Zombies. They’re struggling every second of every day to stay “alive” – or, to be more accurate, undead. They’re relentless. They’re restless. They’re hungry. They’re everywhere, it seems, in pop culture, especially through the influence of classic movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, 28 DAYS LATER and DAWN OF THE DEAD, plus TV series like the monster (no pun intended) hit THE WALKING DEAD, Z NATION, and the comedy/thriller/mystery iZOMBIE.
Since Snobby Robot is dedicated to seeking out the best web series for our devoted readers, we should report that such content is itself not immune to the zombie craze. Shows like the hilarious ACTING DEAD and BAD TIMING, plus darker-tinged fare like STILL and PROJECT Z (among many others), have taken a bite (no pun intended) out of the zombie sub-genre.
Yet, one of the most impressive entries in that sub-genre is BRAINS, a series structured around the first person vlog accounts of a young college student’s life amid the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, and a strong “found footage” element that documents both the awkward and scary moments she experiences with her friends and classmates on a regular basis.
Created, written by and co-starring Bri Castellini, both seasons of BRAINS (now streaming via its official web site and Youtube pages, see link below), are accompanied by Tumblr and Twitter pages for its major characters during season 2. (Links to those pages are available on the show’s main web platform.)
Viewers will also experience additional video content that extends the series’ reach beyond its primary episodes. That content, which consists of the 3 part series dusk of the dead and the short mockumentary APOCALYPSE YESTERDAY, connects back to the same timeline of events that BRAINS takes place in, as well as through video responses to that content by Castellini’s character (more on that ahead).
BRAINS features Castellini as Alison Sumner, who launches an intensive audio-visual project that soon turns into an in-depth “investigation” revolving around her classmate/potential love interest, Damian Phillips (Marshall Taylor Thurman). At first, Sumner’s project consists of her on-camera confessionals about the realities of life following a zombie apocalypse; a cataclysmic event that’s not only affected her existence, but also the friendship she shared with ex-roommate/best friend Greta Hamilton (Masha Danilenko).
Speaking of zombies, one that Alison frequently encounters is her perpetually un-aging best friend Carl Markham (played by Connor Bowen in season 1, and Colin Hinckley in season 2), who consumes an unending diet of brains, while begrudgingly accepting his role as the test subject for the esteemed professor Heather Sherman (Kmur Hardeman).
Over time, Alison documents the zombies’ rampage across campus, while capturing her attempts to capture Damian’s heart. Season 2 of BRAINS also features Andrew Williams (who also directed and co-executive produced the series) as new psychology professor Edgar Davison.
During its development, BRAINS underwent some interesting evolution of its own. “The show wasn’t so much developed as it was spawned, much like a zombie,” recalls Castellini. “It started as a play, a 5 minute 1 act I wrote in college, set in a piano practice room (which served as the inspiration for season 1, episode 5). Then it was a short story, then it was a shorter version of that short story which got published by the Kudzu Review (page 42).”
As for how BRAINS metamorphosed into its current visual form, Castellini’s viewing of two of the web’s most acclaimed transmedia-based series, and her eventual studies of new media production, would help pave the way for BRAINS’ concept to transform itself from one-off play to printed short story to multi-faceted web series experience.
“I watched THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES and FRANKENSTEIN, M.D., and got into grad school and learned I would be taking a digital series class, so I decided I might as well write it as a web series,” Castellini says. “That version proved to be the best for the story and I’ve never looked back. The idea for the show was based on the premise of a psychology major (who studies BRAINS) dealing with zombies (who eat brains!) while also trying to date. I just thought that sounded funny.”
Funny concept aside, BRAINS is a different kind of character vlog series. “Alison spends a lot of time wandering around her campus with a camera in her hands, unlike shows like LIZZIE BENNET or CARMILLA, where we’re largely stuck in a single room every episode, waiting for important characters to come to us,” the show’s co-star/creator says, adding that BRAINS’ characters, plus their interactions with Castellini’s protagonist (and vice versa), make for even more interesting situations in the series.
“I also think we’re different (from other vlog-based shows) in the sense that Alison is actively misleading the audience, especially in terms of how characters like Greta and Damian are concerned, because we’re only seeing how she sees them, and not how they actually are,” she adds. “Greta is just an angry ex friend and Damian is just an object of desire, nothing more. She also pigeonholes Carl to an extent, though he gets a bit more screen time to keep the story straight.”
Shot on the campus of Brooklyn’s Long Island University, and in various locales around Prospect Park, New York, the filming of BRAINS’ first season was both challenging and frugal.
“The production process was a bit of a mess at first, since I’d never been on a film set before and we had exactly no money,” remembers Castellini. “By season 2, it was easier, but we only had a tiny bit more money than we did the first time (and the first, time, if you’ll remember, was no money).”
