The scene is a familiar one. A student arrives at Watson Fitness Center to find that the weight room has been closed due to an infectious outbreak. After the area has been quarantined, it is reopened to a wary public. As a student sits down on a newly disinfected weight bench, he discovers a trace of slime on the machine, and proceeds to culture it in the Petri dish that he carries on his person at all times, only to discover that it's a strain of a zombie virus that's simultaneously wrecking havoc on the rest of campus.
So, maybe the scene is not so familiar after all to most Bowdoin students. But it is to senior Aki Shishido, who has spent the past year writing, directing, and starring in his comedic horror film, "Class of the Dead," which will be screened on campus later this month.
Although Shishido has spent the semester finishing the film as part of an independent study under the guidance of Professor of English Aviva Briefel, the project's inception came almost a year ago, when Shishido saw sophomore Lucas Delahanty's zombie film "Styx and Stones" at the Student Film Festival. Shishido left the festival determined to make his own zombie movie, in hopes that it would dominate the following year's festival. That night, he recruited two friends, seniors Zach Roberts and J. Patrick Brown, and drafted an entire script, which served as the starting point for his current film.
"Initially, the reason we made it was to 'own' the festival," Shishido said.
However, over the summer, Shishido threw himself into the project full force. A biochemistry major with no experience in filmmaking, Shishido taught himself to use a camera, run screen tests, use editing software, and create special effects so that he would be prepared to begin filming upon his return to campus in the fall. For Shishido, Brown, Roberts, and other cast and crew members recruited for the film, the fall months were jam packed with early morning film shoots and late-night editing sessions.
By the close of the fall semester, it had become clear to Shishido that he was working just as hard on his movie as he was on his biochemistry honor's project, so he approached Briefel with the idea of turning the project into an independent study for the spring semester. Under the direction of Briefel, Shishido said he has been able to maintain the freedom of designing his own project while receiving both useful feedback and course credit.
According to Briefel, Shishido's background in and love for the horror genre has helped make his film a successful one.
"Aki was a student in my class, 'The Horror Film in Context,' in which we discussed a number of theories about this genre of film. I can definitely identify a number of those elements in 'Class of the Dead,'" Briefel said. "I also think that Aki has become something of a zombie expert himself, as he has seen a great number of zombie films and analyzed how they convey both fear and humor."
The final cut of the movie is just that: an equal mixture of humor and horror. Although Shishido said he originally wrote the script as "serious, well, cheesy serious," it now reads more like "if Mel Brooks made a zombie movie."
In order to promote the film, Shishido has spent the last few weeks peppering the Bowdoin Cable Network (BCN) and WBOR with strange teasers. One such teaser on BCN has Director of Safety and Security Randy Nichols reading out loud a fictional security report stating that there have recently been a number of campus assaults involving biting and encouraging students and faculty to remain indoors. Likewise, on his radio show on WBOR, Shishido has been reading zombie survival tips in addition to the program's required PSAs.
"Part of the project was to create a bit of a culture around the film," he said.
Although Shishido and his friends originally began working on the movie with intentions of entering it in the film festival, the film is now ineligible because it is too long and Shishido is earning credit. However, the audience at the Student Film Festival will get to see an exclusive "sneak peak" of the film, which will then be screened on campus the following weekend, April 17-19.
According to Shishido, even the jumpiest of students should be able to handle the movie, which is based more on filmmaker George Romero's slow-moving, "old school" zombies, rather than on more recent adaptations, such as "28 Days Later." However, just because the zombies aren't fast doesn't mean they aren't scary.
"I've always had the view of: 'What are they? Oh, they're us... in dead form," Shishido said.
Briefel agreed. "Zombies are a warped version of ourselves. Seeing a zombie film is like watching through a fun-house mirror in which the traits we're not too proud of are magnified and distorted."
The film is especially poignant for a Bowdoin audience, since the scenery is recognizable and familiar.
"One of the great things about this film is that it incorporates Bowdoin life into its narrative," Briefel said. "I think it really drives home the familiarity and self-recognition that are an essential part of zombie films."
"I predict that Bowdoin audiences will see many parts of themselves that they never really stopped to consider," she added.
"Class of the Dead" will be screened on April 17, 18, and 19 in Cleaveland 151 at 7:30 p.m.