Professional wrestling legend "Rowdy" Roddy Piper has grappled with Ric Flair in the ring and engaged Keith David in an alleyway brawl in They Live, but in Troma's Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies, he faces his most relentless enemy yet: the living dead.
Trapped in an abandoned prison by a growing zombie horde, Piper and a group of fellow pro wrestlers, including "The Franchise" Shane Douglas and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, must utilize their body-slamming skills to survive the night. For the latest part of our Q&A series, we caught up with Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies writer/director Cody Knotts, who told us all about his experience making the movie.
The cast of Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies is comprised of just that: pro wrestlers and zombies. From “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan to “The Franchise” Shane Douglas, there are some huge pro wrestlers attached to this project. Could you tell our readers how you went about compiling such a rumble-tumble cast?
Cody Knotts: I spent $80,000 on a college degree... and ended up with contacts in Pro Wrestling. I went to Bethany College with Shane Douglas and, though we didn't meet there, we met later and it lead to the casting of everyone else. Shane was the key. Bethany is a small place and graduates about 150 people a year, but there have been some great students. Frances McDormand and William H. Macy both attended there also.
We’ve seen an abundance of zombie movies in the past decade, but Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies has a fresh clobbering concept: a fight to the finish between pro wrestling’s biggest names and a horde of the living dead. What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?
Cody Knotts: I have a son who is now 14 and he loves Zombies and Wrestling. So I thought that it would make a great mix. Plus I always was interested in what would happen if wrestlers had to do their moves for real to save their lives. Zombies are the perfect vehicle for that idea.
Shooting an independent horror film usually makes for a demanding pace and plenty of ingenuity on set. Shooting this film in just 16 days, you had a lot of big personalities and an army of zombie extras and stunt people in the mix, and one of your shooting locations was an old prison. Can you tell our readers what the atmosphere was like on this type of set? What was it like shooting in the prison?
Cody Knotts: It was exhausting. We put the money into the cast and it left almost nothing for crew or other things. Our few critics don't understand how difficult it is to film practical stunts in that many days, shoot the film and do it with essentially a four man crew plus five makeup people. The actors were stressed and I was stressed, but we stuck together and did it. We shot without working bathrooms and without heat. The outside scenes were filmed below zero weather. The prison was a great location and has since been torn down.
You’ve directed and written two other features prior to Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies: Lucifer’s Unholy Desire and Breeding Farm. With three horror films now under your belt, what are the most valuable filmmaking lessons you’ve learned during your journey thus far in the horror genre?
Cody Knotts: That all that matters is what ends up on the screen. Focus on the big picture and focus on creating an emotional reaction. Lucifer's was too much verbage and didn't move people like it should have. Breeding Farm was just released by Troma and was filmed for no money. I was still too careful with that film. Go for broke, let your emotions take hold and remember that you are making the film for the public to enjoy. There is a reason it is called entertainment.
You’re a big fan of William Friedkin and Sam Raimi. How has their work influenced your own writing and directing, and what do you like most about the way they approach horror?
Cody Knotts: Friedkin inspired me to change my life. His films move me, his daring, his guts to tell the story he wants to tell. I have to see Sorcerer now that it is being re-released. He has always put human emotion above the visual. Too many directors focus on a pretty image, but what is happening with a human being is the most important, not a shot of running water.
Raimi loves to mix horror and comedy. That is what I try to do. You cannot compete with the big studios on production value, but you can beat them on making people laugh and scaring them. Raimi does both and I admire that he has stood by his friends. He fought for Bruce Campbell to be in almost all his films. I will always use the same crew because I believe in loyalty. It is the hardest thing to find and the most valuable in a person.
Lloyd Kaufman’s iconic Troma Entertainment is distributing Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies on DVD. Have Kaufman’s and Troma’s films influenced your work over the years? Do you have any favorite Troma films?
Cody Knotts: Toxic and Class of Nuke Em High. LOVE THEM! I have always wanted to work with Lloyd and I wanted Troma from day one to be the distributor for Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies. Their fans get what real independent film is about. Not a major studio creating "an indie" version of themselves, but a group of people trying to take $100 and make it look amazing.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the main man in Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies, has a legendary pro wrestling career, but he’s also well-known to horror fans for his oft-quoted turn as Nada in John Carpenter’s They Live. How important was it for you to secure Roddy for the lead in Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies? Were you a fan of his acting experience outside of the ring prior to making this movie?
Cody Knotts: We had to have one of the icons of wrestling and since Andre was dead, Roddy was the man. The role was written for Mick Foley, and I always wanted Roddy, but didn't think it would happen. But Shane helped us get him on board. His involvement was the thing that put this film over.
With Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies now playing in select theaters and available on a limited edition DVD, with a Troma director’s cut also due for release sometime down the line, what projects do you have around the corner that you’re most excited about?
Cody Knotts: I will be producing Gore Orphanage, which is based on a Ohio urban legend. It is set in 1934. My fiance Emily Lapisardi will be directing. Very few women direct horror films and I think that will bring a unique perspective. It is a mostly female cast with Claudia Christian, Keri Giles and Bill Townsend in the lead roles. We are very fortunate to have these three involved. Bill will be acting for the first time, but he is one of America's most successful entrepreneurs. It will be filmed at Greystone Manor, Henry Frick's first mansion and at Old Economy in PA, both historic sites.
The project is also unique because so many of the cast are coming from families in some of the poorer regions of Pennsylvania. These children would never get the chance to be in a feature film with such amazing actors or to meet a successful entrepreneur. It's part of an effort to improve the climate for the arts in our region.
I am also working on the creation of a Horror Hall of Fame to be located in Pittsburgh, PA. We are in the process of seeking a nine person board to vote annually on the members to be inducted. Much like the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, we want to create a place to honor the genre and the people that have dedicated their lives to scaring us. It would also be one hell of a fun place to visit around Halloween. Part of the idea would be inducting Directors, Actors, Producers, Films, and Characters all in separate categories.
Finally, I have Breeding Farm 2 and 3 to complete for Troma and we are working on a historic film with the working title Wild Rose, about the life of Rose Greenhow, the civil war's leading female spy. Rose worked her way through the powerful men in DC and garnered a great deal of information for the Confederacy from Lincoln's own cabinet members. A fascinating woman.