Zombies Feast in New Middle East

'Canon Fodder,' Israel’s first zombie flick, casts Hezbollah in the role of the walking dead.

As if Israelis didn’t have enough reasons to worry, the streets of Tel Aviv were packed with thousands of pale, blood-dripping zombies on Sunday. They staggered along Rothschild Boulevard, threatening drivers of cars and pedestrians alike. It wasn’t an assault of the living dead but a Purim celebration called Zombie Walk, which is held in the city annually.

Fans of horror flicks will undoubtedly be delighted to learn that, with perfect synchronicity, the new Israeli film “Cannon Fodder” by the young director Eitan Gafny has just been released here. The movie is being distributed abroad by Screen Media and will soon be available as a DVD in the United States.

“Cannon Fodder” had its genesis as a graduation project by Gafny and Tom Goldwasser at Tel Aviv University and evolved into a full-length feature – “the first Israeli zombie movie,” according to the filmmakers. Inspiration was derived from the success of “World War Z” (which is set partly in Israel), but the plot line is more up-to-date: Hezbollah develops a biological weapon that turns everyone who comes into contact with it into a zombie. An Israeli commando unit (consisting of a cross-section of Israeli society: a native-born sabra, an Ethiopian immigrant, a settler and a Russian immigrant) enters Lebanon to do battle, while the zombies storm the security fence.

It’s a graphic picture, with loads of lopped-off limbs, bursts of blood and perforated heads. With the exception of the lead role, which was written expressly for the actor Liron Levo, the other parts are played by anonymous actors and friends of the filmmakers.

“At the age of 11 I already knew I wanted to make ‘Cannon Fodder,’” Gafny says in a joint interview with his wife, Yafit Shalev, who produces and co-stars in the film. “I grew up watching pirate cable television in Holon, especially cheap action movies with Chuck Norris and [Jean-Claude] Van Damme. I always knew that it would be terrific fun to do action movies in Israel, with zombies against soldiers. After dreaming about zombies and soldiers for a whole night, I got up in the morning and said to Yafit, ‘I have an idea and you have to talk me out of it.’ But she said, ‘That’s really cool.’ Two months later we had a second draft and started to look for funding.”

To find investors for a film that was off the beaten track in the Israeli cinematic landscape, Gafny treated the project like a startup. “There’s a business plan, you talk in numbers,” he says. “Our concept is one of commercial cinema. We all love and respect art-house films, but we want to see a different type of cinema, too − more American, more fun. As soon as you treat it like that and grasp that at the end of the day it’s a product that has to be sold, you handle things differently.”

If B movies are made on a low budget in the United States, “Cannon Fodder” was made “on a fifth of the budget of an American B movie,” Gafny notes. “We knew from the start where we were heading. Israel has no B-movie tradition, you know that you are working within a very limited budget. The effects are amateurish, but that’s part of the genre. In Van Damme’s movies or in Sylvester Stallone’s ‘The Expendables,’ the explosions look even less good than ours, and that’s okay.”

For the action scene of hungry zombies on the Rosh Hanikra shore, for example, they needed 300 extras who would work for free. “We called every person we’d ever met, and it was heartwarming to see the response,” Shalev says. “But they enjoyed themselves, too. We drew scars on them and they were able to scream their heads off and let go. It was better than going to a shrink.”

Much of the budget that was saved on the effects was invested in makeup. The team contacted makeup schools in the United States and Canada and offered graduates the chance to intern in the production and gain experience working on a feature film. “We struck a deal with a college in Canada called Complections and got a marvelous makeup artist named Jennifer Cummings,” Shalev relates. “At the same time, we recruited Studio Art and the makeup artist Karen Davidoff, who did special effects for us.”

In case you were wondering how long it takes to transform a regular person into a zombie, the answer is: 45 minutes. “We became very efficient at makeup, and we also decided, for budgetary and script reasons, to have the plot cover the first days of the epidemic. That way the zombies are fresher and more human and don’t need as much material to be used on them,” Gafny says.

Local cinema-goers appear to be excited by the final product. “We had a screening at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot that surprised us out of our minds. Wild energy, laughter, people sat on the stairs because there were no more seats,” Shalev recalls.

To which Gafny adds that they had their perfect target audience in Sderot: “Young people who want to see atypical Israeli cinema. What they found funniest were the racist, very not politically correct bits about Israeli society, which of course were done intentionally.”

The commando unit, with its representative characters, generated extraordinary responses in the audience. “We really wanted to get everyone’s goat,” Gafny says. “We knew that the leftists would say that all the zombies are Arabs and the rightists would say that we are legitimizing the right of return. We wanted extreme reactions.”

Shalev: “We screened the film at the London FrightFest film festival, and the critics were absolutely divided about the content. One of them called it a ‘right-wing piece of shit’ and another branded it ‘left-wing propaganda.’ But all we wanted to do was have fun.”