Greetings, readers. A couple weeks ago, I reviewed a nifty little piece of 80s cinema cheese-sleaze, SLIME CITY. The writer/director/producer/editor of Slime City, Greg Lamberson, is a great guy who I had the pleasure to meet in person via the magic of his sequel to SLIME CITY, SLIME CITY MASSACRE. Greg very graciously took the time to answer a few questions about inspiration and experience as a microbudget horror filmmaker.
First of all, Greg, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for The Blood Sprayer and for myself. I’m a big fan of your body of work (though I’m still in the process of assimilating all of it) and I know several of our other writers are as well.
Thanks, Bill. I’m always happy to do interviews, not so much because they stroke my ego, but because they give me a chance to call attention to my projects, which need all the help they can get.
To start off, could you tell us about what initially led you to the horror genre?
I loved monsters as a kid and never stopped loving them. That’s really the root of it: comic books, badly animated Saturday morning cartoons… for me horror embodies extreme imagination and extreme emotion. I started collecting the Aurora monster model kits, then started watching the movies that inspired them. You and I are from roughly the same area – I grew up in Fredonia, an hour south of Buffalo – but from two vastly different eras. I didn’t have multiplexes, DVDs, or the internet; I had channels 2, 4, 7, 11 and 13 – and on a sunny day, channel 5! So I was limited to watching whatever was syndicated. I actually didn’t grow up on the Universal monsters – except for The Creature from the Black Lagoon – but more the Hammers and other 60s and 70s horror films. My uncle took me to see Night of the Living Dead, Martin and Dawn of the Dead in theaters, and those were seminal films for me. Other than George Romero, the most important development in my formative years was the arrival of HBO.
You have this wonderful ability as a storyteller that I’ve noticed through your works. Have you always been writing and telling stories?
Sure. All kids create stories, that’s what they do whenever they play with their dolls or action figures, or when they role play. Some of us just hang onto those impulses and never let them go. My mother was an English teacher and an artist – she painted the Phantom of the Opera for me – so she encouraged my interest in those areas. She told me when I was at an early age that I wrote good dialogue, so I believed her. And then an assistant teacher liked one of my stories when I was in second grade. Really, kids just need that kind of support. I wanted to be a comic book artist at one time, and then a stop motion animator. I was obsessed with Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run, and these movies, and the books that inspired them, got me thinking about different ways to tell stories. Then Star Wars came along – I was in seventh grade – and I knew I wanted to write and direct.
You attended film school in New York City and worked in movie theaters and video stores during the VHS boom and the waning days of the Grindhouse. You’ve worked with Frank Henenlotter, Jim Muro…”The 1980s New York City Microbudget Cinema Scene,” though if there’s a shorter phrase for that time and place in cinema history, I’d like to know it. What was the atmosphere like, working with them?
It was an exciting time , to be sure. Horror was huge, science fiction was huge, and NYC was certainly huge. Something is always going on in NYC, it’s impossible to set foot outside your door and be bored. There’s always something t do, something that needs doing. I knew so many people who were making films, or wanted to make films, and socializing generally revolved around productions or seeing movies. And there was so much indie stuff going on, and it was being released and seen. I had this very political Film Theory teacher, Joan Braderman, and she came into class one day and discussed all the great locations Larry Cohen had used in Q: The Winged Serpent. How cool is that? I worked in movie theaters, and when I saw The Deadly Spawn and The Evil Dead received theatrical releases, I knew there was a way to make this happen. I knew Frank Henenlotter through Jim Muro, who was a classmate of mine, and Roy Frumkes was our teacher. I saw that there were guys who got their movies made and got them into theaters. I had no intention of getting my degree and then working my way up the ladder – that’s a sure way to become a teacher or a corporate guy. So my friend Peter Clark and I quit SVA after one year determined to make our own film.
The chronology is a little bit hazy to me; it seems like SLIME CITY (1988) and BRAIN DAMAGE were being made almost concurrently. Did working on BRAIN DAMAGE influence you in your direction of SLIME CITY?
I wrote Slime City the summer of 1983, right after my year at SVA. But I didn’t know how to get it made. One year later, in 1984, Peter and Robert Sabin and I worked for free on I Was a Teenage Zombie to learn how to make our film. We planned to shoot Slime in 1985, the same year Street Trash was made, but just didn’t know how to raise the money. We finally shot it the next year, largely with our own money, when Street Trash was in post production, and we interrupted Slime City’s editing to shoot Brain Damage. The Slime City gang also worked on a truly rancid piece of crap called Plutonium Baby in between shooting Slime and Brain Damage.
