Many horror fans met Felissa Rose for the first time one sinister summer at Camp Arawak back in the early 1980s. Though perhaps best known for playing Angela Baker in Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 cult classic, Sleepaway Camp, Rose has portrayed a wide variety of memorable characters in the horror genre since the turn of the century. Her latest role, a deeply religious survivor in the rural town of Elwood in the age of a zombie apocalypse, is certainly no exception.
With Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay, we caught up with Rose to discuss her intense character, working with Billy Zane and Dee Wallace, Scream Factory’s Sleepaway Camp Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, and much more.
You worked with writer/director Harrison Smith in last year’s Camp Dread. What was your experience working with him again on Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard?
Felissa Rose: Harrison and I are glued together. We’re best friends, we’re like brother and sister. He got in touch with me, I’d say three or four years ago, with the Camp Dread script and I absolutely loved it.
After we wrapped Camp Dread, we got even closer and he said, ‘Look, I have another project in the works. I wrote a script called Zombie Killers that I’d like you to read through and tell me what you think.’ And I read it and I loved it. It was extraordinary because it was a zombie movie that was not about zombies. That was a very peripheral part of the storytelling. These characters were so beautifully, well-drawn out.
When he [Harrison] said, ‘Well, specifically I’d like you to look at Lia,’ I thought, ‘Are you F-ing crazy?’ She’s written as very angry and preachy. It’s such a departure from my person, but as an actress, the greatest challenges are always those that are the farthest from who you are, so you can reach out and explore. And when we got to work, it was truly one of my most favorite characters and greatest experiences I’d ever had working on a film.
Your character, Lia, is extremely religious and very intense both behind and in front of the podium. Did you do any preparatory research before entering Lia’s mindset?
Felissa Rose: I did. I sat with two dear friends who are acting coaches as well as very religious people in their past. They’ve been very integrated in church community, and we sort of held church together. It became a very spiritual experience for me. I became close with these two gentlemen. It was cathartic, because I am a spiritual person in life. My rule of thumb in my spirituality is to love everyone. I love life. I’m trying to raise my children as positive helpers. So I embrace Lia.
In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I liked her, but as an actress you have to love your character, and I started to really fall in love with her when I realized how much she loved. And it was all about the giving. What she feels is the giving. What she feels is helping the almost dead come back to life. So I really took that on and I never really understood that she was scary and terrifying as Harrison is constantly pointing out. ‘You’re scarier than the zombies’ is his constant line. I began to love her and I just see her as someone who, like all of us, has her faults and she’s just doing the best she can in that life that she was given.
I tried to keep it positive. I know that her intentions were good, but she’s definitely off a few notches [laughs].
Was Lia always so tenacious and somewhat intimidating in her religious views or did the zombie apocalypse transform her into that extreme personality?
Felissa Rose: My backstory for Lia was that she had been very promiscuous. She had a mad love for Rory [played by Brian Gallagher]. So she had really lost herself in that relationship and almost had a nervous breakdown years prior. So her complete breakdown really didn’t have anything to do with the zombies and the town. She was at war with herself and her relationships long before, and Rory really crippled her in many ways. Her heart and her brain had almost sunk. She’s just broken. She’s a very broken woman who is trying to reach out any way she can and the church is the only place she can control anything. That’s how I tried to create her whole world.
Brian Gallagher and myself still talk about it. We love working together—we worked together in Camp Dread—and we wanted one extra scene, but it wasn’t really relevant, it wasn’t going to help the story. But for us, as actors, we wanted to explain that a little bit more, all of the pain that had transpired between us.
As Lia, you give intense, rhythmic sermons, including a particularly powerful one right before one of the film’s most haunting shots. How did you approach believably portraying that type of public speaking?
Felissa Rose: That was terrifying for me. He [Harrison] handed me those six pages of dialogue and we did all of that in one shot. Harrison sat me in front of a beautiful group of people who were really there as though they were churchgoers and I really tried from my heart to speak to them in a way that made sense. I believed. I believed what I was telling them. It was church in that moment and I forgot all about the camera and the idea that we were making a movie and I really tried to just stand there and preach in a way that made sense. It was scary. I’m not going to lie to you, I was terrified to play this part.
The cast of Zombie Killers comprises an impressive mix of young actors and veteran performers, including Billy Zane, Dee Wallace, and Mischa Barton. What was your experience working with the eclectic cast?
Felissa Rose: First of all, I walked onto the set for costume fittings and I walked right into Billy Zane. And I am a huge Billy Zane fan, so I was tickled pink—I probably just fangirled out all over the place. He’s such a warm person. You can see his energy—he’s very giving, very generous. And he hugged me and it was a great welcome onto the set.
I’ve been a fan of Dee Wallace my whole life and to say she’s now one of my dear friends is truthful. She’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life—all beautiful energy.
And Mischa Barton was a doll to work with. We had that scene in which she was so complimentary to me. I was blown away because I’ve also been a fan of Mischa. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘You are so good,’ in that one scene with Rory and wow, my head was just exploding with such delight. It was crazy. It was wonderful.
The other guys, a lot of them are from Camp Dread, and we’re like family. It’s like slumber party time when we get together. We finish each other’s sentences. We’re all one group.
Were you a fan of zombie movies prior to acting in Zombie Killers?
Felissa Rose: Yeah, I love zombie movies. I’m definitely a Walking Dead fan. I love Shaun of the Dead. I did a movie called Zombiegeddon back in the day. I think zombies are great. I think they’re a lot of fun, especially when you have interesting stories surrounding them, then it can be a crazy world. People seem to enjoy them. But I know Harrison didn’t want to make a zombie movie, so for him that was a tough one and he really pulled this together in a cohesive and fun way.
There’s an abundance of zombie movies coming out these days. What makes Zombie Killers a unique entry to the living dead genre?
Felissa Rose: I’d have to say the story. I’d really have to say that for me, the story is really a departure and I find these characters so interesting. I love Dee’s character and her relationship with her children.
And it’s like a Western with the ATVs replacing the horses. He [Harrison] threw in such incredible moments that make you forget you’re even watching a zombie movie. You’re very invested in who these people are, their motivations, and what will happen to them within these walls that they’ve constructed.
It’s really the characters and the movement. I love his [Harrison’s] big aerial shots across the land. It’s a very gripping movie when you watch it, especially on the big screen. I was watching the audience and it seemed as though everybody was very much feeling a part of the town, Elwood. Everyone was sort of there with us, and you couldn’t ask for more.
Last May, Scream Factory released the Sleepaway Camp Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. What are your thoughts on the Blu-ray debut of the cult classic film in which you starred?
Felissa Rose: I love Shout! Factory and Scream Factory. I am blown away by what they did with the actual film and documentary and putting together all those pieces. We had a ball going down memory lane. It was very sentimental and I’m thrilled that it’s still alive and kicking because of people like Shout! Factory resurrecting it. We couldn’t be happier. I love the way it looks and I love the material they added to it, all the extras.
With Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay, what projects do you have on deck?
Felissa Rose: I’ve recently become the co-head of the Independent Genre Film Development of the new Carolco Pictures with Harrison, so he and I will be producing many films together. We have a lot lined up. Our first venture is Adrienne Barbeau’s Love Bites. It’s a film based on her best-selling book and we’re getting in gear for that.
In April I’ll be filming Wretched, which I’m producing as well as acting in. And we have Zombie Killers 2, the sequel, though I can’t give anything away. The only thing I can say is it will be an incredible movie with great challenges and I think it’s going to take zombies to a whole new level.