End Times writer/director Jim Towns understands the long shadow and influence of George A. Romero. Pittsburgh-born, Towns grew up with Romero’s films and the impossible-to-escape impact of Night of the Living Dead especially. Towns’ latest feature is a post-apocalyptic story that’s more character driven. Yes, there are zombies that gnaw on flesh, but like the maestro’s work, Towns is more interested in how characters react once the world collapses.
Towns’ latest has also been compared to The Last of Us, and we talked to him about that, along with Romero’s influence and all things zombies.
1428 Elm: What made you want to create a zombie movie?
Jim Towns: For starters, I’m a horror filmmaker from Pittsburgh. The zombie film is part of our DNA. If you grow up there, Night of the Living Dead looms very large in the zeitgeist of horror in Pittsburgh. We’re known for it. In a way, it made me want to stay away from the genre. I’m a gigantic Romero fan. That’s the wellspring from which all modern zombie culture comes. Before that, it was Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, or moves like I Walked with a Zombie. Romero took that and flipped it on its ear and created a brand-new subgenre.
I moved to L.A. from Pittsburgh in about 2005. Right before then, Canada had its avian flu issue. I started writing a film called Pandemic that was intended to be filmed in Pittsburgh. That didn’t really happen. A few years later, when Jamie Bernadette and I started talking about doing a project together, I was presented with a couple locations that made me think there was a way I could tell a post-apocalyptic story within greater Los Angeles, which is an enormously, densely populated place. I took the Pandemic script, revisited it, and updated it to something I thought was worthy of doing at that point. That’s how it came to be.
I actually wrote half of the film so we could film in this one location while it still existed. It was being torn down almost as we filmed. We filmed that first half and then took a hiatus while I wrote the rest of the movie.
1428 Elm: How much did Romero or Tom Savini, another Pittsburgh guy, influence you specifically?
Jim Towns: Night was probably the first one of Romero’s films I saw. It would show on TV. It was more or less family friendly, even in the 80s. It took me a while to get around to watching things like Martin and Dawn of the Dead. Creepshow was a big deal for me. I was a big comic book fan, too. I loved the old EC Comics.
In terms of non-horror movies, Knightriders is one of my favorite films that Romero made. It’s really about his decision to not go Hollywood and stay independent. It’s echoed in the film. Ed Harris’ performance in that is off the charts. It’s amazing. Savini is great in it, too. There’s also a crazy crossover. Romero worked on The Mr. Rogers Show. Mr. Rogers is one of the other things we’re very famous for in Pittsburgh, one of our cultural exports. Mr. Rogers went to see a screening of Night of the Living Dead when it came out. He was really impressed with it and impressed by Duane Jones as an African American lead, along with Romero’s decision to put a character like that in charge during that time, a time fraught with racial tension.
You can’t escape the influence. At some point, we had a string of Halloween-type costume shops in Pittsburgh. There was a whole legal thing. Someone reported to police that a real body was in one of these costume stores. Police had to investigate. It ended up being one of Savini’s creations. The idea that he created something like that, something so realistic, I thought, that’s what I want to do. That’s great. It’s like a magic trick. I thought it was wonderful!
1428 Elm: The zombies look great in your film. Can you talk about creating the zombies? I assume they were mostly practical effects.
Jim Towns: I really tried to take a step back and dissect, at least from pseudo-scientific sense, what would make sense if someone was a zombie. What chemical and biological process would happen? I really went into some research about voodoo and zombie belief systems from the Caribbean, too. But what I really started thinking about was a virus that would kill the body from the inside out. Your organs would shut down. The brain would start atrophying. From a creative standpoint, for me at least, you have to start with just enough logic to justify.
I talked to the actors about neurological disorders to try to give them anything original and not just a shambling, growling thing. From the make-up standpoint, I talked about liquification from inside the body. I did some visual research I didn’t want to share, but I think my make-up artists did their own because they knew what I was talking about. I wanted to get it all to a point where you buy it, where there’s nothing magical or science fiction about it. It just seems like something that could happen if every bit of your body’s chemistry and electricity started going wrong.
1428 Elm: Both Claire (Bernadette James) and Freddie (Craig Stark) are tough characters with their own trauma. Can you talk about, from a writing standpoint, the inspiration for your film’s leads?
Jim Towns: I’ve done one or two projects in my life that were two-handers, and I always like that. My second film that I co-directed with Mike McKown is called Stiff. It’s about a suicidal office worker who falls in love with the woman at the suicide crisis hotline, who happens to be a necrophiliac. They create a double bargain. I just like that handoff, when you can get two really strong actors that can carry 90 minutes or two hours of entertainment. I was lucky to have Jamie Bernadette and Craig Stark in those roles in End Times.