You worked as first assistant director to Henenlotter on his film BRAIN DAMAGE (1988). Can you tell us your experiences on that film?
It was certainly the most professional production I ever worked on; we all got paid, and we shot in a studio we built in a warehouse, and we shot in 35mm. Brain Damage was the nexus of this subgenre, involving the crews of Basket Case, Street Trash and Slime City. It was also a longer shoot than I’m accustomed to, maybe six weeks, as opposed to 2 – 4. It was an eye opening experience for me as a director, and if I’d worked on this first, Slime City would have been a much better film. Frank knows exactly what he wants, and knows what he’s going to get in the editing room. I just shot what I thought we needed for Slime City and then tried to work it out in the editing. There’s a big difference in those approaches.
There’s a sexual subtext in SLIME CITY that, I’ll admit, I missed on the first viewing. From what I’ve heard, that seems to be a recurring theme — people not catching the sexual subtext immediately. Were you inspired by anything in particular in including this undercurrent of sexual frustration and discovery, or was it part of the original story idea?
I was 18 when I wrote the script and 21 when I directed the movie, so I still remembered what it was like to be a horny teenager. The sexual subtext was 100% intentional; it’s what made the movie interesting to me. Other people have suggested the imagery owes a lot to Cronenberg’s early style of “body horror,” and if that’s true, that was done on a subconscious level. All of my films have subtext; I’d like to think that’s one reason they’ve survived, no matter how sloppily executed.
Was the checkered tile floor in the climactic kitchen battle of SLIME CITY a planned element? Its presence lends a ‘chess game between good and evil’ idea to the whole scene.
It was planned by Scott Coulter and Tom Lauten, the special effects artists – because it allowed us to hide the slit we had to cut in the elevated floor so they could operate the rod puppet crawling brain!
Your next film project was 1991’s NEW YORK VAMPIRES, aka UNDYING LOVE. It seems like vampires experienced a renaissance in the 80s, particularly with the rise of HIV concerns. Was UNDYING LOVE inspired by or in reaction to this vampire revival?
The market for low budget horror films overseas and on domestic video dried up in 1990 – Slime City came out just in time, and in a parallel universe it came out one year earlier and I’m a successful filmmaker. I wanted to make a film even cheaper than Slime City, and vampires at that time required very few special effects. I wanted to do a deconstructionist film like Martin. It’s possible AIDS played a role in this, but if it did it was on a subconscious level. This would explain why Nadja, The Addiction, and Habit all came out around the same time. (Habit and Undying Love are the most similar of the four; they were shot at the exact same time, and Larry Fessenden and I are friends, but we didn’t know each other then). But Slime City is most definitely a metaphor for AIDS, and that was intentional.
In 1999 you made NAKED FEAR, a psychological thriller about a severely agoraphobic man. Where did the agoraphobia element come from? I’ve never seen another film incorporating that particular fear.
I wrote Naked Fear in 1990, when we were shooting Undying Love. I wanted to do a story that would team up Robert Sabin, the star of Slime, with Tom Sweeney, star of Undying Love. I tend to become great friends with my actors – like Mary Huner and now Debbie Rochon – and want to work with them over and over. I was intrigued by the idea of setting a film entirely in one location, and the agoraphobia came out of that. We shot that one in 1995, and by then it had become two locations. It was a problematic shoot, because we shot on a much lower budget, in Hi 8 video, and my editor Phil Gallo, directed a much bigger film called West New York, which took priority. We had to dub the entire film, and our running time was short, so we shot an additional 10 minutes of footage early in 1999, and finished the film that year. It’s funny, Slime City is the best known of the three films, but Undying Love is my favorite and the reshoots for Naked Fear are my best direction up to that point. Each film has its supporters and detractors, which pleases me – they’re very different films despite sharing similar themes, actors and locations. And combined, they’re essentially my film school education.
Your latest film, SLIME CITY MASSACRE, is your biggest film yet. What led you to decide to make a sequel to SLIME CITY?
