DOOMSDAY is the new post-apocalyptic thiller from writer-director Neil Marshal, who gave us DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT. Although the visceral impact of those two horror films earned him honorary membership in the so-called “Splat Pack,” Marshall films’ evince a stronger narrative drive: they are dramas about group dynamics breaking down under extreme pressure; the pressure just happens to take the form of werewolves or mutant cave dwellers.
DOOMSDAY may not be a horror film, but it utilizes a similar narrative strategy, with a small, elite team sent into dangerous territory, where they encounter brutal danger beyond anything they could have anticipated. Set thirty years in the future, the premise is that Scotland has been walled off to prevent the spread of a plague the broke out in 2008. When the disease re-emerges in London, the Chief of Domestic Security (Bob Hoskins) assigns Major Sinclair (Rhona Mitra, previously seen in HOLLOW MAN and SLEEPWALKERS) to lead a unit into the quarantined territory in search of Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell, Dr. Loomis in the HALLOWEEN remake), who may have found a cure. The assignment is a bitter homecoming for Sinclair, who was evacuated out of Scotland as a child, leaving her mother behind. Like Marlow searching for Kurtz, she heads deep into the heart of darkness, encountering wild savagery along the way, in the form of the remnants of society abandoned by the government – the immune survivors who have fought tooth and nail to stay alive in a land reduced to a primitive medieval state.
It’s all much bigger and more elaborate than Marshall’s previous films. In an exclusive interview, the writer-director sat down and discussed the switch from horror to sci-fi action-adventure, promising that DOOMSDAY would still deliver the blood-and-guts thrills his fans have come to expect.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Your first two features were relatively modest horror films, with small casts and limited locations. How big a jump is it from werewolves and cave dwellers to the apocalypse?
NEIL MARSHALL: It has been a huge leap. Before this, I was just dealing with a cast of eight/nine people maximum stuck in a single location for the rest of the movie. This one is suddenly – bam! – whole countries. There’s fifty or more speaking parts; I’m dealing with thousands of extras, logistical action sequences, explosions, car chases – the works. It’s been an adventure.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Was it hard to get someone to put up the bigger budget? Obviously, you had proved you could make a horror film, but did the men who write the checks trust you with something bigger?
NEIL MARSHALL: It became a bit more tricky because obviously I was taking a step up. The budget for this was ten times bigger than what I worked with before. But the guys who financed it just shared my passion for the kind of films I was going to pay homage to with this: the post-apocalyptic movies from the ‘80s, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, MAD MAX, THE WARRIORS. We all shared that same vision. Luckily, they came on board on the basis of that and trusted my ability to pull it off.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: A bigger budget removes one kind of compromise from the table, but does it introduce another? Did you feel pressure – from yourself or elsewhere – to make sure that this film would have more of a wide appeal, so that it could earn its money back? In other words, to make a film that would appeal to more than the horror audience.
NEIL MARSHALL: It’s not a horror movie, but I haven’t totally abandoned my roots. There’s definitely a degree of blood-and-guts throughout the film; I can’t resist that myself. I love doing that in movies, and using physical makeup effects and such like is all thrilling. Not so much CG. There are CG elements in it but nothing massive, nothing compared to other action movies. I wanted to herald back to that kind of old-school film-making. It’s a big mix.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Do you consider yourself – if not a horror director – than a genre director?
NEIL MARSHALL: I guess so. It’s a pretty broad label – there are plenty of genres out there. So far I’ve done the horror genre, and this is delving into science-fiction to a degree, unless post-apocalyptic is a genre unto itself, which I guess it is. Therefore, it’s that genre as well, and it’s an action movie. So I delve into various genres. I like to mix genres as much as possible.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You certainly did with DOG SOLDIERS, which is as much an action movie as a horror movie.
NEIL MARSHALL: Action is what I love directing. It’s what I want to see in movies; I love the thrill of action film-making. With DOG SOLDIERS, I wanted to combine a war movie with a werewolf movie. It’s fun!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: I ask about being a genre director because viewers and critics like to put labels on filmmakers and their work, but I wonder whether it’s something that really concerns you.
