Epidemic – Remembering a low-budget ‘zombie’ film

As well as this month marking 50 years since the moon landing, it also marks the 10th anniversary of what I believe to be the cheapest ‘zombie’ film ever made.  Not ‘Colin’ – a Marc Price film which featured in this Guardian article that month and was released in October 2009. No, that cost a staggering £45 to make.  The one I am talking about is called ‘Epidemic’, made for just a budget of £30.  This was the total cost of the make up (including a bottle of tomato ketchup), props and accessories (including several cheap, plain, white T-shirts). The students involved were all young learners, aged between 12 and 17, on a Bell Educational Trust summer language and activity programme.  I was not maintaining a blog at the time, so here is belated write-up of that experience.

I was a teacher at The Leys school, in Cambridge, that summer. It was my first paid teaching job after completing my CELTA at NILE in March of that year. It was two months after I had made a film and DVD about a youth club reunion in East London, which I wrote about earlier this year. Now ‘Epidemic’ has got the full anniversary treatment.  Going back to the original footage to find outtakes and rehearsals, the executive producer (that’s me) has just put together a 10th anniversary DVD Edition.  This is the new cover with archive photos and a new summary of the contents ‘groaning’ inside.

Epidemic (10th Anniversary Edition) DVD cover

Making ‘Epidemic’ remains my proudest achievement in terms of maximising task-based learning and using ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) in my career to date.  It was my first post-CELTA job and I was buzzing with enthusiasm. It was actually my teaching partner, not Marc Price, but Marc Murphy-Robinson who came up with the idea of ‘film’ as our theme for this 2 week part of a 6-week summer course.  We had been given one of the lowest English language level classes.  All new arrivals undertook a crude placement test and ours were around A2-B1 – a lot of Spaniards and Russian teenagers amongst them. The idea for the story came from a pair of Spanish teenagers who were inspired by the Danny Boyle film, 28 Days Later. Don’t ask me how they knew the details of this 18-certificate zombie flick. They were also inspired by the Darren Aronofsky film, ‘Requiem for a Dream. They explicitly wanted music from that latter film included, too. I had not previously heard of this one, but I felt it was a great choice as it really added a sense of tension to the movie. Once three different movie ideas had been pitched, this was chosen to go into production. The director, a small 15 year-old lad called Ignacio, who insisted it was a ‘horror’ film he was making not a comedy, had to cast it.  Some students volunteered for acting roles, while others were somewhat coerced into being on screen. There was also a costume department, a make-up team, two camera operators and two runners. I have rediscovered some photos of the director’s notes which shows a possible list of props needed and who was playing who. See below.

Epidemic Directors Notes

OK, the quality is what you might expect of a fairly rushed, low-budget film.  It takes a bit too long to get to the first main Zombie sequence showing cricketers turned into the ‘undead’, all because of a single wasp sting. There is some wind noise and you can hear chatting off camera on a couple of occasions, including a passer-by asking if I am a teacher. However, Marc and I got a lot out of the teens. Most of the filming was done in one day, with the editing finished the following day, so that this ambitious film could be shown during the end of their two week course class show and each child getting a copy, which included outtakes.  The show took place on 20 July 2009, exactly one year ago today. The film got a rapturous response at the show, especially when the Cranberries’ song ‘Zombie’* – with its line “Another head hangs lowly. Child is slowly taken” – came up over the credits. My DOS told me that it was brilliant, exactly the kind of thing for a young learner course such as this.  It exceeded all expectations of what could be done in such a short space of time. I am still very proud of it.

I remember reading the Bell handbook afterwards which mentioned the difficulty of trying to make a film from scratch and warned against trying. This was based on teachers who had attempted this before but found it logistically challenging.  There were only around 10 actual lessons with the kids and more than half of these were classroom based and for language learning. Parents had to be sold on sending their loved ones (maybe not-so loved ones) away for the summer – and part of that is that the teens would be improving their English.  It was a fun, collaborative activity programme, complete with day trips and sporting options.  There was also lots of cheap entertainment, rounded off by a disco at the end of every two weeks. I loved the experience and made some great friends from my time at The Leys. I returned the following year and made another film called ‘Bad Romance’, the making of which can be found on my video page.




Anyway, here is the final version.  Two weeks later we made Epidemic II – which I personally didn’t think was as good, but at least a sequel got made and that features on the new DVD along with unearthed rehearsal footage, outtakes and interviews, which were conducted on the way back from Newmarket Horse Racing museum. You can watch the ‘artistic’ black & white version in full below, minus the credits.** I should point out that the original version that appears on the DVD is in colour, where the ketchup can be seen in all its glory!


If you want to hear more about this and other films that I have been involved in making over the last 12 years or so as an English language teacher, please come to The Image Conference in Brussels,***, on 5-6 October.  I will presenting on this topic for the first time.  You can watch my promotional video, which will be shared by Belta in August.



* I am fully aware that the Cranberries song is about the troubles in Northern Ireland, so no need to comment to that effect.  The song just came up when we were discussing with the students possible music for the credits, and it fitted very nicely.

** The video is unlisted on YouTube and the credits have been removed due to copyright of the song ‘Zombie’ and because it shows all the students’ names.

*** I will be bringing some colour copies of the DVD to the Image Conference, which I might give away.

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