Arriving on digital this Friday, June 3rd, from Blumhouse Television and EPIX is Unhuman, the latest project from Marcus Dunstan that finds a group of high schoolers on a field trip in a fight for their lives when things take a turn and they are confronted by a horde of blood-thirsty zombies. Co-written by Dunstan and Patrick Melton, Unhuman stars Brianne Tju, Benjamin Wadsworth, Uriah Shelton, Ali Gallo, and Peter Giles.
During the recent press day for Unhuman, Daily Dead had the chance to speak with Dunstan about his approach to the story for his latest tale of terror and how events from his childhood helped inspired him to take the less-expected route with the film’s storytelling. Dunstan also discusses working with his cast and crew and gives this writer hope that The Collective, the intended third part of The Collector trilogy, will eventually move forward at some point in the future after all.
So great to speak with you today, Marcus. Unhuman was pure cinematic chaos, but in the best possible way, if that makes sense, because I had no idea what to expect. I had so much fun. So, first and foremost, congrats. I just love that you and Patrick can still find really cool ways to subvert expectations with your stories after more than 15 years now. It’s just so much fun to watch you guys go and have fun with the horror genre.
You know, I got to return that to Blumhouse, because they let the creatives swing, and that's a big, big opportunity that you don't get too often. Sometimes if the stakes are just too large, you find that with horror, it can get a little homogenized unless you're a titan. I would say the last time it felt like we were getting a pure punch from a singular mind was The Conjuring, it just felt like, "Nope, we're doing this way," and it changed the landscape of what scares could be.
Well, let's talk a little bit about what the inspiration behind this story is. I know it’s going to be tough because there are certain things we don’t want to say so that we don’t ruin things for viewers.
We can talk about how those things made us feel, I would say, because that's really the bait. I thought the marketing team did a wonderful job with the trailer because it gets you to lean in and it's like, "Well, there's nothing typical about this. Although, you say ‘zombie,’ or you say ‘high school,’ or you say ‘kids on the run,’ that does sound a certain way. But, wait a minute, this might have something up its sleeve." And boy was it nice to finally honor that opportunity with one heck of a twist.
Oh, definitely. This is the first time you got to work in zombie space, but you guys came at it from a different approach. Was it fun to mix up that formula a little bit when you were writing the script?
Yeah, it was something that Stephen King really inspired. There was this one line from Pet Sematary that says, "They come back mean." I thought, "Hm, now what if it wasn't just the hunger that was left over? What if there were the unsettled issues that you're a ravenously hungry thing?" If you're willing to bite through bone and skin, you're probably pretty upset. There might be some agitation. Then to take that and start to build our themes with it, and let it be a really cunning destructive force.
What this was all about is that high school haunts us. In some cases, the nightmares are a little more vicious than others. They leave an imprint. For whatever reason, when I was bullied in high school, or not even in high school, I was bullied much younger than that and it left quite an imprint. I tried to turn that wound into a weapon, so every now and again if I was in a creative corner writing something scary, I'd be like, "What would I have loved to do to those boys? If I wasn't a little kid, if I wasn't outnumbered, if I wasn't being spit on, or blocked into a corner with chairs, what would I have done?"
But then all of a sudden, you realized that you don't just want to identify with one moment in your life and keep repeating it to your own self-destruction. That is another thing, where you have to leave some of it there, but maybe take a few lessons with you to not just self-protect, but look out for other folks and put those into the stories you tell.
Can you talk a little bit about putting together this cast? There are some stereotypical character types in this, but nothing about these performances is stereotypical whatsoever. I just really love the energy that you were able to get out of this cast, especially Brianne. She is a force of nature.
Yes, oh my gosh. Even in a way, you kind of have a template when you go in and sometimes shoot, and your part of a machine so to speak where you have this many resources and you're going to have this many days, but within that sandbox, this was the miracle of the Blumhouse partnership with Paul Uddo and Paige Pemberton, our two producers, where there was never a no. They would come up with a how. "You want fire? Do you want a big explosion? Well, a big explosion on its own is probably a no go, but you know what? We can do a burster with flame. If you can stage it near this van that we can borrow from The Purge TV show set, then you got it." So it was absolutely great.
Now how does that tie into the character of Brianne? Well, Brianne has a moment and what we need is fire. And an explosion would give us that nice line of her confidence showing up, her leadership is showing up, but her destructive powers hint at that too, which is great. She gives you all those emotions in a brief moment that is not dialogue-dependent. It is simply the theater of her expression. I would say what a perfect opportunity to take credit for everything, but no, this is John McAlary and a brilliantly gifted cast.
I would say Lyn Moncrief is the reason that we've got a lot of this wonderful footage that comes together because Lynn, bless his heart, as a director of photography, the man is also a wonderful director of momentum, of pacing, and finding a way. To have a shorthand with such a gifted artist is a gift. Then with John McAlary, my goodness, this is the second time I've had the honor of participating in a John McAlary cast film. The first would be Pilgrim. You show up hoping to paint something as the director, and when he shows you the instruments, i.e. these brilliant performers, oh my gosh, your painting becomes something else.
Also, and I think I can reveal this safely is that we were given enough freedom to do some inventing as we went. In one case, a particular character was not supposed to even make it past page 20. That character was far too interesting and had too much potential for something like that. It goes back to the theme. It's one of those things where I thought that by the end of this process every single person who gave so generously of their talent, of their trust, everybody has a fully tiered performance. Everyone's got an intro. You think you've written their narrative, and that's something we directly borrowed from our experience with Feast, where we wanted to set up characters that were the first victim of every other horror movie, but instead, now they're the main cast.
I would say that in Friday the 13th Part III, what I loved about that one is that you had a biker gang and they would have been maybe the villains of a thriller and whatnot, but it was exciting to see them have real moments in there. Actually, they're the first people to work as a team to try to stop this guy ever. Okay, it kind of backfires, but I loved seeing that there was a woman and a guy who were friends, and yeah, they were tough and rough hewn, but my goodness when it came to a greater threat, they came together and that made for an interesting situation. I always thought there's something about someone whose life is projected as being quite hard saying, "Oh now, you're going to come and take it from me? Uh-uh (negative), not without a fight."
I know we're pretty much out of time now, Marcus so I wanted to thank you for chatting today. Just really quick though - I know things have been halted with The Collective. But I'm always going to ask because I need that movie, so I was curious if that situation is totally hopeless now or if it’s okay for me to keep my fingers crossed for it still?
You know what, I would be the first to temper your expectations if I really didn't think there was a chance. So yes, there is hope. There's absolutely hope because I think there's a way to get it done. It's just going to be slower than I would definitely want, and anyone eager to see it. What I'd really love to do at some point, if it's possible, is to just show the teaser. We shot quite a bit of cool stuff, and what it's done is that it's kept our hopes, and our combustion engine is going to try to get this done because the concept was working. That means our goal of taking what was the best of the first one and the best of the second one, and then telling a story that has resonance today, taking advantage of the time we haven't had with these characters, that it was working. That's what I think could be really a good reason for it getting made at some point.