I’m not a great filmmaker. Or a famous one. If I was, I wouldn’t have ended up drenched in a 3AM rainstorm of the roof of a dilapidated McDonalds, bailing out the small lake of water forming around my sneakers. I definitely wouldn’t have started my filmmaking career in the slums of Buffalo, or have been risking my life for trash cinema.
I felt the wet tar give under my foot.
“Watch out! That’s a weak spot!”
Weak spot. Right. Did I mention this roof was collapsing in slow motion?
Underneath me, inside the abandoned restaurant, there was a gang of thirty people trying to make a movie. The sixty-year-old director couldn’t remember the plot of the film, even though he’d written it himself. He kept asking awful questions he should have known the answers to: “What’s coming out of what orifice? And when does he die? The alcohol kills him, but…” The actors were fighting over pay, and one of the stars was threatening to walk off set. The cameraman refused to shoot, arguing that the story made no sense and that the effects looked terrible, both of which were true. The assistant director was one of the few anchors of sanity on this shoot, but he was lying down on the scummy floor, Karo syrup oozing off his body and Bromo Seltzer foam bubbling out of his mouth. He was covered in feathers and wore a giant prosthetic chicken beak.
But at this point, all the drama was good. It distracted everyone from the water dripping all over our set—and especially from the large leak above the circuit breaker. Rainwater was streaming onto it. “This is Troma place of death number thirty seven,” the gaffer had nervously joked, as he crammed a bundle of towels in the crevice above it. “If water comes through, the whole thing blows.” That circuit breaker powered the entire shoot, and we didn’t have the time or the money to have it replaced.
I was wet, I was scared, I was tired, and, up there on the roof, I really wished I was back at home.
“Over here, Andy! I think I’ve got it!”
I tiptoed across the roof this time, a ballerina in sopping wet sneakers. One section gave a little, so I nervously re-routed while rain continued to hit me in the face. Gabe was crouched down ripping at a pile of rotten leaves, tossing handfuls of muck into the parking lot below. He’d written the movie. I was producing it. And it wasn’t going well. We scooped at leaves and bucketed water together using Big Gulp cups. We still couldn’t find the leak.
In the week before, I’d been humiliated, yelled at, and—in one case—actually beaten. I’d been threatened with lawsuits and, by a preacher’s daughter, eternal damnation. I’d been rushed to the emergency room covered in blood. I’d been sewn back up. I had fired people, and had almost been fired myself. I’d struggled to keep the stars from quitting. I had thought producing a cult movie would be a laugh, filled with sex and drugs and b-list celebrities, but instead I’d been working 122-hour weeks, and hadn’t slept in months. And now we only had minutes to find the leak before the roof collapsed or the circuit box exploded. If either of those happened, it would all be over. Most of all, though, if that confused old man inside, a film legend who’d directed some of the lousiest, most wonderful films ever made realized where I was, that I was risking my life on the roof, I’d have been finished. He would have fired me—and not out of concern for my health. That couldn’t happen. I had to see this film completed.
I had to find that leak.
In 2005, when I’d left a successful career in management to pursue dreams of becoming a filmmaker—dreams that were going nowhere—I ran into the legendary b-movie filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman in a Nashville bar. He was desperate to make what he said would be his last great film—a chicken zombie musical, an animal-rights manifesto with dancing and gore—but couldn’t find anyone to make it happen. That person turned out to be me.
The only problem was, I had almost no experience in making a movie. I’d barely even been on a film set before. That didn’t seem to bother him, though. “You’re a smart guy,” Kaufman said. “I’m sure you can work it out.”
By the skin of my teeth, I did.
The first photo was of a man. He was drenched in ketchup, liquid latex, and a handful of large white feathers. Attached to his mouth was a chicken beak. At least, I think it was a chicken beak… it looked more like a cone. A cone made of… cardboard? There were ten more photos were of the same man, in the same ketchup and cone, in different poses. It looked horrible.
“This looks great, Leah!” I typed. Then added, as an afterthought, “Can you do more?” I hit the send button, and looked at the pictures again. They were really bad.
