On her website Dana Fredsti describes herself as “novelist and screenwriter, B-movie actress (okay, C-movie actress), zombie aficionado, exotic and domestic feline advocate, swordfighter, wine lover and beach glass junkie.” In her Ashley Parker novels - Plague Town and Plague Nation - a group of inadvertent virus-immune ‘wildcard’ super soldiers battle tirelessly against extraordinary odds to save Humanity from what Fredsti herself would describe as “the zombocalypse.” The books are smart, sassy and spectacular and on the eve of the release of Plague World, the third in the trilogy, STARBURST spoke to Dana about her colourful career, her passion for the living dead and the adventures of the resourceful Ashley Parker…
STARBURST: Before we talk about the Ashley Parker series, take us back to your pre-zombie days and your introduction to the world of acting.
Dana Fredsti: I was bitten by the acting bug when I was in 5th grade and our teachers decided to put on Antigone as our class play. I had the titular role and… no, wait a sec… excuse me. Sorry, I had to turn the damn ‘pretentious’ switch off! Anyway, my 5th grade teacher really did decide that Antigone would be a good choice for our class play and I really did get cast as the lead! I have vague memories of getting to wear a really cool Grecian style robe thing and posing heroically. I really enjoyed the whole experience and took Drama all through Junior High and High School.
How did you get involved with movie stunt work?
I was a street performer at San Diego's first Renaissance Faire and happened to be standing in line for a turkey leg. I overheard a conversation between this cute guy in your classic cavalier style shirt, breeches and boots talking about how his fight partner had bailed on him and he was supposed to do a sword fight in an hour and what was he going to do now? I immediately piped up "I'll do it!" I performed my first theatrical fight an hour later and was totally hooked. Thank you, Chris Villa, for that! Chris and I ended up engaged, and I studied theatrical combat and worked occasionally as his assistant. I was also really into karate at the time so developed some basic skill sets. I worked with two stage combat group: the Duelists and Rose & Rapier, and performed at Faires, conventions, and taught workshops as well. If you went to Comic Con back before it became the big honking nuthouse it is now, you might have seen us perform during the halftime at the Costume Contest. I later went on to study at the Academy of Theatrical Combat with Dan Speaker and Jan Bryant, and was part of their regular performance group for a few years. During that time I also worked on a couple of movies, one of them with Jack West (the double for Wang Chi in Big Trouble in Little China), who was thrilled that my then husband and I knew how to sword fight and had us choreograph for some of the fight scenes, and also used us as random stunt people. He was awesome… and it was a ton of fun.
One of your most intriguing credits was as a sword-fighter in the classic Army of Darkness. How did that come about and did you have much direct involvement with Sam Raimi?
I actually had two jobs on that movie. My husband was the onset armourer and needed an assistant, so I learned how to distress plastic armour amongst other skills, and did that until it was time for the Deadite combat scenes. Dan and Jan were the choreographers for the film and they brought on some of their students to be Deadites and soldiers. Most of us who were cast as Deadites were women (I dieted for this role, dammit!) because they wanted a more slender frame. You can really see the male stuntmen if you look 'cause they are pretty damned beefy dead things! Dan and most of the male students were bouncing back and forth between Hook and AoD at the time, so we were spared some of the sexist attitudes of some of the menfolk and those of us with the most experience were also fight captains, which meant teaching the other extras the very basics of sword fighting.
We didn't work particularly closely with Sam because he'd hired Dan and Jan to take care of the choreography and he really didn't interact with us much as far as direction. He did, however, go around at the end of each shooting day/night and thank everyone personally. And I do mean everyone. It was really cool to get paid for sword fighting, it was a Hell of a lot of work, and Bruce Campbell and Ash were very much alike. What I didn't expect was for it to turn into this huge cult classic, and that is really cool in retrospect!
You claim to be ‘addicted to bad movies’. Welcome to our world! What’s the best bad movie you’ve seen?
Showgirls (the most unerotic usage of Gina Gershon imaginable), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Mega Piranha. Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters straddles two worlds for me in that it's got some dreadful acting and cinematography - not to mention characters stupid enough to stop to rest in a cemetery when pursued by zombies, and to make out there - but it also has some great zombie makeup, some iconic scenes like zombie versus shark, and a truly evocative scene of a lone zombie lurching through a deserted village, the wind blowing dust up around it.
When did you first get ‘bitten’ by the zombie bug?
First, I watched Night of the Living Dead at a friend's house one night. We were in Junior High, her parents were gone, we had the lights out, and that movie creeped the Hell out of me. I ran home, threw open the door, and my sister and her friends (who had also been watching the movie) all screamed. Part of that was the movie, but they'd also been terrorized by our calico cat Josie - she was a scary cat. Second, my very first date movie was Dawn of the Dead. Does it get much better than that? I think not. At any rate, flesh eating ghouls were officially my favourite monster and they have never been displaced to this day, not even by Christopher Lee as an incredibly sexy Dracula.
How did the Ashley Parker series come about?
I was writing for Ravenous Romance and Lori Perkins, one of the editors, called me and asked how I'd like to write a zombie romance. "Buffy. But with zombies. And different." Lori then sold the rights to the series to Steve Saffel at Titan Books, and while some of the romantic elements are still present, I got to back off of that and go more into horror.
Did you plan the narrative arc of the series right through to book three or was the story more organic, taking off in different directions as the story developed?
While I would so love to tell you that every detail in all three books were lovingly and carefully planned, it would be a lie of the devil. I did have a basic outline for the three books with story/character arc in place, but some of my best ideas come from some random phrase or paragraph that sends me off in a totally different direction than originally planned. I had no idea when certain characters were gonna die until I got to the point in the books and said 'well, someone has to die here!' I am definitely more organic in my plotting. And since all things organic are good for us (and cost more), that's a good thing, right? RIGHT?!
