By SHAWN MACOMBER
It’s hard to believe it has been more than 15 years since Marcus Dunstan and his writing partner Patrick Melton won the third season of Project Greenlight with their screenplay for the wild horror-comedy FEAST. Now, after helming two COLLECTOR films and scripting several SAWs and FEASTs, Dunstan takes a left turn into heartfelt teen comedy/horror with his latest directorial venture, UNHUMAN, once again scripted with Melton.
Seeing digital release this Friday, June 3 from Paramount Home Entertainment, the EPIX/Blumhouse Television production assembles a group of teens with various issues and conflicts, then plunges them into a field trip gone fatally awry when their bus crashes into the middle of a zombie outbreak. With their lives on the line, the kids have to overcome what sets them apart and embrace their common humanity to survive. Dunstan spoke with RUE MORGUE about how the pandemic, happy accidents, memories of surviving high school and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF all came together in a perfect (blood)storm.
As a writer and director, you’ve frolicked through some very interesting and diverse genre playgrounds, but with the velocity and aesthetic of UNHUMAN, it feels like a lot of strands and elemental building blocks of your career are coalescing. Is that how it feels to you?
Uh, it absolutely is. I actually appreciate the heck outta that question because I have nothing but love for this movie. And the reason is entirely based upon the experience. You know, like everyone else, I was stuck inside for two years. On the bench–or on the couch, more like it. So the opportunity to create again with a group of people I absolutely love was an adrenaline rush–touching the third rail in the best way. I mean, it was a difficult film to make, but I had gratitude for how tough it was because the truth is, I had started to wonder whether it would ever happen again. The best way to put it may be that making UNHUMAN was like climbing a mountain…and at the end, all I wanted was for there to be more mountain. This film and cast refilled my soul.
Not to get too metaphysical about it, but did that soul revival help you transcend creatively?
Yes. And I would say that was in no small part due to the amount of creative freedom and trust bestowed upon myself, the cast, and the production to really push and punch above our weight and swing for the fences and…well, whatever sports metaphor you wanna throw at it probably fits [laughs]. We had to earn that trust as we went along, of course, but that was in no way to the detriment of the creation, you know? The film is better for it.
It doesn’t hurt that this is a piece of kaleidoscopic genre art that also has a ton of heart.
We started this project with the foundation that we were going to acknowledge that we all survived high school. We were gonna go back to that experience, deposit a little bit of the lingering hurt in the film–and then bring back a lot of hope. And we were, I think, blessed because of that.
I’ll tell you one story by way of example. There was a shot–a single shot. This shot was not necessary. This shot was not vital. This shot was not even convenient. It was a slow-motion shot of two friends embracing with a big hard source light that meant we were signing up to digitally erase the stand that light was coming from. That was so we could create a lens flare in the dead center of the frame that makes the moment a bit ethereal, and we’d really get to let the underlying sentiment resonate. It’s a shot that has no business being in a typical horror movie or teen comedy in the first place, and then there was rain and a lightning strike that forced us to stop filming. But through this combination of trust, dexterity, hope, talent, speed, etc., we pushed forward and got it. And I thank the production for giving us that shot, because when it shows up, it lands. And I also noticed that they put it in the doggone trailer, which is cool [laughs].
The happy accidents are really where the magic happens, right?
It’s what you hope for. You hope for as many of those moments as you can get. Every now and again, the camera gets to take over from the screenplay and put a little button on a sentiment. That’s so fun and rewarding.
I love a slow burn or a weird, ethereal narrative–but I also really appreciated UNHUMAN’s sense of urgency and velocity. It’s just nuts from the jump. Was that always the intention?
Yeah. Reason being, we were attempting to negotiate terms with a pulse rate. I didn’t want to go into any valleys for very long. No doldrums. We wanted to earn a pulse rate and keep it up—to keep surprising the audience and twisting, twisting, twisting in the narrative. ’Cause in the stimulus of most horror movies, an audience can start to see and predict a pattern. To be given this opportunity to shatter a prediction event—thanks, in part, to a beautiful twist in the original draft of the script by Paul Soter–was manna from heaven.
So once you go down that path, if a character is gonna say something, it better be a new, fresh line—something that is galvanizing or wickedly humorous or shocking. Or it better be in a room that’s got an outrageous component. Or if anyone’s quiet, it better be because we’re seeing our version of a shark on land which is like [here Dunstan retrieves a decapitated head cast and sharks it through the air]. Then, OK, we’ve got something to keep people from folding their laundry and missing a key bit of intel.
Were there any particular cinematic touchstones you looked to while making UNHUMAN?
The biggest one, actually, would be that moment Cameron has to himself in the art museum in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. The horror-movie realization of that was in our room with the mannequins where everyone is transitioning from a stereotype of a teen comedy into the more dramatic life-or-death-stakes rules of a horror movie. And they’re looking at versions of themselves and the surrounding stasis, and realizing that’s maybe all they’ll ever be. Maybe something knows that they’re in this space, physically and otherwise–something that plans to have a hand in their fate–and, oh, now what are you gonna do?
I loved that. Like the embrace, I’m glad we were granted permission to shoot that scene. We’re giving some hugs in UNHUMAN back to the stories and moments that got us here, that got us through.