What started out as a funny idea for a Halloween costume has since become a short film whose viewership is spreading online like—wait for it—a zombie plague.
Zombie In a Penguin Suit is the brainchild of Chris Russell, a young writer/director who studied film at Emerson College in Boston. The seven-minute short chronicles an entire second life for one vagabond zombie, from his moment of reanimation to the bitter end several months later. It's drawn attention for its oddly affecting take on a familiar genre.
"Zombies, as they are traditionally presented, aren’t that scary," says Russell. "In large groups, they can be overwhelming, but if you break it down to the individual, they are really quite pathetic, and relatively harmless." Over the course of the film, the zombie in a penguin suit (from here on, referred to as ZIAPS) does temporarily join the roving gangs of his brethren, tearing hapless victims to ribbons, but he also spends much of the run time trudging alone. In a penguin suit.
The emptiness of a zombie’s existence is seldom more apparent than when a movie presents one traveling by himself. This idea, along with the Halloween costume, is what inspired Russell to make the film. "When a zombie pops out of an elevator shaft," he says, "I always wonder: How long was he stuck in that elevator shaft? Where did he come from and what brought him there?"
Beyond exploring the deeper inherent loneliness of being a zombie, ZIAPS also obeys the first law of such films: Always be terrifying. The zombies here are George Romero-style in looks, with ghastly pallor and pink-rimmed eyes, but they’re 28 Days Later in physicality, chasing down their pray with urgent speed. Bringing these creatures (back) to life took a lot of work, though.
Chris Russell directed the film with several producers and a dedicated crew, most of whom he met while working on the web series, Blood Light. The actor who plays ZIAPS and the makeup artist were found through online ads. Because everyone involved had regular jobs, the film took approximately 10 months to create, from start to finish.
The low budget, guerrilla-style shoot took place in New England in seven days, spread out over a series of weekends. The passage in time helped the filmmakers mimic the seasonal changes of the movie, as did some unpredictable weather. "As anyone who has ever lived in New England knows, the weather is insane," says Russell. "We got very lucky." The odd New England weather allowed the filmmakers to shoot the sunny neighborhood scene and the gloomy-gray dog track sequence on two back-to-back days in April.
One element that stands out in the video is the haunting score. A lonely violin works away at first and is later joined by softly plinking piano keys. "Marc Mellits’s music was an untitled track on my iPod for months," Russell says. "One night I realized the marriage between the concept and the music might make for a strange and interesting film." Besides the score, no other sound is heard until the final scene. Without the guttural groans of hungry zombies or the fearful screams of victims, scenes of savage zombie violence come across more sad than scary.
At the time of posting, Zombie In a Penguin Suit has been viewed over 52,000 times and is getting notices everywhere from BuzzFeed to USA Today for its melancholic charm. That’s a pretty big impact for something that started as a Halloween costume.
"Incidentally," Chris points out. "I never actually wore the costume for Halloween."