It’s not easy to survive a zombie apocalypse by yourself, but if you’re hoping to not become the next flesh and bone meal for the undead in a desolate world, then surviving a zombie apocalypse with three other people in an underground bunker might be doable – unless your roommates’ irritating personalities may tempt you to risk getting zombified outside the bunker!
Yet for the four people who’ve escaped the hungry teeth of zombies in the ensemble comedy Bunkheads, surviving each other is often more urgent a challenge as surviving the bloody chomp of an undead ex-human. Streaming on Amazon Prime, Bunkheads’ first season totals 6 episodes, and is closed-captioned.
The series’ creator/writer, Will Gong, uses Bunkheads as both a memorable spoof of zombie tropes and a humorous yet timely commentary on the importance of preventing our individual differences from overtaking the shared prize that everyone wants in the world: happiness.
Thrust into the most desperate situation of their adulthoods are the four roommates: fun loving ex-teacher turned defacto patriarch Matt (Josh Covitt), would-be hip hop star JC Skipper (a.k.a “Kip”, played by Chris O’Brien), shy yet fitness-focused computer whiz Brian “Cash” Cashman (Khalif Boyd), and struggling actress Danielle “Dani” Winning (Carly Turro).
Suffering from cabin fever and endless canned tuna meals inside the bunker, Matt, Kip, Cash and Dani fight for their lives as much as they fight to stay off each other’s nerves. As Matt tries to be the group’s level-headed yet upbeat voice of reason, he and his fellow refugees realize that the only way to live is by being together despite what keeps them apart.
Though zombies are a big player in Bunkheads, Gong puts front and center the relationships between its four primary human characters; people whose individual and shared behaviors are defined by the frightening backdrop of a life-threatening world, and by the backgrounds they came from before the zombie apocalypse all but decimated humanity.
In a creative sense, Gong sought to make Bunkheads as an ensemble-based sitcom that was exactly like the shows he grew up with – but one set in a dangerous world. In a personal sense, Gong used the series to pay tribute to his filmmaking peers, and those he leaned on no matter how much life took a bite (no pun intended) out of his emotions.
Partnering with Gong to help him birth his hilarious story of the last earthlings on Earth were Bunkheads’ director Lauren Klixbull and producer Gabriel Reiter, who along with the series’ carefully assembled cast, worked for several days on a deceptively large “bunker” set to capture the craziness and companionship between a quartet of quirky humans on a quest for survival. That experience is recalled for Snobby Robot by Gong, Klixbull and Reiter.
What (and/or who) inspired you to create the show, Will?
Will Gong (writer/creator, Bunkheads): There were a few inspirations for Bunkheads. One of them was my lifelong love affair with sitcoms, starting with Cheers and running through New Girl. Another was the group of friends that I was living with at the time and the adventures that we had learning to live together. And lastly, a big inspiration for the project was my colleagues who were making great material in the indie community.
How was the show developed? How did you come up with the concept for it?
WG: I was really looking to develop a sitcom that I could make on an indie budget with all of the great friends and filmmakers I’ve gotten to know, and I wanted it to be about strangers becoming a family, which had been such a big part of my twenties, and at the time, the zombie apocalypse was all the rage with The Walking Dead at its ratings peak.
So it seemed like the perfect fit to place this ragtag group of survivors. And then I was able to come up with all kinds of comedic plots that would really emphasis the unique situation of being trapped all day, every day with people you wouldn’t have picked in a million years.
The series combines ensemble-based comedy with relevant social satire. How were those elements throughout Bunkheads’ first season, and how was that balance demonstrated through the show’s story and characters?
Lauren Klixbull (director, Bunkheads): Our ensemble-based comedy is what allowed us the opportunity to touch on social issues. To me, one of the biggest issues we are seeing in society is the inability to have a conversation with someone who has an opposing viewpoint.
That conflict is inherent in the concept of Bunkheads – four strangers take refuge from the zombies in an underground bunker. So we had a space with diverse personalities and forced them to interact with one another. I wanted each episode to touch on that struggle, having fun with the awkwardness of their interactions, while respecting each characters’ personalities and backgrounds.
Bunkheads is, most prominently, a comedy about four people who attempt to survive
a zombie apocalypse while also surviving each other. In what ways does the
zombie element heighten the comedy of the show, the different personality traits of
each character, and the interpersonal conflicts between them?
