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COMPANION PIECES with Dominic Hailstone

Updated: 4 days ago

Dawn of the Dead (1978) / Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)


With his visceral visuals reminiscent of those grim basement shocks of Chris Cunningham’s work, Dominic Hailstone’s artistry is delivered with a similar short, sharp shock of blistering surrealism. Over the years he has worked as a sculptor and concept artist developing special effects for the likes of Alien: Covenant, Possum, Men, Infinity Pool and recent films Stopmotion and The Seeding… all of which show off a very particular aesthetic. Whether hired, uncredited or directing his own projects he continues to defy boundaries making use of the most practical of effects, often delivering the most disturbing of results; his 2004 short “The Eel” and Tool’s “Opiate 2” music video prime examples. Dominic took some time out to discuss a couple of favourite zombie movies as well as a look into his processes and background in filmmaking…

 

I’ve noticed that when you post via social media you’re really pushing things. I’m surprised most of it gets through!

 

Obviously, there’s so much stuff I can’t show… but I show regardless to see if people come after me… and they usually don’t. But, you know, a lot of the time you ask them and there’s just the respect there, the love for the art. I mean it’s gory, but always (somewhat) artistic. Unless you’re dealing with the likes of Disney…


What the hell am I seeing? Hailstone's work with Tool including live show visuals.


A Disney/Hailstone gig. How does that work?!

 

They wouldn’t usually hire me directly.

 

No shit!

 

[Laughs] I’ll be hired through a proxy. So, you know, I’ll be working for an effects house. I’ve been at this 30 years so I’m taken seriously enough. From my point of view, grafting away on your own is professional… but very antisocial. My background is as a filmmaker and concept artist; including effects.

 

Has it always been there from an early age?

 

Yeah… I grew up loving horror movies and messing about with Super 8 and video cameras. In terms of the movie scene, growing up in London was all about the Scala, which recently just had a brilliant BFI documentary produced all about the scene surrounding that cinema. I was 14 when I first went there — they didn’t care; they just let you in. [Laughs] It was like a club five pounds for the whole year. There would be everything from Russ Meyer to John Carpenter, Pasolini, and Fellini. Everything, all bunched together. You really got a taste for what was good and what you liked. If you watched the first two Evil Dead movies back-to-back as I did, you knew what worked about them. The first, in particular, is just so rough around the edges.

 

It feels like a lesson in filmmaking the hands-on quality and crudeness of it all. Tactile.

 

Completely. I’ve seen that film over a hundred times. I was obsessed with it. And it’s exactly what you say “tactile”… because it’s Plasticine! You’re like, “I can do that!” It’s proper punk in the same way John Waters’ Pink Flamingos is — the energy of the people going out and making these films. I love it. The second genuinely pushes cinema. Nobody had ever moved a camera like Raimi had with that sequel. Crazy. It felt the complete opposite of Argento gliding through a scene.

 

Terrifying as a kid… and slapstick as an adult.

 

Yeah… and imagine how twisted you would have had to have been to ban The Evil Dead… that a film like that would be genuinely harmful.

 

They were certainly not watching the films to make an informed decision on a film as a work of art. Just seeing the horror. It seemed a repeat of the backlash against EC comics during the ’50s, which was also blown out of proportion. All it did was just make the material all the more infamous and sought after.

 

Yeah, I think it was brilliant. I mean it led to me and a friend, Barnaby Clay who I worked with on his first feature The Seeding selling copies of video nasties out of a suitcase in the Scala. Those were the days… you’d have to find a tape in a video shop or even go to Amsterdam and find uncut copies and dupe them because no one had access to them.

 

Aliens and demons. Left: ALIEN COVENANT (2017). Middle: MEN (2022). Right: THE POPE'S EXORCIST (2023).


Punk! So, how did you break into the industry after being a pirate? [Laughs] Were you coming up at a similar time to the likes of Chris Cunningham?

 

Yeah. But Chris is about five years older than me so I kind of missed that scene. Hellraiser was the big film where everything (horror practical effects-wise) seemed to blow up in this country after that film came out. My first professional gig was 1994’s Funny Man, which I did for special effects designer Neil Gordon. It was me and Duncan Jarman — a very well-respected artist in the industry right now — who ran the shop for Neil. He gave us no money but all the freedom; a good two months on our own working in this disused mental asylum with Christopher Lee. The first job we had and there we were having lunch with Dracula.

 

Incredible. How old were you then?

