by Lucy Leitner
Even though The Other Side is their first full-length feature, Orchard Place Productions knows how to put on a damn movie premiere. Drinks at a private bar, prix fixe dinner, red carpet, photo ops in front of a The Other Side backdrop — the VIP event Saturday night at Latitude 360 was a real movie premiere in Pittsburgh. The opening remarks of from co-directors Chris Niespodzianski and Ray Mongelli and producers John Niespodzianski and Christopher Murphy even included some news — they’ve just signed with Cyfuno Ventures to handle distribution.
The quick introduction opened a screening of the film in the venue’s comedy club that was packed with cast and crew and supporters of the ambitious local zombie flick.
Ash (Christine Starkey) is missing. That wouldn’t be that much of a concern — she’s disappeared before — but she hasn’t taken any of her many meds. Her implied history of mental illness could explain why Ash is disoriented in the woods, with blood dripping from a head injury and no memory of how she got there, only a vague sense of dread that something is after her. So she follows Chuck (Chucky Hendershot), a mysterious stranger who claims he’s being chased.
Ash’s recently un-estranged husband Chris (Chad Conley) isn’t too worried until he hears that more locals have been reported missing. And in a town as small as Elkwood, even just a few missing persons is enough to cause a stir. 42 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Elkwood needs to be small to work with the film’s budget, and small-town tropes act as conduits for the plot. Every character has a sordid history with one another. Whether that history is necessary is a matter of debate, as none of the pre-existing story lines prove truly integral to the current drama.
There’s Greg (Jack Davis) the parole officer with a haunted past; Chris and Ash’s mildly traumatized daughter Cami (Michelle Coben); Natalie (Danielle Lozeau) Ash’s shrill, combative sister; Joe (Rob Liscio) the town criminal/husband of Natalie/enemy of Chris; power-mad mayor (Christopher Murphy); and Elkwood’s own version of Andy Brennan (Matt Bright).
The film examines what a once-unfaithful husband and father does when the zombies arrive, how an everyman re-evaluates his priorities in the face of zombies. The body count is high and the cell phone towers haven’t even gone down yet. How many casualties will Elkwood lose to shock, fear, and confusion?
The fruit-swatting crazy mayor refuses to acknowledge that there’s a problem, but his “all is well” edict serves more as an affirmation of his ruthless ambition than as a mechanism to advance the plot. A meeting with police chief Dodson (Benjamin Sheeler) quickly escalates to a screaming match. Is it something in the fertilizer in Elkwood that causes emotions to get out of hand as quickly as a San Diego news team brawl? Every conversation with Natalie becomes a verbal bout of Frank and Estelle Costanza magnitude, a tense encounter with an old football buddy goes from talk to taser within a minute, and a gun is always the first weapon used.
With a budget less than $50,000, The Other Side is an ambitious undertaking and directors Niespodzianski and Mongelli never seem in over their heads or try to exceed their means. Cinematography was impressive, with some shots looking like they were run through Instagram. Elaborate special effects are virtually non-existent, eliminating the possibility of looking fake. Camera work was clever, with close-up shots used to convey a full school population with relatively few adolescent extras and locations that were likely not what they were supposed to be (i.e., a golf course). The modest budget also led to a darkly comedic moment in which the aftermath of an encounter with zombies is shown in lieu of the massacre itself.
The film has a twist ending that was the entire thrust of the eponymous short that won the 2012 Pittsburgh Zombie Shorts Festival. While the twist was more effective and surprising in the short (there’s a reason why O. Henry wrote short stories instead of full-length novels — it’s difficult to sustain a secret for 90 minutes or a novel, unless you pull a Chuck Palahniuk and place a twist at the end of every act), it proved a unique look at zombie films. And they never cheated the audience. There were hints, so astute watchers could figure it out.
The Other Side moved as quickly as many of its zombies through the opening stages of an undead apocalypse in the microcosm that is Elkwood, PA. Is the virus an epidemic with global implications or something that is cataclysmic merely to this small town? We don’t know for sure (though there are hints that the disaster may be the result of local greed), and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Ambiguity renders the probable villain more antagonistic than bad. Punishment is equally non-committal as Chris Niespodzianski’s screenplay is to the zombie origin sub-plot, making its inclusion dubious. The heart of The Other Side beats hardest when handling how an everyman in Everytown, USA tosses the pre-existing drama with the living aside and fights for his and his family’s survival. The movie poster asks, “Where will you be when it begins?” Though we will most likely be in different surroundings, we will all face the same challenges. It’s about uniting the living against the threat that has risen from the dead.
Check out The Other Side on December 6 at the Hollywood Theater. This unique “concert and a movie” event features performances by four bands that provided original songs for the film — Venus In Furs, Fist Fight In The Parking Lot, Homicide Black, and Supervoid.
Pre-order the DVD and the all-Pittsburgh soundtrack from Orchard Place Productions.