Breaking News
More () »

Inside the making of SXSW selection "Dead Enders," horror short made in San Antonio

Co-director Fidel Ruiz-Healy is an Alamo City native who has taken advantage of what the region has to offer filmmakers.
Credit: American Standard Film Company

SAN ANTONIO — Everyone navigated the worst months of the pandemic in their own ways. 

For filmmakers and frequent collaborators Fidel Ruiz-Healy and Tyler Walker, contending with contemporary issues called for retreating to the throwback glory of B-movie madness—the result is a 12-minute short film whose title, "Dead Enders," reflects where millions found themselves psychologically during COVID-19. 

Made in San Antonio, boasting a mostly local cast and crew, and debuting just up the highway at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival, "Dead Enders" – about an invasion of mind-controlling bugs and the gas station employee who fights them off – recalls the violent, satirical spirit of John Carpenter. With a few "Alien"-inspired shots thrown in, for good measure. 

"It's always a great time for horror," Ruiz-Healy said. "Right now you have people like Shudder, Screambox and Blumhouse that are all investing in horror at different levels."

Originally conceived of as a mumblecore-esque drama "but with a monster in the basement," the start of the post-lockdown Great Resignation movement reshaped "Dead Enders" to center on Maya (Skarlett Redd), a twentysomething initially content to waste away her days working at a remote gas station before taking charge of her own life while taking a stand against creepy-crawly invaders. 

“Everyone’s starting to realize, ‘I should quit my job and do what I actually like to do,'" Ruiz-Healy said about the film's pandemic parallels.

Because he was born in and remains based out of San Antonio, the duo knew firsthand what the city has to offer as far as affordable places to shoot. Plus, the gritty, rustic atmosphere of San Antonio (specifically the southeast-side gas station where most of "Dead Enders" was shot) was perfect for a movie with a gritty, rustic attitude. 

"Dead Enders" is just the latest project Ruiz-Healy and Walker have shot in the Alamo City; for all intents and purposes, South Texas is their creative headquarters. 

"It became very easy to make San Antonio our home base," Ruiz-Healy said. "If we were to shoot in an old gas station and shut it down for the week in New York or LA, it would cost like tens of thousands of dollars."

Instead, all it took to secure their main shooting location for "Dead Enders" – Mr. C's convenience store on the southeast side – was chatting up the owner, who was more than happy to let them shoot at this business for five nights after he closed up shop. That was in the fall of 2021. 

“I believe there’s two of them, they’re owned by brothers,” Ruiz-Healy said. “We were lucky. We got the film-loving brother.”

Credit: American Standard Film Co.
Tyler Walker (left) and Fidel Ruiz-Healy have produced many of their short-form creative work in San Antonio, including their latest, "Dead Enders."

The duo made the most of their limited resources. Evocative lighting goes a long way to establishing the eerie atmosphere, the script knows when to lean into comedy or into horror, and some special effects ingenuity adds a dash of midnight-movie sparkle.

When it came to the monsters, for instance, Ruiz-Healy and Walker were initially in a tough spot: COVID-19 kept their New York-based creature designer, who was going to puppeteer the bug, from joining the shoot. They chalk it up to a happy accident in post-production that they turned out looking like stop-motion effects—which only heightens how freakish they are. 

“We were mucking around and sped it up twice, cut some frames out, and it gave us that sort of Sam Raimi kitsch element,” Walker said.

Story, however, reigned supreme. And the directors took care to give “Dead Enders” a clear enough emotional arc to convince audiences that Maya transforms into a heroine in less time than it takes to find a good seat at the Austin Alamo Drafthouse, where it will premiere Monday night. 

“Tyler and I have gotten really good at putting our stamp on how things look,” Ruiz-Healy said. “But if the story isn’t there, then you’re dressing up nothing.”

“Dead Enders” is far from the first genre experiment the co-directors have done; past projects in the narrative, music video and commercial space play with the cliches of Westerns and scifi.

The medium of short-form storytelling, they say, frees them up to pursue their kookiest ideas without making risky financial commitments. It's a creative space they're more than happy to continue thriving in. 

“It’s an excuse to try stuff out and experiment," Walker said, "and not be afraid to be a little gaudy sometimes."

"Dead Enders" screens at SXSW as part of the Midnight Shorts block at Alamo Drafthouse Lamar on March 13 and March 16. Following Tyler Walker and Fidel Ruiz-Healy on social media for the latest screening announcements. 

Before You Leave, Check This Out