Natives have the upper hand in zombie film

By Shondiin Silversmith

Navajo Times

SANTA FE, N.M., August 29, 2013

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I f you needed another reason to be proud of being Native, add "immune to the zombie virus" to the list.

Of course that would only matter if the zombie apocalypse ever happened, but hey, it never hurts to be prepared.

Through the Native Cinema Showcase during the Santa Fe Indian Market, moviegoers got to experience a zombie film with Native flavor on Aug. 17.

"The Dead Can't Dance" is a comedy-drama zombie film based in Kansas surrounding three main characters: Dax, Eddie and Ray Wildhorse. A gust of wind causes everyone around them to drop dead, but they are still alive.

"The virus turns everyone into zombies except the Native people - they're immune," explained Director Rodrick Pocowatchit (Comanche, Pawnee and Shawnee). Pocowatchit does not only direct the movie, he stars in it as Dax Wildhorse.

"The Dead Can't Dance" was shot in 2009 and made its premiere in 2010, using 150 zombie extras.

"What's cool about zombie films is they are ripe for social commentary. The best zombie films are about the survivors," Pocowatchit said. That is why his film if focused on his main characters, who are just trying to get through the night.

"We're all still trying to evolve, and I think of all the races that were affected by white settlers, Native America never really bounced back," Pocowatchit said. That is one of the reasons why Native Americans within his film are immune to the virus: poetic justice.

"I want to continue to show people Native people in a positive light. These (Natives) just happen to be fighting zombies," Pocowatchit said, adding that his movie shows Native people are special because of their culture, but they're also just like any other person who runs out of gas.

"The Natives are the heroes, they're the ones that are everlasting," Pocowatchit said. If it weren't for the Native survivors in "The Dead Can't Dance," there wouldn't be a cure for that zombie virus. "There is something in Native blood that preserves civilization, and that is the ultimate heroism," the director said.

Pocowatchit said he wanted to create a zombie movie not only out of his love of zombies, but his love for movies. "I wanted to make it homage to films I grew up watching, like drive-in movies," Pocowatchit added. His inspiration came from the campy zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead."

"I kind of wanted to do my Native version of 'Shaun of the Dead.' That was my goal, so I kind of just wrapped all of those together and that became my script," Pocowatchit said.

The movie has a lot of humor Native Americans will understand.

For example, in a scene where Dax is walking back to the car in the dark he starts whistling. In some Native cultures, it's bad luck to whistle at night, and Dax yells, "I take it back!"

"They get the joke, it's something they can relate to," Pocowatchit said about being able to show his movie in front of a Native crowd. "They appreciate it more."

Pocowatchit said he's been trying to get one of his films presented through the Native Cinema Showcase for years with no success, and when they asked him to showcase his film he was ecstatic.

He enjoyed how the setup was like a drive-in movie because the film was presented at the Railyard Park in Santa Fe, N.M. with a grass lawn and inflatable screen at the end as the audience sat on blankets and lawn chairs.

Over 300 people showed up to view the movie and the reactions throughout the night were positive.

"It had that funny humor Natives can understand and connect with, but still had that cool ghoulish way about it," said Tibo Chavez from Nambe Pueblo, N.M. who attended the event with his wife, dressed as a zombie.

"It was cool that the Natives had the upper hand, that was really good to see," said Deeanna Homer from the Onondaga Nation, N.Y.

"I loved it," said Shawn Grantham from Laguna Pueblo, N.M., because seeing Natives immune to the zombie virus made him more proud to be Native. "I thought it was a really good piece of art. I appreciate zombies tonight."

For moviegoer Renetta Yepa from Jemez Pueblo, N.M., it was the humor that made "The Dead Can't Dance" enjoyable to watch.

Pocowatchit is from Wichita, Kans., and he has been a filmmaker for the past 13 years.