There is something that no film critic or historian, essay, textbook, or rating system will ever take into account or appeal to—your individuality as a viewer and cinephile. This writer is not referring to easily applicable labels that work more on stereotypes than anything else, like: “You’re quite colorful and a bit flamboyant, you must like musicals,” or “You’re dark and gothy, I bet you dig Tim Burton.” What is meant here is those filmic interests that make you, you. The unspeakable love you may feel for a completely flaw-riddled film that has been forgotten by God and man, to which—despite everything—you build a deep attachment. No review in the world will ever consider the weird and awesome power that ties a fan to the cinematic deformity that same critic is shrugging off or tearing apart. That inexplicable, at times irrational, love that seems to contradict even your better judgment or the taste with which you evaluate any given film, is your individuality. May it be for a sense of nostalgia: for that specific moment in time to which a film, and possibly only that film, magically manages to transport you; or simply for the concoction of elements, color schemes, faces, and vibes that simply come together perfectly dosed for your nervous system, possibly mixed with those very same flaws that repel most, but are somehow charming to your eyes. Sometimes it’s about the unidentifiable ingredients that no three-line definition or reasoning can ever properly explain, and shouldn’t, because most of what we are and moves us, just like lightning bolt infatuations, are simply ungraspable.
A Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg film can be a deeply moving cinematic experience but as much as your opinions and feelings are yours, they will most likely be shared by millions of others. There is nothing quite like stumbling, especially at the dawn of your teenage cinephile curiosities, across some late-night obscurity and falling in love with it, having to explain to others who the actors are because most have never heard of them. It’s when you start going hunting for the films of directors or actors that do not have the reputation of being bankable, that are well out of the “household name” realm, that your love of cinema starts paying off, because it encompasses the gift of discovery, and ultimately, these are the films that say something more about who you are. Just to make things even clearer, this author is not referring, or at least not only, to that dimension of “so good it’s bad” films, or the one archived under the superficiality of “guilty pleasures,” but more widely to the dichotomy between the codified borders of mainstream cinema and the wilderness you can find beyond. If somebody told you that one of their favorite directors was Brian Yuzna, what would that say about them? Possibly that they love over-the-top, colorful, expressionistic films filled with gore and tongue-in-cheek extravagant body horror, and probably that they have dwelled in “video archeology.”
Most of those who grew up warmed by the VHS-embroidered quilt of eighties and nineties horror will have a special place in their hearts for Brian Yuzna (30 August 1949, Manila). All that has been written until now should not lead people to think that Yuzna is in any way a mediocre director—he is anything but, in fact—but he does have a career that is wonderfully full of contradictions, containing gems and certified cult favorites as much as marvelously failed attempts and flawed experiments which are so tightly bound together by recurring stylistic traits, faces, and themes that they construct an extremely recognizable cinematic universe, which leads many to look upon all his films with affectionate and benevolent eyes. This filmmaker’s nearly 40-year spanning filmography is a fascinating one, which seems to twist and turn in multiple directions. Yuzna has been a director, producer, writer, a body-horror-inspired William Castle, a journeyman who has stuck his flag in various lands, from the United States to Thailand, passing through Spain; he has helped forge original and successful franchises (Re-Animator, The Dentist, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) and left his signature in pre-existing ones (Return of the Living Dead, Silent Night, Deadly Night); and he has meddled with all sorts of undercurrents and subgenres, and in doing so has put together what has often been defined as a (fantastic) factory filled with recurring names that so many fans hold dear to their hearts. Yuzna is a survivor, in the purest and most epic sense of the word, pushing forward, “smile and proceed” as he would say, motivated by a sincere love for the genre he has dedicated his whole career to and characterized with a business man’s savviness in choosing where and when to move upon it. Many define Yuzna’s directorial path, following his ground-breaking debut with Society (1989), as the epitome of “hit and miss,” but many of his later films do deserve a closer look, as doing so might not make it hard to individuate the reasons motivating that nostalgia-fueled affection.
It would be redundant to flesh out the reasons that cause the career of Brian Yuzna to be so indissolubly tied to that of Stuart Gordon (11 August 1947, Chicago – 24 March 2020, Los Angeles), but it is as a result of this unity that it should be noted that this interview, which is dedicated to the talented and innovative Gordon, took place before his untimely death that sadly occurred less than two months ago.
Most of your films have a certain orgiastic, infernal quality. If I can venture a little in trying to find a definition for it, I would say that your cinema is like a series of neon-light Bosch paintings. In this regard I would like to ask you if you have any pictorial influences.
I don't have an artistic background in the strict sense: I mean, beyond traditional scholastic studies, during high school years, I never dwelled on the history of art. Despite this, I spent a lot of time in museums and all I know about the subject comes from the hours spent in art galleries and leafing through books. My love and predispositions definitely tend toward the surrealists. Salvador Dalì comes to mind and certainly Bosch is another I have great interest for. Genre-oriented, bold, aggressive images with strong symbolic content. Now that I think about it, going back to From Beyond (1986), our poster—the original one of the deformed face in the foreground with the skulls inside the eye sockets and mouth—came directly from Dalì. However, the very idea of bodies going through some kind of metamorphosis, the transmutation of the flesh, besides being a religious concept that fascinates me a lot and which is very present in my films, is also deeply surrealist. In this sense, surrealism is inextricably linked to horror. Where there are bodies that change, for example, as in the case of a werewolf, there is an unconscious shift in the interpretation of what we are looking at, exactly as if we were facing a surrealist picture. Furthermore, there is a photographic discourse in my films that is linked to this artistic current. Light is never objective: it does not try to recreate reality, but often reflects the emotional state of the characters.
