There are a couple of distinct advantages to being a homemade moviemaker – that is, someone guiding their own cinematic career with a group of friends, a camcorder, and an unquestioned desire to create. The first, naturally, is pure aesthetic liberty. Basically, you can do whatever the Hell you want, however the Hell you want. Feel like combining genres in contravention to everything they teach about narrative and tone in film school? Go right ahead. Need to have slapstick humor combine with slimy scare tactics? Be my – or make that, your own – guest. In essence, want to follow your own merry muse wherever and however it takes you to the land of inferred entertainment? Like the old sports shoe slogan said – GO FOR IT!
The second benefit is a little more elusive. It only appears when someone with a significant point of view, or clear artistic conceit, takes a chance behind the viewfinder. You see, with most wholly independent films, there is more copycatting and past film referencing than wholly spontaneous and original ideas. If our basement Bertolucci fancies himself a horror maestro, you can bet that zombies, vampires or serial killers – the triumvirate of terrors for novice auteurs – will play a major part. On the other hand, if this so-called low rent Renoir wants to explore the realm of comedy, it's more than a safe bet that the humor will be less analytical and far more anal – both literally and figuratively. So it takes a rare talent to traipse around inside such a potential set of pitfalls, knowing how to avoid said dangers as well as how to save yourself once you do slip and succumb.
Justin Channell is such a moviemaking anomaly. Born in 1987 (making him a whopping 20 years old) and currently serving as the webmaster for the Troma Films fansite, Tromatized!, this knowing neophyte wanted to find a way to turning his love of horror and humor into a successful narrative combo. Along with his partners in motion picture crime, Joshua Lively and Zane Crosby (Channell writes and directs, while his buddies act onscreen and occasionally contribute to the scripts) he has turned the world of the living dead and the bloodsucking basics of Dracula's domain into the post-modern equivalent of an Abbott and Costello romp. With Lively and Crosby as his cinematic comedians, and working within the clear confines of a classic old school team (Josh is the straight man, Zane is Mr. Zinger), Channell proves that, with motivation, and some hands-on moxie, you too can create cinematic gold.
The trio's first film together, the incredibly effective Raising the Stakes, found Lively and Crosby taking on teen angst and inhuman immortality. The storyline featured the pair as two unhappy nerds who mistakenly believe that, by becoming vampires, they will instantly achieve campus coolness – and looks from the ladies. Naturally, the plan backfires (they still get their asses kicked, even as members of the undead) and all manner of hilarious hackneyed hijinx ensue. With an obvious love for all things South Park (the dialogue cribs quite a few catchphrases from the classic TV series) and a reliance on the retarded to amplify the anarchy, this genial jokefest helped put Channell and his chums on the outsider map.
After providing a segment for the hilarious scare spoof Faces of Schlock Volume 2 (the zombie baby lark A Fetal Mistake), Channell immediately leapt into his next project, the cannibal comedy Die and Let Live. This time, Lively and Crosby play college age slackers who enjoy intellectual repasts at the local coffee house. It also offers them the opportunity to ogle the brainy babes who stop by for the occasional hot cupper. Lively's character, Benny Rodriguez, has the hots for a gal named Stephanie, and he's desperate to impress her. He goes so far as to beg Crosby's Scotty Smalls to hold a poolside keg party in hopes of getting a hook up. Never one to reject a liquor-based soiree, Scotty makes the mistake of telling a few unwelcome buddies, and before you know it, Benny's plans for an intimate evening have turned into a typical adolescent booze binge.
Even worse, there's been an outbreak at the local medical testing facility, and a virus with the ability to raise the dead has been released. As Benny, Scotty and their pals pour down the pints, the local corpse population is stirring from their graves, and looking for people to munch on. Naturally, a series of confrontations occurs, with Benny trying to ward off Stephanie's old boyfriend (a jock joke lummox named Andrew) while the zombies discover the smorgasbord of inebriated idiots to satisfy their corrupt cravings. It will take a miracle – or the unbridled bonding power of some dolphin-shaped 'best friend' necklaces – to save the day.
Expanding on the formula he founded for Stakes, Channell chooses the best elements of the time-honored teen comedy and fuses them into a sly Shaun of the Dead dynamic. He never tries to oversell the scares, and indeed, frequently uses the homemade gore to wonderful comic effect. His ease with the material, the excellent conceptualizing of how to handle both the casual conversations and the blood and guts set pieces argues for a filmmaker wise beyond his meager years. Channell also understands his macabre, and enjoys the outright referencing of previous fright flicks as part of his production design. He even casts Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman and former company creative mind Trent Haaga in successful cameo roles.
But the movie really belongs to Lively and Crosby. In fact, Channell could simply dump the amiable arterial spray and use the duo as the next generation of rib tickling comedy teams. Borrowing less from their media influences, and creating a wonderfully wittiness that's all their own, these chums and collaborators off camera come across as lifelong companions on. Crosby alone has some amazing comic timing, never flinching or failing a joke. Lively is also adept at turning his occasional ironic quips into stellar asides. You can see how good they are when compared to the rest of the amateur cast. While the costars' lack of performance grade is nobody's fault (this is no budget filmmaking after all), Lively and Crosby could become indie film icons, the Clerks for a post post-Kevin Smith generation.
So, with all this talent on tap, and a few fine features under their belt, what's the downside to all this craft and creativity? Well, Die and Let Live has yet to find distribution on DVD (at least, as of this date) and both Raising the Stakes and Faces of Schlock Volume 2 are both self-circulated titles. Channell continues to play the festival circuit, hoping audience reaction – which is almost always favorable – will drive up interest in a legitimate release. Such is the tradeoff in the wonderful world of filmmaking beyond the fringe. You can make or do whatever you want, with the final product representing the best that you and your friends have to offer. But the question then becomes, will anyone ever see it? In the case of Justin Channell, Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, it's just a matter of time before they're outsider idols. Until then, they get the benefits, and detriments, of being homemade heroes.