Bill, it’s my most ambitious film, but I’m still toiling in micro-budget land. You’d be amazed to learn what Slime City Massacre cost, but I’m keeping that information close to the vest right now because I want a decent DVD deal. There are many reasons for making this film. I’ve always wanted to make a film that was good and not just good for its budget; Robert and Mary and Tom Merrick (Jerry, Alex’s best friend in Slime City) and Robert Tomaro, who composed the Slime score, had a great time screening the film during its 20th anniversary, and I kind of wanted to do something special to celebrate our friendship, which has survived two decades; and if I was going to make another low budget horror film, it made sense to do this sequel because Slime had developed a real fan base over the years, for which I’m very grateful. But most of all, I found creative justification for doing the sequel in the screenplay I wrote.
Now, I don’t want to say too much about SLIME CITY MASSACRE here, but I would like to talk about the Slimehead make-up. It seems to me like the facial applications were toned down from the original — it really strikes me how deepset Alex’s eyes are made to look and how wrinkled his face becomes in the original, and the Slimeheads in SCM seem less wrinkly to me. Was this a conscious decision, something that just happened, or am I imagining things?
Robert wore three different make-up designs in Slime City, which followed his progression from a goopy slime monster into a fully possessed “Zachary Devon.” Because this is a sequel, I didn’t feel the need to repeat that progression. Also, there are four possessed characters this time – five if you count the one who pops up at the end. It was important for each character to have a distinctive look, so I had a different artist on the film design each character, and they all brought their own approach. This is also why I gave each character his/her own colored slime, which I think worked out really well. Rod Durick, the supervisor, created the appliance worn by Jennifer Bihl, our star,a nd that one definitely ahd sunken eyes. It’s a gorgeous appliance, I still admire it. Craig Lindberg, who’s worked on a lot of big TV shows and movies, sculpted Debbie’s appliance, and we agreed she should be the most recognizable because I planned to feature her on the poster. Arick Szymecki did the Zachary make-up for Kealan Patrick Burke, and he was the only one I instructed to adhere somewhat to the original make-up, just for a sense of continuity. John Renna did the “Mason” make-up for Lee Perkins, and Andrew Lavin did our “Purple Slime Head” for the ending.
In SLIME CITY MASSACRE, Debbie Rochon wears a prosthetic appliance on her chest that harkens back to the orifice that opens in Alex’s chest in the original, but with a more feminine touch. At what point in the development process was that element decided upon, and how did Ms. Rochon react to it?
I don’t write from an outline, at least not successfully; I improvise as I go along. I knew about halfway in that”Alice,” the character I wrote for Debbie, would grow a giant vagina with teeth and bite Tommy Sweeney’s head off. It was very clear in the script, and we referred to it as “the torso cunt.” Craig sculpted the appliance, and R.J. Sevin built the interior, which you barely glimpse, and the CGI version of it opening.
Debbie was supportive of this project from the get-go, even though we’d never met, and remained attached even when we had to shoot on a lower budget than I wanted. She never questioned any elements of the script, other than character matters, and never offered any objection to content. The only thing she asked was, “After I rise from the bathtub, do I spend the rest of the movie nude???” and the answer was “no.”
I have to add, I had a magical cast on this film – all of the people I brought in from my past films and all the pros I brought onto this one. Great, great people; they gave this project their all, and it making it with them was a really special experience, which is why many of us got SCM tattoos! I’ll be lucky if I ever have an experience like this again.
It takes longer. There are more words and less cheating logic. Really, for me, writing is writing. But the difference between writing a screenplay or novel and making a movie is huge. I control everything in a novel and don’t have to worry about budget, and get everything I want the reader to read on the page. Making a movie is a very exciting, deadline oriented experience; it’s problem solving every day, but you’re working with a team every day. Film is collaborative. None of my films are called “A Greg Lamberson film” because that’s bullshit. Chris Santucci shot SCM, Ryan Richards recorded the sound, Phill Gallo edited the movie, Mars did the score, Sunny Halecki designed the costumes, Emil Novak designed the sets and props, Michael O’Hear and Jay Mager were the assistant directors, John Renna the production manager, Phil Czubinsky did a dozen different things… we had 8 producers, including my wife. How is that “a Greg Lamberson” film? But I’m the only one who writes my novels. A lot of people at Medallion Press provide a lot of support for the books – editing, art, production design, promotion – and I always acknowledge them, but there’s one author. That just isn’t the case on a film.