NEIL MARSHALL: It’s not conscious, not when I’m making it. At the end of the day I’m just trying to make the best film possible and trying to tell the story as truthfully as possible. Genre conventions just go with the flow.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In a way, your first two films are really dramas – stories of small groups who may be skilled and even well-trained but who find themselves in situations where their training may not be enough.
NEIL MARSHALL: I’m only interested in doing stories if I’m involved in the characters, because the characters take you through the story. With DOG SOLDIERS, I told the cast, “This is a soldiers movie with werewolves; it’s not a werewolf movie with soldiers.” It was absolutely basic to me that these soldiers had to be realistic, three-dimensional, involving characters, and their story had to be something that we wanted to go with. The same with THE DESCENT: The through-line was that it was Sara’s story, about the loss of her family and eventually the loss of her mind. In DOOMSDAY, the emotional core to the movie is Major Sinclair’s story, which starts off in the present as a little girl and is resolved thirty years in the future. She finally finds her homecoming and redemption after this very long journey that she’s had. That’s the emotional core to the film, and everything else grows around that. So the characters are very important to me.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: So when you write, do you come up with the characters first or the situation and then put the character into it?
NEIL MARSHALL: What triggered the story…I actually came up with the concept five years ago, just as a story idea. I was born and grew up in New Castle, in the north east of England, and I lived for seven years in the northwest of England, and between the two stretches the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. This is like the Great Wall of China of the Roman age – a great wall to block off Scotland. I came up with this idea of what reason would they rebuild Hadrian’s Wall and block off Scotland again? What could possibly happen? So the virus thing came into that. At the same time, I had this vision of these futuristic soldiers with high-tech weaponry and body armour and helmets – clearly from the future – facing a medieval knight on horseback. What film could possibly exist where that image could happen – that didn’t involve time travel? So I said, ‘Okay, take this quarantined Scotland, leave it for thirty years to simmer, and what if these futuristic soldiers go into Scotland and find these people living in castles, riding around on horseback and dressed in armor?’ The two things suddenly collided – boom! Then the story came from that.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is there any cultural significance, which might be lost on American audiences, to picking on Scotland?
NEIL MARSHALL: None. That’s just my geography; it’s what I know. Also, for this story to work, it has to be plausible. Since the Romans built this wall 2000 years ago, I’m sure we could do the same thing now; it’s not completely impossible. Geographically, it’s logical; it works. So I thought that’s the only place you could do it. You could do it between Canada and the U.S., but it seems to me that that border is way too big to make it happen. So this works for the story. And I like writing about that home turf, actually. But there’s also the medieval aspect of it. Scotland has all these castles that are still standing today, and they will still be standing in thirty years time. So there’s thE idea that even in the future this past will exist, so I could make the mideval world happen as well.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: When working in a genre that has produced films you have enjoyed, like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and MAD MAX, do you find yourself second-guessing your decisions – trying to avoid things that have been seen before?
NEIL MARSHALL: Usually you take those as a stepping off point, the inspiration. What we created is totally new – a world that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. You bring in your creative team and set them to work on it and say, “Okay, take that as a reference point but don’t copy it…”
So what we did, because we wanted this tribal experience…I thought “Let’s go back in history, and they’ve got the clans.” These tribal clans or whatever. I thought “Let’s bring tribal theory into that.” These people are scavenging off the remains of Glasgow. They’ve got access to everything, books and all the stuff that was left there. And they may have seen [pictures of] African or South American tribes with tattoos; this gives a unanimity to the tribe. It also looks fierce; it looks terrifying. That’s what they want to achieve. So I figure they’re culling bits and pieces of culture and using it to their advantage. We brought in tattoos and scarification – all kinds of tribal stuff from around the world to apply to these things.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Since you came up with the idea for DOOMSDAY five years ago, we’ve had 28 DAYS LATER and 28 WEEKS LATER, which also had Britain decimated by a plague. Your film is not really similar, but what would you say to someone who sees the ad and thinks, “Oh, that sounds like…”
NEIL MARSHALL: Well, the big difference is that our plague kills people. It doesn’t turn them into zombies or mutants or whatever. This is an authentic plague. Also, it is just the backdrop to the story. It merely is the set-up. The rest of the story is about survivors and such-like. That’s the big difference.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: I think that idea does not come through in the commercials, or perhaps we’ve just come to expect certain things from a film with a virus. You assume that when the elite military team goes into Scotland, they will encounter infected people who are monsters.