We had no location to shoot the movie in, no actors, and definitely no money, and now we also had no effects. I’d put out the call a few weeks earlier, and—while I didn’t expect any response from Dreamworks or ILM—I’d hoped for something more than this.
But then again, this was Troma, the home to masterpieces like A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and Femme Fontaine: Killer Babe For the CIA. I wasn’t surprised that people weren’t interested in working for us. Oh, and the ads did mention that the work wasn’t paid.
“The edible baby leg is 100% vegetarian,” wrote a woman about something that looked an awful lot like a sausage. Someone else sent photos of themselves with silly putty, like a chicken’s claws, plastered to their feet.
But there was no budget, so these would have to do.
“I love the amputee,” I’d write, “and Burn Victim 5 is especially impressive.” After buttering them up like this, I’d jump to the kill. “Can you send character sketches of featherless re-animated chicken carcass puppets, or decaying half-human/half-chicken zombies? Also, we need small and huge pulsating chicken eggs.”
There were some for whom this offered an escape, a chance to find their true calling. One middle-aged man in rural Washington promised to send “a fake arm that has been pecked to death,” and then did. It was awful, but he said he’d work for free, so I gave him more work. In exchange, I listened to his woes down the phone, most of them about his 60-year-old ex-wife who was threatening to move back in. Occasionally he’d talk about his health. “I fainted again last night,” he said one day, complaining about the fumes from the batches of monster four-foot-long latex fried eggs he was making for me.
“That’s terrible! Can you open a window?” I’d heartlessly ask.
The most disturbing calls were from an Emergency Medical Technician, one of Manhattan’s ambulance men. He pleaded for an opportunity to escape his life. “I want to deal with fake blood, not real blood!” he said. “Made-up vomit, not real vomit on my clothes… and shovel fake body parts, not real ones.” I wanted to suggest a therapist, or a counselor, or maybe just a drink, but instead I asked him to make these body parts, post haste.
When he showed up at the office, he brought a bag of gruesome prosthetics. “I’m sorry the brain doesn’t have so much detail,” he apologized, “but most people won’t really know the difference. It’s like a shooting… people have been conditioned to see bullet hits explode, and in real life they don’t.”
Exploding bullets? In Troma films, bullets don’t just explode. They gush like arterial fountains… every day, Lloyd reminded me this was to be the bloodiest film in the history of cinema. Not Buckets of Blood, but barrels… vats of it!
So we needed more gore. So I massaged their egos and made them promises. “Your name will be up there on the big screen, seen by millions of people around the globe. So, can you tackle the fried chicken with the zits on it? And the zits need to pulsate, and maybe pop and spew out zitty pus fluid. Can you do this?”
At my last job, I sat in stern meetings where we discussed rebuilding publishing systems, overhauling product development, and scheduling offshore labor. Now I was opening poorly-packed boxes of gruesome gifts in Styrofoam chips. A dozen prosthetic beaks, two armless hands, one spare foot, and a chicken zombie doll. It was like an eBay of avian terror.
The effects would arrive as strange beasts from strange minds. The Sloppy José sandwich, a menu item from one of Lloyd’s bad puns, would come to life in the film, reanimated with the spirit of Paco Bell (who, as you probably remember, falls into the humorously oversized meat grinder during his impassioned human rights speech.) But when the puppet showed up, it looked nothing like a sandwich at all. It looked like an eight-inch tall pile of feces.
“Don’t worry,” Lloyd insisted. “We’ll find somewhere to put it in the film. It’ll look great! Make sure you let them know how much we love it.”
“But this looks like… nothing. It looks like crap, Lloyd.”
“It’s craptacular! I love it! Just get him to send more!”
So I did.
Other items were waylaid, like a box of mutant eggs sent from Sweden. Those were seized by US customs in the wake of 9/11. “You need to send more eggs,” I urged the Swedish Troma fan Latte over a poor internet phone connection.
“But that’s all the eggs I made,” she cried.
“Make some more!”
At ten o’clock one Friday night, the office was empty, and I was on my thousandth cup of coffee, thinking about shutting down for the night. The phone rang, and for once it wasn’t Kaufman. It also wasn’t an offer of weekend drinks from one of the friends I hadn’t seen in months… I think they’d all forgotten who I was. Instead, it was Leah, the creator of the ketchup-drenched cardboard-cone-faced zombie.