 

18. I remember we’d dropped acid and there was Christopher Lee talking for what felt like five hours.

 

He loved to talk. I’d have sat there, happily listening to him for 10 hours.

 

He was so boring… but I kind of regret not taking it in more. I was young! I mean, it was amazing — it’s Christopher Lee — and the entire experience was an incredible education. From there I worked for Image Animation, then a company called Creature Effects and then a bunch of music videos. I don’t know… It’s all one big mess! [Laughs]

Work. Buy. Consume. Die. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).


Leading into your choice of films, when was the first time you recall seeing them?

 

Dawn of the Dead is the first videotape that my father bought me. I was eight years old and we went to a film fair and he said, “Okay, just pick one.” Tapes back then in the early days were about a hundred and twenty quid and these were like thirty each. My choice was between Shivers, Dawn of the Dead and Rabid.

 

Wholesome viewing for an eight-year-old!

 

[Laughs]. Mate, it was Dawn of the Dead though. I knew what zombies were as I’d seen Plague of the Zombies at that point but this was this was completely different — those eyes on the cover forging a very early memory. The first time I saw Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombie) was hilarious. One of my friends growing up is Felicity Kendal’s son and he’s obsessed with gore… and he was like, “Come round my house and we’ll watch it.” So we start watching it; the attack on the boat happens and Felicity bursts in, “What the hell is this?!” Pulls the tape and ran out of the house with it to the video store.

 

What a story! [Laughs]

 

I have to tell it. Every time. You don’t forget that. It took about eight years — until I was selling videotapes — before I watched it fully… and since then have always held both films up there as top of the horror genre.

 

Is there something specific that attracted you to these as a double bill other than the subgenre itself?

 

I don’t really watch modern horror films very much, I still watch the old ones and, therefore, when you asked it was as simple as wanting to watch an old-school double bill that would take me back to the Scala. What’s great about it is this genuinely got me back into watching horror films, and I loved it. It got me thinking. I also noticed you put Silent Running and Phase IV up as examples for Companion Pieces… and I love those films — Phase IV, specifically, I’ll always bang on about. It’s like reading a graphic novel.

 

I thought about doing the Romero and Argento versions then I watched They Live and Repo Man. I even took a look at Burial Ground and Zombie Holocaust. You watch all of these zombie movies together and there is this entire programme.

Ken Foree as Peter in DAWN OF THE DEAD.


The older you get the more in tune with modern society you feel… if that makes sense. Same with movies; you see all the important subtext; that horror is way more than gore and crude imagery. That’s all just part of the art… the illusion. Zombie movies, in particular, exploded and seem to have had more relevance than ever but perhaps post-COVID audiences have now grown tired. Where do you feel the subgenre is at right now?

 

It always comes back to social commentary.

 

So what would a Hailstone zombie movie look like?

 

Well, I've actually written a script called Yawn of the Dead. There is a contagion, a virus… an infected monkey... even a pigeon (how British?) that falls into a water tank and infects a tower block. Devices that appear useless and throwaway. The whole conceit is just no one pays attention to monsters anymore… it’s all just background noise. The zombies can just be shoved over; there is some humour in that which may be even more throwaway than Shaun of the Dead. It’s about apathy: the lift doesn’t work… nothing works.


Like Britain, right now.

 

Yeah. Tired of everything. What is a zombie? Is it even a threat in the 21st century? It’s just an idea to mull over… I mean, the drawings and the projects I work on are always for other people, so I’d have to sell it to them. I’m more into writing crime and comedy and, in terms of viewing, only interested in horror when it breaks into something new.

 

“Something new” seems to be what you push for in the work you put out there. It feels like something you haven’t seen before. The closest comparison is perhaps Chris Cunningham’s “Rubber Johnny” but it’s still got its own tricks.

 

We also have A.I. But the way I see that is that it can now do my job for me… that I need to push and take it somewhere else. If something is exploding like that there is a sensory overload you get from it all. But from my point of view, that’s what scares me. It’s definitely not zombies but more the psychological impact of what we do to ourselves. For instance, Bergman movies terrify me more than zombies.

 

Hour of the Wolf would be a good example.

 

Absolutely! I mean examples like that really look into your soul and scare you. If a filmmaker finds a way of packaging that for a mass market, then that’s the ticket. That’s what zombies did initially, tapping into the subconscious.

 

So how do you tend to approach projects?