Thematically, I thought what needed to happen was that the characters’ inner desolation needed to echo the desolation around them. In Freddie’s case, he finds his daughter already having gone over. He has to make the choice to kill her to protect himself. In Claire’s case, she runs into the wrong people first before she meets Freddie. She’s assaulted, and her life is turned inside out as well. I wanted them to both start as empty souls so that when they met, slowly, they could rebuild themselves into new people. It’s a partnership with these two characters to find a reason to live again. It would be so easy in that situation to give in to despair. You need a reason to go on.
1428 Elm: From a writing standpoint, and without spoiling anything, did you always have the last act in mind in terms of the character arcs? It’s quite an emotional ending.
Jim Towns: Yes, absolutely. One of my favorite films is Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. If anyone is not familiar with the movie, there’s an older samurai character that is basically the inspiration for Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and the young apprentice. I think there’s always this expectation that the old person trains the new person. In Seven Samurai, there’s this great moment where the older character looks at his friend, a veteran warrior, and they say, “We lived again.” There’s a fatalism about that. I thought about that.
1428 Elm: End Times has been compared to The Last of Us. I think it’s because of the Claire/Freddie dynamic and Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. How do you feel about the comparison?
1428 Elm: We shot before the pandemic happened, so this was before The Last of Us came out as a series. Ironically, Damon Shelton, who is our visual effects artist, actually worked on The Last of Us video game. When he came in to do the effects, he said it reminded him a lot of the game he worked on. I do take the comparison as a compliment. I have not watched The Last of Us yet because I know it exists in a slightly similar space as End Times, but I look forward to seeing it at some point. I don’t know if I believe there are only seven stories. I’m not sure if that’s accurate or not, at least for me. But I feel if I did something independent and told a certain type of story, and then see larger studios doing similar stories, maybe that’s a sign I tapped into something, that I have a clue about what some people might want to see.
1428 Elm: Was the garden group in your film based on anything specific? They reminded me of Charles Manson and his followers.
Jim Towns: We filmed those scenes up in Laurel Canyon, up in some of those secluded areas. Where we filmed was not immensely far away from where the Manson murders happened. I was thinking about that, Jim Jones, and any kind of cultish thing. I thought about what people would gravitate towards. Where would people find security, which is an important drive that humans have, when all the infrastructure is gone? You can see an amount of people flocking to this type of thing.
I was very specific that we only cast really attractive people as members of the garden. There’s this idea that they have some kind of fascistic aesthetic. They’re all about peace and love, but they’ll only accept Abercombie & Fitch-looking people. I had a lot of conversations with Kaiwi Lyman, who plays Hayden. He’s a great actor. I told him, in a past life, you were the associate manager of a Kinko’s. You were the guy no one could stand because you were so full of yourself. This situation gave you a chance to reinvent yourself as Hayden the cult leader. You’re still the weird dude, but now you’re the guy who created this thing.
The village stuff was pretty fun to do. That was maybe my first time, being a director on set, that i had 30 plus actors on set, looking for direction. That’s how we learn to do our craft, we push ourselves.
1428 Elm: How long do you think you’d last in a zombie apocalypse?
Jim Towns: [Laughs]. My strongest suit would be the fact I was a Boy Scout. I went through wilderness survival training. I know how to chop wood. I’m a little self-sufficient. I think that would be to my benefit. However, I have some prescription medications I have to take. When the world collapses, those are not going to be available. That would be a problem. I have a theory that it’s sometimes the people you least expect who would probably survive. I feel like that old lady in the kitten sweater, who you see on your block some nights, I feel like she would turn cannibal fast and start eating people. She’d survive based on that. I don’t think it’s always the survivalist type guys who would have the upper hand. It’s the people you wouldn’t expect.
1428 Elm: What’s next for you?
Jim Towns: I shot a film a year ago called The Possession of Anne. It’s done, and we’re working on the release for it right now. It should probably come out later this year. I just shot an action film called Killer Ex. It’s the first feature I’ve shot myself. I’ve shot smaller projects myself, but it’s the first one that I decided to be my own cinematographer. It was a really good experience. I managed not to ruin the movie. [Laughs]. That’s shot, and I think it will come out next year.
Next year, I’m shooting a much bigger movie called Paradise Fallen, which will be shot in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I just went down there and met with the government to talk about shooting locations. I’m writing that script right now.
1428 Elm: Thank you so much, Jim, for taking the time to chat!
Jim Towns’ End Times is available on digital platforms.