Let’s talk about the photography of your films.
To talk about this, we must begin with the assumption that in my films the photography works against the characters, in the sense that the protagonists are never comfortable in their own context. The cinematography I prefer is not comfortable or welcoming. You previously mentioned neon, for example, which is an aggressive, artificial, unnatural light. This is the reason it is so present in my films. Compared to Stuart [Gordon), I am very focused on the shots and the composition. He is a director of actors—unsurprisingly, as he comes from the theater—so his camera follows the characters. Mine instead focuses on the place and geography of the space surrounding and enveloping the actors. I shoot indoors in order to have absolute control over the scene, which is not possible using exteriors, especially on a small budget. Now, Stuart, for example, leaves a lot of room for the actors for improvisation, and in doing so he keeps the sets very clear and uses a more diffused and homogeneous light, just to allow the actors the freedom to move. Conversely, I tend to freeze the scene in place beforehand. I remember that the set of Bride of Re-Animator (1990) was a nightmare, since DOP Rick Fichter had filled the set with lights, and the actors had to remember to the centimeter where to put their feet. On Re-Animator (1985), however, Stuart had a similar approach to that of Polanski for Rosemary's Baby (1968): handheld camera and always on the actors. I'm artificial; I love more cinematic lights—I'm tied to German expressionism, to the “over the top”.
Why make a sequel to Re-Animator?
I wasn't interested in making a sequel that was a carbon copy. I wanted to go back and bring together all those features belonging to Lovecraft that we had not managed to insert into the first film and release them in a context that was structurally different—elements such as war and Herbert West's obsession with creating a new body. Furthermore, it was easy to think of a sequel, since the original work by Lovecraft was episodic in the first place. At the heart of this new Lovecraftian world, to act as a skeleton to the story, is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As a teenager, when I read the novel for the first time, it didn't really resonate with me: it seemed a docile and old-fashioned story. While we were developing the idea for the Re-Animator sequel, an edition of the Frankenstein designed by Bernie Wrightson was handed to me, a graphic novel which had been released years before, published by Marvel. By the way, Bernie had done some of the conceptual drawings for the monsters in From Beyond. However, rereading Shelley's story after so many years, it made me realize how incredibly dramatic and painful the story actually is. To appreciate the subtexts of the work, one must have lived a little. The religious concept, which is also inextricably linked to the father figure, of the creature that feels rejected by its creator, fascinated me. Obviously, from this I arrived at The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the James Whale film. All these ideas gradually merged together: Lovecraft, Frankenstein, the Whale films. I was also fascinated by the idea that West and Cain were trying to bring a slice of Megan back to life by building everything around the heart: if you create a man, you start from the brain; with a woman, you start from the heart. However, I would like to add that another thing that I took from Whale's films is certainly the approach to set design. I don't like using pre-existing sets and locations, I like having them built, and here I took it to the extreme; I wanted a certain old-school, artificial look. Always artificial! I want everything to go through decisions and control; I'm a little theatrical [laughs). This was also a way to visually detach myself from the first Re-Animator.
Where do you most see Lovecraft in the film?
Beyond the individual characters or plot, for me his imagination resides above all in the small things; the narrative solutions; the atmospheres and tone. For example, while we were in pre-production, I went to Providence, where Lovecraft lived, and I saw the cemetery that he describes in the story. I didn't think it really existed because he described the houses around as very close to the graves. In the United States, cemeteries tend to be detached from cities, isolated, not like here in Europe. But no, there it was in all its beauty. He never gave precise indications on where this cemetery was, but when I saw it, I knew I was in the right place. I took dozens of photos, which I then brought to the director of photography and the production designer. If I had had the budget and therefore the means to recreate, in every detail, that cemetery, so old and eerie at the top of this hill, I would have. That was my initial intention, but I soon realized it was just wishful thinking.
Before continuing with your filmography, I would like to stop and take a second to reflect on what you’ve said until now. You, like many directors of your generation and previous ones, make a cinema based on your obsessions and passions. A more personal cinema. Despite the reevaluation of horror as a genre, don't you think everything has become more vacuous and a little cynical?
Yes, on the one hand I think the answer is absolutely yes. When I started first producing, and then later directing, we horror directors were considered, especially in the independent realm, a bunch of depraved human beings. Those who did it at the time, at least in my case, and certainly also in Stuart's, did it with real passion. However, I want to say that I don't try to put myself in the film, I don't try to position myself in front of the work, and this personal vibe you are talking about comes out, I think, in a very natural, very instinctive way. When I approach a new project, I focus on the story and how to bring it to the screen in the best possible way. Perhaps without even realizing it, this style of mine has been my fortune. My films may not be made in the best way, perhaps they are not particularly successful—certainly I have never been able to achieve large-scale marketability—but they are made honestly. However, the genre has certainly cleaned up its image over the past few decades, which is good, but perhaps the thing that annoys me most is the fact that now, any director who approaches the genre seems to have the attitude of someone doing the most important thing in the world. I find that everything has become very self-centered and self-referential. Humility has been lost, the desire, yes, to tell something also personal, but with the approach of a craftsman. Everyone seems to want to believe they are auteurs.
