It's Easter weekend in the Mission District, and despite the rabbit snuffling around Rick Popko's backyard, Cadbury eggs are the last thing on anyone's mind. "I think we've killed everyone we know," Popko explains grimly, grabbing his cell phone to try and recruit one more zombie for the final day of filming on the horror comedy RetarDEAD. Moments later, Popko and RetarDEAD codirector Dan West survey the scene in Popko's basement. To put it mildly, it's a bloodbath: The ceiling, walls, and carpet are dripping with cherry red splatters. A smoke machine sits primed for action near a table loaded with gore-flecked prop firearms.
Several weeks later (plus several coats of paint, though a faint pinkness lingers), what had been a gruesome morgue has now reverted to its natural domestic state, save an editing station assembled at one end. A framed poster commemorating Popko and West's first feature, 2003's Monsturd, hangs on a nearby wall.
Monsturd is a true B-movie. Thanks to some seriously weird science, a serial killer morphs into a giant hunk of raging poop. Drawn into this sordid small-town tale are an evil doctor, a down-and-out sheriff, and an intense FBI agent, plus Popko and West as a pair of screwball deputies. Toilet jokes abound. After a three-day premiere at San Francisco's Victoria Theatre, Monsturd found some success on video, most triumphantly surfacing in Blockbuster after the chain purchased 4,000 DVD copies.
Popko and West hope Monsturd's cult notoriety will aid RetarDEAD, which happens to be its direct sequel. It starts exactly where Monsturd ended. "Dr. Stern [the mad scientist played by Popko-West pal Dan Burr] rises from the sewer," West explains. "He gets a job at an institute for special education and starts a test group on these special ed students. They become remarkably intelligent, and then the side effect is they become zombies."
"In a nutshell, we kind of liken it to Flowers for Algernon meets Night of the Living Dead," Popko interjects.
"It's a background gag to get the whole premise of the joke title. People go, ‘Well, why is it RetarDEAD?’ It's because we needed a gimmick," says West, adding that the title came before the film (and was settled upon after an early choice, Special Dead, was snatched up by another production).
Best friends since bonding over a shared love of Tom Savini, circa 1984, at Napa's St. Helena High School, Popko and West are so well matched creatively that Burr describes them as "like the left hand and the right hand" on the same body. Both are keen on beguiling titles. Monsturd's original moniker (Number Two, Part One) was dropped after being deemed too esoteric; Monsturd, they figured, would solicit more interest in video stores.
"We knew it's such a stupid title that you would have to rent it just to see if it was as dumb as you thought it was," West explains. And for self-financed filmmakers like West and Popko (who both have full-time jobs and estimate they spent $3,000 on Monsturd and $12,000 to $14,000 so far on RetarDEAD), clever marketing strategies are essential.
"We have to think, when we're making these movies, what can we sell, what can we get out there, what can we make a name for ourselves with?" Popko says.
"On this level, you go to the exploitation rule, which is give ’em what Hollywood cannot or will not make," West adds. "And they're not gonna make Monsturd."