ByCalum Sanderson, writer at
Movie maker and watcher. Bookworm, muso.
Calum Sanderson

April 5 is coming up, and when it comes it will be one whole year since I released Serum: Liquid of the Living Dead online. While things have certainly slowed down (lots of development of ideas but never making it into pre-production onwards), I think about it, especially now, as a phenomenal achievement by a bunch of students and actors and people who simply wanted to lend a hand to something cool.

The film began as a class assignment in 2012, meant to encourage the entire class to work on a project. After nobody raised their hands to suggest an idea, I suggested an idea I had fumbled around with during the previous Christmas about a couple driving to marriage counselling who stop to argue, all the while a zombie apocalypse is happening around them, their fight making them oblivious to what's going on the in the real world (the wife compared her husband to a zombie after one appears at the front end of the car, staring at them like they're idiots).

People said "Sure, let's do this." but in retrospect, it doesn't seem like many of them meant it. For a myriad of reasons, including my naïveté and inexperience in leading a team like that, the project fell apart after one by one, classmates dropped out of the project like flies in a mist of fly spray. What was intended to be a whole class assignment, where everyone would be tested during the production and then have their progress/experience examined at year's end to judge whether they've passed or not, crumbled into nothingness. I like to think I had come up with an idea that could please everyone, and I wanted to do so. I wanted us all to be friends and have fun and make something and it would all be wonderful and isn't world peace grand?

As you may guess, it didn't happen like that. And something like that - despite my inexperience - rips something out of you. I was devoid of any creativity or motivation afterwards - scraping by with knowledge of the industry and barely-passable work made simply to tick boxes. But something still hovered over my head: this zombie idea.

The next year was 2012 Redux. I was going to attempt Serum one more time, and see if I had learned from my mistakes, as well as how to better judge people and the actions which they make. Thankfully, it wasn't a class-wide assignment, even though a good handful of the class helped out. However, my lethargy and ignorance remained, and it took one session of working out the two-week shoot with the first assistant director and production manager, both people who I respect and to whom I am indebted tremendously, and that's when the learning began.

Of course, I've jumped a few steps. Casting was simple as we didn't get many in to audition, but to this day I'm always smiling when I think of the cast, and so thankful they agreed to bring life to these wacky characters I dreamed up the year before. If any one of them are reading this, please know I am grateful for your time and energy and it will never be dismissed or forgotten.

The shoot actually went pretty well, for the most part. We went into production without one role cast, so a quick re-write enabled that character to be excised completely without hurting anything else. One should also note this began life as a six-part web series, which turned into five parts, which eventually turned into one short film (which you can watch at the end of this article).

After a two-week effort of shooting around campus, having actors pop in every day or so for their parts was rewarding. The creativity and energy was - there, but it wasn't electric. Again, I didn't know what I was doing, and in retrospect, I regret not communicating with the actors more during the shoot. Live and learn. Or learn and live, make your choice.

Even though the shoot went well, I hit another roadblock. There was an idea to integrate the five episodes into a "transmedia" experience, involving a mobile game/app and a website, amongst other things. While I did research many other transmedia projects and made every effort to enable Serum to become such a project, something always stopped me - a voice in the side of my head. I always met the multimedia class, worked out ideas, but it never struck me right. It was another down point, because the year ended with an assembly of the footage interspersed with title cards explaining what was going to take place, be it a level of a game, or something else, this and that, whatever. It wasn't crash-hot.

The next year rolls around, and I decide alright, I'm going to finish this damn thing. Of course, this is after months of continuing trying to make Serum a transmedia project. I eventually dug my heels in and said, like the famous Gallifreyan Doctor: NO MORE. Thus began a second block of shooting.

I knew I couldn't get every single actor back, so I had to put the feelers out first to see who could return to shoot some new footage to edit as wrap-arounds. I figured what was shot could be used as flashbacks while one character tells another how the zombie apocalypse began. Thankfully, I was able to get Alex Cameron as Red back. He even sported a longer hairstyle (for which he grew - I believe - for a season of a stage performance of Monty Python and the Holy Grail), which added a great sense of time passing by - as Red, missing one arm, surely wouldn't care about a haircut in the middle of an apocalypse?

But to make it make sense - I needed a new character. After seeing some colleague's videos involving one Lucy Pullen, I decided to meet with her and see if she'd like to be involved, and the character of Letty was born, a tough, curious engineer who had only heard bits and bobs of the beginning of the apocalypse, but wanted to hear the whole thing from the start. A great memory involved an hour or so talking to Lucy about the character, while I was keeping in my head a secret: she's a one-robot army which was going to play in future stories (detailed a few paragraphs from here; inspired by the anime Saikano).