I come from another school. For example, think of Robert Wise, who directed the best ghost story ever (The Haunting, 1963), as well as some of the most famous musicals in the history of cinema, yet nobody talks about him, just because he was not a director who was exalted or who thought he was doing something of God-knows-what importance. It seems to me that the director’s ego has grown, but the contents haven’t as much. For me, the greatest joy is when the public, large or small, appreciates what I do and wants to talk about it with me. There is nothing more pleasant than talking about your own work and sometimes the temptation to delude oneself or believe that what you are doing is important becomes irresistible. Certainly, one thing must be said: once, directors were less boxed in with certain rules, now everything is more standardized. Let’s consider Dario Argento, leaving aside his work of recent years and returning to Suspiria (1977), which is a film I love very much. Thinking about such a movie now is almost impossible. I wouldn't be able to tell you what the story is about, because the plot is not as important as the imagery. A movie so visual, so experimental, is now almost impossible to imagine, at least within the mainstream. Or even a film like Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)... We no longer have directors like that. Yes, maybe you’re right, it has become more depersonalized. Certainly, films now are more perfect, technically speaking, more syntactically correct, but also more sterile.
…like in the case of digital effects.
I was just about to say that. Let's take the first film of the new saga of The Mummy (1999), with Brendan Fraser. What I am about to say should not be interpreted as a criticism of the film, which I found very entertaining. But speaking of special effects, there is a scene in which we see the face of Arnold Vosloo partially decomposed. Doing it with makeup is very complicated and takes a lot of time, so it was done in CGI. The result is excellent, but it is a PG-13 effect, where if it had been made using prosthetics the film would have had a much higher rating and perhaps you would have found yourself having to cut that sequence. There is something in computer graphics that doesn't push your buttons, that doesn’t resonate with your nervous system, that creates distance. They are a great tool from a certain point of view, and allow you to do incredible things and imagine scenes that before, without a stratospheric budget, would have been impossible, but, on the other hand, it lacks soul. Sometimes you don't even realize it, but you see a movie and ask yourself: "What was missing? Everything seemed perfect, but something is missing.” Sometimes roughness is not a bad thing.
Let's go back to your films. You are credited as one of the executive producers of Warlock (1989).
Yes, I am, but I never participated in the making of that film in any way. I don't know how I ended up there, but it was roughly, if I remember correctly, the same period in which I was in preparation for Return of the Living Dead 3, with the same production company, Trimark. Not many people know that I tried to direct the sequel to Warlock—unfortunately, we were unable to find an agreement and the project ran aground, but the fact remains that I did not lift a finger to make those films.
So, since we are debunking myths, on some sites it is said that you were supposed to direct Crying Freeman (1995). True or false?
False. I helped make it, I was one of the producers, but the director was always going to be Christophe Gans, right from the beginning.
We talked about the first Re-Animator sequel you directed, but are you happy with the second one, Beyond Re-Animator (2003)?
Quite, yes. What usually ends up not satisfying me in my films has to do with production issues: when, due to budget limits or misunderstandings with the production, I end up giving in to compromises that weigh on the visual result of the film. Sure, sometimes the problems stem from issues with the story, the script. For example, in the case of Bride, I was never happy with the ending. I don't find it effective, especially in relation to Cain's bond with the girl. It is not as well-developed as it could have been. Yes, you have the imploding of the bride and all the absurd monsters—I love what we created with those creatures—with everything that collapses in pieces, but that sense of closure with the human characters which was needed is definitely missing. Maybe I give too much space to the surreal and forget the real [laughs). The priority for me is to not put a stop to my more abstract and grotesque imagination and to bend it as far as possible, every situation, to the extreme.
The best example is the figure of the psychiatrist in Society (1989). What I love about him and the risky choices I made is that I know perfectly well that people as they watch will be thinking, “Why the fuck did he do this?” Mine are free associations which tend to confuse, but also attract the viewer. My head works in images, so I visualize things and then I create logic or an excuse for them. For example, in Beyond Re-Animator, when the whole “reanimated penis” thing was approved, I jumped on the idea. I remember in pre-production I added the final scene to the script with the fight between the penis and the rat and everyone was puzzled to say the least, but when you see it in the film, that level of absurdity and madness is liberating [laughs). I wanted it to be inserted as a sort of Pixar short. For example, in the third Re-Animator, I have always been very fond of the pre-title sequence. In the end, to answer your question, what I love most about it are little things scattered here and there, but this applies to all my films.
But having to judge the film in its entirety…?
Honestly, I would have liked that the feeling of opera, lyrical work, I mean, that epic vibe I tried to instill in the film, was stronger. Then, there are scenes that don't work. This is also due, regardless of my possible limitations, to the fast pace with which we shot. When you are on set, shooting, especially on a film like this, so complex and with so many special effects, even if you have a script, storyboards and everything designed, you also find yourself having to change the scenes because you realize that what you visualized simply doesn't function narratively or just can’t be made to work practically.
We’ve mentioned, since the beginning of this interview, quite a few sequels. There seem to be many in your career.
