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7 years in the making, local zombie flick Zombiepura was born out of an army camp

SINGAPORE — Running, as an exercise, is tough, but running away from zombies is even tougher. Just ask Singaporean actors Alaric Tay and Benjamin Heng, who had to escape the undead horde across uneven terrains in a scene from their latest film, Zombiepura.

The cast of Zombiepura (L - R): Joey Pink, Benjamin Heng, Alaric Tay and Richard Low (Liu Qianyi). The seed for the zombie flick was first planted during director Jacen Tan's NS days in the early 2000s.

The cast of Zombiepura (L - R): Joey Pink, Benjamin Heng, Alaric Tay and Richard Low (Liu Qianyi). The seed for the zombie flick was first planted during director Jacen Tan's NS days in the early 2000s.

SINGAPORE — Running, as an exercise, is tough, but running away from zombies is even tougher. Just ask Singaporean actors Alaric Tay and Benjamin Heng, who had to escape the undead horde across uneven terrains in a scene from their latest film, Zombiepura.

If escaping the bloody-thirsty zombies requires stamina, consider this: The movie took seven years to produce — from its conceptualisation back in 2011 to its upcoming world premiere on Oct 19 at the Scream Asia Film Festival.

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The seed for the flick was first planted during director Jacen Tan's National Service (NS) days in the early 2000s, when waking up at ungodly hours for guard duty made him feel like one of the walking dead.

"One day when I was doing guard duty at 2am, I wondered what will happen (if the camp) was attacked. Will my buddy (on guard duty) and I be able to defend the camp?

"We also felt like zombies waking up at 2am to do guard duty. Those were the seeds for the movie idea," Mr Tan told TODAY in an interview last Thursday (Sept 20).

But it was not till 2011 when Mr Tan — known for his viral short films such as Tak Giu (Kick Ball) and Homeground — broached the idea of a producing a film about a zombie outbreak in an NS camp with Mr Tay and Mr Heng separately. All three of them were both fans of zombie films and had filmmaking ambitions.

L-R: The trio from JAB Films, Benjamin Heng, Jacen Tan and Alaric Tay. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY.

With that, JAB Films — named after their respective initials — was born. But the trio had to endure years of false starts and rejection, commonplace in the filmmaking industry, before they got their break in 2016.

"Some time (in 2012), (the local film) Ah Boys to Men was a hit here. This whole series of army movies started to take off and did very well. And we thought, 'hey, that's a formula that we had'," said Mr Tay.

"We've always known the zombies (genre) would work. But to convince the people with money that it would work is also a challenge. And then the next thing you know, (the 2016 South Korean apocalyptic film) Train to Busan appeared," he added.

Train to Busan, which website Box Office Mojo reported grossed more than US$85 million (S$116 million) worldwide, was a hit not just in its native South Korea, but also in several Asian countries, including Singapore.

It showed the world that it was possible for an Asian zombie flick to be a runaway success, said Mr Tan, adding: "Before that, the more renowned Zombie films were all from Hollywood."

A scene from Zombiepura. The S$900,000 movie opens in cinemas here on Oct 25. Photo: Handout via Clover Films

Buoyed by the success of these films, in 2016, the trio finally managed to convince local companies mm2 Entertainment, which is behind the Ah Boys to Men franchise, and Clover Films, which brought Train to Busan to Singapore, to co-produce and co-distribute Zombiepura.

After a few rounds of rejections, they also managed to receive an undisclosed amount of funding from the Singapore Film Commission in 2016 under the New Talent Feature Grant. With the financial matters sorted, they finally started work on putting their dreams onto the big screen.

First off, they needed to secure a site, which came with another set of challenges. For example, given the NS setting, the film set, of course, had to look like an army camp. But to get the atmosphere right, they needed a site that looked like a traditional army camp — with a standard obstacle course — and not one of the sleek modern-looking camps.

Filming at a site around the Pasir Panjang area. Photo: Handout via Clover Films

After two months of searching, the crew zeroed in on a few locations around the Pasir Panjang area. And there was also the long-drawn out process of casting and getting the necessary crew, props and equipment in place.

Principal photography, which started in January this year, came with its own set of challenges. For Miss Universe Singapore 2016 finalist Joey Pink Lai, who made her acting debut in the movie, "crying on demand" was one of the more challenging tasks.

L-R: Alaric Tay, Joey Pink Lai and Benjamin Heng. Photo: Handout via Clover Films

The 26-year-old, who plays a sexy canteen operator in the movie, told TODAY there was a crying scene which had to be filmed from different angles, and it lasted nearly 10 hours.

"I had to suppress my emotions for this particular scene. During break time, I refrained from chatting or playing with the cast or crew, so that I am always in a mood to cry," the avid Resident Evil gamer added. "It was really hard for me because I am (naturally) a happy person. "

A still from the movie Zombiepura. Joey Pink Lai, who is making her acting debut in the movie, said that it was challenging to "cry on demand". Photo: Handout via Clover Films

The actors' fitness levels was another challenge, for not only did they have to outrun the undead, but its army camp setting — with the infamous standard obstacle course — also increased the difficulty level.

"We had a lot of running scenes. Well, the whole film is about running away (from zombies)," joked Mr Tay.

Benjamin Heng (L) plays a gung-ho sergeant while Alaric Tay (R) takes on the role of an unmotivated soldier in Zombiepura. Photo: Handout via Clover Films

"(Benjamin and I) are actually 'lao pengs' and we are not as fit as we used to be," said Mr Tay, using a colloquial term to describe old soldiers. "Navigating just the potholes (on the field) was kinda challenging for me."

Other familiar faces in the S$900,000 movie include former Channel 8 actress Chen Xiuhuan, who plays Ms Lai's mother, and Channel 8 actor Richard Low, better known as Liu Qianyi.

Alaric Tay and former Channel 8 actress Chen Xiuhuan, who plays Joey Pink's mother in the movie. Photo: Handout via Clover Films
Channel 8 actor Richard Low (L), better known as Liu Qianyi and Benjamin Heng (R). Photo: Handout via Clover Films

It remains to be seen if marrying the zombie and army elements will make the movie a runaway hit, but the cast and crew are hopeful that the movie will not disappoint audiences, not just at home, but overseas too.

Even ahead of its public release on Oct 25, the movie has been sold to Contents Panda for the South Korean market, and GSC Movies — the largest cinema chain in Malaysia — for Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Mr Haresh Tilani of Youtube channel Ministry of Funny fame, who is also making his first big screen appearance in the movie, called the film "refreshing".

"(Zombiepura) is something different in the local movie scene, in the sense that it is neither an arthouse film or another movie (that has to do with the army)," he added.

Haresh Tilani (L) of Youtube channel Ministry of Funny fame is also making his movie debut in the moive. Photo: Handout via Clover Films

Summing up his debut full-length movie, Mr Tan said: "We made a movie that combines many things, with Singaporean characters in a (zombie) genre, with elements of horror, action and comedy. It is also a movie about brotherhood.

"We want to push the boundaries and sell this movie to the world."

Zombiepura opens in cinemas here on Oct 25.

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