Your action sequences are hugely dynamic and incredibly cinematic, not to mention extremely imaginative! How easy do you find it to come up with new ways of describing the slicing and dicing of zombies and the thrill of the battle?
Part of that is being experienced in theatrical combat and part is from spending more time than is probably healthy focusing on what would and would not make a viable weapon in the zombocalypse. For instance, in Plague World I finally get a chance to use one of those spikes the fishermen use on our local beach that anchor their fishing rods in place. And I also just think about what's on hand for my characters in each scene, and how I would use whatever it is they have if I were in the same situation. I also practice on my boyfriend a lot. He's very patient.
Ashley is a very strong, outspoken female character, still something of a rarity in genre fiction generally, let alone zombie fiction. Was that something you were keen to emphasize in the series?
When one is told to write Buffy with zombies, but different, it's not really hard to envision a strong, kickass and sassy female heroine. And yes, I did want to emphasize that element because I find the whole conceit that the only strong characters in horror are men to be ridiculous. Let's just look at Ripley in the Alien movies and Sarah Connor in the Terminator series and realize that there are good female role models out there that are just conveniently forgotten at times. And honestly, most of the male horror writers I know are so incredibly behind and enthusiastic about Ashley as a hero.
You’re not afraid to kill off lead characters in the books; do you find it difficult to ‘kill your darlings’?
I am so Joan Wilder from Romancing the Stone when I kill my characters. I finished the final edits on Plague World on a flight to Costa Rica and was totally crying when I killed… er… yes. Never mind. Read it and find out.
Book three is released in July; will that be the end of the series or is there room for more or for characters such as Ashley to live on beyond the ‘Plague’ series?
I pretty much wrap up all the dangling threads from the first two books by the end of Plague World… but there's definitely more room for expansion.
Looking at the actual process of writing the books, what’s your writing discipline? Do you set yourself a daily target or just write when inspiration’s at home?
When I have a deadline, I write every day whether I feel like it or not. I try to do 1K words a day, but that doesn't always happen. I have a day job and sometimes it takes up a lot of my time and energy, so I'll have nights when I stare at my computer and get maybe 200 words done. It just depends. But I always try and put in the time no matter my mood. Recently I've learned how to write while at airports and on flights, which is something that I've never been able to do before. In fact, I finished my edits on a seven hour layover and two hour flight.
What’s your favourite ‘zombie’ movie and why? And, conversely - because there’s a lot of them about these days - what’s the worst you’ve seen?
The original Dawn of the Dead because of the impact it had on me at the time and because nothing like it had ever been done before. It creeped me out at the time and even though yes, some of the FX are dated, it's still an awesome movie. My second favourite would be The Dead, which came out a year or so ago. It made slow zombies scary again. The worst? Jeez… there are so many bad ones. Night of the Zombies is one of my favourite bad ones… and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, although it's not entirely bad (in fact, the dialogue is a hoot!), but the wardrobe crimes and soundtrack slaughter… oooh, boy! Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is fun and another both good/bad one… the hero is a poor man's Michael Caine and the zombies all sound like they have asthma, but it's got some great moments in it. If I were at home staring at my DVDs I'd be able to give you better answers, but alas, I’m currently in Costa Rica and have no zombie movies. Don't you feel sorry for me?
Any theories as to why zombies have become and remain so popular?
Well, there are a lot of people like me out there who were starved for zombie fiction, movies and TV for years. So the fact it's now out there and available is great. And when you get a zombie series on AMC that's wildly successful, you're going to get a lot of people trying to recreate that success. And the quality of fiction… you have authors like Joe McKinney, Jonathan Maberry, John Skipp, Rhiannon Frater, Jessica Meigs, Julie Fletcher, Craig DiLouie and many more. There's good stuff out there with more being written all the time. There have been werewolves and vampire movies/fiction/TV shows for years and no one ever asks why they're so popular. Just be thankful zombies don't (as of yet) sparkle! They're the 'everyman' of monsters and can take the place of any and every fear we have. And they eat people! Ewww!! Gross! Fun to write!!!!
World War Z is one of your favourite ‘zombie’ books. Why is the book so important in the genre and what did you think of last year’s feature film version?
I love the book. I love the glimpse into so many different places and people when things go to Hell… and the fact that it is such a unique take on the zombocalypse. The movie? Er... Yes, yay, Brad Pitt saves the world and even though Israel had their shit together and built the wall and saved people before anyone else figured it out, they still needed our handsome multi-tasking white dude to tell them that singing into a loudspeaker system would rile the zombies outside the wall up and it's too loud and whooooa, look at those CGI army ants… er… zombies! No decent female roles. Even the Israeli soldier had to be rescued. Blech.
How would you rate your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse?
I'd stay at my house and save my cats. I'd no doubt die quickly. On the other hand, I have tons of wine, toilet paper, cat food, water and litter. So… who knows? I sure as hell would cap my boyfriend in the head if he turned.
Do you intend to keep working in the horror/fantasy genre?
I love this genre, along with urban fantasy and mysteries, and definitely plan on working in these genres as long as a publisher will pay me to do so and/or I’m inspired to do so. I just finished the revisions for Plague World and have a few things in mind to do next, depending on what the feedback is from Titan.
PLAGUE TOWN and PLAGUE NATION are available now from Titan Books. PLAGUE WORLD is released on July 25th and can be pre-ordered by clicking HERE.
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