Yes, it's true, I’ve found myself directing many. The sequels are always, whatever the director might think, a celebration of the first film, and rightly so, but you have to be able to bring something new. The trick is to add a piece to the mythology and help further flesh out the characters by finding new, stylistic narrative interpretations. The best sequels I directed are Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and the two Re-Animators. With the trilogy, the broad line of reasoning was this: in the first, West says, “we can stop death”, in the second “we can create new life,” and in the third there is the culmination of both these obsessions. And going back to the third, I will add that perhaps, thinking about it, the thing I love most is this mythology or pseudo-metaphysical basis for scientific experiments: the concept, albeit abstract, of neuro-plastic energy. When West uses this term, which I invented, he is referring to nothing but what we call soul—to that little weight loss you have at the time of death. For example, one thing that binds my best films, as well as sequels, primarily Return of the Living Dead 3, is the question, “What is it about the idea of a dead human being coming back to life that scares us so much? Why does the concept of zombies seem to touch a raw nerve?” My living dead then, rather than zombies, are “soulless,” which I think is what is truly terrifying. When my characters come back to life, I don't just want the public to be frightened, but to feel pain in seeing that human being lacking in what made him unique.
Tell me more about Living Dead 3…
For that film I was given carte blanche, also because the first question I asked the producers was whether I had to stick to the chronology and events of the first two films. They said no, with one exception: the zombies must want to eat brains—fans demand it. But I wanted to find a reason for this need: why brains? So, I thought about the evolution of zombies in Romero's films. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), as well as in Dawn of the Dead (1978), these are people who simply die and come back to life, regardless of how they died. In Day of the Dead (1985), however, the idea of infection begins to emerge. The concept of contagion. So, I made a mixture between the creatures of Romero and those of Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which are inspired by EC Comics, adding a visual element of my own, which is the very specific look and clothing of the characters—elements that reveal the nature that moves them. In the case of Julie, it is transgression.
A personality always seems to come out in your zombies. Beyond Re-Animator comes to mind: when West’s first victim is reanimated, he weeps at the sight of naked female breasts.
This is related to what I said with respect to the feeling I want to give to the viewer. Not only must the horrifying side arrive, but also the suffering. See Julie, for example: she remembers; she has vague moments of lucidity in which she remembers who she really is or was. This makes everything even more painful and difficult to watch. The scene you mention in the third Re-Animator is one of my favorites. He, too, the madman who is first revived, remembers. They are monsters and killers as much as they are victims. If you want, it is an even more extreme idea of what is told in Dawn of the Dead. There they gather in a mall because they somehow feel a sense of familiarity with that place...
Return of the Living Dead 3 had good success and still enjoys quite the cult following. Were you asked to do another sequel?
It was talked about in vague terms shortly after finishing the film, and I also developed a possible story entitled Hell Mary, but then I knew nothing more. I think Trimark had bought the rights from Tom Fox, who is the owner of the franchise, for one sequel only. Regardless of my involvement, it is a pity they didn't do anything immediately after and that so much time passed before actual sequels were made—almost ten years I believe. I haven't seen these last two. I know they were shot back to back in South Africa.
Speaking of stranded projects. I know there were talks about a third The Dentist (1996).
The producer of the first two, Pierre David, contacted me with the idea of making The Dentist 3, but at the time I had just begun a new chapter with Fantastic Factory in Spain. Someone who was very excited about making another one was Corbin [Bernsen), who had previously never made a horror [film] and become increasingly excited about the genre, realizing how strong the fan base was. We talked for about a year of a possible new chapter but ultimately we all realized it just wasn’t feasible.
You are a big comic fan. I know that several times you have tried to bring adaptations of your favorite manga and comics to the screen.
Yes, it is for this reason that together with Dario Gulli I created a short series of comics entitled [Brian Yuzna's] Horrorama, which I had conceived as a “rehearsal area” for hypothetical future films. Speaking of manga, I've always wanted to adapt Demon Seed for the screen…
What is it about?
It's about an alien seed that spreads among the population transforming people into monsters. A kind of parasite. A boy’s arm is infected—he manages to control it and prevent it from spreading to the rest of the body, but completely loses control and motor power of the limb, forcing him to do terrible things he would not want to do. It was a great starting point for a movie, but I couldn't get my hands on the rights. And then I tried, between one film and another, to bring Devilman to the screen, a manga that I love very much. That is a truly ambitious project, a great nihilistic work. I'm talking about a few years ago, in the nineties anyway, but I think at the time we started working on a script. Now would be the right time to make it happen. After my experience with Faust Love of the Damned (2001), I know how a Devilman adaptation should be directed and structured.
This is my cue to ask, what is it that doesn’t satisfy you about Faust, what went wrong there?
Faust was the first time that I had to deal with a comic book hero or anti-hero if you will. I think it's a very discontinuous film, a mixture of ideas, some that work and others that screech. I have never liked hero costumes, cloaks, tight suits, these sorts of things. So, I had the idea of making his costume organic, composed of blood and flesh that manifests itself in a transformation, similar to that of a werewolf. I don't know if the end result works in full. Also, the final monster is all wrong: it absolutely doesn't work. It is a film that does not fully satisfy me. Despite this, there are moments that I enjoy and I’m proud of.
There is also a reference to Society in the scene in which a woman’s breasts start swelling grotesquely.
[Laughs] Yes, absolutely. Among other things, Faust was created before the real affordability of computer graphics; consequently, that scene is really strong—liquid and disgusting. I didn't mean to reference myself, but now that you make me think about it, yes, it could easily have been a scene from Society. In the comic, the woman in question simply begins to age until she becomes a putrefied corpse, but the idea bored me and therefore I thought of this hallucinating solution. So even if the film is not as good as it should have been, maybe there are some scenes worthy of note for gore lovers. It is a bit the equivalent, or let's say it belongs a little to what we were saying regarding the rat versus penis scene: it’s interesting, extreme body horror that works despite the fact that the film doesn’t in its entirety.
There is a particularity that unites you and Stuart Gordon. Your names are inextricably linked to that of Lovecraft. In this sense you have no competition.
I’ll start by saying that I consider Poe to be much more related to horror in the strictest sense than Lovecraft is. As far as I am concerned, horror really started with Gothic romanticism and Poe is the pinnacle, the very essence of the genre. Historically, The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764) is considered to have been the first horror gothic novel, then it’s the turn of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that, among other things, adds the scientific element, although Shelley does not go into the merits of this aspect of the story as much as others will do later on. But in the end, it was Poe who gave the genre the modern connotations we all know and that are still very much present and relevant today. Short stories were also born with him: he created the horror giallo, mixing the detective story with horrific elements. In short, it is he who really subverted the literary rules of the genre and he is certainly my first source of inspiration and perhaps the author I love the most. Adding to this that in the sixties I loved, seeing them as a kid in the cinema alone, all the great adaptations directed by Roger Corman—films that I love very much to this day: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1963), Tales of Terror (1962), and so on. Later, when I was a little older, I realized how influential that whole production has been over the decades. I also see a lot of those films in some of Bava's works, in Lisa and the Devil (1974), for example…
In the end we always go back to talking about your cinephilia…
Yes, it’s my love for cinema that fuels my work. If there is one thing then, that, as a scholar, as a film buff, I have always loved to do, it is to go and look for the origins and inspirations of films, and of course I am not referring only to horror. Understanding the influences that determined certain choices. Also, to understand myself, to understand how I work and how I assemble ideas and solutions. It is said that the language of cinema is cinema, and it is very true. Everything comes from something else: it is a collection of ever-changing pieces of a mosaic. I have never studied cinema academically or from a theoretical point of view and, consequently, I have always advanced on the basis of my intuitions and instincts, which might be naïve, but also genuine. However, returning to Lovecraft, he is certainly the most influential horror writer after Poe. Perhaps in order of importance after Poe, Bram Stoker should be put on the podium. Thinking about horror without Dracula is impossible.
Regardless, between Stuart and myself he is the true Lovecraftian. If you think about it, in Lovecraft there are no love stories, which instead are pivotal in my scripts. However, firstly, the great importance of Lovecraft was that of dispersing and eradicating the religious connotations from the genre, replacing them with a mystical–scientific mosaic. In fact, in his works, beyond religion one can speak of mysticism. This, and the wonderful concept that we all live on the threshold, beyond a veil that separates us from our true reality, is incredibly modern. That said, Lovecraft's problem is that he is very difficult to adapt for cinema because his narration is often reduced to the bone. Anyway, it's true, I have this label that binds me to him and that fits me very well, but it happened by chance. Everything occurred with Re-Animator, of course. When I met Stuart Gordon, he had already developed, together with Dennis Paoli, the idea for an adaptation of Lovecraft—a television series to be precise. I didn't want to do television, but I liked the idea of the project very much. I had read Lovecraft's works years ago, but I didn't love it more than others, certainly not more than Poe. At the time, I honestly wasn't thinking about literature. I only knew I wanted to make monster movies and I was thinking a lot more about Universal's great horror films, the Val Newton or Jacques Tourneur films. I wanted to do that.
Though you did participate in the writing of Re-Animator…
Yes, Stuart and I began working from what he had done with Paoli and William Norris, who, we all always forget to mention, yet he was, according to Stuart, the one that more than anyone else really modeled the figure of Herbert West. While I did love and put a lot of me into that film, Re-Animator remains a work of Stuart’s and taking on Lovecraft came from a passion and willingness he had. I think it is a brilliant adaptation and a true act of love towards Lovecraft, although many things we included are not present in the original story—the female lead, for example. I then had his name inserted in the title, H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator, also because it was the only minimally marketable name we had since we were all at the beginning of our careers and virtually unknowns. Furthermore, I am proud that the film has reinvigorated an interest in Lovecraft who, yes, is and was an author with a famous name but, all in all, not as read as he deserved to be.
Who conceived the splendid opening titles of Re-Animator?
The design is by Robert Dawson, one of the greatest creators of title sequences. I think the idea of using Gray's Anatomy was Stuart's. I only knew that I wanted an idea that stood out and that was strong, colorful—something reminiscent of those Corman gothic horror movies we mentioned before.
However, the love stories that are present in almost all your films have an aftertaste similar to Poe, in their being characterized by tragic implications and a certain melodramatic and Gothic quality.
I like to think so, yes, and not necessarily exclusively in the love stories can these ingredients be found. For example, the incestuous element in Society that was sought and wanted taps into an undercurrent present in some of Poe's works.
If the Re-Animator sequels are perhaps your most famous films, Society is considered your masterpiece, and although it is your directorial debut, it is also the sum of your poetics. How much of you is there in that film?
The script was sent to me by these two guys, Rick Fry and Woody Keith, with whom I then made other films, and it was very different initially from what it later became. Keith is a very creative and a completely insane person who had shaped the story around his own reality and social context. He was a Beverly Hills kid raised in an elitist reality and is completely paranoid himself. The script contained all his follies, his various idiosyncrasies and the people it described were friends, neighbors, and people from his community. However, what was completely missing was the grotesque, horrifying, and at the same time satirical element. It was a more classic script in some ways. For example, instead of the orgies where the various participants fuse together, there were simply human sacrifices. The idea of deformed beings that change in this orgiastic, incestuous final jubilation is entirely mine. I think it is my most perverse film in the sense that there is a tense atmosphere and the scent of something depraved and ill that seeps through from the very first scene, a lot of which has to do with the sexual subtext of incest, the relationship between the protagonist and his sister. On an unconscious level, the viewer realizes that there is something wrong the first time we see them together.
Society is also your most political film.
Definitely, and it is also a film with a strong social conscience. I realized, starting from the idea of these beings capable and willing to melt together, that it was a story of struggle between social classes. I grew up in a period of great rebellion: 1968, hippies, and the idea that politics should rise up from the street, among the people. From this point of view, there is a lot of my political and social education in Society. However, going back to Lovecraft, Woody Keith and I developed a script based on The Thing on the Doorstep, in which the element of incest is not only present, but central.
Another film of yours with a strong sexual and morbid subtext is Progeny (1999). Tell me about it.
Yes, that is a very minimal film in its setting and narrative structure. Closer in design, setting, and essential geography to Solaris (1972)—of course with the necessary distinctions and without comparing—rather than classic American science fiction films. The screenplay, I have to say, was very good: simple, dry, incisive, written entirely by Aubrey Solomon with the collaboration of Stuart [Gordon], who must be said was the one who really tightened the bolts of the story, who made the twists and circular ending work so well. Solomon came up with a solid story and Stuart really polished it up. The challenge for me, as a director, was similar to that of The Dentist, which was also co-written with Stuart by the way, and that is to take a small story, with a minimalist narrative completely told from a subjective and unilateral perspective and find the right visual interpretation in order to tell it in a way that is both functional to the genre and simultaneously personal and intimate. In preparation, we talked to people who claimed to have been kidnapped by aliens, and we watched a large number of documentaries and various abduction-themed movies, and I realized that we were arriving very late to this subgenre. We made it out of time—it was the end of the nineties, many films had been made on the subject, and there had also been the whole X-Files phenomenon. Had it been made eight years earlier, when there was a real boom in interest in stories of this kind, it would certainly have generated more attention. However, I tried to give it a classic setting, following the most fascinating elements of this filmic current. This means focusing on the characters and the escalation of paranoia, the psychological drama. An abduction story is similar to a ghost story to the extent that when the “creatures” appear, the genre changes. In the case of a ghost story, as soon as we see them, the film becomes a monster movie; in our case, as soon as you see the aliens, it becomes a pure science fiction film.
I wanted to make it all plausible, to create suspense, but trying not to fall into the traps inherent in this genre: do not create more questions for the viewer than I can answer and do not base everything on the appearance of aliens, also because then they will inevitably be compared to all the other similar films, and when you work on tight budgets, you risk fighting an unwinnable battle. Furthermore, I was interested in reworking a concept, which had been an obsession of mine since the days of Society, namely the simulacrum. That is when something resembles another, the ambiguous perception. In nature, for example, it can be the shapes clouds take or the mimetic ability of some animals. The wingspan of a butterfly that appears to us like a muzzle or an eye—our distorted perspective. In the creative process, for example, we are always looking for something to project onto, to take and distort, transforming it into something else. If you go to Sedona, Arizona, there are mountains where the rocks have taken the shape of various things through corrosion. There are also guided jeep tours that take you to the desert to see these incredible natural formations. Walt Disney is said to have been on vacation in the area early in his career and was inspired for some of his early sketches. I don't know if it's true, but it’s easy to believe because we all need material to project onto.
With this in mind, in horror I am linked not only to surrealism, but also to expressionism. The thought behind pictorial expressionism and also to those fantastic German films, made in the UFA studios… Fritz Lang's priority, for example, was not to photograph reality for what it is, but for how it is perceived. Even the color choices, the furniture, the camera movements—everything is dictated by psychology. In fact, I prefer these currents to the noirs, that is, these films in which shadows progressively play with what you see and what you think you see, between what is there and what we sense there is. I think that, in the end, all horror fans want to see this; for sure, as a spectator I expect this expressionist approach to the genre. In past decades, horror films were not called as such: they were called thrillers or melodramas, but as a child I didn't need labels; instinctively I knew immediately that I was in front of a horror movie. Take the classics of Universal: in what world and in what time do they take place? They are reinterpretations of reality, since, at the end of the day, what do they really have that attains to our world?
Let’s continue talking about your cinema, your films are very “corporeal”, very much body-based: mutations, surgery, operations, dentists, mad scientists, deformities, zombies full of piercings. Always torn, aching bodies, shifting and changing.
Definitely. Let's say that thrillers are films in which fear is generated by suspense—horror is the suspense, but with bodily fluids [laughs]. My cinema is certainly rich in those! All my films are based, but this is common to many, on the schizophrenic dialogue between mind and body, or the separation between the two. Anyone who makes horror, especially for people of my generation… we are all children of Psycho (1960). I saw it at the cinema when I was 12 and I was literally terrified. Then, after the success of the Hitchcock film, all these dual personality films started to come out and there was a very pop concept of schizophrenia. It was not so much a disease, there was no desire to explore psychiatric dynamics as much as to make this idea prevail that something could possess your body. Total loss of control, as if a monster were in there with you.
How does this function within the narrative folds of Progeny?
