Home MoviesInterviews (movie) Interview: Marcus Dunstan on ‘Unhuman’, Zombie Bullies, and ‘The Collected’

Interview: Marcus Dunstan on ‘Unhuman’, Zombie Bullies, and ‘The Collected’

by Kelly McNeely
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Unhuman

You may not know the name Marcus Dunstan, but if you’re a horror fan, you surely know his work. Dunstan – along with his writing partner, Patrick Melton – is responsible for Feast, Saw IV through VI, The Collector, The Collection, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Piranha 3DD. Dunstan’s newest feature – a collaboration with Blumhouse Television and EPIX – is Unhuman, a teen scream afterschool special with plenty of heart and a lot of guts. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dunstan about Unhuman and simply had to ask him about his opinions on zombies, bullies, afterschool specials, and the (hopefully) upcoming threequel, The Collected

For more on Unhuman, you can read my full review here and check out the trailer below.


Kelly McNeely: You’ve worked with your writing partner, Patrick Melton, quite a bit – going back to Project Greenlight. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this project and working with Patrick? 

Marcus Dunstan: Absolutely. This kind of felt like we were coming full circle in a way, because the tone of the movie Feast – that was kind of our Willy Wonka moment in order to make a movie – was wanting to embrace the shock and awesome of horror that wasn’t traumatizing in the way that it was holding something innocent down and hurting it, it wasn’t going to wound the audience. But it wanted to say like, well, what if there was a little bit of – not wish fulfillment – but nightmare fulfillment and taking characters who are typical fodder – first victim fodder – but having them have a little say in their fate. Like, no, man, I’m not giving up on me just because the world did. And that bumper sticker enthusiasm was something that we always kind of held in our hearts.

You know, we hailed from the Midwest – I from a small town in Macomb, Illinois – and then Patrick was from Evanston, which springboards us to the future. We thought, we can’t out-East Coast/West Coast this town, but maybe we can out-Midwest it a little bit and see what we can bring. So flash forward to this opportunity, where Evanston plays a big part, because Evanston as the place setting for the seminal John Hughes stories, we wanted to really just thank with this. Because they gave us wonderful human moments, even though the sugar was like, “hey you’re gonna go see a teen comedy”, and then there’s this heartfelt moment. 

It’s Ferris Bueller when Cameron is in the museum, and that’s a moment that directly was carried into this as a reference point, to galvanize the cast at a particular moment, right in the center. And it’s a scene involving mannequins dressed to – well, I don’t want to give it away – but it was our Ode to Cameron.

As soon as I mention that scene, everybody from young to… not as young [laughs] instantly got it, and understood the intent of that moment. Like, yes, we are going to surprise people with a moment of heart here. And if we stick the landing, we cannot be pigeonholed into something you’ve ever seen before. We’re going to make you feel something different. 

Going back to the Evanston of it all, that’s why our high school was Evanston Hill, it’s a reference to Evanston where Patrick went and these movies were set, and Hill, the place where John Hughes actually attended. So then all we needed was the alchemy of taking what we remembered not only of our high school experience – and this is everybody, the cast the crew, any stimulus from that – and we thought let’s make a little time machine here. We’re gonna all go back to high school with this, leave something that hurt us there, and bring back something that gave us hope, and then add it to this narrative. I don’t think that ever let the tank go dry. I mean, no matter how hot, no matter how tired, no matter how much lightning was trying to blow us off the Earth, we could not stop trying to achieve for these characters led so beautifully by Brianne Tju. What a galvanizing force.

I loved this experience. I don’t want it to end. Yeah, it’s coming out, yahoo, but it’s also bittersweet because I’m gonna say goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve ever made; the experience of making this movie. 

John Hughes was quite clearly an inspiration here, for sure. Unhuman is kind of like an 80s teen horror flick, but for the modern era, it feels very modern even though – I’ll admit – when I was first watching it, because it’s a while before you see a cell phone and fashion is so cyclical, I was like, oh, is this set in the 90s? 

