A zombie movie made by an 8th grade class? Sounds like the next high-concept comedy from the makers of The School of Rock. Yet, believe it or not, this far-fetched scenario is actually true. This past January, three 8th grade teachers—Jared Beloff, Chad Dictenberg and Chris McLaughlin—received a $2,500 UTF Mini-Grant to integrate Media Arts with the English and Creative Writing curriculum at their school, I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. What could be a better learning experience than having the students serve as cast and crew on a feature-length zombie movie titled School of the Dead?

The project has taken a full school year to create, including a lengthy period of pre-production in which the students began writing script ideas, developed fundraising projects and eventually storyboarded the final script. Along with a high-quality zombie movie, the class also hopes to assemble a documentary encompassing the entire production. After the movie is edited, a “red carpet” screening will be held followed by a Q&A with the precocious cast and crew.

An everyday 8th grade class suddenly transformed into flesh-eating zombies? Watch out I.S. 145, George Romero might be stealing your idea for his next zombie opus.

MM recently spoke with Beloff, Dictenberg and McLaughlin about this bold, innovative experiment to engage students through moviemaking.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Making a zombie movie obviously isn’t a typical middle school class project. After securing the grant, what made you decide to make a horror film, as opposed to a genre that might be more conventional for a school setting (like a coming-of-age story)?

Jared Beloff (JB): The idea for a horror film came out of the genre’s popularity with our students. When asked what type of books should be added to the class library, horror books were on the top of most of the students’ lists. The idea for a zombie movie started much later.

After we secured the grant we started brainstorming with students about horror story ideas that would fit a school setting, that we could create to seem authentic or real and ultimately would allow us to include as many students as possible. The biggest contributing factor, however, is the metaphorical quality of the zombie. In Dawn of the Dead, they are consumers like the people who hole up in the mall once were. In Shaun of the Dead, the zombies highlight how similar zombies are to humans (the only change being the hunger for human flesh). We analyzed these metaphors and came up with a story that actually is about “coming of age” in a society that is apathetic and uncaring; the zombies illustrate a sort of apathy in students and teachers that can quickly turn toward unreasonable or uncontrollable hunger. Our protagonist has to realize that he needs to care about the direction he is going in life and also to begin to care for others in order to survive in this world.

MM: Due to the bloody subject matter of School of the Dead, did you run into any problems with the school’s administration or parents? Were there any worries about being shut down before filming began?

Chad Dictenberg (CD): We approached this project with these problems in mind and have done our best to avoid them. Most of the gore is off-screen or implied through shadows, blood trails or victim’s perspectives. We put the emphasis on survival instead of attacking, beheading or spearing zombies, so there isn’t any of the sort of creative killing and head removal that you usually find in a zombie movie. Maybe we’ll save that for the sequel!

MM: Now that you’ve started filming, what has the experience been like? What have been some of the difficulties?

Chris McLaughlin (CM): The experience has been amazing. We were able to mobilize half of our 8th grade class (about 60 students) to participate in the project over two weekends of filming, not to mention the six months of fundraising, writing, storyboarding and make-up practice before production. We had the difficult job of both encouraging and managing student enthusiasm over extended periods of time. A typical day of filming started at 8:30 in the morning (some enthusiastic students arrived at 7:40 on a Saturday morning) and went on until around 4. One of the hardest parts was keeping students busy during the down-time when they weren’t applying makeup or weren’t shooting a scene until later.

You should take a look at our student blog for many of their reactions to the filming.

MM: When do you hope the film will be completed? After editing, any interest in submitting School of the Dead to student film festivals?
JB: We are hoping to have a release date on June 19th, just after the 8th graders graduate. We are putting together a rough cut of the film to show to students and parents during a red-carpet event (we’re currently trying to find a theater to host the event). The final version of the film, with editing and special effects, will probably be completed over the summer. Once we have the final cut we will begin submitting it to student film festivals for next year (Jackson Heights has one in the fall). We’ll also provide a copy of the film to students who participated during the production.

MM: Do you think you’ll continue this moviemaking project with future classes? If so, would you make another zombie movie or would you be interested in tackling another genre?

CD: We will certainly continue to make movies with our students in the future. One of the great aspects of our grant is that it allowed us to buy the tools and equipment necessary to create films beyond this year. Most likely we won’t continue making horror or zombie films. We were thinking of starting up a program in our school to help students create short films (about two to three minutes in length) of high aesthetic quality to show during a film festival at the end of the year. This way they can take some of the skills we are teaching them and use them with more autonomy and creative individuality. We also have several ideas for larger projects in the future—perhaps a Junior Heist School movie that plays off of Ocean’s Eleven or something with science fiction. What we do want to stress is that the students are driving the ideas and genre-choices for our projects.

MM: Ultimately, what do you hope your students learn from this unique, hands-on experience?

CM: On a basic level, we hope that the students will realize how much they can accomplish together as a team with a common purpose. Moreover, this project was designed to enhance student learning by providing a practical application for a lot of the skills they have been learning in ELA, Creative Writing through the Media Arts. In turn, the construction of a film allows students to view films more thoughtfully and actively engage with new media.

Hopefully our students will have realized some of the alternative career paths that are out there for them to explore. Our wardrobe designer has been accepted to the Fashion HS in Manhattan. The greatest news of the year is that six of our students have applied and were accepted to the Middle School Film Festival program sponsored by the DOE and New York Film Academy this summer. The program will allow them to continue to hone their filmmaking skills by having them write, produce and film a short film for the fall.

MM: What advice might you offer other teachers interested in engaging students through moviemaking?

JB: Don’t be afraid to attempt something like this, even if you don’t know the technical aspects of film. Many kids are tech-savvy and will surprise you with how much they can adapt and add to the process. You don’t need to be a video pro, just a qualified shepherd. One of the great things about the medium is that it is already of high interest to students and teachers alike. Despite the visual emphasis of film, the process engages learners on many different levels, allowing them to activate the skills they are most comfortable with (acting, directing, storyboarding, screenwriting, soundtrack writing, blogging etc). Teachers should help students to find their niche through the process. Students need to find what motivates them the most. For our students it was horror; for others it may be something else. In any case, the process has been empowering for our students—they have not only controlled much of the story and visuals, but have also had a say in the directorial work and the wardrobe and make-up design. The project taps into that fantasy that most of us have to be realized and chosen for a part in a major film.

MM: Anything else you’d like to add?

CD: We are currently trying to book a red carpet event at a local movie theater, where students and their parents can dress up and view the film much as a major film would premiere. We would also encourage anyone who wants a more student-based and in-depth perspective on the process to visit our class blog at http://www.thezombiegroan.blogspot.com.