What I wanted to do was to tell the kidnapping from two points of views. The whole concept of the film is encapsulated in the snarky joke that Jillian McWhirter tells Arnold Vosloo in the car, returning to the psychiatrist: “Is all this because you think I have a lover?” I honestly don't think I succeeded, but the starting idea was to tell this sort of double paranoia: on the one hand we have something absolutely normal and common and on the other this absurd idea and how sometimes so little is enough to slip to the other side of our craziest fears. As I said before: distorted perception. Like, for example, there is a scene where the police search his car and then at night, he dreams of the officers doing terrible things. It is the simulacrum of which I spoke earlier: projecting one's phobias onto normality.
Well, if you don’t mind me saying, in The Dentist this concept is even more extreme.
Yes, there was the initial problem, for me, of making sense and finding the right approach to a story, which was essentially a series of painful deaths, one after the other. I deal with death and I deal with pain, but I don't care about body counts. The Dentist was in serious danger of becoming a slasher film and I absolutely wanted to avoid something like that. To do this, the first thing was to give a stylistic connotation that was over the top to each murder, taking inspiration from a Hitchcock scene from time to time, and then I tried to make the protagonist as positive as possible. I hated the idea of having a monster that runs around killing people. We started to introduce ideas that could make him more intriguing, like the fact that he is a lover of the opera, an idea introduced by Charles Finch, who worked on the script shortly after Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli. He was also the one who introduced the idea that each room in the dental office had a different theme and the protagonist's obsession with white. With these additions, I started to feel even a certain sympathy for him. In the end, he is just a man disappointed by life and love. He is broken-hearted and is basically an overly sensitive human at his breaking point; he loves his job, he loves music. He reminds me of Vincent Price's characters. Take his role in The Pit and the Pendulum: it is certainly a villainous one, but it’s so full of heart.
Give me a practical example of the concept you expressed about the set design in the film.
The dental office is basically his mind and each room, with its specific theme, is the physical manifestation of a different mental state. It is no coincidence that at the beginning of the film in which this character is introduced to us with a life apparently so perfect, we find ourselves in a room called Paradise Room.
We've dealt with your most successful films like Re-Animator and Society, and interesting experiments like The Dentist and Progeny. But jumping from title to title, let's talk about Beneath Still Waters, perhaps your least successful film.
Well, yes. It is a film that has left a bitter aftertaste and I can’t say satisfied me. It's an adaptation of a Matthew Costello novel, but I actually wanted to make a Stephen King story, with a slightly retro, vintage taste. I don't think I succeeded [laughs], also because many people don't like the film. The result is confusing, and the story does not seem to know which way to go. I was unable to focus on what was perhaps most important, too many underdeveloped characters.
A film that has been talked about for a long time and that has left fans in hype-filled suspense is House of Re-Animator.
For that film, we wanted to take advantage of Bush's presence in the White House, as that’s where the film takes place. Alas, the funds we initially hoped for did not come in. The company I was dealing with pulled out overnight, which was a real shock to all of us. In all this, time passed and when the Bush administration ended its last term, it no longer seemed to make sense. The idea of the film was born in the eighties under Reagan, but Bush's absurdities lent themselves even more to the film we wanted to do. That said, it remains a nice idea, but no longer as vital. I know that there are still those with high hopes of it getting made, but things have changed. Take into account Stuart, Jeffrey Combs, Dennis Paoli, myself—we also wanted to bring back Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton—and everything starts to have quite a cost. When the first film was made, we did it for practically nothing, but since we are the architects of that success, each of us now expects, seeing we are a little older and with a little more experience, a bit more money. Also, this project is not a big studio film, but it is certainly more expensive than your average small independent horror project.
You have recently closed your relationship with Fantastic Factory, but I seem to understand that you have also left Spain...
Yes, I'm trying to make a sort of second Fantastic Factory in Indonesia. The first project was Takut: Faces of Fear (2008), an anthology of horror shorts made by young, local filmmakers. It didn't sell much at the film markets, made at very low cost, but it gave me the opportunity to become familiar with the place and to settle in. For a while I talked to various directors about possible projects to do there—Stuart, Bernard Rose—but the problem is that the chances of failing on a small budget are high and those that have made a name for themselves often don't want to take risks. We were able to set up Amphibious (2010), thanks to funding from a Singapore-based company attracted by the idea of shooting in 3D. This was about two years ago. Then, while we were in the middle of pre-production, the local economy collapsed and we found ourselves without a dime, and all the projects we had in the pipeline vanished.
The economic situation is putting the industry through great strain.
A large slice of independent cinema is made with surplus money. Companies usually invest in films to rectify their annual balance, but with the crisis this system has collapsed. Banks are no longer investing, and now with the slow death of home video, the market has shrunk even more, especially for independent products. There is no more money out there and paradoxically it is more difficult to be produced if you are already a name. Setting up Amphibious was very difficult, perhaps the most difficult film to produce among all the ones I’ve made. Many young people come to me with projects, ideas, and scripts, and my heart cries when I find myself having to tell them what the situation actually is. If you want to make a film, you have to face reality and see what the market really requires. I found myself on both sides: both as a director looking for producers, and as a producer with Fantastic Factory or Komodo, looking for interesting projects. I have an archive in the office with at least two 200 projects that were never made and probably never will be. We need to think strategically.