 

I don’t just like doing digital effects. It’s boring. So everything is always filmed. The Tool music video, for example, was filmed on a beach and then we mirrored as much as possible with a miniature and using third-scale puppets. We then filmed an actor and composited. Only about four shots have any CGI. The reasoning behind it was I wanted to see what full-size looked like placed onto puppets.

 

It’s such an organic way of working. I like the way you just roll with it the experimentation and the freedom to do that.

 

If you know what you are doing in pulling the levers and manufacturing something it’s very different to not knowing how to build something. You respond in real-time. There is more randomness and holes to fill in the digital domain.

 

Other than these examples being zombie movies do you think there are any other crucial themes that make them work as a double bill?

 

They just feel like perfect counterparts, despite how one influenced the other. Of course, there is the commentary, but I still think of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead as a pure horror film and I’m always amazed at how brilliantly written Dawn of the Dead is. I can’t fault it in terms of the motivation of the characters, what they do and how consumed they become. Ken Foree as Peter is phenomenal. It almost brings me to tears every time I see that performance. The way they all want this reconstruction of society and how each character begins to accept it.

 Zombie vs. Shark. Just... because! ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979).


In contrast, Flesh Eaters feels like a warped Bond movie. It’s full of bravado, a “Here’s your mission” affair with characters out-swaggering one another — a doctor on an island, the women and, not to forget, a zombie fighting a shark! It’s an easy one to dismiss with what could be seen as such goofy moments, but the filmmaking and cinematography are incredible.

 

Stunning now, especially in contrast to how you would have remembered it on a shitty pirate copy, which became all part of the texture and experience of the film.

 

The first time I became aware of its true power was a screening I went to in Baker Street. It was an Italian print in Italian with no subtitles and I still understood it the same way you would a silent movie.

 

If you were to show these films as a double bill, which cinema would you choose?

 

Has to be the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles.

 

Which one goes on first?

 

Dawn then Flesh Eaters.

 

Is there a favourite?

 

Dawn of the Dead. I’d go as far as saying it’s my favourite film of all time. It's just elevated — real cinema with real suspense and terror. With Fulci, it’s as though he is thinking: I’m going up against Dario Argento, rather than thinking he is going up against Romero. This would be down to how it was released in Italy and thinking of it more as gore set pieces and, essentially, seen as a sequel to Romero’s film before becoming its own thing entirely.

 Eye, zombie. The infamous gouging scene. ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979).


It’s a tad complex with all the versions.

 

I’ve got a theory that the only reason the helicopter blade chopping the top of the zombie’s head off was cut is because Argento was jealous. As though he saw the gore as his wheelhouse.

 

Yeah, because he has no problem with gore — especially killing women in his films in the most brutal fashion.

 

It just feels like maybe he felt Romero was stepping on his toes a bit.

 

If there is any truth to that, that’s very egotistical.

 

It’s only a theory.

 

You forget how full-on the gore is in places as a precursor to Day of the Dead, which is even more grim and nihilistic… personally, my favourite of the three.

 

I don’t blame you. I’m wearing rainbow specs because it’s such an early memory for me.

 

I love the economy of the genre and these films in particular, especially with how Night of the Living Dead changed the horror genre overnight.

 

For sure… and with that in mind, another perfect companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

 

In light of such an important movement during that era, maybe we are at a similar turning point in light of last year’s strikes and the studios trying to screw over writers and actors.

 

The hubris of it all — they just don’t care. But there is still a market for movies despite all the competition. There are still people willing to die trying to bring a story to the screen; these little piranhas that go straight to the source of what makes a good movie; that shift away from Hollywood as people realise they don’t have to be the centre of it all. A good recent example is the Philippou twins with Talk to Me; a couple of YouTubers who made a movie that grossed millions on a small budget and one of the most profitable Australian movies ever made.

 

Yes… there was something so punk about it and incredible for a horror movie to make that kind of money. It wasn’t sanitized and felt so rebellious, both in its filmmaking and narrative.

 

When you look back, the only thing I can think of in a mainstream horror that goes all out is The Exorcist. I’m thinking of that one scene with the crucifix. You needed someone like William Friedkin to punch through walls and take horror somewhere else to reach a wider audience. Those kinds of movie experiences were a phenomenon and still carry a unique and unforgettable power that keeps the conversation alive.

 

Definitely.

 

And I really appreciate film conversation.

 

That’s what it’s all about.

 

Yeah. Discovering things. Especially works of genius.

 




You can discover more of Dominic’s work over on his YouTube channel and follow him via Twitter @DominicHailsto1 and Instagram @dominic_hailstone_.

 

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