotion. In coming weeks the classes will participate in a special effects workshop by Montgomery-based artist Jonathan Thornton.
“Jonathan will give a basic workshop in how to make folks undead – makeup, special effects,” Schwartz said. “He will actually do most of the makeup for what we call the ‘hero zombies’ – the ones who are featured, close up. But one person doing the makeup for all those zombies would be too expensive and too time-consuming, so it’s an opportunity for students to be involved in doing the makeup for the ‘extra’ zombies and to learn from him.”
Payne and Schwartz wrote a script for the production class over the summer, focusing on creating a “zom-com” or zombie comedy. The pilot, titled “Zom-Com” (“Clever, right?” Schwartz said.), will tell the story of a group of zombie chasers (think storm chasers, but with zombies) who are working with various corporations to tag and study zombies.
“Unlike most zombie fiction that trades in a lot of overt gore, this group is actually a very humanitarian group, so what’s challenging for them is getting the data without actually harming the zombies,” Payne said.
Schwartz, Payne and their students held a casting call in September and also have secured two Screen Actors Guild-member actors for the pilot – Erica Schroeder, a voice actress best known for her work on “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” and Dan DeLuca, who appeared in season four of HBO’s “The Wire.”
Students in the production class will also participate in portions of Payne’s zombie history class. Payne said the zombie is much more than just a monster, and he hopes he can help students appreciate that.
“Sometimes the monsters in our lives are the monsters we can’t see or recognize,” Payne said. “The zombie is an incredibly agile monster that creates a really nice shell for communicating or articulating a number of social anxieties – racism, sexism, militarism, class inequities.”
Payne’s class will examine a variety of genres and time periods, from the origin of the monster as a Caribbean voodoo monster to George A. Romero’s work – “the father of the modern zombie,” Payne said – to more current depictions of the zombie in the post-9/11 world.
Both Schwartz and Payne said they hope to shoot in locations across Alabama and make use of the physical and creative resources the state offers. They also said they hope to incorporate other departments and entities on campus for a truly collaborative final product.
“It’s really unique, despite the abundance of zombie media, to have this type of collaboration at a state university,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think this has ever been done before.”
The on-campus collaboration already includes Creative Campus, which gave Schwartz and Payne a “Creativity in Collaboration” grant to work with Creative Campus interns on the film project. They also hope to have students from the theatre and dance department involved in some capacity.
“The Creativity in Collaboration grant not only gives us $1,500, it also means we have a team of Creative Campus interns that will work in a variety of capacities alongside TCF students, including marketing, branding, makeup, wardrobe,” Payne said, adding that the Creative Campus students would also be involved in the special effects workshop.
The TCF 444 and 451 classes also recently held fundraisers at locations near campus, allowing more campus community members to support the production of the pilot, which will be entered for consideration to be screened at a number of prestigious film festivals.