We needed squibs. I didn’t exactly know what they were, or how they worked, but they’re little charges that explode under an actor’s shirt, so it looks like they’ve just been shot. Just like in Die Hard or Bad Boys II. But in Poultrygeist, it wasn’t Hans Gruber who’d be shot—it was the horde of bloodthirsty chicken-zombies, exploding with green slime. (Everyone knows zombie blood is green.) Old Arbie shoots them, while wearing his short skirt and sash.
The only problem was that the cheapest guy we could find wanted ten thousand dollars for squibs. And we didn’t have ten thousand dollars.
So I called Tony.
I’d first met Tony Franco a few weeks earlier. He drove me around in his long Cadillac sedan, showing me Buffalo’s fast food restaurants. He intrigued me. He was short, prematurely balding, and walked with a cheap plastic orthopedic cane like my grandfather used. I don’t know where his limp came from, but it added to his mystery, along with his stylish suits and copious gold. He also ran an Italian restaurant. He seemed like a character from a cheesy mafia film. And yet he was just another one of Buffalo’s hundreds of volunteers for the film, who’d shown up at the church out of the blue, offering to help.
“What’s this for?” I’d asked him that first day, when I found a short, splintered baseball bat within easy reach of the driver’s seat.
“That? That belongs to the family,” he said with a menacing wink, pausing for a beat before adding, “I mean, it’s my kid’s. Can you grab the map for me? It’s in the glove compartment.” In the glove compartment, on top of the map, sat a heavy handgun. I don’t know guns, but it was big.
“Is this your kid’s, too?” I asked.
“Nah, that’s a fake. Just in case.” He kept his eyes on the road, and smiled.
Tony was also a complete special effects nerd. He loved Troma, and his suburban house was like a shrine to bad movies. Horror movie posters on the walls, racks of DVDs and VHS tapes lined the shelves, and demonic action figures. On weekends, he’d stay at home, building fake corpses out of latex and paper mache with his eight-year-old son, Zach. The house was littered with body parts—hands, legs, heads. One of these was a skeleton they were collaborating on for the movie: one of the corpses disinterred from the sacred Indian burial ground, and carelessly tossed in a dumpster. It’s one of the scenes that builds up to the Poultrygeist. It’s clearly important.
One day in passing, he’d mentioned that he’d rigged up squibs before.
The afternoon after I called, Tony shuffled up the church sidewalk, dressed in black pants and a black shirt, oversized sunglasses hanging from his shirt pocket. Trailing him was his serious-faced little son, identically dressed and hefting a bloated WalMart bag. They reminded me of a father-and-son undertaker team, an ominous harbinger in this churchyard filled with under-slept and under-fed production assistants.
Tony waved across the yard, and shouted “I got your stuff right here,” pointing with his cane at the bag. “But who are we gonna shoot?”
At these words, the under-slept zombie interns snapped to life. Eyes went up and cigarettes were pulled from mouths. Hands flew into the air. This was the Troma dream.
“I’ll do it!” “Choose me!” “Dean, I’ve been working so hard!”
I picked the most useless intern, a malnourished and probably-stoned teenager. Finally, he might be useful.
“My only stipulation, Tony, is we need a lot of blood,” I urged. “This should be the bloodiest movie in the history of filmmaking. I’m not talking Sam Peckinpah, little spurts of blood popping across the sky. I’m talking something like Shogun Assassin or BrainDead. We want arterial spray, fountains of blood. Keep it gushing, okay? It’s got to look more than real.”
Tony looked down at the 8-year-old Zach, and the 8-year-old Zach looked up at dad, and they nodded confidently.
“Don’t worry, Dean,” Tony said. “You’ll get your fountains of blood.”
He laid out a cloth on the weed-filled lawn, kneeled down, and set to work like a bizarro surgeon. Instead of saving his patient, he was attaching tubes and bandages to apparently kill one.
“Tape,” Tony called, his hand held out. The little boy rummaged around in the WalMart bag, and handed his father a roll of duct tape, not even a hint of joy in his face. He was serious, like a real ER nurse or a very disturbed child. “Scissors,” Dad called, and he handed over the scissors. “Feed the tube.” They ran a long stretch of thin plastic tubing up the teenager’s leg like a catheter, through his shorts, and up past his waist, taping it to his scrawny hairless chest. Tony used the scissors to cut a small hole in the teen’s shirt and poked the tube out, stuffing it with some cotton wool. Then, Tony filled the tube with fake blood, attaching a plastic hand-pump garden sprayer to the end.
“How much did this all cost, Tony?” I asked with a smile.
“Oh, about $50.”
Fifty dollars? I’m going to just assume that Die Hard spent a little more than $50 on squibs. Although… I could see the tube through the kid’s shirt. And the hole in his shirt, as well. To be honest, I could even make out the duct tape. I made a mental note to tell costumes to pick up some thick, distractingly-patterned shirts. All in all, it looked better than nothing.
“Are you rolling?” I asked the videographer. He gave me a thumbs up.
“Are you set” I asked the gawky kid covered in tubes. He nervously nodded.
“And you guys?” I asked Tony and his little boy.
“Ready, and waiting,” Tony announced, as he reached down and slowly drew a large handgun from the bag.
My body stiffened and my eyes bulged out.
“Is that real?” I hissed at him.
“Yeah. You said you wanted this to look good for the camera. Don’t worry, I loaded it with blanks.”
We’d already had trouble with church neighbors upset by the mutilated body parts, the swastikas, and the zombies inside and outside the Church of Christ, so I kept my voice low as I reminded him where we were. That real shootings did happen here. That the last thing we needed was some old biddy seeing him pull out a gun and shoot one of the interns.
“But, Dean, I was going to let you shoot…”
So Tony shamefully pulled a plastic toy gun, which he’d painted black, from the bag. “How about this?”
“No, Tony! No guns! Not even a plastic gun!”
He looked genuinely hurt. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Dean.” He wrapped the gun in a dishtowel, picked up his cane and began to slowly limp away saying, “I’ll put it in my car.” I felt bad. He’d tried hard. And I knew he’d parked blocks away.
“Look, let me put it away for you. It’ll just take a second.”
I took the handgun, and double-stepped back to the church, holding it away from my body nervously.
Inside, Latte was looking for me.
“I need an oven,” she said. “Do you have an oven I can use? Maybe outside, it’s very toxic.”
“Ummm, how big?”
“Big enough for a human head.”
“Let me make some calls,” I threw out distractedly, as I shoved the gun in my desk, hiding it under some contracts and locking the drawer. I jiggled it to make sure.
Even with the gun incident, I felt like everything was moving forward. I could feel the excitement in the air. As I walked outside, Tony smiled bravely, picked up the garden sprayer, and I launched into a countdown.
The camera started filming.
Everyone was silent.
I was actually shaking with excitement. I shouted “Go,” pumping my fist in the air for good measure.
Tony slammed the garden sprayer pump closed and it made a small click sound. Blood and air rushed down the tube, which jerked on the ground, and under the teenager’s shirt. His shirt whipped out briefly, and then, suddenly, his chest turned red. No explosion, no gush, just a soaking wet red. The end of the tube plopped out of his shorts and hung there, dripping red juice.
“That looked more like an internal hemorrhage,” one of the interns volunteered.
“It looks like he spilled his cherry kool-aid,” laughed another.
It was the worst special effect I’ve ever seen.
Tony pulled a linen handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow cartoonishly. “I think it could be the pump… Yeah, lemme do it again.” He and his kid set to work, but the next two tests were no better, and eventually Tony left in defeat, promising to come back. And I started to worry… about the blood. And the costumes. And the sets. And the script. And the four-hundred extras. And Ron Jeremy. There was a lot of work to be done, and only a few weeks left.
The next day Tony showed up at the church, without any hoses or sprayers, or his kid.
“I got home last night, and realized I left my gun here.”
Sure enough, there it was in the desk drawer, which was long unlocked and forgotten. I handed it to him, and he quickly slipped it into his satchel. He then lightly took out a small box, which he handed to me.
“I also wanted to give you a little present, Dean.”
I was heartbroken. Clearly, he’d felt bad about the day before. I cracked it open, and inside was a massive glimmering Cartier watch. It was huge, and gaudy, and horrible.
“Tony, this is wonderful!”
“It’s just a little token of our friendship, Dean, and of how much I appreciate the work you’re doing here.”
That night, sitting on the front porch of the church, I showed the watch to Latte and she laughed mockingly. “The same thing happens in The Godfather, you know. Why did he give you this watch?”
“I think he felt bad about the shooting. I’m sure it’s a fake.” I watched her peel latex off her fingers, and scrape it out from under her fingernails. She had drops of latex all over… in her inch-long hair, on her cheek, her neck… “Also, he’d forgotten his gun.”
“Ah, yes, he showed me this gun. It was heavy.”
“You held it?” I asked.
“Yes, he insisted. He wanted me to feel how heavy it was. He even told me to put my finger on the trigger.”
“You put your finger on the trigger?”
“Yes, he wanted me to pretend to shoot it.”
As it slowly dawned on both of us that perhaps there had been more to this than we’d understood, we sat in silence and watched the stars.
Photo by Joshua Samuel Strauss