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Pittsburgh filmmakers recruit area 'zombies' for production

| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 3:50 p.m.

CLYDE--Rich and Connie Lowers live in a small house tucked away behind the lake in this small village. They love to entertain guests, and are known for their annual Fourth of July picnic.

Now, they may be known for more than just that. Hoards of guests milled around their property last weekend, snacking on food they provided from the sandwich shop they run and trying to dodge the drizzle that occasionally came down from the skies.

But these weren't typical house guests. These were zombies.

The couple opened their home to an independent filmmaker, Gargoyle Entertainment of Pittsburgh, to shoot a series of scenes for its next production, a zombie horror flick called "12/24."

The Lowers home sits behind what is known as Holiday Lake. According to Rich Lowers, the area originally was set up as a vacation spot in the 1960s.

A longtime friend, Ryan Bonacci, has attended many July Fourth picnics at the Lowers home. So, when his brother, Matt, a partner in Gargoyle Entertainment, was scouting rural locations for filming, Ryan suggested the Clyde property.

"They came up, we had a meeting, and it was a done deal," Rich Lowers said.

"We were looking for something very much like this--in the middle of nowhere, something scenic, where we can shoot until 5 in the morning without complaint," said Anthony Colliano, director.

"I didn't know what it was going to involve, but I've known Ryan for a lot of years," Lowers remarked. "Matt and Anthony were very professional. We discussed incidentals. And Connie and I thought, why not• It definitely gave us a new perspective. It was fun. And it was something I don't imagine I'll ever be able to do again.

"We'll remember it the rest of our lives."

"They have been so great to us," remarked Daniela Pampena, script supervisor for the movie. "We are so appreciative."

"They've treated us like kings," Colliano agreed.

The homeowners made sure to get the autographs of the film's stars.

"I think we'll see their names in the future" up on the big screen, Rich Lowers noted. "I enjoyed meeting all of these people. It was a really great experience."

He said he and his wife grew fond of many of the film's actors and crew members over their short stay.

Not only did the couple open up their home to the film crews, the owners of the Delmont Subway also acted as unofficial caterers.

Last Friday was the fourth day of filming at the Lowers home, and Colliano estimated he'll need another six to wrap up at the location. The production team already has completed scenes at a movie theater in Bridgeville and will finish the film with shoots at West Mifflin High School and a church (not yet chosen) where they will film a climactic midnight Mass scene.

When all is said and done, Colliano estimates his crew will have put in 16 days of shooting at different sites.

"I thought it was going to be a lot smaller than what it turned out to be," Lowers indicated of the production. "It's different when you see them doing it."

The film stars Tiffany Shepis, of "Nightmare Man," and Scot Davis, who can be seen in the recent film "Unrest." Both of those films were included in "Eight Films to Die For" (otherwise known as "Horrorfest"), marketed by After Dark Films as the eight scariest independent movies of the year.

Also making appearances are Pittsburgh's Sam Nicotero ("Mothman Prophecies") and WCW wrestler Maestro.

Colliano wears many hats in the production of "12/24." Aside from sitting in the director's chair, he is also the script writer, a co-producer with his partner, Matt Bonacci, and cinematographer.

Originally from West Mifflin, but now living in Monessen, Colliano has been a longtime fan of horror flicks and has been greatly influenced by some of the greats, including John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino.

As producer, Bonacci has provided the financing required for filming, searches out the locations and makes all of the contracts for the actors and crew members.

"I make sure everyone has what they need," he said.

Any modern horror movie has its fair share of special effects, and Eddie Daniels has provided those in abundance for production of "12/24." He has partnered with Colliano for the computer-generated effects in several other Gargoyle Entertainment projects, working from his home studio in Bethel Park.

For "12/24," Daniels has been supplementing shots by "painting things that were not there in real life," such as adding in background characters.

He's also created many blood and gore effects, expanding on what the props crew has done. His touch can be seen in an important car crash scene, and in the violent--and gory--demise of several zombies.

"I think almost every scene, it will all go through me eventually," he said.

"12/24" will be Gargoyle Entertainment's sixth film production. Others include the features "Reality," "Earl Grey," which was recognized at Pittsburgh's 48-Hour Film Festival last year, " Family Portrait," which was chosen to play at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival in October 2007, "Retina," and "Front Page."