WG: Gosh, the zombie threat elevates everything about the show. When you feel trapped in a place with people that you don’t have anything in common with, that is a recipe for some explosive conflicts. You can hang out in the other room, but that only works for so long until everything comes to a head.
Kip’s obnoxiousness, Cash’s passive aggression, Matt’s Dad-like forced positivity, and Dani’s everyday struggle to be free of stereotypical female roles all have a little extra edge than they would otherwise. Because in a typical roommate situation that has turned toxic, someone could just move out, but during the zombie apocalypse, moving out kind of means choosing death.
What was the casting process like for the show?
LK: Going into the casting process, we knew a few things up-front. Our shooting schedule was going to be tight, the chemistry of the cast was going to be crucial in the success of the social satire, and we needed actors who were as excited about the show as we were.
I guess you could say that it was a tall order, but we prioritized time to find actors with strong improv skills and tested them side by side with others to find the perfect combination for our bunker. We were incredibly fortunate with the talent that auditioned and the final cast were not only perfect for their roles, (but) they were fantastic as an ensemble.
What was the production process like, including as it related to shooting the scenes inside and outside the bunker, and to designing the zombie characters?
Gabriel Reiter (producer, Bunkheads): I’m not going to lie. The logistics on Bunkheads were challenging, but it (filming the series) was also so much fun! Every day on set was a joy. Organically, the show’s concept takes place inside a two room bunker, and the bunker was scripted very specifically as almost a character in the show. So a huge priority from the start was being able to build our own set and film as much as we could there. We broke everything down and determined that if we shot with two cameras we could film all the bunker scenes in four days.
Fun fact: we designed the two room bunker set as one room that we redressed as both the living room and bedroom. So we shot three days in the living room, then gave most of the crew a day off while we redressed the set for the bedroom before coming back to film a fourth day in the bedroom.
Obviously it was important to connect the interior bunker to the exterior for some scenes. In order to achieve that, we built a functional ladder into the bunker wall that our cast could climb up and down. Then we built a special ceiling set piece with a bunker hatch that could be used for filming the inside of the bunker looking up. That same hatch was constructed as a removable piece which we could re-position outside for the exterior shots.
As far as the zombie creation — that’s mainly the creative genius of our lead makeup artist, Samantha Bates. Lauren and Will talked with her at length, discussed style and look references, and then she and her team brought the zombies to life.
Ultimately we decided that the zombies were created by a pathogen contracted through fluid contact when bitten. Once infected the virus works its way through the nervous system, severing the connections to the brain, causing the body to decompose while the patient is still living.
What sets Bunkheads apart from other comedies, and from other movies/TV/web series that fall under the popular zombie subgenre?
WG: I think the kind of relatable human characters that fill out our cast really separate us. It isn’t chock full of soldiers and families, (but) it’s just a diverse group of cowardly adults just trying to make this bunker situation work. While some zombie shows have elements of comedy and heart in it, they are usually leading towards some kind of horrific, violent climax; we are always heading towards some kind of big comedic or heartfelt moment.
What makes Bunkheads similar to other comedies/zombie-based entertainment?
LK: Bunkheads is a roommate comedy with higher stakes and more desperation. It’s a light take on what all zombie shows are about: survival. The first season is more of an introspective look at the consequences of a zombie apocalypse and bunker living. We have fun combining the two genres to create something special.
Who do you think would like to watch Bunkheads? Are there any other comedies/zombie-centered shows you’d compare it to?
WG: Bunkheads is for college students, teenagers, nerds, adult fans of comedy – basically, (it’s for) any human who like a little snark and a lot of heart. If I had to compare it to anything zombie, I would have to say that we are very much in the Shaun of the Dead zone. If I wanted to compare it to comedy, I think we are kind of right in the middle of sitcoms Community and New Girl.
LK: Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet is the non-apocalyptic suburban version of our show. Tonally it has as much fun playing with zombie movie tropes as we do, (but) the main difference is that Bunkheads is focused on life during the apocalypse.
What do you hope people take away from watching the show?
WG: If you have a crazy idea for a show and want to make it, if you surround yourself with good people and (if you) put in a ton of hard work, you can actually make it a reality.
LK: Ideally, a few laughs. It is a comedy series after all!
GR: I hope people enjoy the show. I hope they laugh, and I hope that the arcs of our characters warm their hearts.
Watch Bunkheads on Amazon Video at:
For more information on Bunkheads, visit the show’s web site: