Joe Sena: The Friendly King of the War of the Dead: Z.E.R.O. Zombies by Brian Kirst

Life long horror fan Joe Sena burst onto the scene, like an exploding limb, as creator of the fun, popular Zombie Survival Kit. Marveling at the success of this product, Sena decided to produce an online series 'War of the Dead: Z.E.R.O.' based upon his creation. Working from Sena's outline, writer/director Mike DiSario and producer Melissa Rubin, have created an instantly popular horror epic that has been hailed at Fangoria conventions across the country. Sena's belief that horror should be a family affair has, also, led him to create an online tribute to the short lived 70's monster magazine The Monster Times ( ). Ultimately, one has to admit that Sena is a true horror entrepreneur and a charming interviewee as proven by the enjoyable exchange that follows. So, go ahead and dive right in - just make sure you have your shields and weapons ready!


  Brian: Who were your first horror inspirations? - The Universal monsters? - James Arness as the Thing? - Vincent Price being such a good papa to Diana Rigg in 'Theater of Blood'?

Joe: I remember the first horror films I ever saw as a 6 year old on TV, a triple feature of 'The Monster That Challenged the World', 'The Return of Dracula' and 'The Mummy's Ghost'. The next ten years are a smattering of images, but Price in 'Theater of Blood' and the 'Phibes' films and the Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein films and Chaney's Phantom were big for me. I really enjoyed the idea of the monster as main character. -In my early teens I saw 'Night of the Living Dead' for the first time on WABC in New York and it was a late night showing.... I'd never seen an indie low-budgeter before and I couldn't get over how raw the film looked.... and you couldn't predict who would survive. It almost felt like I was watching a documentary.... an effect that was intensified when they'd super "A DRAMATIZATION" over the scenes of the TV announcer to avoid any Orson Welles-style panics. - What really did it for me though was the original 'Dawn of the Dead'. I saw it first run theatrically at 15 and it was like nothing I ever saw. The characters, the story, the shock images - I saw 'Star Wars' the year before and it made me want to get into entertainment, but it was 'Dawn' that made up my mind on what genre t pursue.

Brian: Since 'War of the Dead: Z.E.R.O.' has such a huge back story I was interested in knowing whether you are influenced by the classic epic storytellers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens?

Joe: Sadly, I had no patience for the classics in school so I never read them until later in life. For me, the epic stories were sci fi. I must have read 'Dune' and 'The Martian Chronicles' more than a dozen times each. I was always dismayed that no-one endeavored to do an epic horror story because the prevailing wisdom is that horror is an emotion best brought out in small, claustrophobic environs. I think King's 'The Stand' is the closest I ever found to an epic horror story and Romero's 'Dead' series could be the closest thing cinematically. The Universal monster films, when watched in regular intervals, can be considered close, but the stories decay in credibility and quality toward the end of each cycle. I like to think that where we want to go with 'War of the Dead' is close to an epic horror story if only in scope.

Brian: What was your initial impetus to create the Zombie Outbreak Survival kit and did you ever think it would be such a career builder for you?

Joe: Frankly, it was just an attempt to see if we could create original product to sell on, which I had built for the publishers. We were selling other companies' products, but they weren't being released regularly enough, so I asked Norm Jacobs and Rita Eisenstein if I could try it out and it became the biggest seller on the site outside of subscriptions. I've always loved gag gifts and thought that a "first aid kit" for a zombie epidemic would be different enough to appeal to the horror fan, and it blew up into a whole 'Civil Defense' kind of thing, with the posters and the "how to recognize different classes of zombies" flash cards. Z.E.R.O. was invented as the agency that distributed the kits to the citizenry, and all of that stuff was just me working out my creative frustrations after several long years of doing corporate marketing. - As for a "career builder", I just hoped I could sell enough of them to start paying bills and not have to work for The Man anymore. We've sold over 20,000 of the damn things. Who knew?

Brian: How did you get from the Zombie Outbreak Survival kit to the characters peopling 'War of the Dead: Z.E.R.O.'?

Joe: That's mostly Mike DiSario. 'The War of the Dead' "saga" (yeesh) follows the adventures of a few generations of people, from the first outbreak all the way to the final confrontation between the living and the dead. - Obviously, way out of the scope of indie productions. Mike's true gift is in recognizing the small window in the epic timeline and focusing on how everyday people would act in outrageous situations. I gave him an outline on how the Z.E.R.O. organization was structured, how a particular team would be made up and respond to situations and he came up with the specific characters in the team. The idea of the psychiatrist evaluating the team after a mission was all his as well.

Brian: Was it frustrating when first realized your budget for 'Z.E.R.O.' wouldn't be able to support the grand ideas that you wanted to bring forth? Or did you just immediately move onto Plan B?

Joe: Actually, digital video production allowed us to go beyond where we though we would with the Z.E.R.O. idea and it was Melissa Rubin who used her indie training to stretch a dollar. We knew there was no way to start at what is to me the more exciting eras of the War, like the 'Planet of the Apes' -kind of world ruled by the 'Dead in the Seventh Age', but I went the complete opposite extreme initially. I saw how many people were making these crappy backyard zombie flicks and I thought "why can't we do an affordable section of the saga and do the same?" - At that point, I was fully prepared to do a "backyard zombie film" style of project, as so many of them were being done and distributed (much to my amazement). Melissa showed me that we could do something of quality for not a lot of money.

