Independent filmmaker Max Groah grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He dreamed of making films in Ohio. He got stoned a lot in Ohio. He also made that dream film in Ohio about Ohio stoners fighting zombies.
It’s called “Bong of the Living Dead” and it’s generating some buzz in film festivals such as the Nightmares Film Festival, the Indie Gathering International Film Festival and festivals in Austin, Texas; Phoenix; Denver; Detroit; Milwaukee; and Toronto.
The horror comedy about a group of stoner friends in a small town facing a zombie apocalypse certainly shares some lineage with “Shaun of the Dead” and other lighter zombie fare, but is also full of surprises.
“It was ‘get an in with the title, and trick them into something more,’” Groah told Marijuana.com. The film, out on video this month, has plenty of zombies, but also deals a lot with the importance of friendships and how they can be tested. The characters also tend to defy stoner stereotypes.
The 81-minute film has so far earned 21 awards and 36 nominations as it makes the rounds of the film festival circuit. “Bong of the Living Dead” began as a joke on the set of a previous film Groah made in 2001. It then spent the next decade as an open-ended writing task for Groah and Tim Mayo, his writing partner and lifelong friend.
“We ended up shooting draft 28 of it,” said Groah, who also directed and edited the film. Over the years, the writers had added, subtracted, and explored every conceivable character, subplot, theme, and stoner and zombie movie trope they could think of.
“In 2011, Tim said, ‘Let’s just shoot this thing.’ ” Groah said. By 2013, the two had assembled the money, cast, crew and goodwill of friends and neighbors to make “Bong of The Living Dead.” In just 19 days — three consecutive weeks and a couple of follow-up weekends — the movie was shot in the Groah’s and Mayo’s childhood neighborhood. Mayo’s mother’s house was a prime location and the makeup room for the 50 zombies was in the basement of the next-door church. “That was a big part of why the chemistry was so good. It was like a giant sleepover,” he said.
That chemistry helped audiences see beneath the zombie surface and transfer Groah’s intended message: That survival depends on the strength of your relationships. It was important that his characters avoid stoner movie stereotypes such as Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar, portrayals that Groah found funny but false.
“My friends and I always did well in school and got good jobs,” he said. “Pot always enhanced our ingenuity. We wanted to explore that. We wanted it to be like our everyday life.”
The friends in the movie end up being a pretty clever and cohesive bunch, and as Groah explained, pot is “just part of their lives. It’s not a hindrance or interference.
“We didn’t want it to be about stoners. It’s about these friends,” he said. “I think it’s more of a weed movie, but a zombie apocalypse makes a good backdrop.”
“Bong of the Living Dead” is available for purchase at screamteamreleasing.com