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First Set Visit To The New York City Contagion Chiller CONDEMNED

Originally Posted: June 5, 2019   |   By: Michael Gingold   |   Fangoria

A set visit report from The Gingold Files.

You know you’re stopping by a horror-movie set on the right day when your shoes stick to the floor from all the fake blood being strewn about. Such is the case when FANGORIA enters the small Upper West Side apartment building whose rooms, corridors and stairwells have been Condemned.

No sooner has this writer ascended to an upper floor than a gruesome confrontation starts playing out for the cameras. We’ll let writer/director Eli Morgan Gesner—an artist and fashion designer taking his first turn at feature filmmaking with Condemned—set the scene: “Two infected people—a transvestite hooker named Roxy and a strung-out junkie named Vince—have been chasing our heroine Maya and her boyfriend Dante in different directions toward each other. They have crashed together in an embrace and fallen to the floor to accept their fates—but luckily for them, Roxy and Vince start attacking each other, and the lovers just hold onto each other and get covered with blood.”

And so it transpires, the two crazed characters hacking at each other with improvised weapons while the red stuff spurts. Maya and Dante, the cowering couple caught up in the mayhem, are portrayed by Dylan Penn and Ronen Rubinstein; the former is Sean Penn’s daughter, making her acting debut in the midst of a successful modeling career. She’s not the only familiar last name on the Condemned set; also in the cast is Lydia Hearst, daughter of Patty, taking her second turn at suffering a deleterious onscreen infection after the soon-to-release Cabin Fever: Patient Zero. Roxy is played by Kevin Smith Kirkwood, a member of Broadway’s Kinky Boots ensemble, and his junkie opponent is Jon Abrahams, whose face might be familiar from House of Wax and Scary Movie if it wasn’t done up in pustulent prosthetics and streaked with gore. Responsible for all the grotesquerie are makeup FX artists and Glass Eye Pix regulars Brian Spears and Peter Gerner.

Maya and Dante are among a group of disparate individuals squatting in an abandoned, squalid building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the plumbing has backed up and festering waste in the system leads to the sickness. The residents begin losing their minds and turning violently on their neighbors—but, unlike the killers in many similar movies, they don’t take leave of their senses, instead retaining their personalities and the ability to communicate. Gesner explains that as he grew up watching zombie/infection films, it struck him that “the storytelling is very binary—it’s just us vs. them. Someone’s wife gets bitten, and maybe there are two minutes of ‘Baby, I’m so sorry, you’re gonna turn into a zombie,’ and then she becomes one and she’s the enemy. What I’m trying to accomplish here is a mix of peril and interaction where it’s not like someone’s suddenly lost once they get infected. The thing is, this sickness is curable, so it becomes, ‘Even though they’re trying to kill us, we might be able to help them,’ and if it’s your wife, you might not be so inclined to chop her head off.”

Of course, some of the afflicted, like Roxy and Vince, have no problem having at it with whatever implements they can find, and as their battle continues, it simply becomes impossible to step past the pools and splatters of crimson all over the place. (Clear contact paper has been put down on the floors and stairs to catch the blood, but it’s still clear there’s gonna be a massive cleanup job required when the shoot is done.) As Abrahams and Kirkwood continue their struggle, Fango gets a few minutes with Penn in the safety of a side room. She says of her character, “Maya has run away from home to come live with her boyfriend in this condemned building, and a day later, our roommate Loki [played by Honor Titus, lead singer of the Brooklyn punk band Cerebral Ballzy] gets infected, and it’s all about my journey of survival.” Although not a horror fan per se, she was intrigued enough by the script and Gesner’s background to make Condemned her first screen venture (without telling her dad she was going for it until after she landed the role), though she notes, “I didn’t really know what I was signing up for, and I’ve been learning as I go. It’s been pretty intense.”

That description is seconded by Rubinstein: “Dante would literally sacrifice anything to protect Maya,” he says, and that seems evident from the red-soaked shirt he’s wearing. “This is kind of my regular outfit right now,” laughs the actor, who is reteaming with Condemned’s producers on Adam Egypt Mortimer’s teen-vengeance shocker Some Kind of Hate. “We’ve been doing the bloody scenes and the action scenes for a week now, and I’m kind of used to it by this point. It’s fun, because Brian Spears was like, ‘Can we pour some blood on you?’ and I was like, ‘Dude, as much as you want!’ It’s a horror film, after all.”

Indeed it is, and one that appears to be following in the tradition of go-for-broke NYC independents like Basket Case and C.H.U.D. The city’s gotten safer since those films were lensed back in the ’80s, and Gesner notes, “The drawback to making a horror movie in New York is that everybody’s always around, so as soon as someone pulls out a knife, people start screaming and running to your rescue. So it was like, how do I approach this? How do I isolate people in Manhattan? I spent a lot of my childhood running around abandoned buildings and subway tunnels and things like that, and I’ve always kept those ideas in the back of my head. Then I came up with the idea of a squat, and all these different people with very different points of view living in this one building together. They all have different sensibilities, but they have to tolerate one another to live in this confined space.”

How many of them will be left alive by the time Condemned is over? Signs point to not many, based on the bloodshed Fango witnesses (including a couple of ghastly killings we can’t discuss in detail right now)…