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Budding filmmaker enjoys the freedom
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Filmmaker Joe Zerull of Moline directed and co-wrote his first full-length feature, 'A Cadaver Christmas,' premiering in fall 2010.
MOLINE -- Joe Zerull loves film so much that it's his full-time job and part-time obsession. But for the 30-year-old Moliner, the at-work and off-work sides couldn't be more different.

For the past eight years, the St. Ambrose University alum has worked at Moline's Silver Oaks Communications directing and editing commercials, corporate videos and videos for museum displays for clients across the country -- including the New York Mets, U.S. Steel, Alcoa and John Deere.

But since his high school days in Geneseo, when Mr. Zerull started organizing marathon viewings of multiple horror and sci-films (his favorite genres), he's wanted to make movies his way.

Sometimes at Silver Oaks, "You're trying to do someone else's vision, and it's hard to figure out what they want, and you do it over and over again," Mr. Zerull said. "It can get frustrating."

"To do your own thing, make your own movie, is a lot more rewarding," he said. "It is pretty nice, at the end of the day, not to have somebody to answer to. To do something I love and to not have to answer to anybody is one of the reasons I wanted to do it."

But in the cutthroat world of the arts, it can take a while to get discovered and make money at it, Mr. Zerull has discovered. He directed and co-wrote his first full-length feature, "A Cadaver Christmas," premiering in fall 2010, and has met with some success at small film festivals. But Mr. Zerull has yet to find a way to get it into wider distribution.

"Everyone worked for free; I had a lot of friends who worked on it," he said, noting the zombie-themed buddy film was made for just $7,000. There have been producers' representation firms interested in selling it to major studios, but they require retainer fees of at least that much, Mr. Zerull said.

"Most films, they budget for that -- they have that in the budget the whole time, and we didn't know that," he said. "It's been a learning experience. Some people get lucky -- at a festival, they get offered a deal. But those are bigger festivals we didn't get in to. It also helps to have representation going into them. It's all who you know. We just kinda did our thing."

What Mr. Zerull knows is why certain movies are good and how to put them together. He admires everything from spaghetti westerns and John Carpenter, to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (except for the "Spy Kids" series). Two of his favorite flicks are "The Evil Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead."

" 'Evil Dead' is the biggest; when they made it in '81, it did terrible in the United States. But they shipped it overseas, and it did really well," Mr. Zerull said. "You look back at people who worked on it -- the Coen brothers, Sam Raimi (who directed), and those people were nobodies then. It's real interesting." (Mr. Raimi went on to make the "Spider-Man" films.)

The more recent "Shaun of the Dead" he called "an amazing film," and "Cadaver Christmas" (also a zombie comedy) was favorably linked to it in a Variety review, which said: "... there seem to be more zom-coms than straight-up undead thrillers, many retreads of better, prior efforts (notably 'Shaun of the Dead'). But 'A Cadaver Christmas' is a good 'un -- a small, unremarkable but quite funny tale of revivified dead people overtaking a university building over holiday break. Theatrical prospects are slender, but pic should attract genre fans in home formats."

The modest Mr. Zerull said he hates being compared to anything, and noted: "I don't want people's expectations that it's going to be as good as 'Zombieland' or 'Shaun of the Dead.' "

The horror website Fangoria.com said of "Cadaver": "The resulting hybrid of humor and horror has been delighting festival audiences across the country since the start of the year (2011), with responses ranging from viewers walking out in disgust at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival in Iowa (eventually earning 'Best Professional Feature' at the same fest), to being awarded 'Best Fiction/Horror Film' at Detroit's Motor City Nightmares fest in April. ..."

It won Best Horor Feature at the Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Best Feature and Best Actor in a Feature at the Salty Horror international Film Festival (in Park City, Utah), and second place for narrative feature at Iowa City's Landlocked Film Festival. The DVD is available at cadaverchristmas.com.

Previously, Mr. Zerull wrote, produced, directed and edited seven digital shorts -- one of which, "Man-Eating Dumpster," won first place at the 48 Hour Film Festival in Des Moines, which led to the making of "Cadaver Christmas" as a three-minute film for the same festival in 2006.

Like the title suggests, filmmakers are given a genre and theme, and have to produce a short film within 48 hours. "By the end of the 3 minutes, it's really how the story should start," Mr. Zerull said. "We wanted to do a feature."

He partnered with his friend from St. Ambrose, Dan Rairdin-Hale, with whom he made short films while in school. The 85-minute film was a four-year labor of love for the guys, and they filmed at SAU. Mr. Rairdin-Hale, an assistant professor of theater at the university, co-wrote, produced and acted in the flick.

Mr. Hale plays a cantankerous college janitor who fights off zombies with his mop. He subsequently wanders into a dive whose only patron is burly Tom (Hanlon Smith-Dorsey), served by burlier bartender pal Eddie (Ben Hopkins). Though neither is the brightest ornament on the Christmas tree, they do perceive that something's wrong, considering Chester is covered in blood, according to a film synopsis.

The filmmakers call "A Cadaver Christmas" a "campy good time that pokes fun at cheesy B-rate horror, while simultaneously embracing the genre."

Mr. Zerull (who's married with a daughter) earned his bachelor's degree in TV/radio and journalism, and worked four years during school at WQAD-TV in Moline. "I saw how hard it is to actually land something and get paid to do something, so I got talked into doing TV and journalism," he said.

Mr. Zerull knows how fortunate he is to be working full time in his chosen field. Many budding filmmakers slog through day jobs in something unrelated.

"My favorite part is the editing," he said. "What's fun is to come up with the story, then come out with how you're going to visualize the story. I have it all story-boarded by the time I get on set, which is pretty much me already editing it."

"What I would like to do is keep making movies and not have to worry about the selling part of it," Mr. Zerull said. "I just want to keep doing it and to make a career out of it. I'm very lucky to be at Silver Oaks and to be doing work that's steady. It would be pretty cool to be able to make more films."





Chasing the dream

Who: Joe Zerull, horror and sci-film movie-maker

Quote: "What I would like to do is keep making movies and not have to worry about the selling part of it."


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  Today is Monday, Sept. 22, the 265th day of 2014. There are 100 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The board of education has granted Thursday as a holiday for the children, with the expectation that parents who desire to have their children attend the Scott County Fair will do so on that day and save irregularity the rest of the week.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The guard fence around the new cement walk at the Harper House has been removed. The blocks are diamond shape, alternating in black and white.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Rev. R.B. Williams, former pastor of the First Methodist Church, Rock Island, was named superintendent of the Rock Island District.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Abnormally high temperatures and lack of rainfall in Illinois during the past week have speeded maturing of corn and soybean crops.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Installation of a new television system in St. Anthony's Hospital, which includes a closed circuit channel as well as the three regular Quad-Cities channels, has been completed and now is in operation.
1989 -- 25 years ago: When the new Moline High School was built in 1958, along with it were plans to construct a football field in the bowl near 34th Street on the campus. Wednesday afternoon, more than 30 years later, the Moline Board of Education Athletic Board sent the ball rolling toward the possible construction of that field by asking superintendent Richard Hennigan to take to the board of education a proposal to hire a consultant.






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