[29 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What does it take to make a movie in 2008? A huge budget underwritten by a major Tinsel Town conglomerate? A nonstop parade of union-loyal crewmembers each striving to bring their contract-mandated best to the project while surreptitiously preparing for their next paying gig? A bevy of A-list actors who moderate onset professionalism and skilled performance with just a dash of limelight laziness? A high concept script? A director who isn’t drunk on his own ego (or an everpresent bottle of Vat 69)? Whatever it takes, Lloyd Kaufman didn’t have any of it a few years back. Hoping to bring his beloved indie shingle Troma back from the proposed post-millennial dead, he called upon his most reliable employment pool, and offered them a chance to do something very rare - work on a major motion picture release.
Thus last year’s sensational Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Created by Gabe Friedman, Daniel Bova, and Kaufman himself, this fright flick farce built on fast food and freak side showboating rejuvenated the lame duck label that, at one time, boasted the biggest roster of cult icons this side of a John Waters’ Dreamland reunion. With rave reviews coming from all manner of outlets - including oddball love letters from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Guardian - it should have been a massive Saw-sized hit. Instead, Kaufman claims conspiracy, stating flat out that theaters would not book his film because of his outsider stance and its “Unrated” status. Luckily, as with most criminally overlooked efforts, the digital format is here to save the day.
Our sordid saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.
If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ - and it most certainly is - then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s insane shoot for Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured by the roving camera of Andy Deemer and Jason Foulke. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.
Almost all the problems revolve around the all-volunteer crew and amateur cast ‘hired’ by Kaufman as a cost cutting measure. Living in an abandoned church and filming in a rundown McDonalds, everyone begins with high hopes. And when a few of the F/X fail to work, everyone is determined to hunker down and make things right. But soon, Poultrygeist as a production starts to go askew - very askew. No-names turn despots, and Kaufman’s consistently cranky personality explodes. Soon, threats are being leveled, insults are being hurled, and nerves are systematically frayed, folded, and mutilated. By the last day of shooting, so little of the previous good humor exists that people seem satisfied just to see something - anything - happen.
It’s a telling reflection of the final film, one of the best things to ever come out of the New York nuthouse. Kaufman can call ‘fowl’ all he wants (or claim as he does on the commentary that many of the mistakes were fixed in post), but Poultrygeist is a great geek film made by and meant for film geeks. It’s a love letter to the genre by individuals who make macabre their entire life. It’s so blood and bodily fluid splattered brilliant that the freebie filmmaking assistants should be complimented, not cursed. Sure, as the alternate narrative track insists, more went wrong than right, but sometimes, a couple of thousand f*ck-ups can lead to something truly remarkable.
Elsewhere, the DVD argues for Kaufman’s often unglued approach to material. There is a deleted song for the character Humus that definitely should have been left in the film, and several of the Troma titan’s self-proclaimed “film lessons” often come across as stand-up comedy routines. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, it’s offered to support the supposition that art often comes from the most messed up of minds and motives. The concept of creating a Toxic Avenger like epic with a group of individuals surviving on naiveté, guts, and far too many stale cheese sandwiches may seem like a pie in the sky suggestion. But if Poultrygeist can make it work (albeit in a rather painful manner) why can’t other independent filmmakers?
Of course, the answer is obvious - few in the post-modern motion picture world have the kind of dedicated demo that Kaufman and company possess. For over 35 years, they’ve delivered the slapstick splatter that directors like Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez have built their entire career upon. Luckily, instead of its swansong, Poultrygeist suggests that Troma is just getting back into the ball game. As this amazing DVD set illustrates (and it’s a limited edition offering, folks, so get while the getting’s good), you don’t need Hollywood’s overinflated sense of self - and mega-multi-millions - to crank out something significant. All you really need is the voice of the people, and Poultrygeist has that in offal-accented spades.