We were very fortunate, and using every single molecule at our disposal to tell a story. Eulrn Colette Hufkie, the costume designer, embraced finding icons in the clothing, so they were telling you who the character was with the varsity jacket, they were telling you with all the details. All the color and confidence of everyone’s character uniform then completely allows the center force of Ever – the character of Ever, played by Brianne –  who is muted. If there’s a varsity jacket, she’s in the Members Only one that’s beige and shapeless and whatnot. Her character is looking for any influence, like, which way should I go? And it takes this catalyst known as the horror movie to make everybody become a little more human in the face of the event that is Unhuman.

What’s the secret to a good zombie attack sequence?

My goodness, the great thing is you don’t need a gazillion dollars to make that work. What you need is the passion and drive to make it feel fresh, even though it’s depicting something that is rotting. So how do you do that? And I think I just leaned on the very best that was out there to see what they did. And there was a common theme. George Romero, of course, is the godfather of this, because the living dead of his universe were representations of a theme, be it consumerism, be it racial divide, they were reflections of what was wrong with living. 

So in this case, I and this cast and this screenplay, we wanted to say something about bullying, and we wanted to get in its face and acknowledge that it is a wicked corruption of the soul. It is mean, it is cutting. How does the idea of bullying know our soft targets so well? How does it know, without sometimes throwing a punch? That the verbal quip can demolish us, you know, we will implode. 

And so then I was like, all right, guess what, here’s the direction Mr. Zombie [pulls out a zombie head prosthetic]: you are a vicious cunning bully, you’re going in there to destroy their confidence and their ability to survive, bash their brains in fear, so they don’t think they can outsmart you and somehow be one step ahead of their lives, even though you’re trying to figure out a way to end theirs. Got it? Go!

You know, and that was kind of it! That allowed it to be entirely on its own. If it was fast, it wasn’t fast because of a derivative interpretation of like, World War Z or something. No, it was fast because it was serving mean. It was cunning because it was serving the ritual that bullying is, of just constantly changing like a dog on a virus of confidence. And that allowed the stereotypes we wanted to march in in the first act.

You know who these people are, and they’re from the teen comedy. But guess what? Most of the teen comedies of yesteryear are now under reexamination for some of their more appalling instincts. And guess what was always there trying to teach? The horror movie. Where they were deemed appalling out of the gate, but their instincts were don’t be a jerk or you’ll die. Don’t have sex too early, or you’ll die. Don’t do drugs, or you’ll die. You’re gonna die anyway, but just don’t die an asshole!

And so then we’ve got the Teton County shows up and then here comes the horror movie to be like, bam! We’re taking over, who are you now? And I love that, that felt like a good mix for the right type of fuse to land in the combustible years that are adolescence. 

I love the “afterschool special” nature of Unhuman, I think that’s such a clever way to open it. Because it really does have that morality tale to it. Without getting too into spoilers, it does have that anti-bullying message, but there’s also sort of an anti-sense of toxic entitlement, which I think draws some really great parallels to events like Columbine and – more recently – Uvalde. It’s something that is scarily still very evergreen. Can you talk a little bit about navigating that and mixing that theme together?

So this was the high wire moment. Let’s say you’re given the opportunity to make a scary movie, and then you have to decide, well what kind of scary movie is this going to be? The script can only take you so far, because day to day, the performances, the where you put the camera, how you alter the music and whatnot, is puppeteering how you’re going to make the viewer feel. And we wanted to avoid trauma. We wanted to avoid bullying the audience, but stay in their face with that topic so it’s almost fully peeled – like the onion that it is, for its rancid parts, for its educational parts – and without exploiting what it’s been used for in the movies, which is entertainment value. 

These are the most confident characters that march in, and they’re usually dispatched right away. All those movies somehow take a dip as you’re waiting for the people that are not shaded with all that damage to pick up the slack and become something by the end as the horror movie marches on. So with this, I saw a movie trailer right before we started to film. You know, we had like a month or so before, and it was going to be a big hit. And the trailer itself was nonstop slaughter. And it did great, etcetera, and I thought… we’re not that. 

