By NIC LORETI
In 1997, Pablo Parés and Hernan Sáez, two 17-year-old directors from Argentina, directed Plaga Zombie, a shot on VHS flesh-eater epic. It instantly became a worldwide cult classic that spawned two sequels and got a DVD release from Fangoria in 2003. Now, 23 years later, US director Garry Medeiros and actor/producer/co-writer Walter Rivero are working on, an American sequel/reboot/remake of the original. While many other Latin American horror films have received U.S. remakes, none have the epic and demented feel of PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION. Seven years in the making, this reboot takes the original trilogy to a whole new level.
The Plaga Zombie series tells the story of Bill Johnson (Pablo Parés), a doctor who discovers a zombie virus is spreading across his town. He teams up with Max Giggs (Hernán Sáez), a computer nerd, and John West (Berta Muñiz), a down on his luck pro wrestler. Together, the trio face-off against the zombies first in Bill’s house, then in their hometown (in the sequel), and then throughout the countryside (in the third part). Each film is shot on better quality cameras than the one that came before it and features increasingly better makeup and VFX.
The original Plaga Zombie trilogy was a labour of love for Farsa Producciones, which consisted of Parés, Sáez, Muñiz and also Walter Cornás (in charge of production duties, makeup, art direction, as well as playing several characters) and Paulo Soria (co-writer of the third film, and also producer and actor in all of them). There are fans of PLAGA ZOMBIE across the globe, but two of the most important are Walter Rivero, an Argentinian born US citizen, and Garry Medeiros, an American independent filmmaker. They are part of the creative team of PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION. But the tale of this American reboot would not be complete without telling the story of the original trilogy.
Twenty-three years ago, Parés and Saez were two teenagers who shot short films on VHS with their friends influenced by early Raimi, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) and Robert Rodriguez’s one-man-army technique of guerrilla filmmaking, as showcased in El Mariachi (1992). After years of shorts, they decided to shoot their first feature, a zombie opus inspired by 1981’s Evil Dead and Jackson’s 1992 slapstick splatter classic, Braindead. Hernan and Pablo would write, shoot, direct, edit, and star alongside Sebastian “Berta” Muñiz, a childhood friend and neighbour from the town of Haedo, west of Buenos Aires. The film would be shot entirely at Pablo’s house during the weekends and the budget would be a mere $170.
A year later, the film, edited on camera, was finished and ready for the public to see. They didn’t expect what was coming. The filmmakers struck a few copies to sell on VHS, and they sold out almost immediately. Then, a newspaper article by Diego Curubeto (one of the most renowned film writers in the country) helped to spread the disease. Soon, Buenos Aires, and later all of Argentina, knew about Plaga Zombie, and the film became an instant classic amongst the country’s horror film fans. This was 1997, and Argentinian horror as we know it today didn’t exist. There had been a small handful of horror features shot in the country in preceding decades, but something modern and influenced by contemporary filmmakers had never happened. Film buffs were thrilled. Plaga Zombie had the look and feel of early Raimi and Jackson, only cheaper, faster, and slimier.
“The first film was the end of Farsa’s first era” explains Hernán Sáez. “We used to shoot only short films.” For Parés, it was a time of innocence and hope. “We had that teenage hunger, the feeling that a movie can change your life and change the world. It was the ‘90s, before the internet era, and movies meant the world to us. We were isolated in a small town and there was almost no horror cinema in Argentina.” He remembers Plaga Zombie fondly: “The first is the one I like the most. It’s a lot of fun, the characters are great, there’s plenty of gore and it never stops. Also, the texture of VHS gets better with age. That grindhouse feeling.” Sáez echoes this sentiment: “My feeling today about the first film, and this started happening to me a few years ago, is that it is an amazing home movie” he says. “I used to consider it a regular film, and as such it has a lot of issues. But as a home movie, it’s an amazing one. I wouldn’t tell you it’s one of the best home movies ever, but it might be close. At the time we didn’t realize it, but twenty years later we got to see there are not too many home movies shot at that level, especially not by 17-year-old kids. It has the special feeling of being ultra-amateur, but at the same time entertaining as hell, never boring and surprising.”
