In 1999, The Blair Witch Project became one of the most bizarre and unlikely of cultural phenomena; a dirt cheap, independent piece of pop entertainment that crept under the skin of America, giving lots of folks some serious willies and a lot more motion sickness. It was impossible to deny the spirit of the project, and once the hoopla died down over the fact that it was the actual found footage of three dead filmmakers (c’mon, the internet was still pretty new) it was damn inspiring to see the movie become the most profitable film of all time, shot for $22,000 and grossing over $240.5 million.
Like it or hate it, the film is the embodiment of the American independent filmmaking dream, and an affirmation of the vitality of the horror genre. Thirty-one years earlier, a scruffy little film called Night of the Living Dead started making the rounds on the midnight movie circuit, and amidst the deluge of shrieks, gasps, laughter and vomit, a certified independent horror movement was born. The rulebooks were burned and the inmates were running the show, opening the doors to a legion of filmmakers with a camera, some friends and zero budget.
Presently, independent horror is alive and well, and just when the genre seems in danger of stagnation, a Scream, a Saw or a Blair Witch comes along to shake up the public and confound the big studios. To gain some insight into the state of independent horror and the legacy of Night of the Living Dead, I sat down to lunch with Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton and John Gulager.
Those who saw Season Three of Bravo’s Project Greenlight will remember Melton and Dunstan as the unlikely duo whose script for Feast was selected for production, and Gulager as the meek, socially inept director for the project. Since that time, Feast has grown into a cult classic and inspired two sequels, both directed by Gulager and written by Dunstan and Melton, the latter duo serving as the horror writing “It” team of the moment, whose credits include Saw 4 and Saw 5 and the upcoming Hellraiser re-invention.
“It seems that every twenty years or so, horror is written off as dead,” says Dunstan. “It usually takes a war or an event with huge sociological impact to kickstart it again. The Atomic Age brought about atomic monster movies and the horrors of Vietnam inspired a whole new wave of special effects. At the present, we’ve been immersed in a war for so long that I’m excited to see what’s going to happen next. As a business, slasher flicks played themselves out in the 80s and didn’t get going again until they became self referential. When Scream was released it was like Bam…we’re back!”
Dunstan and Melton were young, Midwestern transplants to LA when they suddenly found themselves thrust into the world of independent horror filmmaking. As the cameras of Project Greenlight captured, the writers and director were in a sink-or-swim situation as deadlines loomed and budgets expected to be maintained. “Greenlight was the best thing that ever happened to us, and the fact that we were working on a low-budget horror film served as the best crash course into the business,” says Dunstan.
“Looking at independent horror as a business model, you can spend less on a film and find some mathematical equation to get a recoup out of it. That provides a wider playing field to invite people to hone their skills and take their first shot. Looking through history at the best directors and actors, they usually have some tie to a long ago, obscure horror film, with the Roger Corman film school giving everyone from Coppola to James Cameron a start. These extremely gifted filmmakers had that nightmare that they could share with the world. It’s not just that they did a horror movie, but that they did one that stuck out, made an impact and was told with passion. Night of the Living Dead is certainly an example of that.”
As Patrick Melton explains, the legacy of Night of the Living Dead and the key to the success of the genre lies in the simplicity of the execution. “Looking at indie horror, you don’t have to rely on effects or lavish locations and brilliant acting. The films are usually based around a simple idea and concept that is relatable to the masses and elicits some sort of emotional response.
It pays to be naïve as a writer, because you’ll take more risks and usually end up with something really great. The only real limitation is money, so you have to be more creative. On Feast, there were daily monetary obstacles to overcome. So it came down to Marcus and I saying, ‘How do we do something that is a fraction of the cost of the original idea that will still illicit the same response.’ Night of the Living Dead is filled with moments like that.
They set a situation in a very normal setting with normal characters, and presented a high concept idea that was scary. Anyone who watches the movie is affected in some way; either by the gore, the scares or the political commentary. Some people are simply repulsed and angered. There is really no middle ground.”
