Los Angeles, 1990. I’m in a Hancock Park mansion for three marathon days, working on a low-budget mafia/vampire/zombie flick starring an ex-Playboy Playmate and an actor who’s been dead for more than a year. My pay: $70 a day. My position: props/art department assistant. The fact I’ve never worked with props or the art department is never discussed.
The male lead is John Carradine, who died two years earlier. The producer, a well-known straight-to video-king, had the foresight to hire Carradine for several days’ work in 1988. He had him wear dark suits and appear in several gothic sets uttering such classic lines as, “They need human blood to survive,” and “By day they sleep, by night they kill.” Somehow, entire scripts were written around Carradine’s offerings and this was to be his fourth posthumous film.
Day one finds me as assistant snake wrangler. I guard two 14-foot long boa constrictors in their glass tank, feeding them little white mice every hour. Just prior to shooting, I’m told to rub Vaseline on their skin so they’ll gleam beneath the 5K lights. As I reach into the cage, Boa #1 bites me between my thumb and forefinger tearing away a patch of skin.
“Don’t grab him there,” the head snake wrangler yells. “Grab him behind the head.”
The set nurse cleans my wounds as I watch the boas perform their big scene. They slither atop a naked female vampire asleep in her velvet coffin. The snake wrangler takes up Vaseline duty, leaving me to clean the dung out of the coffin.
Day two has me filling explosive squibs with fake blood and gluing dead insects to the walls. Several cockroaches are still alive as I stick pins through their exoskeletons. “Isn’t it against SPCA guidelines to harm bugs,” I ask the prop man. “We’re not harming them we’re killing them,” he answers. By three o’clock, we run low on fake blood. I’m given $50 and sent to Joe Blasco Makeup to replenish supplies. The money gets me four quarts, not enough to revive a sick dog let alone a sputtering horror film. The prop man accuses me of pilfering the money. I show him the receipt. He berates me for buying the wrong brand of blood.
I’m given a shovel and told to dig ditches in the backyard for the movie’s final scene. The scene: a horde of naked female vampire zombies arise from their graves and attack the mafia bosses responsible for their un-deaths. My task is to dig graves six feet long by three feet wide by three feet deep. After two hours, I finish my first hole.
At sundown, the prop man checks my progress. He’s incensed at my slow pace. “What’s your problem, buddy? You’re moving like a four-year old girl.” “I’ve never dug graves before,” I tell him. “You’re going to be digging your own grave if you don’t start hustling.”
I ask if I can take a dinner break. He tosses me an apple. At one a.m., I finish the final hole. I’m exhausted, sore and covered with mud. The prop man tells me to go home and return at seven a.m. to move the dirt piles out of the backyard. I start wondering if this is a Nazi film and I’m the star.
Day 3, I oversleep and barely make it to set on time. There is no coffee. The craft service person quit after the second day’s 22-hour debacle. As I’m hauling dirt from the backyard in a wheelbarrow, the automatic sprinklers come on. I slip and fall into one of the freshly dug graves. I emerge cold and wet and splattered with mud and walk to wardrobe and ask for dry clothes. I’m given a zombie suit covered with dead cockroaches. At least it’s dry.
I finish moving the dirt by noon. We break for lunch. Cold Big Macs, greasy fries, watered-down coke. Food has never tasted so good. We move inside for the penultimate shower scene. The scene: two naked mafia mistresses are attacked and transformed into maniacal, full-breasted, seething vampire zombies. The French director, in his broken English, demands the scene be “an orgy of skin, breasts and squirting blood.”
The prop man tells him there is only enough blood-filled squibs for two takes. The director is not pleased. “We must have more blood,” he screams. I wonder if he knows he’s quoting John Carradine. The two actresses enter the bathroom wearing robes, followed by one of the vampire zombies. The director, cameraman and makeup artist cram into the bathroom behind them. I stand outside the bathroom. They shoot the scene. I hear running water, vampire roars, French calls for “blood, blood,” then a yell of “Cut! Merde! That was terrible. Go again, right away.”
The prop man clears the set and calls me into the bathroom. “You’re up,” he says. “Clean the set. And make it fast.” The bathroom is splattered with fake blood. It looks like a Weegee photo from True Crime magazine. I’m handed towels and a mop. The blood smears across the floor like maple syrup. While I toil, Frenchy gives the actresses tips in how to scream. Fifteen minutes later, the set is clean. I rise and glance at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I’m covered with blood and dead cockroaches in a torn zombie suit. I’m impressed.
At nightfall, we move to the backyard for the climactic graveyard scene. The prop man tells me to retrieve the dirt I moved to the front yard that morning. “Why’d you have me move it in the first place,” I ask. “Just get the frickin’ dirt,” he says. Two hours later, we begin shooting the final scene. Ten naked female vampire zombies are instructed to lie down in the ditches I dug the previous night. The prop man covers them with dirt up to their necks. They squeal at the feel of the cold, wet mud.
The director eyes the set through his viewfinder then yells out directions through a bullhorn. “You are angry, you are evil, you are undead,” he yells. “You hunger for the blood of the mafia bosses who made you zombie vampires. When I yell action, rise from your graves and take your revenge. And make sure to shake your breasts.”
The cameras roll. The director yells action. Nothing happens. Somehow the wet mud has hardened and the vampire zombies are stuck in their graves. I’m sent to Home Depot with a pickup truck to buy a half-ton of dirt. A security guard tails me as I walk through the store. Only then do I remember my bloody zombie outfit. I return to set an hour later. In my absence, the prop man is forced to move the wet dirt himself. This pleases me. The actresses take their places in their graves. They’re covered with fresh, dry dirt. Again, the director yells action. The zombie vampires rise from their tombs and march forward, arms extended, viciously attacking the mafia bosses. I try to imagine how a script would justify a group of mafiosos hanging around a graveyard at midnight.
The director yells cut. He complains that he can’t see enough zombie breasts beneath the dirt. He wants rain so the dirt will “ooze off their naked flesh.” The prop man and I scurry to the rooftop with garden hoses. We put our thumbs over the nozzles and imitate rain. To us it looks terrible, but the director is pleased. Zombie breasts are plentiful.
We wrap at four a.m.
The prop man instructs me to refill the ditches with dirt so the back lawn can be re-sod by the homeowners. This takes me two hours. As the sun rises over Hancock Park, I can barely keep my eyes open. I seek out the prop man and find him scouring the ivy in front of the house. One of his boa constrictors has escaped and he’s in a state of panic. He asks me to help him search but I show him the snakebite on my hand conveniently displaying my outthrust middle finger. “Fine, get out of here,” he says.
I find the producer in the makeup trailer watching the half-naked vampire zombies clean themselves. He removes a wad of bills and pays me. I thank him and return my zombie costume to wardrobe. On the way home, I stop for bagels and coffee. I pull out my wallet and pay with a $20 bill. The cashier stares, since it’s covered with blood. He stares at me. I’m covered with mud. He looks at me for a long moment then asks, “Horror Film?” I nod my head and drive home for much needed sleep.
—See more of Loren Kantor’s work at woodcuttingfool.blogpost.com.