Valdosta Daily Times

September 30, 2009

'Zombieland' out this week

Valdosta ready for its close-up

Dean Poling

VALDOSTA — J.G. O’Connor’s pretty sure he’s seen his back in a movie preview for “Zombieland.” Like many other local zombie extras, he’s curious to see if he will see more of himself when the movie opens locally and nationwide this week.

O’Connor is one of an estimated 150 area people hired earlier this year to play zombies in the movie filmed at Wild Adventures and the former Crackin’ Good Bakery site off North Forrest Street.

Valdosta Stadium Cinemas is scheduled to show the movie at midnight Thursday night/Friday morning.

Already, many former zombies and zombie lovers are purchasing advance tickets to the first local showing, said Jim Cody, Valdosta Stadium Cinemas general manager. He’s heard from a lot of people claiming to have played zombies in the movie.

“Some people think they may be in it, but they’re not certain,” Cody said.

He recalls a few years ago working at another movie theatre where locals had been filmed in the South Georgia-based “Facing the Giants.” These extras arrived ready to find themselves on the big screen. Many left disappointed because they didn’t see themselves in any scenes.

Wild Adventures personnel plans to join the midnight showing. The park will bring its own zombies from its Halloween-themed Phobia events opening next weekend at Wild Adventures, said Micha Hogan, a park spokesperson. Some of Phobia’s zombies were hired from zombies that played in the “Zombieland” movie.

For Wild Adventures, “Zombieland” is a potential marketing bonanza. Already, movie previews have shown scenes depicting the park’s Rattler and Bugout rides as well as a Hummer crashing into Wild Adventures’ lake. On Tuesday night, park personnel were set to travel to Jacksonville, Fla., for an early screening of the movie.

Starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, and Amber Heard, the movie has already generated positive buzz from movie media and fans. Setting itself up as a comedy, “Zombieland” reportedly pokes fun at the horror genre, sort of an Americanized version of the popular Brit comedy “Shaun of the Dead.”

“Zombieland’s” action takes its characters to an amusement park overrun with zombies, which is what attracted producers to Wild Adventures.

Negotiations to film at the park occurred in late 2008. Once filming began, it was a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week process for more than two weeks in February.

Filming occurred at night, with prep beginning in the early evening hours and continuing till dawn, Hogan said. During the daylight hours, the crew prepared facades, wardrobes, and more. Stunt performers rehearsed various scenes.

“It was cool seeing the stunt zombies practice for that,” Hogan said, referring to the Bugout roller coaster scene shown in the previews.

Even with the park in full movie mode, with Woody Harrelson sightings throughout town, the set was very quiet, closed and secretive. This silence led to speculation and rumors.

Some wondered if “Zombieland” was a set-up for a reality movie to poke fun at local folks thinking they were trying out for a zombie movie. One rumor claims that a portion of the movie was filmed at Lowndes High School’s Martin Stadium. Producers reportedly approached Lowndes High about using the stadium, but school officials turned them down, according to the Lowndes County School System.

Press was not allowed on the set and local extras had to sign non-disclosure agreements, said J.G. O’Connor. Keeping with the spirit of the agreement, he didn’t share scenes but set the scene for his work on the set.

O’Connor attended auditions with several friends. He believes their antics while standing four hours in the audition line caught the attention of casting agents. Auditioning, they spent about 15 seconds each acting like zombies. He received a call and was hired.

For eight days, O’Connor worked nearly around the clock. He arrived at the set between 4-5 p.m. and often stayed till about 7 a.m. He then worked his regular job at Pawn USA.

Arriving on set, make-up artists worked on groups of zombie extras, spending approximately 15 minutes on each one, before moving onto the next group.

O’Connor found Harrelson to be a “really nice guy, real approachable” and found the entire experience to be an enjoyable one.

Would he participate in another film? “I’d be there in a heartbeat.”

O’Connor’s already purchased his advanced ticket. Thursday night he will be at Valdosta Stadium Cinemas, watching for his and other fellow Valdostans’ star turns.