A few years later, the success of Plaga Zombie led to the sequel, Plaga Zombie: Zona Mutante (Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone). This time the duo would shoot on super VHS and an entire town (instead of just a house) would be invaded by zombies. The film picks up right after the first one ends. Sáez remembers the shoot being exhausting, to say the least. “We started shooting it in 1998 and finished it in 2001. We thought we would be able to do it during the weekends of one summer… and it took four years.” “Part 2 is the one I like the least,” says Parés. “I love almost every individual scene of it, but as a full feature, it’s too long. It’s everyone’s favorite, though.” Sáez continues, “I haven’t seen part two in a while. It’s stranger, and it’s the one that has the most fans and I understand why. It was shot while we were in film school, so we had more elements at hand to make it look better. We could edit using a computer, so we could get closer to the films of our heroes: Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and Robert Rodriguez. We also had a camera with manual zoom, the M-9000 Panasonic, which was PAL and looked better.”
The film became an instant classic and was screened at genre festivals around the world. Like the first, it was a small movie miracle: shot on super VHS, ambitious, full of gore, and inspired editing choices. As far as DIY VHS movies go, this was on another level. The positive response led to foreign media awareness of the film, and Fangoria acquired Mutant Zone along with its progenitor for a special edition DVD release stateside.
It was then that future PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION director Garry Medeiros entered the picture, having gotten ahold of that Fangoria DVD. “Back in 2007, I used to read Fangoria magazine and read an article about [the Plaga Zombie films.] I eagerly purchased a copy of the DVD as soon as it was released. When it arrived in the mail that night, I popped it into the player and began watching it. Well, I have to say that at this time I had just finished smoking a joint and was higher than a kite. I enjoyed Plaga Zombie, but I had a total blast with Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone. It was the same feeling I had when I watched Evil Dead II and Bad Taste for the first time…a complete rollercoaster ride. I became an instant fan. If I had to pick a favorite of the films, I’d have to say the second. It was so creative and fun from beginning to end. After making a Plaga Zombie film myself, I now have a whole new appreciation for what they had accomplished so young and with virtually no money. It is truly is amazing”.
As for Walter Rivero, PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION’s eventual producer and co-writer, he played a zombie in Mutant Zone which led to him taking on a more active role producing Pares’ projects,
“I was visiting Argentina back and a couple of my friends said “Hey you want to be in a zombie movie?” says Rivero. “I said “Sure why not? What I didn’t know was how this circumstance paved the way for future movie projects.”
“Film buffs were thrilled. PLAGA ZOMBIE had the look and feel of early Raimi and Jackson, only cheaper, faster, and slimier.”
“By the third one, it was almost as if we had to do it just to have a feeling of closure. To end the trilogy. We were doing it for the fans, which were many by that time. We had even become fans ourselves!” explains Parés. For Sáez, the third film is his favourite. “I love part three above the other two. The rhythm, the cinematography…it’s the most fun of them all for me. The one that’s a real zombie film, and a great one at that.”
“As the years passed, I would Google search for a part three, hoping that someday they would finish the story… and then one day in 2012 something popped up,” says Medeiros. “To my dismay, Plaga Zombie: Revolución Tóxica (Plaga Zombie: Toxic Revolution) wasn’t released in the USA. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find a copy anywhere so I thought long and hard. How can I watch this film? Then it hit me. Maybe I can find the filmmakers on Facebook. Tracking down all the Farsa guys, I friended all of them, and luckily, they accepted my request. Hernán gave me a private link to the third film and I finally got my wish. We’ve been friends ever since.”
“I think the original trilogy stood the test of time,” says Saez. “Other films we did haven’t, but these three have. For example, there are small kids that are fans of Plaga Zombie. We get drawings from children of friends of ours or just fans. They also recreate scenes on video and send them to us. Not just in Argentina but also in other countries like Mexico”.
