Sundance Trend: The Zom-Com

Zom Com Illustration - P 2014
Illustration by: Paul Blow

Zom Com Illustration - P 2014

Love stories featuring zombies, vampires and ghosts hit Park City as filmmakers at the festival steal a page from studios.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Mainstream Hollywood never has had a problem taking inspiration from indie movies. But this year, the trend is being reversed, with indies borrowing from Hollywood's most popular genre flicks. Zombies, vampires, ghosts, even aliens -- they're all turning up in Park City.

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Director Jeff Baena, for starters, has a rom-com (or zom-com?) in competition titled Life After Beth, about a lovesick boyfriend (played by Dane DeHaan) whose deceased girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) returns from the grave as a pasty-skinned zombie. Think (500 Days) of Summer meets The Walking Dead. There's also Jamie Marks Is Dead in competition, a coming-of-age ghost story directed by Carter Smith -- he made The Ruins for DreamWorks -- about a teenage track star (Cameron Monaghan) who becomes obsessed with a bullied boy (Noah Silver) after his dead body is discovered in a river.

And in Sundance's lower-budget NEXT category, first-time filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour will debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, being billed as --everybody's favorite genre! -- an "Iranian vampire Western."

"In the '90s, indie film got this reputation as being very serious and dramatic," says Smith. "But as it has gotten more difficult to get small films made, genre movies have thrived. They don't require big-name actors or huge special effects. They have a loyal fan base who is less concerned with production values than they are with well-told stories."

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Of course, Sundance always has permitted a certain amount of horror in its lineup, usually in its genre-friendly Park City at Midnight program. That's where Saw premiered in 2004 (going on to gross $103 million domestically and spawning six sequels) and where The Blair Witch Project screened in 1999 ($140 million, one sequel). This year's Midnight lineup sounds as creepy as ever -- there's an Australian ghost story (The Babadook), another zombie flick (Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead), a monster movie (Cooties, produced by horror buff Elijah Wood) and an extraterrestrial mystery (The Signal) about a couple of MIT undergrads who run into something spooky in the Nevada desert.

But Smith, for one, doesn't think of these offerings as genre movies. "They are stories that all audiences can relate to."