Neil Marshall came a long way with his first two features, Dog Soldiers and The Descent. The affable Geordie appeared to single-handedly reinvigorate British horror with these two tales of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. With his work full of intensity, electrifying shocks and spurts of gore, Marshall became one of the hottest named in British filmmaking, soon earned the title of Best Director at the 2005 British Independent Film Awards for The Descent as well as glowing comparisons with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.
His third film, Doomsday, is a maniacal clash of influences and styles that draws influences from the likes of Escape From New York, Mad Max, Aliens and Excalibur. Set in the near future, the film sees Scotland annexed from Britain in a last, desperate attempt to contain a deadly virus. When the virus seeps into London, Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is sent back into Glasgow to find a cure.
"it’s either environmental catastrophe or a virus that will wipe us all out"
“There was that period of the late Seventies and early Eighties specifically when they were making some pretty imaginative and creative films but doing it in a way that seems to be a lost art now,” says Marshall, seated in a garishly decorated private bar. “Everything is CG and green screen and wires. I wanted to go back to that style of filmmaking and do it brutal, and with real stunts.”
Having been set on his life mission at the age of just eleven (“I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was eleven years old and I walked out of that knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life – make movies”), Marshall devoured a huge range of films through the then new VHS market, with many of Doomsday’s influences amongst those films that proved to be particularly inspiring.
“They’re the films that have informed and moulded me into a filmmaker,” he says succinctly. So going back and doing an homage to those things seemed the natural thing to do.”
Having grown up in Newcastle and later lived in Carlisle, local landmark Hadrian’s Wall provoked Marshall’s initial ideas for Doomsday.
“What circumstance could mean that Hadrian’s Wall was rebuilt in the future? What could possibly happen?” he quizzes. By 2003, the concept of the wall enclosing a plague had infiltrated his thoughts. “Separately, I had this image of these futuristic soldiers squaring off against a medieval knight. How could I make that happen without having time travel? So the two things gelled together of a world isolated and left to die, and the survivors resorted to a medieval lifestyle. And so Doomsday was born.”
Although Doomsday encompasses an era where swordsmen can coexist with marauding cyberpunks and technologically advanced warfare, the film’s basic premise is rooted in possibility.
“When we were making the movie everyday there was a new bird flu or avian flu scare, and previous to that there had been the whole Sars epidemic,” explains Marshall between sips of rosé. “Maybe as a human species we need something to worry about. We don’t have nuclear war so much now, which we did in the early eighties which was what all the post-apocalyptic movies were based on. And now that’s gone, it’s either environmental catastrophe or a virus that will wipe us all out. I see it as being a matter of time.”
"I wanted to go back to that style of filmmaking and do it brutal, and with real stunts"
Marshall, therefore, presents a suitably bleak future in Doomsday with human circumstances made all the worse by political deviousness. Doomsday’s politicians might be broadly written – all self-interest and self-presentation – but they’re effective in creating an enticing angle for devotees of both anti-politics and conspiracy theories.
“I always see the politicians as being opportunists, seizing on this natural catastrophe. They’ve got the problem that Britain is hugely overpopulated and, as a result of that, this virus has occurred. They see it as a way of thinning out the population to make it more manageable. I like the idea of these opportunists taking advantage in such a cruel and sadistic manner.” The real power behind Doomsday’s government is Michael Canaris, a figure that Marshall says is, “loosely based on quotes from Hitler.”
Above all, Doomsday appears to be a labour of love for Marshall, an homage that proved to be as much fun in practice as it sounds in theory. “Everyday was a blast,” he smiles, enthusing about car chases, sword fights and exploding rabbits. “We had absolutely insane stunt people doing insane things. Like hanging off a Bentley at 90mph, they did it for real and that paid off. I’m tired of seeing stuff done with CGI for the sake of ease.” On the darker side, “there were a few close calls. During the train station chase there’s a guy who hits the barriers and it looks like he breaks his back. Well, we thought he’d broken his back. He was unconscious for five minutes but luckily he walked away.”
Doomsday has already been released in the States. It’s proved to be divisive with some enthralled by Marshall unique vision and others dismissing it as derivative of the films that he wanted to pay homage to. “They’re the sort of people that would probably be first in line to see a remake of Escape From New York,” he laughs. “I don’t get the double standards.”
As conversation winds down, he recounts an American critic saying that if Tarantino had delivered Doomsday, it would’ve been heralded a masterpiece. Although humoured by the comment, Marshall is eager to downplay any comparisons that have been made with himself, Tarantino and Spielberg.
Still, it’s impossible to argue that Doomsday represents everything that Death Proof could’ve been…