A soldier's nightmare

The directors of "Poisoned," a zombie horror film set on an IDF base, hope to scare the wits out of their audiences.

IDF zombie pic 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
IDF zombie pic 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Bright red blood drips down the cabin wall, its splash marks remnants of the slaughter that took place not long before. A graying human body leans against it, eyes closed, mouth half open, fresh wounds slashed across its face. Other bodies lie scattered on the ground, their faces colorless but for the raw, torn flesh of cheeks and foreheads. Pools of blood and stubs of hands and feet, shiny where they’ve just been ripped from bodies, surround them.
“Boris, can you open your eyes and roll them up so we can see the whites?” yells director Didi Lubetzky from another cabin to an IDF zombie on the ground.
It is hot this bright May morning near Herzliya’s beaches. Humidity threatens to melt the zombies’ makeup off, and the smell of grape juice wafts from pools of blood on set.
Israeli zombie film Poisoned is in its last two days of shooting, production having started almost a year and a half ago. The film follows Danny, an IDF soldier responsible for manual labor on an elite force’s army base. Insecure and passive, Danny is constantly picked on by the burly combat soldiers on his base. But during the week of Pessah, when he is made to stay on base, he discovers that his longtime crush, Maya, will be staying there as well – and that the vaccine the combat soldiers recently received has turned them into zombies. Stuck with human-eating former soldiers, Danny must overcome his fears and insecurities to save both Maya and himself.
“It started from a meeting we had many years ago,” says Lubetzky, who is also the screenwriter of the film. Several members of the crew were in their second year of film school at Tel Aviv University when, having finished making their first features – dramatic and with layered meanings – they decided what they really wanted was to make a film they’d run to theaters to see.
“We wanted to make an Israeli horror film,” says Lubetzky. “What’s more Israeli than the IDF?”
Today, Poisoned’s creators believe the film, with its varying motifs, can speak not just to Israeli audiences, but to viewers everywhere.
The film, the first of its kind in the country, is what director of photography David Michael Shachar calls a “Zom-Rom-Com,” or zombie romantic comedy. The term was coined to describe one of their favorite zombie films and an inspiration for Poisoned, English Zom-Rom-Com Shaun of the Dead.
The original screenplay Lubetzky wrote told a slasher story – dark, serious and always with the element of the IDF. Budget constraints being what they were (the film is funded largely independently), he ultimately wrote a shorter film with zombies. At the suggestion of one of the screenplay’s editors, the film was then turned into a comedy.
Many of the story’s elements are tailored to fit the local audience. Like Christmas in the US or Europe, Pessah is a holiday most of Israel celebrates together. The idea of staying in the army over Pessah is every soldier’s nightmare. On a deeper level, the holiday’s focus on eating is juxtaposed with a zombie’s reason for existence – namely to eat – and the Pessah theme of freedom comes into play beside Danny’s need to free himself from the shackles of his insecurities.
The setting of the story in the IDF, of course, is the film’s main grasp on Israeli culture. In a country where the draft is mandatory, Israelis grow up seeing and reading about soldiers, living with soldiers and eventually being soldiers themselves.
“It’s a way of representing a microcosm” of Israeli society, says Shachar. “The IDF is one of the building blocks of Israeli culture. We were all soldiers, we can all relate.”
Still, it’s the comedic angle that might make local audiences connect most.
“I think Israelis tend to be more cynical,” Shachar says. “But if we’re already making fun of ourselves, it’s much easier to connect.”
In addition to classic horror films, Shachar cites ’80s horror films from his childhood as influences, such as Lost Boys and Fright Night – both films that are self-aware and metacritical of the genre.
With its Israeli nuances and jeers at local culture, one might ask what’s left for international audiences. Though the IDF is a central player in building the story, it is the main character and his struggle that make up what is universal about it.
“It’s the normal person, who isn’t particularly special, faced with an impossible situation and how he learns to deal with it,” says Lubetzky of his hero. “In Israel, it’s not this professional American army; 70 percent of the army isn’t big combat soldiers. It’s everyday people who often have to deal with crazy situations.”
The casting process took two months. Shachar and Lubetzky knew the role called for an actor who could carry the entire movie. Along with scenes in which Danny reacts to his surroundings, there are many scenes in which he is alone in a toolshed, planning his next move. Because Poisoned is a zombie comedy, the actor needed to be both dramatic and comedic, as well as versatile enough to move instantly from one to the other.
In addition, delivering a punch line is a challenge all on its own. The actor needed to be someone who “could do physical humor without looking ridiculous,” says Shachar.
Actor David Shaul plays Poisoned’s hero. Shaul is thin, standing at approximately 167 cm., with tan skin and big, almost bulging green eyes.
“It sounds kind of cliché,” says Shachar, “but in David’s first audition, Didi and I looked at each other and said, this is the guy.”
In costume on the day of the shoot, Shaul walks around shirtless, wearing a green fisherman’s hat, green army pants and black boots. A bloodied tourniquet is wrapped around his hand, and he holds gardening shears.
Off camera, he slouches and jokes around with the cast and crew, sounding sure of himself in a way that makes it seem as if he, too, might be trying to find his place beyond the insecurities. But when the camera starts rolling, Shaul’s presence commands the scene.
“Danny is a type of antihero,” says Shaul. “He can’t make friends. He can’t tell his commander what he really thinks. He goes back and forth between what’s inside and what he expresses outwardly. Inside he may be fuming and thinking now I’ll tell him what I think, but ultimately he’ll always decide not to deal with it.”
His father being a war hero, Danny lives his life in his father’s shadow. Even if what’s right for him is not to join the army at all, he knows his father would never accept such a decision.
“He is afraid of saying what he really wants,” says Shaul. It is there that the problem starts for him: the deep-seated inner struggle between choosing what is right for himself and letting other people dictate what will happen.
“Ultimately he realizes, if I don’t do what I want and what’s good for me, I won’t get anywhere,” says Shaul. “The zombies are not something he wants to deal with. But when he sees that his whole base is full of zombies... He gets cornered. This corner causes his strength and determination to emerge, characteristics he didn’t even know he had. It’s a metaphor. This is where you are now. You have to deal with it. At the end he goes through this awakening. He understands that every person has his needs and desires, and being a man, really, and a hero means going after what you believe.”
It is this story of the changing hero, who begins as nothing and slowly learns to fight, that the filmmakers believe people will identify with, regardless of whether or not they can relate to the specific situations in the film (fighting zombies, for example). “I think everyone connects to the character of the underdog,” says Shachar. “It’s always been the character I liked to watch. The boy who’s up against the world. It could be Rocky Balboa, who is a debt collector who wants to be the champion, or even Rambo, who is a war hero who has to go up against the world to do what he thinks is right. At the end, it’s a story of a person who wants to live in his own way but has to learn how. I think everyone can connect to that.”
Still, as Poisoned is a horror film, perhaps it’s ultimately the blood and gore that will make the most noise. As Shaul says, “When you have a scene where you have to take gardening shears and cut off heads – what’s more fun than that?”