I have to say, THE FRENZY WAY is the most compelling werewolf story I’ve seen told since 1981’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. In your acknowledgements, you thank Christopher Aiello, a retired NYPD detective, for his advice on depicting the NYPD. What sort of research went into the supernatural elements of the story?
Bill, I wrote the screenplay The Frenzy Way is based on in 1989, after Slime City came out. It ran 90 pages. The novel runs 340 or so. A lot of research went into this novel, regarding police work, Native American mythology and the Spanish Inquisition. So much research that I had to leave out a lot of cool stuff. But that’s what sequels are for. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I think it accomplishes exactly what I wanted it to, which was to deliver an exciting werewolf book with an original mythology. Action, action, action!
With Universal’s recent remake of THE WOLFMAN, the “Wolf Pack” of the TWILIGHT series, and werewolves being introduced into HBO’s True Blood series, do you think lycanthropes might be poised for a renaissance?
I hope so, for my sake! I was already working on this novel when I attended Book Expo America in L.A. in 2008, and my publisher, Helen Rosberg, who owns Medallion, said, “Do you have any werewolf stories?” People have been predicting this trend for a few years, but you really can’t predict it, and you can’t count on those predictions. I wrote this novel when I did because it was what appealed to my imagination. I actually wanted to write it after Personal Demons, but didn’t feel up to the task, so I wrote Johnny Gruesome instead.
Additionally, you put together the book CHEAP SCARES!: LOW BUDGET HORROR FILMMAKERS SHARE THEIR SECRETS, something of a do-it-yourself guide to microbudget filmmaking. Was this born out of learning things the hard way hands-on?
Yes. I wrote the book because I thought I had things worth communicating to new filmmakers. I emphasize screenwriting in three chapters, and marketing, and distribution. I don’t pull any punches in that book, I spell out just how unlikely it is film for a low budget film to receive distribution, and how unlikely it is to make money even if it gets it. I honestly believe micro and low budget filmmakers – especially horror filmmakers, who are often so enamored of their favorite films that they try to rip them off, believing no one will notice – need to read this book.
Now, I’m a native of Buffalo, NY, having been born and raised here. You’re an adopted son of the Nickel City, and filmed SLIME CITY MASSACRE here. How is filming in Buffalo different from filming in New York City?
Oh, man. I moved here with my wife because we wanted to own a house and start a family. We have a nice house and a beautiful daughter. We’ve met a lot of good people here, and I like that everything is within 20 minutes of each other; it’s like living in a small town in a lot of ways. But the economy here sucks and the job situation is awful. I chose to shoot Slime City Massacre here because a lot of rust belt locations are ideal for a post apocalyptic environment. That really says it all, you know? It’s not fair to compare Buffalo or any other city in the U.S. to NYC, which is the greatest city in the world. But NYC has its drawbacks, too, especially if you’re raising kids. We plan to stay in Buffalo at least 3 more years, maybe longer because of the economy. There are two more films I’d like to make in this area, if I can raise the money, possibly three, so that’s a factor. And I’m about to launch a horror film festival here with Emil Novak, another local filmmaker.
I have to admit, it occurred to me during the cast and crew screening of SLIME CITY MASSACRE how little effort it seems to have taken to turn Buffalo into a mutant-infested, post-apocalyptic ruin. Did anything similar occur to you during the filming or during pre-production?
The film was partly inspired by the location, the Central Terminal Station. I was supposed to direct Prison of the Psychotic Damned for Red Scream Films, but bowed out because they seemed shady. When I toured the facility, I got the inspiration to make Slime City Massacre a post apocalyptic tale. Ironically, we didn’t get permission to shoot in the Terminal – as others have – but the city helped us shoot in two abandoned buildings bordering it.
If you were a beginning filmmaker again, what advice would you find most helpful to hear from a mentor?
Have a backup plan, because you’ll never make money as an indie filmmaker! You’d better love making movies, and had better derive a lot of satisfaction from the acts of creation and completion, because sometimes that’s all there is.
Thank you again for agreeing to this interview, Greg.
Greg’s new Werewolf/Police Procedural novel THE FRENZY WAY just hit stores June 1st, and I strongly urge our readers here to give it a go. Similarly, Greg’s earlier films are readily available, and SLIME CITY MASSACRE is making the convention rounds prior to a DVD distribution deal. Do your part — support independent horror cinema!