After knowing exactly how to go about doing a production, the two-night shoot at Hollybank Reserve in Launceston (which included a campfire site) went relatively well. We had used wet bark and kindling on the campfire which resulted in a lot of smoke the first night (which wasn't fun), but the second night went swimmingly.

In accordance with the third year's requirements I had to think about promotion. As you'll see on the Irrational Imagination Facebook page and YouTube page, I was able to use some improvised scenes between Alex and Lucy as teasers, as well as some cool lobby cards to help advertise the film, all leading up to an Easter Sunday release online.

Alex Cameron and Lucy Pullen strike a pose.
Alex Cameron and Lucy Pullen strike a pose.

That was actually the fun bit - as a fan of movie trailers and campaigns I loved coming up with one of my own - for something I MADE! While it didn't bring in huge numbers for the final film, I'm still pleased with the film and wouldn't have changed anything about the advertising campaign, especially since it was the work of a one-man-army.

Before I reach a summary, one of the reasons I wanted to write this retrospective is to provide fans with an idea of where the promised sequels at the end of the film would have led to (they're teased at the very end of the credits)...

Serum: Edge of Extinction took Murdoch, Red, George and Letty (as well as a new character Kat) to the breaking point. After ages of zombie hell on earth, the group comes up with an idea to rescue Benny and reverse him with the formula he created to save Murdoch. The group thinks they'll first save him, and then replicate the formula and save Australia (the country is bordered off from the rest of the world). Problem is, he's basically Hitler, commanding an army of zombies to do his bidding. So how to capture a zombie dictator? They do it in a tense and exciting action sequence, of course!

After saving him from his own zombie army fortress, they come up to some awkward roadblocks in that Benny, tied to a chair in the middle of the abandoned VacciGen building which is serving as the team's hideout, pits the group against one another, making revelations about characters - including the fact Letty is actually a model of soldier robot created by VacciGen to fight wars on the behalf of human armies. A major element of the film would have involved the brother-sister relationship between Red and Letty, something spawned completely from Lucy and Alex's interplay on the shoot at Hollybank.

The team manages to pull together and try to save Benny. They inject him with the antiserum and ... nothing happens. Distraught, Murdoch exits the hideout, only to miss, after a few sombre minutes, Benny coming back to life, alive and well. Red runs out to tell Murdoch, who has run off. The only thing which stops Murdoch in his track in someone we don't see, as we smash cut to credits. I wanted a claustrophobic, tense character thriller. I love films where there's simply conflict, not a good vs evil story, and the idea that bringing the antagonist into the environment makes our protagonists fight each other is too cool an idea not to explore, and add to that the antagonist is actually a good guy gone bad? Perfection, to me. It would have been similar to the Evil Dead remake merged with the penultimate Twilight film, Breaking Dawn Part 1, so if you've seen them, you'll get an idea of where I was going.

The third film, Serum: Future's War, involved the team searching for Murdoch in the Australian wasteland, but also involved a lot of introspection on Murdoch's part, especially since alternate versions of himself have travelled through time and space to help our Murdoch save the future. Yep, you read that right: time travel. And interdimensional travel.

I wanted to go bonkers with a third film, involving multiple Murdochs having hilarious philosophical discussions with each other, and then providing awesome comic book action scenes with Red, Letty, Benny and George. One of the major plot points, however, is that each version of Murdoch is being killed off one by one, which turns out to be a rogue Murdoch who was sent from the future of this world, the world the characters and the audience knows, to kill the alternate Murdochs and ensure the dark future comes to pass.

Of course, our Murdoch kills Evil Murdoch and, through some scene which I've still never worked out a reason for, hundreds of aeroplanes containing a gaseous version of the antiserum appear out of nowhere being piloted by hundreds of parallel universe Murdochs fly over Australia to gas the country back to humanity. The final scene was to be the first birthday of a baby of Murdoch's in the park on a bright, sunny day.

It's great to get those ideas out in the open, even if they are just ideas in a retrospective, but I've kept them locked up long enough and now's the right time to let them go.

I've learned a lot through this project and it remains a project which is near and dear to me. If I ever get the chance to make the sequels, I'll of course jump at the chance. If I got the chance to make the sequels with the cast returning, I'd jump over the freakin' moon, even if just to give them pay for their work. Outside of these sequel ideas, I use to think of a huge Marvel Cinematic Universe-like structure for a load of other ideas, but this short film was enough hard work, how would I accomplish a mammoth undertaking of a shared universe if it took three years to make twenty minutes? For now, Serum will be a three-parter, and now (technically), all three parts are out there and maybe, now...just maybe, I can let this rest in peace.

Of course, there's always the chance it'll smash out of its grave and return from the dead, in which case I'll welcome it back with open arms.

Pssst: check out the IMDb trivia page and movie connections page for some fun facts!


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