Students collaborate on terrifyingly fun web series, Zombie College Musical

David Grabowski works on the music for the first episode in the studio. (credit: Courtesy of Yulin Kuang) David Grabowski works on the music for the first episode in the studio. (credit: Courtesy of Yulin Kuang) Lachlan McKinney records a song in the studio for the first episode. (credit: Courtesy of Yulin Kuang) Lachlan McKinney records a song in the studio for the first episode. (credit: Courtesy of Yulin Kuang) Cast members Oscar Peters is zombified by make-up artist James Krahe. (credit: Courtesy of Yulin Kuang) Cast members Oscar Peters is zombified by make-up artist James Krahe. (credit: Courtesy of Yulin Kuang)

Spring fever is in the air. However, this spring, the fever or swine flu should be the least of students’ worries. Instead, they should start looking twice at their fellow classmates for signs of blood or rotting flesh, because Carnegie Mellon has been infected by Zombie College Musical.

Zombie College Musical is an original series of webisodes, short episodes released primarily on the Internet, created by students Yulin Kuang, a junior English and social decision sciences major, and David Grabowski, a senior music major. It follows the story of Peter Wells (Lachlan McKinney, a sophomore drama major), a college student, who in the first scene is in quarantine for swine flu. He leaves the hospital with a strange craving that he does not understand. However, he does not have time to dwell on the peculiar sensation because he is met outside the hospital by his crush, the newly single Ella Carmichael (senior music major Loghan Bazan) and his best friend Joey Crisp (junior music major Sean Pack). As Peter gets caught up again in both college life and silly musical numbers, something sinister lurks in the background.

The first episode, which was uploaded onto YouTube on Dec. 6, 2010, has already received over 5,200 views.

The original idea for Zombie College Musical originated over the summer. Kuang contacted Grabowski and asked him if he wanted to write a musical with her. Kuang recalled via e-mail, “Grabowski texted me back with, ‘How do you feel about zombies?’ And we pretty much went from there.”

In order to make Zombie College Musical a reality, Benjamin Welmond, a junior art major who became the director of the project, enlisted the help of the Carnegie Mellon Film Club, the School of Art, the School of Design, and the School of Music.

“It’s honestly a situation where we seek out people and ask them what they love to do, and they do it for us,” Welmond said. “It always amazes me that I never asked the crew, ‘Can we do this?’ but [rather] how do we do it.”

Kuang agreed. “We have a dedicated cast and crew [of] members from the College of Fine Arts, H&SS, and CIT.... [Associate teaching professor] Riccardo Schulz and the CFA Recording Studio have been incredibly generous in allowing us to use their facilities. The university has also awarded us a SURG grant for continuing production this semester. Everyone’s just been incredibly supportive.... It really is an amazing collaborative effort.”

Stories about zombies are usually construed as horror stories; however, Zombie College Musical explores a range of emotion, from silly to serious. Kuang explained that he sees Zombie College Musical as “kind of a musical tragicomedy, inspired by the likes of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” He elaborated, “It’s a zombie apocalypse and we shouldn’t forget that, but at the end of the day it’s still a musical and we can’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Welmond agreed. “I think it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge the general campiness that needs to exist in a Web series called Zombie College Musical. At the same time, the characters need to be real, so we never try to make their importance in the story as a joke.”

Alex Rothera, a sophomore art major who is one of the producers on the musical, explained, ”We are trying to surprise viewers. On the surface level we use zombies, songs, and cliché college characters to make a really fun and familiar plot. But as the series continues, we’re beginning to break down the characters into more interesting people that start to speak to a new level about adolescence.”

Pittsburgh has a rich history of zombie productions, ranging from iconic horror films shot here by George Romero and Tom Savini to an annual Zombie Walk, and even Evenings in Quarantine: A Zombie Opera, which premiered in Pittsburgh last fall.

Kuang was aware of the influence of zombies on Pittsburgh; however, she herself was not an expert on the subject before writing Zombie College Musical. “To be quite honest,” she said, “I’m the least versed in zombies in the creative team. I do think it’s awesome that Pittsburgh has its own zombie culture, though, and it’s cool that we’ve created something that can take a part in that. I think it probably has something to do with the apocalypse weather we have here so often.”

“While David and I were setting down the story arc for the series, I was coming from a place where the only zombie-related things I’d seen was Zombieland and a few other spoofs,” Kuang said. “So, as far as knowing existing zombie tropes went, I was pretty uneducated. That being said, I think we have something interesting in a main character who’s slowly turning into a zombie just as a more traditional zombie plague is hitting the campus. Plus, we sing!”

Welmond concurred, “[We have] singing. Lots and lots of singing. The musical numbers [are what] really help to make the webisodes feel unique.... When [the songs are] complete, [they] sound like professional songs. Not to mention the importance of Dave’s underscoring [to them].”

Now that the first two episodes are out, Kuang hopes that “people watch and enjoy [them]. It’s been tremendous fun and hard work producing the series, and we hope that the take away is that we can make something really awesome if we take advantage of the resources our university has to offer.”

Filming has not been without problems. Welmond quipped that Carnegie Mellon “is the busiest school in the world” and, as a result, scheduling has been a real issue for the team. In addition, Rothera recalled that “things go wrong at almost every shoot. Horror stories, really, about forgetting lab coats and delayed shoots and whatnot.”

However, Rothera said, “At the end of the day, it’s incredibly rewarding.” Kuang said, “As hokey as it sounds, it’s been an amazing experience collaborating with all the talented people in our cast and crew. When you spend so much time together working towards realizing this crazy dream, you really have to love the people there in the trenches with you.”

Welmond is on the same page. “At the end of the day, it’s nice to know you can wake up early in the morning and work all day, but be surrounded by an awesome group of people who are always happy to be there. No matter how many takes we’ve just done, every single person on the set walks away with a smile on their face.”

Carnegie Mellon students can still get involved in the production. Check out the group’s Facebook page (http://bit.ly/zcmusical) if you are interested in being an extra or crew hand. In addition, if you are interested in becoming a production assistant, attend a Carnegie Mellon Film Club meeting.

Currently, Episodes 1 and 2 have been released on YouTube. The third episode of Zombie College Musical is currently in production, and a release date will be announced soon.