“Sorry to be calling so late,” she said, “but can you come by the Chelsea Hotel? I’m working, and I’ve got some prosthetics for you.” Working? On a Friday night at the Chelsea Hotel? I suddenly pictured her as a hustler from some 1980s Times Square flick, but every prop mattered. And if those props were free disembodied body parts, I didn’t ask questions. Especially in the wake of the US customs seizure. I shut down my computer, locked up the empty building, and headed downtown.
I’d never been to the Chelsea Hotel before, but it loomed large in my mind. At the heart of the Chelsea neighborhood, it’s where Andy Warhol’s factory girls lived, and Sid Vicious’ girlfriend met her ugly end. At eleven o’clock on a Friday night, though, it wasn’t rocking or rolling. It seemed sleepy and skuzzy like any old and cheap Manhattan hotel. A pack of hipsters walked out as I walked in. A couple of Italian backpackers sat in the lobby, drunkenly chatting up a girl. An old man dozed behind the check-in counter. I walked past and climbed the crumbling staircase to room 306.
Inside, there was loud chatter, but when I knocked everything went quiet. Completely silent. There was a long pause, and then a hesitant call. “Come in.”
I slowly opened the door to a barely-dressed couple sitting on the bed, smoking. They were wearing only underwear. They whispered closely, quietly in foreign accents, not taking their eyes from me. A half-emptied bottle of Jack Daniels rested on the bedside table. A camera sat on the tripod, facing them.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly. This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. “I’m, uh, looking for Leah…” I checked the room number I’d written down. “Is this the right room?” They kept watching, clearly not understanding. A shout from a connecting room rescued us all.
“Hey Andy, I’m in here.”
I glanced around the corner nervously, and found Leah crouched in the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet was a half-naked man, looking into dead air as she brushed thick strands of latex onto his face. Even without the ketchup and the cardboard cone, I could guess what she was trying to do.
Could it… It couldn’t, but at the same time… Something I’d heard rumors of but hadn’t seen… Could it really be zombie porn?
“What are you guys shooting?” I asked.
“Nothing.” She stayed focused on the latex, then paused. “I’ll tell you later.”
She brushed away some latex that was caught in her hair and glanced up at the actor. He met her eye, and he smiled with a conspiratorial grin.
“Don’t smile,” she cursed. “It’ll pop off.”
He stood up and peered at himself in the mirror, poking at the scarred and grey gunk plastered across his face. She stretched her arms, groaning ever so slightly.
“Be careful with that.”
Leah led me back to the bedroom, where the couple sat still whispering. She reached down into her make-up bag, and pulled out brushes and hand-labeled bottles before she found what she was looking for: a thin chain necklace, adorned with a dozen torn-off ears. She handed it to me. And it was great! These ears were perfectly realistic! Each was a different size, a different shade of skin, some of them had tufts of hair sticking out of them. They’d work perfectly for the scene where Denny pulls them out of his shirt, announcing, “I like your bling! I got mine in ‘Nam!” (Sadly, this scene was cut when the actor we hired as Denny—a role that took months to cast—was far too young to have been in Vietnam. We considered adding grey to his hair, though it didn’t work, and in the end just cut almost all references to his wartime hell. But I’m jumping ahead.)
Leah rummaged around some more, and with an “aha” suddenly yanked a dildo from the bag. She handed it to me proudly, and I realized the end was smeared in sticky red fake blood. I was very confused.
“Um, what’s this for?”
“You know, for the scene where the priest bites into the hamburger, and finds Paco Bell’s severed penis inside.”
The foreign couple had stopped whispering, and were just watching us. The man from the bathroom stood there, in his underwear, also watching. He had a disgusted look on his face.
“But this penis is… well… erect.”
“Yeah, it’s hilarious, right?”
It wasn’t hilarious.
And all of a sudden, it occurred to me that in this room of people about to shoot a zombie porn, I was the one who was a dirtbag. I stuck the chain of ears and the bloody dildo in my bag, and left room 306, desperate for a drink.