BRAINS’ behind-the-scenes team also consisted of a few people who did most of their work on-screen. “Our crew was tiny and made up part of the cast as well. Every single person behind the camera eventually ended in front of it to varying degrees,” Castellini says, adding that she too was part of that off-camera unit. With its first series of episodes filmed solely on her own video camera, Castellini did double duty as actor and camera operator. Luckily, the show’s director of photography, Brandon Smalls, would take over the latter role from Castellini in season 2.
“This season, every time Alison is holding the camera, it’s actually Brandon and his giant camera rig, with me trailing along behind to read my lines,” Castellini explains. “That alone was such a huge upgrade, because I could focus on acting, and (series co-star) Andrew Williams, our director, could focus on directing, instead of both of us trying to control the camera as well. We also just generally knew more of what we were doing, so we were better at recording audio, framing shots, and making the most of our shooting days.
On a low budget production like BRAINS, finding important resources is equally as important as finding ways to work around the busy schedules of its cast and crew. “I asked for props for Christmas and birthday gifts,” Castellini adds. “We were constantly writing people in and out of scenes as their availability changed, and it never took less than three months to film a full season.“
Budget concerns also played a significant, though indirect role in jump-starting production of BRAINS’ additional series content. “I had been thinking of cheaper spin-offs for the show to continue the story without having to get the cast to commit to another full season, and my friend R.J. (Davies) from Wales mentioned he’d be theoretically interested in filming some stuff for me across the pond,” Castellini explains.
When it came to making a West Coast-set response to the East Coast-centered BRAINS, Castellini called upon a very familiar name to direct APOCALYPSE YESTERDAY. “My little brother Vinny lives in L.A., and is in the film industry as well, and with both of them (Davies and Vinny Castellini) signed on to supervise the physical productions, I came up for some smaller apocalypse stories existing within the larger BRAINS universe.”
The key parts of that universe consist of the short film APOCALYPSE YESTERDAY, penned by Castellini, set in Los Angeles and revolving around four ex-Hollywood hopefuls/roommates: a once aspiring starlet, Rachel Castle (Raina Deerwater), ex-stunt performer/current weapons expert Hank Danvers (Ryan Smythe), former cinematographer Oscar Flockhart (Max Friedlaender) and infected ex-screenwriter Morty (Ben Ellenberg). Inspired by Allison’s videos, they hope to stay alive while fighting off the dangers of the undead.
There’s also the 3 episode, Wales-set miniseries dusk of the dead (co-written by Castellini and co-star R.J. Davies, and directed by co-star Tom Stickler). Admittedly more serious in tone than BRAINS and APOCALYPSE YESTERDAY, the series focuses on Sion (played by Davies), who teams with friend/housemate Marc (portrayed by Stickler) to find out what happened to Sion’s missing sister Chloe (Olivia Carass), who may herself be a zombie.
The miniseries, like BRAINS and APOCALYPSE YESTERDAY, has its own ties to the two aforementioned projects. “dusk of the dead will also influence the language of the main story (in BRAINS) – they’ll start exclusively referring to the functioning zombies like Carl as “dusks,” responds Castellini.
Unlike those shows, the difference is easily seen: “It (dusk of the dead’s overall tone) was also much less polished, as the characters in that mini series just picked up the camera for a laugh, and not to do a polished, structured vlog,” explains Castellini.
However, the similarities between BRAINS, APOCALYPSE YESTERDAY and dusk of the dead are evident. “…Both extended universe projects take place within the same timeline and world as the main series, fully canonical, and both exist in-world by crediting Alison’s videos as their inspiration,” Castellini says. “Essentially, the roommates in L.A., and the zombie sister in Wales, found Alison’s post-post-apocalypse videos and decided to make their own as a response, to add their stories to the public record.”
That additional content plays a significant role in the growth of Castellini’s character in BRAINS. “The existence of both of these projects, which Alison discovers and responds to chronologically between seasons 2 and 3 (already uploaded), will force her to reexamine why she’s making her videos in the first place,” she adds. “Eventually, she’ll decide it’s not about her as much as it’s about spreading the word that people are alive and thriving, and that functioning zombies can exist without being a safety risk.”
Even though money issues currently preclude production of further episodes (4 more seasons worth, all written by Castellini), Castellini is incredibly proud of what she, her cast and crew have accomplished with its entire body of content. Brain-thirsty zombies notwithstanding, BRAINS and its full universe powerfully proves that while things may seem hopeless, life goes on, and all storms – including a zombie apocalypse – eventually pass.
“I think the overall theme of BRAINS is that no matter what horrifying things have happened in the world, the basics of humanity remain the same,” says Castellini of her series. “College students will still fall in love with people they shouldn’t, people will always be more complicated that you imagine them to be, no decision or behavior is ever simply good or bad, and no matter what, there is always, always hope.”
NOTE: Regarding closed-captioning/subtitling of BRAINS, Castellini says: “I believe the first two or three episodes of season one are subtitled, but it’s such a huge undertaking that I doubt I’ll finish anytime in the near future. Of course, I’d like to have it be as accessible as possible, (but) it (closed-captioning/subtitling the series)’s just not in the cards right now.”
ON THE WEB: www.brainswebseries.com