Just in time for Halloween, Syfy is reimagining the zombie legacy of master filmmaker George A. Romero with a new original series, Day of the Dead. Developed for television by Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas, the horror series is set in a small American town that’s overwhelmed by ravenous hordes of the undead that are starving for human flesh. Starring Keenan Tracey as high schooler Cam McDermott and Natalie Malaika as local mortician Lauren Howell, the two team up with other survivors in town in hopes they’ll survive the experience.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, stars Tracey and Malaika share their deep love of the horror genre, explained what drew them to the television project, and teased what audiences can expect when Day of the Dead premieres its first season on Oct. 15 on Syfy.
What attracted you both to this project and these characters?
Keenan Tracey: I’m a huge horror fan, I always have been, and a huge Romero fan. I love it all so this is a choice genre for me, not only to watch but to be in — the process is really great. I think the creators did a really good job of staying true to Romero’s vision, which I like because I like that thematic unity. I think he made a legacy that’s worth upholding. I think the guys did a really good job of that and, hopefully, we did it justice in the process of making this as well.
Natalie Malaika: Same! I love the horror-thriller genre and the big thing is just being able to be a part of this legacy of telling this story that is a tribute to Romero. That’s a big deal and we wanted to do it justice and do a good job because of the weight that it holds. That’s exciting, that was a big part of it for me.
You’re both fans of horror and you’ve both worked in horror before, be it Charmed‘s horror-adjacent supernatural or Bates Motel‘s proto-slasher. How is it maintaining that heightened level of emotion on set everyday?
Tracey: I think a lot of it is really in the moment anyway. You’re being chased by fifty people and it’s kind of hard not to feel it as they’re running and panting, you’re actually running. The stakes are so high in the thing but also on the day because there’s a lot happening that it just snaps you into it, you don’t really have a choice. It’s the tone of the setting already and you’re just in it.
Malaika: That’s really it! It’s just cool to be part of and to create this fictional that you get to run through and slay these zombies. Who doesn’t want to do that!
Even before the zombie apocalypse, Lauren is a character that has to put up with a lot and Cam is a character that is forced to grow up fast even before the dead rise. How is it bringing that nuance, both before the zombies and once the action hits?
Malaika: Lauren is a natural-born leader and badass and I think that plays really well for her when these zombies attack the town because she just kicks it into high gear and is ready to just fight back. Anybody that falls behind, she is ready to pull them forward but the cool part is she has Cam who kind of levels her out on the compassionate side. Sometimes, she does not always lead with compassion until later on, maybe, when you get to see some softer sides to her.
Tracey: There’s a brief window in the first few minutes of this before anything is happening because there really quickly is [zombies]. You get a minute to see them before and then we’re kind of into and then everything hits the fan and then it hits the ground running.
A lot of zombie fiction is just so oppressively dour but this version of Day of the Dead still has that escapist thrill that comes with bashing a zombie’s head in. How is it maintaining that tonal balance?
Malaika: I think just because the fact that these are real characters who are going through real things. There’s humor in everything, you can find humor in sad moments — not in the moment but a little later — there’s humor in daily things. It’s natural that they’re going through these things and humor just adds to that and adds that great layer to it.
Was there a line in the script or character description that informed you how you were going to approach your characters?
Tracey: Yeah, there’s points where I have my hands in blood and guts and I’m wondering how we could ever get here. I remember reading that and I have that feeling in many other ways in life a lot. [laughs] I feel like Cam feels that way a lot in the first season, it’s just the crux of Cam thrown into these things. That’s a feeling I could relate to — obviously in different ways — but that was it.
Malaika: When it comes to Lauren, the part that I thought was kind of cool was she’s sarcastic, even in moments when it’s not necessarily suited. I feel like that’s natural, human beings are sometimes in an awkward situation, we don’t always say the right thing and that’s her way of emoting. I think that’s me in some ways sometimes.
This is very much in the vein of Romero, more than just the title and hordes of ravenous undead. With over fifty years since Night of the Living Dead, what do you think it is about the zombie genre that continues to endure and thrive?
Tracey: I think the theme itself, that there’s this growing idea of complacency. The zombies are a metaphor for the droning on of society and all the things we just seem to fall into and walk blindly towards. I think that’s a recurring theme, no matter what time we’re in, and though it might change slightly depending on the decade, era or whoever is in political power, that’s always going to be a topic and I think that’s what this all touches on.
With this being set in a small town how is it leaning into that intimacy and nuance in those rare quiet moments?
Tracey: Some of the characters do know each other prior, Cam and Lauren obviously know each other, and the others know each other in their own groups but we all end up together. We all end up having first impressions of each other and each play a drastic end of a sort of spectrum with a given character trait. I feel like when those all come into the same room, you get to see the chemistry and how they react.
How instinctual is the performance when you’re covered in fake blood and cover and just smashing stuff to bits? How much is right there in the moment?
Malaika: You just have to commit! You want to make it look real and it also makes it feel real because of how great the FX work and how the zombies look. It makes it easier to lean into that and makes it look realistic.
What are you most proud of getting to be a part of the Romero legacy?
Tracey: To start with that! The Romero legacy is such a long, established thing, it’s been over fifty years since Night of the Living Dead came out. I already liked it, not just horror in general but these specifically so getting to be a part of it, to me that in it of itself is pretty cool.
How is it working with the showrunners Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas?
Tracey: It’s great! They’re just cool guys to be in the room with and on set with and share work with for months on end, twelve hours a day. They were great! Any questions we ever had, we could ask and they would have the answer and I feel like they really did a good job of staying true to the Romero vibe and vision of that. That was one of the most important tasks and I think it was on the top of the list of things to do for them and I think they did it! From the films I’ve seen, the days on set and the scripts they had written, I think they did a really good job of honoring his vision.
This is one of Syfy’s biggest premieres this Halloween season. How is it getting to be a part of the network during this time of the year?
Malaika: It’s so cool that we get to air so close to Halloween! Halloween is one of my favorite seasons and I think it’s so cool to be part of that energy. I think there’s going to be so much of that energy surrounding this season and I think it’s going so awesome!
Developed for television by Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas, Day of the Dead premieres Oct. 15 at 10pm ET/PT on Syfy.
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