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An empty Cambridge movie theater is just what this filmmaker needed to create a zombie apocalypse

Conor Holway in a scene from his film "Apple Cinema."Courtesy of Conor Holway

Most of 2020 was a bleak time for local cinema-goers as art houses and multiplexes alike were shuttered. But for local podcaster and filmmaker Conor Holway, the lockdown had a silver lining: It provided an empty movie theater to shoot a zombie apocalypse film that just happened to be about two friends trapped inside a deserted Boston-area movie house during a plague.

The result is the 48-minute “Apple Cinema,” which after a run of local screenings is now available for streaming on YouTube or purchase on Amazon. Most of the flick takes place inside the actual Cambridge location of Apple Cinemas, the venerable albeit rarely spotlighted multi-screen cinema that runs a mix of Hollywood and Bollywood fare. Holway, who grew up in Cambridge and Lincoln, first went there to see the Tom Cruise vehicle “Collateral” back when it was known as the Fresh Pond Cinemas.

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A scene from "Apple Cinema" shows Boston under attack.Courtesy of Conor Holway

Management of the regional chain granted Holway and his cast and crew full run of the theater. “They said you can have our theater for three weeks and use it as your set, and it made all the difference, especially for people shooting their first full movie. It gave us time to make mistakes,” says Holway, speaking from a Brighton co-working space. Other location sites included Boston Bowl and the Boston Harbor Distillery.

Holway had made a short while studying film at Providence College and was an extra when the Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart movie “Central Intelligence” was shot in Lynn. Still, the energetic 25-year-old and his creative partner Jack Bigelow had been warned by many not to attempt a feature on their own because of the financial and technical hurdles. Holway’s podcast, “The Golden Hours,” had never been a big money maker, “so over time you acquire a skill at making things happen on a low budget.”

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What the podcast also provided was a long list of contacts from its past guest roster, which was heavily centered on the local entertainment, sports, and politics scenes. Outgoing Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone makes a cameo, as does morning radio mainstay Ramiro Torres. New Hampshire comic Drew Dunn plays a concession stand attendant who refuses to stop his obsequious upselling even when the dire situation outside has reduced his customer base to two. In keeping with the all-Boston angle, the soundtrack is mostly sourced from local artists including rapper $ean Wire. Leo Sun of the Q-Tip Bandits provided both music and audio expertise.

From left: Tim Blouin, Bernard Ssetongo, Audrey Wong, and Conor Holway in "Apple Cinema," which was filmed mostly at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge while the theater was shut down during the pandemic.Courtesy of Conor Holway

In a local example of the longtime Hollywood practice of product placement, an accounting firm and a CBD purveyor both chipped in in exchange for on-screen credits and perks like characters wearing logo hats or company executives getting cast as extras. Such deals helped fund about half of the film’s roughly $35,000 budget, with Holway chipping in the rest from savings he acquired running an e-commerce business. Most of that went to the post-production effects like the ones that show Boston crumbling at the outset of the apocalypse.

Holway knows that posting a film directly to YouTube likely eliminates the possibility of screening it on the festival circuit. He’s fine with that. “I’d rather get back to work and accelerate the next project,” he says. “This film is my resume.”