Roy Frumkes wears many hats. A writer, director, actor, teacher, he’s been involved in a wide variety of of films over the years, particularly in the horror genre — He was the first “pie in the face” zombie in DAWN OF THE DEAD, wrote STREET TRASH, and more recently, played property developer Ronald Crump in SLIME CITY MASSACRE (Everything I write, it seems, eventually comes back to Slime City). He was also kind enough to answer a few questions on his varied career.
First of all, Mr. Frumkes, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. It’s always a genuine pleasure to get to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and see what goes into the making of our favorite films.
To begin, you’re best known for your contributions to the horror genre – STREET TRASH, DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, and being the first “pie in the face” zombie in DAWN OF THE DEAD, albeit uncredited as such. What led you to the horror genre?
My Brother, Lewis, who scared the shit out of me on a nightly basis when he was 8-10 and I was 3-5. Later, when both he and my folks didn’t seem to be around too much, I was left alone with the B&W TV, watching creepy Val Lewton films (early 50s) and being afraid to get out of the chair I was sitting in because something would be waiting in the shadows for me. There was one image of a paw or a clawed hand coming out from under a bed that really had me going.
While you’ve been an actor and a director, it seems like turns as screenwriter have dominated your career. Have you always been writing and telling stories?
Yes, making films and writing them go way back to junior high school. And writing stories, even further than that, with one finger on one key at a time on the old style type-writers. My father, encouraging me, or indulging me, would have them retyped and hard bound as a reward for my labors, which often took months for me to finish. Although he never got past the fifth grade, he had an abiding interest in technical things. He had a 3D camera, and a 16mm camera, and I was able to use them, shooting stories at school. I was the only one at my school playing with film.
You got hit in the face with a pie during the filming of DAWN OF THE DEAD. What was your initial reaction to being told you were going to get a pie to the face, and was it difficult to maintain your composure during the filming of the scene?
They didn’t spring it on me – it was understood what our fate would be. But looking back at it, all that work that Tom Savini did creating my zombie visage, only to have it obliterated a few minutes later, just doesn’t seem right somehow. Fortunately I have some good pictures of myself in makeup before the pie hit. It was easy to maintain my composure; I wanted to do a good job for George, who was really generous to offer me the part. It ended up being a critical reflexive element in DOCUMENT.
How did you get involved in making DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD?
I was teaching, first at SUNY Purchase, then at The School of Visual Arts, filmmaking in both schools, and there were no films out there about making indie films. I tried to get SUNY to pitch in some dough, but that was a big, impersonal institution, whereas SVA was privately owned, and they came up with some money for me to get started. I had to raise perhaps another thirty thousand to finish it.
STREET TRASH came during a period when we were seeing a number of gritty, gory low-budget films come out of New York City – BASKETCASE, SLIME CITY, even (to a lesser extent) THE TOXIC AVENGER and, a little late to the party, Henenlotter’s FRANKENHOOKER. Looking at the anarchic tone of these films and the time period they were filmed in, it almost feels like they’re a thumbing of the nose towards Rudy Giuliani and the clean up of New York City – “You can take the trash out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the trash,” so to speak. Was STREET TRASH in any way a reflection of this?
Guiliani was mayor from 1994-2001, so all of those films you mentioned, and quite a few more (COMBAT SHOCK, MANIAC, etc) were done at a time when none of us knew 42nd street was coming down. We all loved the Grindhouse aura of Times Square, and I’m sure it infiltrated our sensibilities whether we knew it or not. And in those days, if you were stealing shots, it wasn’t at all hard to shoot around NYC. It was hard for a film like STREET TRASH, because we had a crew of 55, and there was no way to do real guerilla filmmaking with that amount of visibility, but for most of the others, and for all of Larry Cohen’s stuff, it was hit and run.
How did the initial idea behind STREET TRASH (melting homeless people) come about?
Jimmy Muro, the director, had an uncle who became a homeless person, and as a kid, he and his family ran into the guy one day in the Bowery (I think that’s where it was), and out of that came a desire to do a film about the derelict community in lower NYC. It evolved into the melting theme in the student version of ST, done while Jimmy and Mike Lackey were taking my classes at SVA.
I have to say, the “raw chicken in the pants” scene is my favorite in STREET TRASH. Which much of the film has a ghoulish slapstick sensibility, there’s also a fair amount of wit, and the chicken scene comes across as a much lighter slapstick comedy. What has inspired you in terms of comedy?
Well, I don’t want to make Chaplin roll over in his grave…it was bad enough that his body was stolen once; it should lie in peace. But all the early comic stars impressed me, and my brother, outside of scaring me, had a great sense of humor. All my films, whether documentaries like BURT’S BIKERS, or exploitation films like THE SUBSTITUTE, or even films I’ve produced and contributed to in some way, like THE PROJECTIONIST or THE SWEET LIFE, have had comedy elements in them. The chicken scene really pleases me, since Clarenze Jarmon didn’t improvise – that’s exactly as I wrote it. Can’t say the same for Nicole Potter’s lines, or Darrow’s & Lorinz’s, or even Vic Noto’s. Some of my dialogue for them made it into the film, but only maybe 50%, and in Nicole’s case, none.
During the 1990s, you wrote the first three installments of the SUBSTITUTE franchise. How did you get involved in that, and did it prove to be radically different writing action instead of horror?
THE SUBSTITUTE was meant to be the follow-up feature to STREET TRASH, starring Bill Chapil and some of the other ST alumni. But I’d accumulated a writing partner (Rocco Simonelli), and he spotted it in my file cabinet, and persuaded me to send it to Hollywood, where it got snapped up by Live Entertainment and became a franchise. Bill has a Technical Advisor credit on the first one – he provided a lot of the dialogue.
Also in the ‘90s, you collaborated with Joe Anderson to rescue the National Board of Review’s magazine, Films in Review, to which you’d been a long-time contributor. Have there been any difficulties in keeping the magazine afloat since?
It was costing $25,000 an issue to print, and we couldn’t recoup that with advertising, subscriptions, and newstand sales. Each issue we’d cut the losses a little, but it would have taken several years to break even and get ahead, so I phased it out in ’97 and put it up in cyberspace, where it’s been ever since and has a loyal following. Our main film critic is Victoria Alexander, who was the women whose husband was dragged out of the car window in STREET TRASH, and who appeared in TALES THAT’LL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT and THE SWEET LIFE. She’s very inflammatory, and gets hate mail from all over the world, which she finds extremely gratifying.
You’ve been a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City for many years. Has teaching screenwriting to aspiring filmmakers affected how you write your own scripts?
It hasn’t affected my screenplays, but it has led to jobs. At least 1/3 of success in this industry is based on networking, and I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of my ex-students, and it has led to jobs over the years, including STREET TRASH.
If you were to go back and talk to Roy Frumkes, circa 1978, what advice would you give him in regards to filmmaking?
I would tell myself to make twice as many films, because when you get older, those residuals come in awful handy. I do a film perhaps every four years; I could easily have doubled that. I still get healthy checks several times a year for the SUBSTITUTE films, and DOCUMENT, in its various incarnations (including another about to come out called THE DEFINITIVE DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD) has done very well for me. STREET TRASH less so, only because our foreign sales agent died and I never could find out what he did with the M&E (separate music & effects) tracks, so most of the foreign territories can’t be sold. Only the countries whose viewers are willing to read subtitles. A shame.
Thanks again to Roy Frumkes for agreeing to this interview. It is always enlightening to hear what goes in to our favorite movies!