Lurking, just beyond the fluorescent glare of the buzzing station lights, a lone figure clumsily lurches through the darkness. "God, not another drunk," thinks the disgruntled motorist, just as the shape lunges, arms outstretched , into the lamplight, revealing a shocking, grisly appearance. Clothes torn, drenched in gore and filth, it's face a bloody mess, a wild look glazes it's eyes as it reaches out towards the vehicle, growling, "Brraaaaiiinnssss!"
Startled, the driver goes to make a break for it, when he suddenly notices the coins in the ghoul's hand. This undead marauder has brought his busfare. The coachman shakes his head, ushers the fiend on and warns him, impassively, "Don't bleed on my bus." His passenger takes his seat and affords himself a wry smile, reflecting back on his exceptional day at work. Welcome to the weird world of Neil, The Zombie Movie Extra.
Toronto resident Neil Sinclair is a warm, articulate forty-something, who is well-versed in literature and psychology. An enthusiastic cinephile, with a passion for the classic works of Bogart, Hawks and Welles, he admits that, truthfully, his heart really belongs to schlock horror movie maestro George Romero. Like so many exuberant others, Neil is a passionate horror fan, eagerly immersing himself in the macabre world of the weird and wonderful. Devouring an abundant cache of texts, from comics to movies to videogames, the Canadian has discovered a new lease of life in nightmarish tales of ghosts, creatures and, particularly, zombies.
In recent years, the humble zombie has gone through something of a renaissance in popular culture, thanks to the success of big-budget efforts like 2009's Zombieland, the Resident Evil series, and ambitious HBO serial The Walking Dead. Spirited fanboys flock to conventions, often in full-on eye-catching zombie attire. Some go so far as to glue oatmeal to their bodies to resemble flecks of dead skin or to bury, then dig up their clothes to better recreate the risen-from-the-dead aesthetic, desperate to really indulge in a little gruesome escapism.
Some devotees, like Neil, feel compelled to take their fandom a step further, looking to gnaw off a little chunk of screen history for themselves. Zombie pictures usually require legions of moaning, decaying bit-part players for the heroes to hack, slash and eviscerate their way through in their quest for survival, and there are thousands who are more than willing to stagger, growling, into the spotlight.
"I found the ad for this through Craigslist.com, by looking up 'zombie' randomly," says the friendly canuck of his premier re-animated supporting role in the forthcoming Zombie Summer School. "I played 'Zombie #33,'" he enthuses, "I was there to get stabbed, chopped up and hit with baseball bats in the face! The basic plot is a bunch of kids somehow mistakenly go to the wrong summer school at night, in the fifties, and it turns out to be some sort of cursed, abandoned school. Wacky hijinks ensue..."
Sounds like a recipe for riotous B-movie shenanigans, but Neil 's induction into the annals of horror movie legend wasn't all fun-and-games: "Honestly, this was my first experience, so I didn't know what to expect. It was basically a no-budget movie where the extras were treated like cattle. We were pretty much kept in the dark. Once, we had elaborate makeup put on and we were ready to go for three or four hours, and nothing was filmed and it was a waste of time."
Occasionally, the artist makes sacrifices and the burgeoning actor certainly suffered for his art, disclosing, "There wasn't anything physically hard about any of the action shots, but lying on a cold, wet gym floor as cold, fake blood trickles into your ears and eyes can be uncomfortable." Though he didn't have it half as bad as one unfortunate crew member, cringing as he remembers the horrifying on-set conditions: "One of the makeup girls was hospitalised due to a lung infection!"
Neil's first film project did not prove to be the most professional experience ("The crew would take breaks and smoke joints between shots!"), but unperturbed, the plucky Canadian was soon swiftly searching for his next festering adventure.
Returning as a caged, enslaved test subject gone ravenous in forthcoming Ontario-set shocker Feral, this role proved a far more rewarding experience: "It was a more professional shoot...and they treated everybody with a respect that was absent [in Zombie Summer School]."
Cast and crew were looked after, creating a galvanising, genial atmosphere: "They were aware of the conditions we were working in and provided us with lots of food, delicious hot soup, heat pads for our freezing hands, and the ripped clothes we had to wear...Also, they seemed to know exactly what they wanted to shoot."
So how much preparation goes into transmogrifying oneself into a decaying flesheater? "I guess I just think 'zombie,'" the amiable Ontarian elucidates, "I basically just improvise my shambling and growling, and they let me know if they want a specific action." Having absorbed a plethora of horror classics in his time, particular favourites including the original Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and lesser known treasure Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), the terror aficionado had plenty of inspiration to draw upon.
Though the financial rewards were slim, the Torontonian has fond memories when quizzed on what he took from his escapades: "It was fun! I've always wanted to take part in the process of filmmaking, and I like zombies. Incentive-wise, being mentioned in the credits and free food!"
Just being involved in the genre he adores helps this fan foster his appreciation for even the cheapest, shoddiest B-movies, revealing that "Taking part in something like this is more immersive and interactive, you really get more into the fandom...You start to notice the impressive makeup and blood effects and become critical of them...but also appreciate when something's well done."
Where does Neil think that this modern fascination with the walking dead comes from? Certainly recent years have raised fears about terrorism, disease and immigration - the threat of dangerous outsiders. Could these be factors in the gestation of our zombie obsession? Considering his words, the gorehound comments, "I think maybe, to some degree, because the zombie is the sort of slow, shambling face of the other...Also, there might be a little bit of wish-fulfilment fantasy tied in with the whole zombie apocalypse thing...a situation where you have a chance to shine, through brilliant survival tactics and possibly a ruthless state of mind."
Perhaps this is the real draw of the zombie apocalypse scenario, luring so many hungry fans to it's decaying landscape - the idea that The End could bring out the best in us. Though Neil feels prepared for the onslaught ("I may have some stockpiled resources..."), he doesn't see it happening any time soon. When quizzed on his involvement with niftily titled Facebook group 'The Hardest Part of a Zombie Apocalypse Will Be Pretending I'm Not Excited,' he giggles. "It's funny. I think there are people out there who are literally counting the days and every time a slightly confusing pandemic story shows up in the news, they are getting out their party hats and noisemakers...the noisemakers being AK-47s!"
This is clearly something the splatter fanatic has thought a lot about, perhaps due to living in Toronto, a bustling, multi-cultural melting pot that has become decidedly 'zombie-centric.' Various high profile pictures have filmed there, most notably Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), the highest grossing Canadian production of all time, and the city is now home to Neil's idol: "George Romero lives here now and the crews he uses in his movies are Toronto-based, " he gushes, "So if you're doing a zombie movie...you have a lot of professionals you can hire right off the bat who live here."
This could open doors for the budding actor carving his niche as a fleshcrawling character actor, not that Neil is bothered about fame: "I don't really have any far-reaching aspirations, but I do want to continue doing it. I heard about some guy who did this as a full-time career and wrote a book about it, but I don't think I'll be chasing the undead dream that far. But damn, it's a lot of fun to do every once in a while!"
Neil Sinclair is a man who seems satisfied with his contribution to the horror universe. Content just to be involved, this zombie zealot should be commended for his small, but significant contribution to film history. Where would the genre be without these unsung heroes, the hard-working putrefied partisans doing it for the love of the subculture? Shuffling menacingly into our collective subconscious, the zombie extras deserve to be celebrated for their undying commitment to their creepy cause.
Before signing off, no doubt to search for new adventures, Neil devours one final, grave question: Do zombies get chicks?
That wry smile returning, the diabolical disciple doesn't miss a beat, quipping, "Only as a side order."