Dead Sunrise

Michal Imielski: Directing Cannibal Kids in Dead Sunrise

March 17, 2017
In the Parramatta-shot zombie horror feature, Dead Sunrise, a group of friends stumble across an abandoned laboratory and accidentally unleash a plague of undead children. Made on a shoestring, it's managed to impress festival audiences around the world. We caught up with director Michal Imielski.

What’s your background? 

I was born in Poland, but I lived in Sydney for over 20 years now. I have been a classically trained musician, then became a  composer, had interest in magic, illusion, which became a profession for over 15 years, I was known for a “chopping my arm off routine” – I’ve always loved horror. Then that led to puppetry, quite experimental Polish puppetry, also known as Plastic Theatre. That is where my theatre interests began, where anything is possible, walls breathe, inanimate objects come to life, and your subconscious thrives.

I was always interested in film since I was a kid. After graduating from NIDA directing, I did a lot of theatre and opera directing. My music background allowed me into more and more international opera houses, and then after many music videos, and short films, I’ve decided to create the first feature. Three and a half years later it was finally completed.

We are proud of the film we have made, it is quite different to your usual zombie film. We have made it all in Parramatta, recorded orchestral soundtrack right here, everything is home grown, which is really awesome that it is winning so many awards.

What was the genesis of Dead Sunrise?

Peter Maple (writer/actor) who is from Rosehill, has children, so he wrote the film with this huge metaphor, about the fear of having children, and children literally eating you alive, your time, etc and then coming to terms with that, I myself (co-writer/director/composer) came from a different angle, a system of power, that is like a virus and slowly destroying our children, our future, etc, and with those ideas combined we created Dead Sunrise.

Were there any films, horror in particular, that influenced your approach and/or aesthetic?

Yes, many horror films influenced this film. This day and age it is really hard to get into the film industry so we studied low budget films and what is the best way to go about it. Both me and Peter love all sorts of films from Kieslowksi through to Kurosawa to Romero. Horror is a known genre that is very accepting of the new, the rough etc. So of course Romero’s first film was a great influence, as I think it is for everyone in this genre –  it still holds up. Japanese horror with its gore and some of the psychological aspects also played a big part.

That is also where we were inspired by Butoh, the Japanese Dance form. Zombies normally just turn, dead, incubation period, and zombie. Here we decided to use Butoh dance as a pretty violent transformation. The film originally was half drama, half zombie gore, but I also have to mention Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Brain Dead.

How did you go working with a large cast of children? How did that challenge you?

Working with children is always hard. But a friend said if you can work with children in the film industry, then you can work with anyone. Start with the biggest challenge! 30 children was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. We had trained them prior to shooting the film. Rehearsal played a big part. We trained them in dance, acting and movement, and rehearsed all of the scenes with choreographer Cloe Fournier. The scene where all 30 children are in one shot were styled on a Greek Chorus, from Greek Theatre, where many actors move and act as one. In short we introduced the kids to quite difficult theatre and dance exercises and I think they loved the challenge, which made it a bit more fun for everyone.

Further to that, how did you go handling or explaining the horror and gore elements to the kids?

The horror and gore wasn’t really an issue for the kids, because kids love it. They understand it is not real, they understand it is there to scare people, they know it is fun! They love to scare people. We also made sure that when we auditioned, all the parents were aware this is a gory film. I explained the most gory scene to everyone, where all the children are eating their dead “father’s” body, and asked if that is okay with you, come on board. And they did! Watching the film now, I still can feel the taste of the strawberry jelly and chocolate, which kids loved eating – which I think is evident in the film.

What was your funding strategy? What challenges did you face shooting on a budget?

In short there was no funding. And after applying for funding for many years, and receiving half of the grants you apply for, we decided we didn’t want to wait two or three years. It was a conscious choice. I thought, ‘let’s just do it’. So I put my money into the film, and it really was shot on a shoestring. The film was shot in under three weeks – it had to be, and it was!

The biggest challenge was that if something didn’t work, we had to improvise, as there was not much room for error. It had to work. Later we crowdfunded for the post-production, which we mainly did for marketing purposes.

How have audiences reacted so far?

We had an overwhelmingly great response from the horror audiences world wide. The film was described by Hollywood Investigator as “nostalgic, powerful, bizarre and an interesting addition to Aussie horror” and “a mix of grindhouse gore and haunting beauty.” So fans really responded warmly with great support! Film festivals gave us a lot of exposure. We have been accepted by the biggest genre festivals in USA, Hollywood, and Europe, which opened a lot of doors for us and also connected us with a lot of fans. And now we have opportunities to make our next films.

What’s up next for you?

Well we just got offered a world distribution contract from a Hollywood distributor, so really the road for this film has only just began. And we are in discussion about three of our next features with three different companies, so we will be shooting at the end of this year.

Dead Sunrise is playing at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres tonight from 7pm. For tickets, click through here.

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