NEIL MARSHALL: It’s almost become movie lore over the past ten years or whatever that virus equals zombies. Every film that’s had a virus in it has produced zombies or mutants of some kind. Everything from DAWN OF THE DEAD to 28 WEEKS LATER to I AM LEGEND or RESIDENT EVIL. It’s all about the virus creates zombies. This film’s not like that. It’s more like OUTBREAK – it’s about a virus that actually kills people. We wanted to keep that grounded in reality, because this is inspired by headlines about the SARS virus, avian flu and such-like, much more than anything that’s going to turn you into a blood-sucking freak.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: So the heroes in the film are not facing infected mutants; they’re facing a primitive society that has emerged since the plague killed off most of the population.
NEIL MARSHALL: They’re scavengers; they’re survivors. These are people who are immune to the virus, and they’re just trying to survive off this ruined, empty, devoid land, and make of it the best they can. But they’re also conflict between different factions. So that’s made them savage. But also their lineage is that, when people got locked behind the wall, things got really bad in that first six months, when they were left to die and the food ran out, things go pretty brutal, and these are the off-spring of that group.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: So they may be the antagonists in the film, but they have a legitimate grievance.
NEIL MARSHALL: Definitely, the ones who are left to die are the victims. Just because they’ve lost the plot somewhere doesn’t change the fact that they were treated abominably. But it’s a difficult situation because from the government’s point of view at the time, they had little choice, but it still doesn’t make it any better. I like that incongruity. What else could they possibly do? They had to sacrifice some to save the rest. But it still makes the people locked behind the wall victims.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: As a consequence, will the antagonists engender any sympathy?
NEIL MARSHALL: I think that’s entirely on your point of view as a viewer, whether you sympathize with the characters. They express themselves in a pretty brutal way, but they’ve got a legitimate gripe, so what do you do?
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Genre movies tend to separate the Good Guys from the Bad Guys pretty clearly, but it sounds as if you want to paint in shades of gray.
NEIL MARSHALL: Very much so. There are shades of gray. Even the people outside the wall, the people in London, are the worst of the lot, manipulating things to their own ends. It plays around with those conventions a lot.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You used a similar strategy in THE DESCENT. We identify with Sara because she is the central character, but I’m not sure everything she does is really justified.
NEIL MARSHALL: I wanted to play around with that character, and when she turns on her friend at the end of the movie, you don’ know whether to side with her or not. But her friend has also behaved kind of strangely and she’s has behaved really, really badly, but she has also behaved heroically as well. That’s human nature. Not everybody is good all the time or bad all the time.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: One of the interesting things about that film is that the character drama and the suspense of the cave exploration are totally engrossing for the first half, long before the monsters arrive. Did you ever think you could make the movie without resorting to the creatures?
NEIL MARSHALL: I always wanted to do a monster movie in a cave, but it was “How do I incorporate them into the story.” But I also felt that I couldn’t sustain the claustrophobia or whatever it was that made the first half so great. I don’t think I could have sustained that for the rest of the film and kept up that same level. I had to take it to the next level. My whole intention was to take a situation that was as bad as it could possibly be – and then make it worse! That was always the idea.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Are you working with a similar structure in DOOMSDAY?
NEIL MARSHALL: It doesn’t quite work on the same structure, but I use the same principle of taking it to the next level and the next level, until you just can’t bear anymore!