Brian: The second episode of 'War of the Dead: Z.E.R.O' focuses on Tara, the female member of the Zombie Emergency Response Operations. I have always found horror to be a wonderful emergence zone for powerful female characters. Do you have any particular thoughts on feminism and horror?

Joe: I think we are in a terrible spot right now, with all the torture porn coming out of the smaller studios like Lionsgate. On the DIY and indie front, I'm sickened by all the faux-snuff and serial-killer-worship themes. I think there are some really disturbed people working out some issues in those areas. I'm no prude by any means, and I love gore, but as long as it serves the story. I don't think there have been enough strong female characters in the horror genre outside of the brave-mother-defending-her-family-against-the-unknown or the serial-killer-victim-who-got-away-and-uses-the-killer's-weapon-
against-him. To me, no-one equaled Fran in the original 'Dawn of the Dead'. She knew that the possibility of her male companions' death was very real and demanded to know how to use a gun and fly a helicopter to survive. Sarah Polley in the Dawn remake is up there, too, now that I meditate on it. This episode of Z*E*R*O is so woman-focused, given the interplay between Dina Cataldi (Tara), Lynn Mastio Rice (Dr. Orchid) and our guest star Devon Marie, we joke that it's a "Lifetime movie with exploding heads". Anything more will spoil the story, but you'll see for yourself.

Brian: Can you tell me a little about your working relationship with Z.E.R.O.'s writer/director Michael DiSario and producer Melissa Rubin?

Joe: I can only hope that they want to keep working with me once they become unaffordable. They are incredibly talented and easy to work with. Melissa is a no-nonsense producer with a laser-sharp command of facts and details and unafraid to kick my ass if my ideas get too expensive. Mike DiSario is a great writing partner. He'll take a germ of a concept and extrude it into a fully-fleshed, believable scenario and he's a deft, light touch on the set. He makes it really fun and the cast and crew seem to be willing to follow him to Hell. - Which is convenient really.

Brian: Can you take a moment to brag about 'War of the Dead's' amazing cast?

Joe: We just screened the second episode at the New Jersey Fangoria Weekend of Horrors and I got an email from an attendee saying that he was stunned at the quality of the acting and the total believability of the characters. A testament to Mike and Mel's casting chops, but all of out actors are rising stars and so seemingly happy to work on this project. Don Money (Justin) has a small role in the new I Am Legend, Sean David was in the last Denzel Washington flick, and Dina and Andrew Roth have been in a bunch of horror films. From what I just heard, Dina, Don and Andrew are all doing an action film together, apparently cast because of their work on Z*E*R*O. With this second episode, Lynn takes what little screen time Dr. Orchid has and brings real gravitas to the role, -- we unfairly made the good doctor a one-note exposition device in the first episode and we promise never to do that again. Lastly, Adrian Mishek plays the "Detective" who hands off the crime scene from the local police over to Z*E*R*O and we love working with him so much that we changed the role from rotating cops to a "police/Z*E*R*O liaison". Watch carefully as he also doubles as a zombie in this one. It's hard to talk about guest star Devon Marie without spoiling the story, but her work with Dina in this film was a real tour-de-force. I hope we get her back in a future episode. Their talents really put the final sheen of quality on the show and I\rquote m so happy with them that I'm cutting them all in on future revenues from any 'War of the Dead' endeavor because they took a chance on the ground floor level. I hope to work with them forever.

Brian: Your Monster Times project is such an amazing idea - producing a horror site for fans of all ages. I was, also, fascinated by it because I had never heard of Monster Times. Can you explain a little what Monster Times meant in your life?

Joe: The Monster Times was a 72-issue "newspaper" that focused on monster movies in the 1970s. Unlike the better-known Famous Monsters, it was better-written, more in-depth and also looked at comics and conventions. It was bi-weekly for a while and I'd rush out to grab every copy, which was next to the other newspapers at the candy store, not up in the mag racks like FM or the others. I got into monster movies because of my parents and we shared a love for the genre, but as a parent I found it difficult to share horror films with my kids outside of the universal pictures because they've really all been "R" rated since the 1970s. I also cringe at some of the kids coming to conventions dressed as Jigsaw or Jason, but I'm sure that's an age thing. Can they read Fangoria? God, I hope their parents aren't brain-dead enough to let them. I reached out to the Monster Times guys because I felt kids and their parents needed a place to congregate and share their love for the genre without accidentally exposing them to inappropriate fare. This is also because I felt we had to emasculate Fangoria's online presence (which I developed) since it seemed kids were going there as well. I'd like to see Fango's muzzle taken off and a proper age-gate placed in front eventually. The Monster Times will be the place for family fans of fearful fun (I'm amazed I went this far without a cheesy Crypt keeper alliteration).

Brian: Lastly, do you have any exciting future plans that you would like to share with us? I know you have plenty of stuff brewing. And - thanks! It's been a blast!

Joe: It's always a concern when I blurt out the stuff we want to do because it's all subject to change. "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," the saying goes. But, some concrete stuff that's happening is the expansion of the FearWerx merchandise line to include licenses from Troma (a glow-in-the-dark Toxie action figure) and Living Dead Dolls, a War of the Dead card game with amazing illustrations from Vince ("DeadWorld" , "Sandman" , "History of Violence") Locke, sci-fi stuff like our Mego Star Trek reproduction action figures, and of course, more episodes of Z*E*R*O, which we hope to put on DVD next year.