Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder become zombies: Inside the making of boxing’s Day of Reckoning trailer

Rotting skin is peeling off of Anthony Joshua’s face as he signs a blood contract with Eddie Hearn. Somewhere on the street outside, Deontay Wilder – relying on what little is left of his mind – careens a van around a corner before mowing down a zombie. In the passenger seat, promoter Frank Warren is hanging on for dear life; or he would be, if he was not already the embodiment of the living dead. Elsewhere in this post-apocalyptic, zombified town, Filip Hrgovic reaches into a glass and grabs his eyeball, before popping it back into his battered skull. Joseph Parker is staring into the distance, until suddenly he’s staring at you, having rotated his head 180 degrees atop his creaky spine. This, in case you were wondering, is the trailer for the Day of Reckoning boxing event.

On 23 December, the heavyweights above will compete in Saudi Arabia, all on one card and joined by Otto Wallin, Daniel Dubois, Jarrell Miller and more. On paper – and this event will print plenty of paper – it will be perhaps the most impressive concentration of boxing star power and talent ever on one night. In modern boxing, Joshua vs Wallin and Wilder vs Parker are main-event bouts, but their undercards would typically leave a lot to be desired. On 23 December, however, one of those main-event bouts will have to serve as the chief support, and the undercard will feature the likes of light-heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol and Jai Opetaia (who may still be a cruiserweight world champion come fight night, unless he is forced to vacate his title).

And just as this impending gathering of boxers is unprecedented, the promotion has been, too. That is not only in the sense that bitter rivals Warren and Eddie Hearn were seen on stage together at the launch press conference for Day of Reckoning (the pair had never met until that day in November). The event poster depicts all of the biggest names from a fight card full of big names, sat around a table and staring up at the camera. It is an arresting visual, only outdone by this week’s zombie-themed trailer.

The video is admittedly bizarre, but just as the press conference and poster showed how stupefying amounts of money can pierce fighters’ pride and allow them to gather on one stage and around one table, the trailer demonstrates how those same sums can convince the baddest men alive to sport prosthetics and make-up, engage in cartoonish scenes, and pretend that they are, well, very much unalive.

The clip is of impressively cinematic quality, and it is coloured with creativity and tinged with humour, in the same vein as the promotional video for October’s Saudi clash between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou. That short film, perhaps one of the greatest fight promos ever, was directed by Seb Edwards, while the Day of Reckoning promo was directed by Romain Chassaing. Both directors work with Academy Films, though it was Park Films who produced the Fury-Ngannou video, while this week’s was made by Academy for BigTimeCreativeShop and Saudi adviser Turki Alalshikh. That strange Fury vs Ngannou super-fight, between the best heavyweight boxer on the planet and the best heavyweight mixed martial artist in the world, also took place in Riyadh.

“The agency had the idea to introduce all the fighters in the zombie world, that was something they asked us to do,” Chassaing told The Independent, his French accent purring over the phone. “My part was to think about storytelling and how to introduce all these famous fighters without having too much time to play with – just to find a small idea for each [fighter], and connect all these things a little bit. It was a bit of a puzzle for me to make it work. From the moment when I was approached until the moment we had to deliver, it was three weeks, which is crazy in terms of production.

“All the shoot was crazy, but it was very, very fun. Six days [were spent filming]. Three were in Sofia in Bulgaria: That was the burning car, driving crazy. That was in a backlot, so we had access to a big street where we could do whatever we wanted. We had a snowstorm at one point in Sofia, and I didn’t plan to put snow in the film, but there was 50cm of snow on the set! That was the most challenging part. After, we went to some sort of mansion north of London – far away – to shoot all the guys, who came one by one.

“The boxers really enjoyed it. They had about two hours for make-up, but they were all very cool. I was very surprised; I used to work with famous, sporty guys who don’t have 10 minutes to shoot, but these guys were very cooperative and very nice. There was something very cool between Joshua and Eddie, they were laughing a lot, and the scene with Frank in the van with a crazy Wilder was very fun to shoot, because Wilder is playing it very well.

“The timing was made so the fighters were never together too much, and not the ones who were gonna fight each other – they never met – so it was a bit of a nightmare for the production.”

The Day of Reckoning promo is not just curious because of its horror-movie-inspired visuals. Unlike in the Fury vs Ngannou video, the main characters here are not presented as rivals. Joshua and Wallin do not share a still, nor do Wilder and Parker, for example. These zombified fighters are not at odds with each other, but rather with the nameless, soulless ghouls around them. The boxers, in a sense, are all on one team. It is a unique angle in a sport that has long been built on the premise – often a false one – that opponents hate each other. Perhaps it was a creative choice intended to subtly convey the messaging of Alalshikh: that the state intends to grow the sport of boxing, so fighters and promoters must set aside their differences and pull in one direction.

Some viewers will be cynical, naturally, and suggest that no level of eye-catching promotion should dispel the unease brought about by what they would deem the state’s sportswashing. In fact, it could be argued that any eye-catching promotion is essentially an example of that very sportswashing, while also an example of the work of many talented creatives.

If the Day of Reckoning event shows how Saudi Arabia is changing the face of boxing, the Day of Reckoning trailer shows how Saudi Arabia is changing the face of boxing promotion – bloody eyeballs, ripped cheeks and all.