Exclusive Q&A: Director Matthias Hoene On His Very British Undead Film COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · August 3, 2013, 12:55 AM EDT
Cockneys vs. Zombies Hoene

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 2, 2013, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

The undead have terrorized Britain before, but they’ve never faced opposition like they do in Cockneys vs. Zombies, a UK horror/comedy hitting U.S. theaters and VOD from Shout! Factory. Fango sat down with director Matthias Hoene to find out why Cockneys make the best ghoul-fighters.

Scripted by James Moran (who co-wrote Christopher Smith’s Severance) and Lucas Roche from Hoene’s original concept, Cockneys vs. Zombies centers on a retirement home in London’s East End that’s about to be shut down and demolished, and brothers Andy (Harry Treadaway) and Terry (Rasmus Hardiker), who decide to rob a bank so that their grandfather Ray (Alan Ford) can keep his living space. Unfortunately, the building developers have accidentally broken open a centuries-old crypt that leads to an invasion of the living dead, and the brothers and their gang must team up with Ray and his fellow old folks (including Peggy, played by Honor Blackman, a.k.a. James Bond heroine Pussy Galore) to battle the zombie threat. It’s the first feature by commercials/music video director Hoene, and has won enthusiastic response for its combination of undead action and spiky regional humor.

Where did the initial inspiration for Cockneys vs. Zombies come from?

The first spark of the idea came to me while I was working with a couple of Cockney actors on a web series I was directing at the time. It was so funny to see these guys, full of swagger and attitude, squared off against a supernatural enemy—because unlike most other protagonists in horror films, they wouldn’t show any fear or surprise, but instead just cock their shotgun, crack a joke and blow the monster away. Over the centuries, Cockneys have defended their turf against the Zulus, invading armies and the Old Bill [police], but they have never fought off an undead invasion, so I felt there was a small opportunity there for a film that would give us something we had not seen before.

I’ve lived in East London for the last 12 years, and I’ve seen my own street change from a rough place called “murder mile” to a quaint hipster hangout with vintage trainer shops and cupcake bakeries. Many of the old pubs, pie and mash shops and Cockney hangouts have been shut down and redeveloped, and I wanted this movie to be my love declaration to the old East London that I saw when I first moved there.

How did you hook up with James Moran to write the script?

I had known James before, as we had developed something else together, so when the idea for Cockneys vs. Zombies struck, I called him straight away. Unfortunately, he was busy in TV for a while, so I developed a rough first draft of the script—which he then took and fed into the amazing Moranizer, coming out sparkling with all the comedy, Cockney banter, machine-gun-wielding pensioners and zombie action you see in the movie now.

With all the undead films and crime comedies out there, how did you endeavor to make this one fresh?

I felt that the world had not seen a Cockney stuck in a zombie apocalypse, and wanted to make the point that if you do find yourself in an end-of-the-world situation, the safest place to be is near a bunch of Cockneys. James and I had long conversations about how to give viewers something they had never seen before in a zombie film, and we came up with slow-motion chases, mental thugs with steel plates in their heads and Pussy Galore with a sledgehammer in her hand, among other scenes, in order to give the fans something fresh. I was also very keen to put a lot of heart into the film, so while there’s a lot of shooting and looting, it is, at its core, a film about a family coming together.

Did you homage any particular past films with this one?

The film was inspired by ’80s horror/comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, as well as the humor of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I. You’ll also find a homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but it’s so subtle that I dare you to pick it up!

How did you handle mixing the comedy and zombie action, and keeping the gore from overwhelming the humor?

Comedy/horror is the most difficult genre to work in. Even though the film is full of gore and bad language, it also has a big heart, and I made sure that the characters never do anything just for comedy’s sake. The humor comes from truthful observations of the characters and the situations they’re stuck in. Credit goes to the writers, the actors, my editor Neil Farrell and also the composer Jody Jenkins for helping pull it all off.

How did you cast the older actors, especially Honor Blackman?

I wanted to have a group of actors who would be surprising and unique—people you hadn’t necessarily seen in a genre film. My casting agents Gail Stevens and Colin Jones sent the script to Honor, and I was excited when she liked it and wanted to meet for coffee. I can’t remember what I said to her, because I was so entranced by her beautiful blue eyes, but it must have worked—her agent called the next day to tell me that she was in.

It was also an amazing honor to work with Richard Briers, who is one of the legendary comedy actors in Britain and unfortunately passed away in February. Working with someone like him is why I got into directing. He taught me so much about comedy timing and delivery, and I will never forget the experience of being on set with him. May he rest in peace.

Did any of them have any issues dealing with the weapons?

They were all excited to have a go. The only issue was that Jack Doolan was sad because he had the nicest-looking gun, and he never got to shoot it!

Where was the movie shot, and were there any location challenges?

We shot all over East London, and in some parts of South London. Production did a great job organizing something that could’ve easily ended up as a contained horror film to be epic in scope and wide-reaching in its locations. At one point, we were shooting machine guns and battling zombies in the shadow of Canary Wharf, which is the financial center of the UK and maybe even Europe. I like to think that we caused some unexplainable fluctuations in the stock market by distracting the stockbrokers with foul-mouthed Cockneys, sword-wielding pensioners and gormless zombies.

What went into casting and wrangling the undead hordes?

I asked fans to send in audition videos, which was amazing. We literally had zombies from all over England, and each and every one of them had their own walk. Since then, watching zombie audition tapes has become one of my favorite pastimes in life. Once we had cast our ghouls, we created a custom zombie-walk education video with our choreographer Tristan Matthiae, who also helped me fine-tune each zombie’s performance on set.

The walker scene is especially funny; can you talk about staging that bit?

I tried to make it look like a Michael Bay action setpiece, with circling cameras, shaking long-lens coverage and the soundtrack spewing out adrenaline in the form of drums, brass and an Eastern European zombie choir. Then we cut to a static wide shot that I hold a few beats too long to show how the scene really looks. It’s one of the tricks in filmmaking: You can make almost anything look exciting when you shake the camera and put loud music to it, so that scene has a little bit of fun with that idea.

Was there any concern that the movie’s Cockney language/humor might not register with some viewers?

I have to apologize—we didn’t add any subtitles. But I believe we kept the Cockney slang at an easily understandable level. When I’ve screened the film for American audiences, I certainly felt that everyone was getting it and laughing at the right places.