I remember after Return of the Living Dead 3, Trimark asked me, “Do you have other plans? What would you like to do?” I had been around for quite some time by then and did not hesitate, replying, “What would you like to do?” If the head of a company has an idea, I want to get on board because it will surely have more chances of turning into an actual film. For example, they showed me some artwork for a possible project they had in mind. It was The Dentist, and when I found myself in front of this poster that had the dentist's bed with a bloody drill on it, I thought, “Fuck, here is another Dr Giggles.” I was shivering only at the idea, but I answered, “Fantastic, let's do it!” The only question, which I asked later, was whether they had special requirements. They said they didn't want anything fantastical. So, no aliens, monsters, nothing paranormal, and so on. You have to be practical and realize that times have changed. This is obviously speaking of films that require a budget, however substantial. If not, there is everything at your fingertips: the rental of a RED—Amphibious was shot with two REDs by the way, it's not that expensive to turn digital, you can edit it on Final Cut, do what you want on the sound with Pro Tools. In short, the instruments are there. If one has money and people or friends willing to work for little or nothing, a film can be set up, but you will probably encounter problems when the time comes to sell it. Anyway, those who aim a little higher with their ambitions must focus more on the financial level, understand the market rather than focus on creativity, thinking that this is the starting point. Unfortunately, it is not.
Given the anarchic nature of this interview, it isn’t a problem to step backwards and talk a little about Rottweiler (2004). Like Beneath Still Waters, this is a film that has many interesting elements, but never seems to find its wings.
In the case of Rottweiler, the situation is different. I tend to not hesitate when it comes to blaming myself. What often happens within companies such as Fantastic Factory is that over time the production takes over, especially the line producers who are those that calculate and distribute the budget. The first thing they do when they feel cuts have to be made, is to eliminate all the strangest scenes, those with greater special effects. Often the people who fill these roles are perhaps ones who do not even know, understand, or appreciate this type of film. In the specific case of Rottweiler, almost all the dog attacks were cut. There is a film starring a killer dog without scenes in which he is seen killing! If those sequences, which were long, had been integrated, everything else would have been compressed and the film would have had a stronger structure. Furthermore, just before shooting, the production calls me and tells me that we only had one dog available, moreover not fully trained. You know you're in trouble when your company doesn't want to invest in the effects, and you start principal photography when most of the damage has already been made.
With Beneath Still Waters, I know I made the wrong choices. I made a lot of wrong choices in my career, smile and continue, but in the case of this film I have an internal conflict. I think my approach was right and I am quite convinced that it would have had a different reception if I had been able to do it as I saw fit. We didn't even have time to rehearse with the mechanical creature because production paid for the company that made it a week before we started shooting. When Fantastic Factory was founded, there was more collaboration, care, and respect for the films, then we entered this assembly line mentality that ruined everything. Not many people know that I was blind while searching for the locations, and I was blind for about ten days. I underwent surgery and had bandages, living with the uncertainty of not being able to regain my sight. All this following a frightening episode in which my wife and I were carjacked by an armed man in front of our house. My wife had to help me cross the road. I asked to postpone for a week and the production said no. A few years earlier, this would never have happened. They pushed and put me under pressure in an indescribable way. You imagine, I found myself having to judge the locations for the film, only managing to see shadows and vague shapes. A grotesque situation like in Hollywood Ending.
I guess you’ve already answered this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: was Fantastic Factory all it could be?
If it had been for me things would have been different, but at least initially we managed to do what we had set out for ourselves. When I started, I said it would be a miracle if it lasted five years. We lasted seven, and about ten films came out. I think it was a very important operation on the European scene. When we had pre-sales of the first films, the news appeared in newspapers worldwide. It was unthinkable, in the Spanish context, such a thing. At that time Pedro Almodovar was probably the only one who could afford to pre-sell his films. When I first got there, there was a lot of resistance. They told me that maybe these films could be made in Hollywood, but certainly not here. The only one who believed in the whole operation was Julio Fernandez. However, already after the second film things had changed.
Let's talk about women. In your films, the female figure often tends to bend the will of man through their own suffering. In addition to being very present, making your films as much horror films as love stories, sentimental relationships seem to be built on guilt. A sense of guilt seems to be the main component of love ties in your cinema.
Yes, this dynamic that you say is the basis of all three of the Re-Animators, and in general it is true: the sense of guilt is the basis of many of my films. This mixture with the refusal of death as in Return of the Living Dead 3 [is] where the two merge. You know, I think that in cinema, as in life, the first things you learn are what you'll end up repeating. In hindsight, I realize that working on Re-Animator really shaped me. Making that film was a world for me and maybe it left me with a narrative imprinting. I would say that and Society are two titles that can be found in almost all my subsequent films, in one form or another. Then, the violence that flows from love is increasingly aggressive and full of pathos. I like that love stories are born and grow from mistakes. Same goes for my villains; I like that their malice has incredibly human origins, that it is fragile. I cannot say that I am anti-establishment, whether I like it or not, I have to come to terms with the fact that I am the establishment, but I certainly also like to imbue my films with a political direction. Evil lurks everywhere and the people who hurts us the most are those who should be protecting us: the ones in white coats, in uniforms, polite and well-dressed. They often also have roles of power and do not even have to chase their victims because they possess a social power which encompasses everyone. Take Society: they surround us. You know, in that film the protagonist is in high society and discovers their secret. In the sequel that I had imagined while shooting the first, the protagonist was going to be a girl who is not part of that world, but who knows their secrets and wants to be part of it anyway. Many people are willing to sell their soul to the devil and if they don't, it's only because they don't know how to do it.