Sarah Polley still remembers the meeting she took with Zack Snyder and Eric Newman -- the director and producer of the zombie film Dawn Of The Dead -- as "the greatest pitch I've heard in my life."
"At one point, Eric leaned over the table, took my hand and said, 'Sarah, this is going to be career suicide for you. I'm asking you to do that for me.' "
It made her laugh and won her over to a role in both her first horror film and first Hollywood feature (after a stint as the indie "it" girl in the '90s). "Honestly I can't figure out, given how damaging I seem to be to my films' box office, why Universal would be after me."
In a blood-soaked T-shirt (her 'husband' turned zombie on her and was terminated), Polley sits down between scenes to chat in an upscale Toronto hardware store called Case Hardware, patterned on the U.S. chain Ace Hardware.
The shelves are stocked but the store is otherwise empty, as is the rest of the "mall" we're in. There are Hallowed Grounds and RPM, with fonts on the signage clearly modelled after Starbucks and HMV. There is also a Panasonic Store (a la the Sony Store), a Roots and a Nike. It's a fullscale mall hidden away within the remains of the now-defunct Thornhill Mall on Bayview.
A remake of the George Romero original, Dawn Of The Dead is the zombies-in-a-mall movie. The film with Polley, Ving Rhames and Mekhi Phifer retains the thinly-veiled anti-consumerist message of the original. It's a good fit, given Polley's past as a World Trade Organization protester (she's the only castmember who's ever been pepper-sprayed).
"I don't know if I could've justified it to myself if this film didn't have the anti-consumerist message," Polley says. "But in fact I'm just a huge zombie fan."
Panasonic, Roots and Nike said yes, either oblivious to the message or uncaring. "But a lot of, I would say, the really evil ones said no -- with the exception of one," she says. "Nike agreed, and that was the one I was pretty thrilled about. But I was really hoping for The Gap and Starbucks 'cause I think there's something fabulous about having blood splattering all over these logos."
The other attraction was that Snyder's expressed intention was to shoot straight horror. "Horror movies today kind of bug me with the tongue-in-cheek thing," she says. "I felt it in the '90s when Pulp Fiction came out, where we couldn't say anything serious anymore, 'cause everything was so drenched in irony. Suddenly somebody getting their head blown off was just funny, it wasn't horrible anymore. It's like you've hit a ceiling."
During that time, she resisted all attempts to make the jump from indie movies like Go and the oeuvres of Cronenberg and Egoyan to big-budget films. "I had one agent, she got drunk one night and went, 'Some day they're gonna write a book about all the films you didn't do!' "
After all these years of resisting, Polley can't help but be taken aback by the scale of a Hollywood production (though the $30-million Dawn is modest by Hollywood standards). "I've never seen a production this size with as many trucks and as much wasted film-stock. The excess is unbelievable to me. Sometimes 'action' will come two minutes late, and you can hear the film stock going 'zhhh, zhhh, zhzh.' And you're, like, 'Two Canadian films could be shot with the stuff they're throwing out!' "
So having taken the plunge, what's next? Scream 4? "I don't know. My best friend says, 'Make sure they don't sign you to 10 sequels. You'll be the next Jamie Lee Curtis,' " she says with a laugh.