"People love horror movies," Colliano said of the theme that runs through most of his films. He said '12/24' is unique among many other zombie movies because it takes place at Christmas.

The plot has similarities to the Oscar-winning Best Picture "Crash," in that it follows a variety of characters, branching off into different story lines, before showing how their lives are intertwined. Colliano had originally written it as a mob movie before the decision that a horror/zombie flick was a better fit.

The film follows a husband and wife, two cops and the drug dealers they're trailing, and a 12-year-old girl, among others, as they try to escape a mass of zombies that have invaded the area on Christmas Eve.

Lowers was offered a role in the movie, in a cameo as Santa Claus.

"I backed out at the last minute," he said. "There was just so much to do, so much going on."

Aside from a few slight damage issues--trampled mud and some breaks and spills inside the house--Lowers said there were no lingering effects from the filming. Gargoyle Entertainment has promised to reimburse the couple for any damage, he noted, but it was nothing serious.

"The rain didn't help," he noted, with a laugh.

A late-night downpour ruined a zombie fight scene that was in the works and it had to be reshot the following day, once the weather cleared.

The rain last Friday may also have kept many potential zombies from showing up for the shoot. But as the crew resumed filming Saturday, they stumbled upon some recruits. The lights and action attracted some neighbors who gathered to watch, but they ended up in the makeup chair themselves, transforming into the undead.

Colliano and Bonacci used craigslist and MySpace to put out a casting call for extras to play the zombies.

Two local men answered that call, making their movie debuts in "12/24."

Ryan Shellenbarger, 27, of Clymer (originally from Penn Run), and friend Chad Green, 27, of Indiana, were intrigued when they came across an advertisement for extras needed to film a movie locally.

"We stumbled upon the craigslist ad for zombie extras," Green said. "And I thought, 'Gee, that sounds like fun! I've never done anything like this before.'"

Shellenbarger was searching craigslist for employment opportunities when he came across the ad in February.

"I was just searching for something to do and this sounded like fun," he said.

Both Green and Shellenbarger are longtime fans of the zombie movie genre. Both men named the original "Dawn of the Dead" as one of their favorite flesh-eating flicks.

After contacting the producers to let them know they were interested, Green and Shellenbarger received an e-mail detailing where they were to report for the first day of filming and what they should wear and bring.

Last Friday was Green's first day on set. He knew he wouldn't have any lines, but concluded, "I'm probably going to be doing some shambling, some chasing--you know, zombie stuff."

"Life is a simple as a zombie," Shellenbarger agreed. "With any luck, I'll be chewing on someone at some point."

Lowers and his wife weren't the only ones who offered their property for the shoot. His brother and neighbor, John Berkavich, also played host to some filming. Berkavich additionally helped the crew by preparing the locations for filming and hauling equipment.

"It went well," he indicated of the shoot.

Berkavich's three children, Isabella, 7, Alexandria, 10, and John, 14, all were transformed into zombie extras for the weekend film shoot. They were given the milky-white pallor of the undead, along with a few bruises and skin blemishes, for their scenes by the lake and in the nearby woods.

Berkavich acknowledged he initially had reservations about exposing his kids to the potentially scary set of a horror movie, but he eventually decided it would be a great experience for them.

"I thought it would be a good idea, to show the kids how movies are made and that there really aren't zombies walking around," he said. "So when they see a scary movie, they'll know not to be afraid, seeing first-hand the transformation of those people behind the masks."

When Lowers told him about his house and land being turned into a movie set, Berkavich was immediately intrigued, being a fan of horror movies himself.

"Me and my son have always liked them," he said.

Colliano hopes to have the film completed by Aug. 15, in time to submit the finished product to Pittsburgh film festivals. To save time, he's been editing as he goes, taking the previous day's footage and filtering out the shots he knows he wants to use.

"We're just getting our name out right now," Colliano said of his company. "Our goal is to break out sooner or later."

And he has high hopes of doing so, particularly with his penchant for the bloody and gory.

"Horror sells," he observed.

"They seem to have a good grasp of what's going on and I think it has potential," Lowers said of the movie.

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