“I Survived a Zombie Holocaust” (2015): Cheekiness and Charm Abound in New Zealand Horror Comedy

Since Peter Jackson’s early films, along with  efforts from other filmmakers such as those behind  Black Sheep (2006), New Zealand has had a solid track record with producing horror comedies that worked in both aspects of this subgenre, which is not an easy feat. The past year or so has seen releases that pleased both crowds and critics, including What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Housebound (2014), Deathgasm (2015), and a coproduction with Canada, Turbo Kid (2015) (reviewed  here by The Black Saint).  Another recently released entry into this field is the romantic zombie comedy I Survived a Zombie Holocaust (2014), one of the goriest feel-good films I have seen lately.

This debut film from writer/director Guy Pigden involves a low-budget zombie film shoot in rural New Zealand. Tyrannical director SMP, played by Andrew Laing (who must have a monopoly on playing dictator-like bosses in NZ horror comedies, as he assays a similar role in Deathgasm) is doing his best to complete this self-proclaimed cinematic masterpiece called Tonight They Come. He has a bevy of problems on set, though, including a diva starlet (Reanin Johannink as Jessica Valentine) who has trouble sustaining an American accent, a fading male lead (Mike Edward as Adam Harrison) with a huge ego and secrets to hide, and a catering chef who doesn’t know how to cook well, to name but a few.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust
New Zealand film crew members find time to pose while trying to outrun zombies: (from left to right) Harley Neville as set runner and whipping boy Wesley Pennington, Mike Edward as egotistical star Adam Harrison, Ben Baker as crew member and former rugby player Tane Henare, and Jocelyn Christian as Susan Ford, a set caterer who hates cooking.

Along comes nebbish Wesley Pennington (Harley Neville), the crew’s new runner who has just graduated from film school. He holds the lowest position on set, and is treated as such. He pitches his own “horredy” zombie script to SMP, who says “There is no such thing as a horredy!” and uses pages from it as toilet tissue. Wesley develops a crush on caterer Susan (Jocelyn Christian), who is understandably perturbed when they are in their underwear doing stand-in work for a sex scene and Wesley has a certain biological reaction to their closeness.  Wesley is an eternal optimist, though, and when he learns before most of the crew that real zombies are among them, he begins his heroic journey, often hampered by comical consequences.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust finds much of its humor in meta references and nods to zombie movies and their tropes; thankfully these nods are usually more subtle here than they have been in some like-minded outings. One of my favorite moments is when SMP talks his put-upon assistant director into sacrificing his life for the sake of art by volunteering to be devoured by a zombie horde for some spontaneous found footage (assuming that it will eventually be found, of course). The humor ranges from sly to smart to screwball romance to broad. I found myself smiling more often than laughing out loud, but considering some attempts at horror comedy that I have seen lately, that’s not a bad concession.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust
Are these real zombies or zombie extras . . . or a combination of both?

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust focuses more on comedy than outright horror and suspense, but its zombie attacks and effects are well done. Gore fans will find plenty of bites, open wounds, and entrails to gaze on, and the budget is decent enough that these effects don’t feel cheap. A lot of attention and care went into them, along with the rest of this movie.

Guy Pigden’s script shows a keen eye for story and characters, and he does nice job as a first-time feature director. He knows his zombie lore and the trials of independent filmmaking, and he puts that knowledge to amusing use here. Although the pacing is generally handled well, I Survived a Zombie Holocaust itself occasionally feels like it clocks in a bit long at 104 minutes. A bit more time in the editing room probably would have made for a leaner feature.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust Poster
The poster for I Survived a Zombie Holocaust

Harley Neville and Jocelyn Christian play off each other well in their lead roles and give viewers someone to emotionally invest in, and the rather large supporting cast is impressive, too. Ben Baker stands out as a crew member who loves to talk about his glory days as a rugby player. He has a penchant for over exaggeration, but gets the chance to live up to his potential in the third act.  

Although not as strong as its recent peers in the New Zealand horror comedy subgenre, I Survived a Zombie Holocaust offers a fun time and good old-fashioned charm. It sets out with a big heart to entertain, and it does just that.  

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

(I Survived a Zombie Holocaust screened at South Korea’s 19th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival [BiFan] in July 2015.)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.