Mississippi is a mysterious place. Thick woods and gnarly beds of kudzu hide all sorts of secrets in their dark green leaves. This year at the Oxford Film Festival, the kudzu in Charleston holds a sinister presence … one that hungers for human flesh.
“Kudzu Zombies,” directed by Mark Newton, is a story based in Charleston, where the kudzu grows wild. The town locals attempt to control the vines’ monstrous growth with an experimental chemical, but something goes horribly wrong. The townspeople are transformed into zombies, leaving a crop-duster pilot and handful of other survivors to fight for their lives trying to escape the undead.
The film, which was filmed locally, is proud of its Mississippi flair and takes care to give its due respect to the town of Charleston. Daniel Wood, producer of “Kudzu Zombies,” was first attracted to Charleston when working on another film there three years ago.
“In 2014, I worked on a film in Charleston, Mississippi, called ‘Texas Heart.’ When I was there, I noticed these crazy vines growing everywhere, and it intrigued me,” Wood said. “I found the whole town of Charleston as special, and I wanted to create a story that incorporated the crazy kudzu along with this interesting town.”
The town is home to superstar talents Morgan Freeman and Mose Allison, something Wood said he thinks makes Charleston unique.
“When we shot ‘Texas Heart,’ it was such a great experience working with the town. They were so great to us; I knew I wanted to film here again,” he said. “I wanted to honor the town by making it part of the film. With the Grammy Museum opening in Cleveland and the lack of economic opportunity in a town that once had the largest lumber company on the planet and suffered from the mechanization of farming, my other motive was to try to put Charleston on the map and perhaps drive some tourism to the town that is part of the Blues Trail, not far from Graceland and on the way to the Grammy Museum.”
Wood said that as he became more familiar with Charleston, he also got to know its residents. One such resident, Justin Stafford, who worked as a production assistant on “Texas Heart” and is a co-producer of “Kudzu Zombies,” gave Wood the idea to make a zombie film.
“What makes ‘Kudzu Zombies’ stand out is that the story is based in the reality of Charleston, the kudzu and the impossible task of controlling kudzu,” Wood said. “The only fantastic part is the fact the town turns into zombies. It has a fairly large ensemble cast and we feel an innovative mix of comedy, horror and stunning visual effects.”
“Kudzu Zombies” features more than 160 visual effects, which the director Mark Newton worked on with his visual effects team. According to Wood, that is a stunning number of effects for such a small budget film (~$250,000) and a demonstration of the value of a director who is also a visual effects supervisor and artist.
Besides being filmed locally, “Kudzu Zombies” features a number of Mississippians in its cast. At the beginning of summer 2016, a casting call was sent out all over the state, encouraging locals to come out and act as zombie extras for the film. Some of the larger actors billed for the film, as well as many of the crew members, are also Mississippi natives. Wood said he wanted locals to participate because he wanted to accurately represent the town.
“Laura Warner, who did locals casting for ‘Texas Heart,’ did all the casting for ‘Kudzu Zombies,’” Wood said. “And she nailed it. Our cast is a great mix of talent.”
For Wood, filming in Mississippi was a great experience, especially when it came to working with locals.
“I love filming in Mississippi,” he said. “The people are amazing, seemingly always willing to help any way they can. I’ve created some really great relationships with some wonderful people, and I’m grateful to Mississippi for that.”
But don’t think that just because “Kudzu Zombies” features a cast full of Mississippi char, the film will be just a glass of sweet tea. Like any good zombie flick, this film’s got a bit of bite.
“Michael Joiner–he plays the mayor of Charleston–his most notable role was lead in Sony’s ‘The Grace Card,’ a faith-based film. He has many faith-based film acting credits. Don’t let that mislead you: ‘Kudzu Zombies’ has offensive language and a nipple, lots of violence.”
Another reason Wood filmed in Mississippi was the film rebate, which he claims should be a huge incentive for independent film makers.
“The fact that you can qualify for the rebate with spending as little as $50,000 is a huge opportunity for independent filmmakers,” Wood said. “The rebate is what incentivized me to hire as many Mississippi locals as I could.”
As an independent filmmaker, Wood is familiar with the challenges that come with producing such a project. One of the greatest challenges he said he faced with “Kudzu Zombies” was finding an audience for the film.
“I wanted to make a film where I knew I could reach my audience, which in this case seems to come together at comic conventions and horror conventions,” he said. “The film I made before ‘Texas Heart’ was ‘God’s Country,’ a faith-based film, and it did well and I attribute that to the narrow audience focus, which I tried to do with ‘Kudzu Zombies.'”
But Wood has high hopes film festival-goers will find something to love about “Kudzu Zombies.”
“I hope that the audience will find ‘Kudzu Zombies’ a highly entertaining and unique experience,” he said. “The tone of the film is a special blend of action, comedy, horror and drama. [It’s] a surprisingly big small film.”