Town of the Living Dead is one of those reality shows so overly staged that makes you uncomfortable with its generous dollops of pseudo-reality. The premise is simple. A bunch of amateur filmmakers have been trying to make a zombie movie called “Thr33 Days Dead” for the past six years. It is apparent from the first episode why it has taken so long. They have no real plan, no money and not a lot of skill. And now, they have a production company turning their shoot into a circus of goofy antics and slapstickiness.
Before I get into this, let me go back fifteen years to a movie most viewers of this show likely don’t know about. It is a film that covers the same ground in a completely different way and long before reality or unscripted storytelling was its own industry.
Back in 1999, documentary filmmaker Chris Smith produced “American Movie” following a colorful, inexperienced, and eccentric writer-director named Mark Borchardt through his troubled, low-budget, community-supported production short film “Coven”. Borchardt’s film, like “Thr33 Days Dead”, is self-financed and produced without benefit of organization or professional support.
The documentary features long, often unflattering perspectives on what it’s like to dream beyond your means. It also succeeds in making viewers cheer on the cast and crew. As much as Borchardt has flaws and isn’t the stereotypical Hollywood visionary, he is very real. Sometimes painfully so. It is reality filmmaking in the truest sense. Borchardt is surrounded by colorful characters and absurd events, setbacks and triumphs, all leading toward the answer to a question: Will Borchardt achieve his dream of making a movie?
Syfy would not want a series in the image of “American Movie” because it that would require viewers to think beyond what’s on the surface and regard its “characters” as people. Being real strips reality television of its escapist qualities. For many of its viewers, that show would feel like looking into a mirror for a half-hour per week.
“Town of the Dead” features caricatures dancing for the camera. They are in on the joke. They talk in sound bites and folksy, southern colloquialisms that sometimes make no sense, but delivered with that intention. Anyone on camera who says something silly or stupid immediately knows that it is comedy gold for the show, so there’s none of that blind sincerity or lack of self-awareness that made early reality TV such a departure from scripted shows.
Because the cast of the show acts like it’s promoting its own movie, there is never a chance to see anything but manufactured stress and frustration. We don’t see what it is really like for a Radio Shack employee to have dedicated six years of his life to a movie that he has to know will not make him a successful director. We don’t see any real consequence of Tina Teeter’s investment. In one episode, she allegedly takes out a “small mortgage” on her home to get a thousand dollars for the purpose of blowing up a boat. This is an episode after we see her credit card declined in a thrift shop and hearing that the director has no money of his own. These are points that every filmmaker feels in their gut – the personal and financial sacrifice for art. These beats are played for laughs at their expense. Oh these poor, misguided southern folk with their hand-held cameras and their hand-made blood, they so funny to watch running around covered in fake blood waving a weird looking zombie penis.
Oh, there’s the self-proclaimed “token gay guy” who doubles as effects designer. Do we get any insight into his craft? No, we are treated to a sitcom styled premature detonation of explosives on a boat. (Wah-wahhhhhh) There is no one to take seriously in this show even though we’re told to believe there are very real personal and financial consequences for not finishing this movie.
Is it fun to watch? In the context of voyeuristic reality television, I guess. There’s always going to be a market for disposable schadenfreude. But that doesn’t make it good. Fifteen years later, I am still cheering on Mark Borchardt. I doubt that I’ll remember any of these cartoon characters a year from now, but I will wonder if the real people performing those roles ever went on to success on their own terms.