Let’s say you’re at the marquee, and if you go into both screens, and one triggers that response, or that’s the stimulus of it – if we even attempt to go there, what are we saying? Why are we going to be different? And that led to the big leap that further reinforced the twist at the center of this. And especially with the horrific events of recent history, we still get to be – with confidence, by using art and heart – are saying something. Contributing in a thoughtful way, while still earning the badge. Like, yes, we are a horror movie, but we’re going to surprise you with humor. We’re hopefully going to educate you with a theme. And if we all get out on the other side together, maybe our heart feels a little more full, too, and it’s warmed up. Great. That was the goal. That felt not encumbered by budget, time, or whatnot, just simply the willingness to try. 

It’s that “afterschool special” element that kind of really drives it home. As soon as I saw that pop up was like, okay, got it! 

That is courtesy of Blumhouse trusting us, because I remember, I asked for that right at the front. I wanted to do yearbook photos, to really go all in. And they didn’t say no, they said, if you earn it, if we start to see the results and you earn that tone, great. They don’t want to sign up for a tone that then kind of falls apart, you know, like, a jalopy losing parts along the ride. And so that was one of the last things added. And thank goodness, it never was out of here [points to head], and it never was out of our intent, but it was just that star on top of the tree to help light it all up.

Peter Giles, I know you worked with him on Pilgrim for Into the Dark… his voice is just –

Marvelous!! And he is the voice of – I don’t know if you know this, but he’s the voice of Fox Sports. So when you hear, [gravelly voice] “Tonight, the Bears are taking on the Packers”…. It’s him! What was so cool is he can transport all around the world and blow people’s minds with his great performance. And then he has his microphone setup, so from time to time, you’ll just see him deliver this awesome thing. 

So I would take full advantage of a friendship and of a professional relationship by somehow slipping in lines I just wanted to hear that voice say, that were completely inappropriate. Like, “Why would I say that?” Just try! “Goiters! What’s inside of them?” Like, no, we’re not going to use that, that’s gross, Peter! [laughs]

You used it well, he sold every single line that he delivered. 

And what was so awesome was he was right at the top of the schedule. And this was a big gift. Any filmmaker out there, if you can at all, fight big to create the opportunity to shoot a movie in order, shoot it in sequence, you really get to evolve with it. And that was the key to the success of a lot of the character development, was we were getting to know each other in lockstep. 

Peter was in the first week, because I wanted a physical embodiment of tone and bar setting to announce the bubblegum world of Act One. And then when fate in the horror movie invades, that’s the announcement of a whole new movie. And then there’s another movie that starts in there. So it was key to have these pillars. And the great thing is, he stands up and he was standing up right in front of those kids and instantly snapped to it, and it was great. And I say kids, these are young adults, but that whole cast – with him – they just galvanized. I was just so, so grateful and inspired. 

And with that, you just keep creating, you just keep pushing, and you turn this opportunity into a life experience. So it’s not over when the 90+ minutes roll. This is something I want to keep in my heart forever. 

Now, I have to ask, I don’t know what you’re able to talk about, but, The Collected

Oh, yeah! Do you know for a little bit, it seemed like there was a valley of hope. And recently that valley has been filled with absolute hope and there are professional folks trying to gently untangle the Gordian knot to give that another chance. And you know, so we all want to do it. We just have to respect the nature of the “how”, in this case. So that’s another great thing. It’s not a no, it’s just a how, let’s figure out the how, and I hope that we can. I have hope that we can and will. 

Do you have a script ready?

Oh goodness yes! Absolutely. That’s the whole thing. And that’s the nice thing about it, when you have it written and you can actually show some things that were conceived already, then it’s pretty easy to convey what we’d like to do and how we want folks to feel. And ultimately the mantra is, if it can’t be the best one, why do it?

In the years between them, it was beneficial to not stop working on why a concept could happen, so it doesn’t feel like the dust is blown off it. It feels like it had to happen in this moment, taking advantage of having marvelous actors, with Josh Stewart, with Emma Fitzpatrick, embracing that life and time has passed, and what their lives have been in the nature of those two movies.

Their demon on land is still out there, willing to face them. What new demons do they have inside themselves to fight back with? I love that. And hey, we’re a bit more mature, we’ve got a twisted tale ahead. And that, again, keeps the kettle whistle on, the hope that it happens. 

 

Unhuman will be available On Digital June 3 on Paramount Home Entertainment.

Unhuman