Zombie Girl

Reviewed By Jason Whyte
Posted 07/04/09 02:38:00

"Think you have what it takes to make a zombie movie? Meet Emily."
5 stars (Awesome)

Back at this year’s South By Southwest in Austin, I briefly met a young girl named Emily Hagins with her mother Megan, as they were leaving the Paramount after a crazy, three-months-early midnight screening of Sam Raimi’s terrific picture “Drag Me To Hell”. My friend Scott Weinberg (who used to help run this wonderful site and is now helping run Cinematical) introduced us, and the first thing I thought was “What kind of mother takes her teenage daughter to a midnight movie?” The name sounded familiar to me, so I quickly asked Scott where I had heard that name before. I then quickly found out that Emily directed a movie in Austin when she was 12 years old, and my thoughts immediately changed from reservation to “That’s one cool mom to take her teenage daughter to a midnight movie!”

Yes, there’s a young girl who has filmed, edited and premiered her own feature film in Austin and started doing so at 12 years of age. And it’s about zombies. I was amazed by this brief meeting, but I was also smack dab in the middle of a film festival, so I made a mental note to look more into this when I got home. Upon my return, I remembered that I DID know slightly about this story, as she is no stranger to the Austin film scene and all that implies. Fantastic Fest, the Alamo Drafthouse and SxSW. I read a blurb on her in last fall’s Fantastic Fest program, where this documentary, “Zombie Girl: The Movie”, did very well.

“Zombie Girl” has earned comparisons to “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse”, which I like, but I also think this movie and its subject are fascinating in its own right; a young girl finds her passion early in life and immediately begins to pursue it. And even though she only has a consumer grade digital video camera and no money, she does it for the love of movies, and doesn’t give up.

Early on, we learn that Emily and her mother Megan are movie buffs. They were quickly noticed as regulars at the Alamo Drafthouse and in local Austin cinemas. Emily was a huge Lord of the Rings fan (aren’t we all?) and saw the first two films multiple times with Megan. After sending a letter to Peter Jackson, Jackson admired her energy and responded, telling her to get in touch with Austin-native Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News. Harry invited her to his annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon, 24 hour screening series in 2003 which included a screening of “Return of the King”; this was the screening Harry felt would be the film that set her on her journey.

I’m sure it had a big effect on her, but instead, it was the screening of a small Australian film called “Undead” (any Toronto Film Fest fans out there might recall this was the last film that played at the world famous Uptown Theatre before shutting its doors for demolition) where she loved the story and zombie effects. She then set out on making her own movie “Pathogen” about an infected water supply taking control of Austin citizens, and this is where this documentary comes in. The trio of directors, Aaron Marshall, Erik Mauck and Justin Johnson, follow the process of Emily and her supportive parents Megan and Jerry as they cast, rehearse, shoot, edit and eventually premiere the film at -- where else in Austin -- at the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater that truly supports filmmakers getting a start.

This fascinating documentary has all of the ups and downs of making your first feature, but that element is accelerated by the fact it’s a kid doing so. The film is also something much more: it is about the love of creating something no matter what age, and it is also a mind-blowing document of a relationship between a really cool kid and her really supportive mother. Think Lorelai and Rory Gilmore’s no holds barred relationship and you might get the impression of a unit that supports each other. We can clearly see Emily has cool parents and while Jerry is there and supportive, it is Emily and Megan’s bond that is a unique and touching one, and the simple shots of Emily holding a camera (she’s her own cinematographer, I suppose) and Megan holding a boom microphone speak so much about the support each other give. There are also some powerful moments where the two butt heads late in the shoot, but you can still see the connection.

There are so many wonderful moments to discover in this film, mostly with the fascinating character that is Emily. She’s a bit on the quirky side, which is fine, and the scenes with her directing are fascinating. The big finale of the story involves Emily juggling a shoot at a supermarket and her trying to keep dozens of unpaid extras – mostly her friends from school -- wrangled outside as she shoots a zombie effects shot on the inside. There are also the intimate moments that she has with the interviews, in particular a scene where Emily is being interviewed in late one night, she treats the camera like a confessional; when her mom steps in she immediately goes “Mom, you can’t hear this.” It’s an amazing little character note in a documentary full of them.

I loved this film. It speaks so much about the love of creation and working hard to achieve your goals. I loved how the documentary gets intimate with its subjects yet smartly holds back when Emily is doing her work. And it ends on a beautiful moment of an adorable Emily introducing her film at a screening; Megan’s reaction, in a long take, inspired a few tears of joy and spoke so much about the overall power of the picture. This is such a great, fascinating story (which is still going on; Emily’s doing her second feature now and is still an avid movie buff in Austin) and should become a valuable resource for young filmmakers looking to take that next step. While I have yet to see Emily’s film “Pathogen” I plan to soon, and it has made me an instant fan of the young budding director. This is someone who I know if she keeps her confidence, love of film and passion for making them, will absolutely have a career in this industry.

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