As a director, John Gulager had been kicking around the fringes of Hollywood for years. The son of acclaimed character actor Clu Gulager, Gulager was shooting wedding videos for money before winning Greenlight, his wreck of a car barely making it to the studio to show up for work. With Feast 2 scheduled for a DVD release this month and Feast 3 in production, Gulager has worked out his early fears and inhibitions on set, and grown into a director of unique vision and demented sensibilities (check out the monster autopsy scene in Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds for reference.)
“The lessons I’ve learned working in independent horror, and especially your first time out, is that you can actually make something that might be seen, since horror fans are so ravenous,” says Gulager. “That’s the good thing. The bad is that you’re constantly working against the clock. You try to do as well as you can with the time you have, but you wish that there was more time and more money to get it right, rather than thinking that you can fix it later in post, which is a mentality that can really fuck things up.”
“In the end, as long as you are creative and resourceful, the budget doesn’t really matter. What I love about horror is that is has a higher potential for success than indie drama or comedy, which doesn’t play as well on a low budget because it’s so reliant on performances. With horror, if it has that thing that tweaks you, that thing that gets your gut and twists your insides, than it can play to any audience.”
Talking to the three horror aficionados, it is clear that the impact of Night of the Living Dead cannot be overstated. For Gulager, the lifelong monster movie lover, it was the film that sent his beloved Hollywood monsters back into the shadows. “I grew up loving the “men in big rubber suits” movies,” says Gulager. “Stuff like Creature From the Black Lagoon and King Kong vs. Godzilla were my favorites. The monsters were essentially the good guys with all these people trying to kill them when all they really wanted was a girlfriend and a hug. I’d get all sad when the monster would die.”
“But Night of the Living Dead was a new reincarnation of horror, because it spawned the genre of ‘people’ horror instead of giant monsters. You have to remember how huge that was at the time…it essentially sent all the monsters into retirement. It changed the landscape of horror. It set the ground rules for filmmakers by showing them how to make use of the resources available to them. It allowed every young filmmaker to take inventory and say, ‘Well, I have access to people who will work cheap and I’ve got a guy who can use makeup and effects cheaply. Great, let’s make a movie!’ It let people know that all you need are some friends, karo syrup, a Hudson pump and some limbs to throw around to make a horror movie.”
For Dunstan and Melton, the underlying socio-political themes of Night of the Living Dead are just as important as the visceral shocks. “Not only was it a stunning horror movie, it had a rich layer of social commentary that said a horror movie can be more than just shock and jolt,” says Dunstan. “If you choose to look a bit deeper into the movie, it’s all there. You can put a message in that may be concealed by cake makeup and special effects but it’s there, and I think that’s remarkable. It rewarded me, being a youngster seeing the viscera and as an adult it rewarded your mind.”
“The movie was very effective to us as writers,” adds Melton, “At it’s core, it’s a monster movie. The monsters are the walking dead who are chasing people around. You have to kill them by shooting them in the brain. That simple concept has affected so many horror and monster movies since then. It was pure low budget, indie spirit and ambition that was done so effectively. It was a simple story with a simple concept that was very scary and frightening and had not been done before. What Romero was able to accomplish with those simple means of storytelling and budget is the template for what every indie horror filmmaker since then has been trying to accomplish.
With the limits of horror and gore seemingly pushed to the max by the visual assaults of the Saw and Hostel franchises, it is impossible to predict the future of horror, but Melton has a clear notion that independent horror will once again save the genre. “With the success of The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacres, there is a certain amount of comfort that sits in the bellies of the big studio heads and marketing people, because they know that people are already familiar with the concepts and the titles, so it’s only a matter of putting a new sheen on these old movies to turn them into remakes.”
“We’re pretty much out of the J-horror remake mode, and the torture porn thing has run its course. It is the time when something new and fresh is going to come along and blow everyone away, but I don’t know what that is. It could be an original voice, but most often it tends to be some little indie movie. It’ll be something that the studios couldn’t market and didn’t understand the vision, and then it suddenly shows up like gangbusters from some film festival, and horror suddenly has its new craze.”