George A Romero, the king of the zombie movie, summarised the genre’s essence in an interview in 2013. “What should matter is that this extraordinary thing is happening and people are still arguing about upstairs-downstairs, who’s the boss,” Romero explained. “They are still arguing about their own agendas instead of facing the problem.”

The democratic nature of the zombie apocalypse, in which nobody is safe and nothing eventually matters, has ensured that nearly every country has movies about the undead. India has made a few, including Luke Kenny and Devika Singh’s Rise of the Zombie and Raj & DK’s Go Goa Gone.

The latest addition to the gallery of ghouls is Aditya Sarpotdar’s Zombivli. The January 26 release stars Amey Wagh, Lalit Prabhakar and Vaidehi Parushmani as characters dealing with a zombiedemic.

The Marathi-language movie, which combines humour and commentary, owes some of its existence to a zombie comedy by Edgar Wright. “The first zombie film I watched and that had a huge impact on me was Shaun of the Dead,” Sarpotdar told “I started watching other zombie films and eventually made my way back to the classics.”

His all-time favourite is Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan. South Korean directors are masters of the genre because of their handling of crowd scenes, Sarpotdar observed, pointing to the film Alive and the web series Kingdom.

Despite being a much more modest affair, Zombivli manages to create a vivid sense of the carnage that unfolds when residents of a slum turn into the walking dead. The residents of a residential complex neighbouring the slum are infected soon enough.

Sudhir (Amey Wagh), his pregnant wife (Vaidehi Parshurami) and a few neighbours escape. Vishwas (Lalit Prabhakar), an activist from the slum, and a journalist and her cameraman, join the group in its quest for survival.

Zombivli (2022). Courtesy Yoodlee Films.

Zombivli unfolds in Dombivli, one of Mumbai’s satellite cities. The real-life water shortage that puts the residents of Dombivli’s high-rises on the same level as its poor drives events in Zombivli. The story is by Mahesh Iyer, a Dombivli resident.

“Mahesh had this idea of putting zombies in Dombivli, and I said that was a film I definitely want to watch,” Sarpotdar said. Iyer is also one of the screenplay writers alongside Siddhesh Purkar, Sainath Ganuwad and Yogesh Vinayak Joshi.

The movie was written in April 2020, with the team meeting only through Zoom calls. Outside, the coronavirus pandemic raged on.

“What was happening to us was as freaky as a zombie attack, with the only difference being that you can’t see the virus but you can see zombies,” Sarpotdar said. “We thought, why not tap into this idea a little more.” But Zombivli couldn’t be about a “random zombie outbreak with people running helter-skelter”. That’s where the social commentary came in.

“All of us are going to eventually face a major water crisis,” Sarpotdar said. “We thought, let’s tap into these real threats. But we also wanted to create a good time. We are going through so much hardship . We wanted to make audiences laugh, freak out a bit, and think a bit.”

Zombivli (2022).

This was the cue for comedy. The humour in Zombivli flows from its human characters. Movie zombies, with their shuffling gait, twisted limbs, blank eyes and single-minded focus on feasting on flesh, can either be terrifying or ridiculous. Sarpotdar didn’t want viewers to laugh at his ghouls: “It was important to convince people that you or the people around you could also become zombies.”

By the time Maharashtra lifted its lockdown in early June, the screenplay was ready. But for Sarpotdar and cinematographer Lawrence D’Cunha, shooting in Dombivli, which, like Mumbai, still had a high case count, was a challenge.

“We wanted to shoot with a big unit and be in an area where it would be safe for everybody,” Sarpotdar said. Research showed that Latur was low on the list of Covid-19 positive patients. It also helped that Latur is the pocket borough of Vilasrao Deshmukh’s family. The late leader’s son, Amit Deshmukh, is Latur’s guardian minister. Amit Deshmukh’s brother, Riteish Deshmukh, produced and starred in Sarpotdar’s Mauli in 2018.

“Riteish helped us get permissions, and after following all the norms, we recreated Dombivli in Latur,” Sarpotdar said. Except for a few top-angle and exterior shots in Dombivli, 90% of the film has been shot in Latur.”

The army of extras who play the zombies were also transported to Latur. But before that, they had to be trained in zombie body language.

Zombivli (2022). Courtesy Yoodlee Films.

“We initially wanted to cast theatre actors and even acrobats,” Sarpotdar said. The first audition call was a flop. Asked to mimic zombies, aspirants sent in videos of themselves as spirits, ghosts and monsters.

The applications improved after acting instructor Ashish Pathode and his team shot a reference video with make-up. The selected actors also attended workshops.

“There are about 350 zombies in the film,” Sarpotdar said. “It was exciting to see how passionate they were despite the difficulties of staying in make-up all day long.” The hair, make-up and prosthetics design are by Yasmin George.

It took five hours before the commencement of the shoot to get the zombies ready. There were at least 15 make-up aisles, like at a wedding, where a single actor would be transformed into a flesh-craving beast in up to 45 minutes.

The challenges increased in the climactic scenes in which the zombies are splashed with water (a plot requirement). “That was the most challenging part, since the make-up would be washed off and we would have start all over again,” the 34-year-old director said.

Aditya Sarpotdar. Courtesy Aditya Sarpotdar Instagram.

Despite appearances, the film was made on a tight budget. The cast was drawn from Marathi cinema, television and the stage, and includes Vijay Nikam as an evil builder.

Amey Wagh has collaborated with Sarpotdar in the movie Faster Fene, while he worked with Lalit Prabhakar on the web series The Raikar Case. Sarpotdar found an equally strong actor in Vaidehi Parshurami to play Sapna, who fights shoulder to shoulder alongside the heroes.

“The damsel in distress is a done-to-death idea,” Sarpotdar said. “I always wait for moments in a film when a female character takes over, and these moments always work. In any case, women handle crises better. A zombie is indifferent to gender, so why should we treat women any differently?”

Although the film’s ending suggests a sequel, Sarpotdar says it’s too early. “We are thinking of dubbing the movie in Hindi,” he said. “We do have an idea for a sequel, but let’s see what the response to Zombivli is like first.”

Also read:

‘Zombivli’ review: A zombie comedy with bite

George A Romero’s films about the undead were actually about America’s living

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