Thirty-nine is just too young, no matter how you look at it. Life provides such limited opportunities that, to lose them all at such an age smacks of cosmic injustice. Many of you may not have heard of John Polonia, nor know of his work. He was a leftover from the Super VHS craze of the late ‘80s/ early ‘90s, a kid at heart with dreams just as naïve and wide-eyed. Along with brother Mark, he made horror movies - cheap, no-budget straight to video genre exercises that filtered an obsession with US and foreign fright into shockingly original terror visions. Prolific to a fault, the Polonias were the trademark example of the new technological age. They were teens (at the time) that wanted nothing more than to express themselves on film - and the scientific progress within the medium helped them achieve that goal.
And now John is gone - taken down by a heart aneurism just short of his 40th birthday. He leaves behind a devoted brother, an equally loyal spouse, and a young son. As Mark began the painful process of sending emails out to individuals he felt connected to, a strange kind of sadness swept over the outsider arena. It wasn’t just the tragedy of a career cut too short of an existence ended before its time. No, there was a sense of loss for the medium as well, a weird kind of ennui that suggested something equally depressing. It seems, no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re one solid step from notoriety - or nothing. In the case of John Polonia, it appears only a privileged few have had the pleasure of experiencing his creativity - or understand the man himself.
There’s no denying the Polonias specialized in what can kindly be called grade-Z schlock. It was what they loved. It was where their passions lied. Growing up during the startling transition from the post-modern ‘70s to the home theater ‘80s, the boys were literally inundated with cinema. Birthday gifts included camera equipment, and collaborations with other like minded moviemakers yielded special effects and actors. Together, they forged a grass roots loyalty to Argento and Fulci, Carpenter and Romero. They made slasher films, vampire epics, tongue in cheek monster movies - they even spoofed themselves with last year’s winning Splatter Beach. Thanks to DVD and the ease of distribution it provides, the boys were just breaking away from the notion of mainstream indifference. Instead, websites were championing their films, with offers from independent studios starting to pour in.
Yet the tragic loss of John underscores the main problem in today’s progressive media. Back before anyone could make film, there was a keen sense of perspective and preservation. True, a great many decent efforts were tossed on the coals of disposability, but at least the masterful ones stayed somewhat safe. Today, everyone’s an artist. There are no aesthetic checks, no creative balances. John and Mark Polonia were able to make movies and have them seen as a direct result of these critical barriers being breached. It is not meant to be a putdown, simply a statement of fact. By direct corollary, one fears John’s work will be lost among the DIY rabble, frequently scoffed at as interchangeable and easily dismissed.
What’s not so readily removed is how much true fan affection the Polonias put in their films. From the puppet like aliens in Feeders to the wood demon of their latest film, Forest Primeval, there was a wonderful throwback element to the days of tacky creature features and Saturday matinees. They also adored gore, making their movies as bloody and as disgusting as possible. When you look over their entire output - and it’s a massive canon, to say the least - it’s like retracing at the entire history of horror. They reflect the changing attitudes in the genre, from comedy to cruelty, invention to outright rip-offs.
Ever-present were John and Mark, twin brothers with bushy moustaches and voices carved out of a clear Northeastern cadence. Fighting the cusp between able and amateurish, these like minded siblings sought to express themselves in ways that played directly into their personal proclivities. They always remained technically proficient, even working on other people’s films as actors, writers, and editors. They were genial, often self-deprecating about their product, using the burgeoning digital format to explain themselves in featurettes and commentary tracks. There was always a wistful quality to their discussions, an acknowledgment of luck in an industry that rarely rewards anything save nepotism and ‘who you know’ networking.
With John gone, it will probably be difficult for Mark to immediately move on. As he said in his recent email, it just won’t be the Polonia Brothers anymore. But spirit is a funny thing - it tends to infuse itself (sometimes indirectly) into the remainder of reality. No matter what he does from this point forward, Mark will always carry his spitting image offspring with him. That means that, if and when he makes another movie, it will clearly be a joint effort. If any good can come out of this tragedy, it’s that the messageboard attention John’s death received will provide some renewed interested in the Polonia’s films.
Tempe Entertainment, who released Primeval, is already planning a tribute for the last film the brothers made together. Not surprising, it’s a send-up of the genre entitled Monster Movie. In many ways, it’s a fitting end for a collaboration that often celebrated the weird and the whacky. Thirty-nine is just way too young. Here’s hoping John Polonia will be remembered more for his films and not for such an untimely passing.
// Notes from the Road
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