Fast forward a few years. “We got an email from Garry Medeiros saying he wanted to remake the first film” explains Sáez. “So, Pablo and I told him: wouldn’t it be better if you did a new film set in the same universe? PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION is not exactly [connected to] the original trilogy: it’s another team of filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, ours are shot in 4:3 fullscreen aspect ratio, theirs is 2:35 widescreen, and so on…but we love the fact that the franchise is evolving, and that there’s a new film instead of just a remake. We’re really happy about everything, about the fact that there are fans of the original trilogy that want to make their own Plaga films, and about having a fourth episode. This might inspire someone in Italy or Japan, or wherever they see this film and think: Oh, they did a new Plaga Zombie, and it’s an American film! I want to make one too!”
For Rivero, the series’ American entry was a dream come true, and one he wasn’t expecting. “AMERICAN INVASION was a surprise for me. I got a text from Pablo Parés and Hernan Saez telling me that a guy named Garry Medeiros was making a Plaga Zombie movie in the US and that I should get involved. I didn’t know what to expect. but I met with Garry and [Executive Producer] Cheryl LaPan from Sai Con Productions via live chat. We just hit it off and began the epic adventure of PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION.”
This time around, the franchise got another quality boost on a technical level: AMERICAN INVASION was shot using a Black Magic Camara, backing it up with a Red camera and a drone for specific scenes. “We began shooting back in 2013,” explains Medeiros. “We rushed into production even though we were nowhere close to being ready. After four weeks into shooting, I wasn’t happy with what we were producing, so I made the decision to halt production. We put it on hold for a year and resumed shooting in the summer of 2014 when we were better prepared and reshot just about everything we did previously. We continued shooting through to 2017.”
“We didn’t know if this was going to be part of the actual trilogy, but it clearly isn’t a reboot, because these are different characters in another part of the world going through the same situations Max, John, and Bill went through,” adds Rivero. “As the movie was being made, the Farsa guys liked what they saw and decided it should be called Plaga Zombie 4.”
Medeiros wrote the film with LaPan, with a little help from Rivero. “PZAI, as we like to call it, was written by Garry and Cheryl… it was a big deal, very bold writing for an indie flick. I helped with some scenes, but it was mostly their vision,” adds Rivero. “As far as production, we had Go Fund Me and many people that wanted to help, so it was easy that way. If you donated, you could be a zombie or an extra in the movie. We also did some events to get the ball rolling.”
However, shooting an independent zombie opus of this scale is never an easy task, and the whole crew had to deal with everyday life and troubles while working on it. “All of us were on different schedules and had full-time jobs, families… so shooting days were very limited,” says the director. “I began editing shortly after shooting began and [feel like I] haven’t stopped since. I was doing all of the VFX myself and the workload was overwhelming. Luckily, Matías Lojo, a filmmaker from Argentina, came in to help me with some of the VFX shots. I am so grateful for his help and if it wasn’t for him, I’d still be editing the movie. We continued shooting pickup shots and green screen effects all the way into 2019. So, all in all, we’ve been at it for seven years total now.”
“In the process, we did pick up some talent from Argentina,” adds Rivero. “The original duo also helped direct some stuff and helped with the VFX. Besides Lojo, we’ve got Pablo Fuu doing the score, Goyo Escardó doing the sound design, and so on.” PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION was clearly a collective effort. “We had an army of people. I can’t say how many, but in the hundreds,” says Rivero. “Everyone did everything Plaga Zombie-style!”
PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION is currently in post-production and the filmmakers hope to have it ready by the end of 2020.
“It’s in the middle of scoring by Pablo Fuu and under sound editing by Goyo Escardó,” says Medeiros. “When they finish doing their magic, we plan on having a release date soon after. COVID is making things difficult, but we’ll have an answer shortly. We hope to get it out to as many outlets as possible”.
So, here’s to hoping that PLAGA ZOMBIE: AMERICAN INVASION finally sees the light of day in 2021. Be sure to look for it when it does, because, considering the rough cut we had the chance to see, it will be a treat for zombie fans.