DIY filmmakers Rick Popko and Dan West pursue guts and glory
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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."
Dirty deeds . . .
Monsturd took years to complete and taught the duo scores about the capriciousness of the DVD distribution biz. Though one review dubbed it "the greatest movie that Troma never made," Popko and West actually turned down a deal with the famed schlock house, unwilling to sign over the rights to their film for 25 years. After hooking up with another distributor, they didn't see any money from their Blockbuster coup. Still, they remain proud of Monsturd and its success.
"We tried to make it the best movie we possibly could, but we had nothing," West explains. "We didn't piss it out in a weekend. It took a year to shoot it, then it took a year to put the thing together."
"We didn't just shit out a crappy movie, pardon the pun," Popko says.
Neither filmmaker seems concerned that their trash-tastic subject matter might prevent them from being taken seriously as artists. And it doesn't bother them that Monsturd's joke tends to overshadow the film itself — not just for viewers, but for critics, who were by and large polarized by the killer shit-man tale.
Popko also recalls unsuccessfully submitting Monsturd to a half dozen film festivals intended to showcase DV and underground flicks. Quickly pointing out that the film got picked up anyway, he blames image-conscious programmers: "It's like, how can you have a respectable film festival when you've got a shit monster movie playing in it?"
Though Popko and West live in San Francisco and filmed both Monsturd and RetarDEAD in Northern California, they say they don't feel like part of the San Francisco filmmaking scene. Again, they suspect the whiff of poo might have something to do with it.
"We've kind of been ignored," West says. "We're not bitter about it, but it would be nice to be acknowledged for what we're doing — we're making exploitation films, and we don't really have any guilt about what we're doing. It'd be nice for somebody to develop a sense of humor and acknowledge it once in a while."
. . . done dirt cheap
As with Monsturd, RetarDEAD is a nearly all-volunteer effort, pieced together when the responsibilities of real life permit. Despite the obstacles — say, a sudden insurance crisis involving a rented cop car — unpredictability is clearly part of the thrill.
"When you undertake this shit, it's an adventure: 'What did you do this weekend?' 'Well, I was chased by 42 zombies, and the weekend before that, a bunch of burlesque dancers ripped our villain apart and ripped his face off,’” West explains. "It's like, how else would you spend your free time?"
This sentiment extends to the film's cast, several of whom have known Popko and West for years and reprise their Monsturd roles in its sequel. Coming aboard for RetarDEAD were members of San Francisco's Blue Blanket Improv group, as well as the Living Dead Girlz, a zombie-flavored local dance troupe.
Beth West, who jokingly calls herself a "fake actor," stars in both films as the X-Files-ish FBI agent (Dan West's former wife, she was roped into the first production after the original lead dropped out). Despite both films' bare-bones shoots — and other concerns, like trying (and failing) to keep continuity with her hairstyle over multiple years of filming — she remains upbeat about the experience: "I loved being part of such a big creative effort."
Though his character is torn to shreds in RetarDEAD, Burr agrees. "This film is going to be 100 times better than the last one, as far as direction, camera shots — everyone was more serious this time," he says. He hopes that RetarDEAD will help Popko and West expand their audience. "Someone's gonna notice the talent there. Maybe not in the acting, but this is these guys' lives. It's never been my whole dream, but it's always been their whole dream."
For RetarDEAD, technical improvements over Monsturd, including the introduction of tracking shots, were important considerations. However, first things first: "We knew we wanted this to be gory as fuck," West says. An ardent fan of Herschell Gordon Lewis — notorious for stomach turners like 1963's Blood Feast — West once hoped to lens a biopic of Lewis and his producing partner, David Friedman. Though it was never completed, he did get the Godfather of Gore's permission to use a snippet of dialogue from the project in RetarDEAD.
"This whole thing begins with his intro — it's like that Charlton Heston thing for Armageddon, where it's like the voice of God — but it's Herschell Gordon Lewis talking about gore," West says. "It was the one way I could go to my grave saying I finally figured out a way to work with Herschell Gordon Lewis."
Appropriately enough, RetarDEAD pays homage to Lewis's signature style. "Monsturd had a couple of bloody scenes in it, but it was pretty tame," Popko says. "This here, we're planning on passing out barf bags at the premiere because, I mean, it's gross. We've got intestines and chain saws and blood all over the place."
Overseeing the splatter was director of special effects Ed Martinez, one of the few additional crew members (and one of few who were paid). A late addition to the production, he "made the movie what it is," according to West.
"A zombie film in this day and age, you can't do amateur-quality makeup and get away with it — it'll be a flop," says Martinez, who teaches special effects makeup at San Francisco's Academy of Art University and is a veteran of films like The Dead Pit. "And [Popko and West] know that."
Though Martinez is used to working on bigger projects, he stuck with RetarDEAD — dreaming up such elaborate moments as a Day of the Dead–inspired man-ripped-in-half sequence — because, as he says, "In a way, I'm a coconspirator now." He also appreciates the directors' sheer enthusiasm and appreciation. After a killer take, they were "literally high-fiving me. Most low-budget filmmakers are so egocentric they would rarely do anything like that. Good effects are important, but they're not the only things that are important."
Dawn of RetarDEAD
Though a third movie in the Popko-West canon is already in the planning stages (Satanists!), it's looking like several months before RetarDEAD — still being edited from 30-plus hours of raw footage — has its world premiere.
"We only get one to two nights a week to do this," Popko explains. Making movies for a living is the ultimate dream, but for now, both men view their films as being in the tradition of early John Waters: made outside the system and laden with as much bad taste as they please. Potential distributors have already advised the pair to adjust RetarDEAD's divisive title, a notion they considered "for about five minutes," according to West.
Popko and West's films may be throwbacks to the drive-in era, but their outlook on the movie biz is actually quite forward-looking. Popko — "the carnival barker" to West's "guy behind the curtain pulling levers and switching things," according to Burr — anticipates a day when tangling with queasy distributors won't even be necessary, because many films will simply be released directly over the Internet. Both directors are also very interested in high-definition technology; they plan to upgrade from their old DV camera to a new HD model for their next effort, for reasons beyond a desire for better visual quality.
"What HD has done is bring grind house back," West says. "Now you can make stuff on a level that can compete, aesthetically, with what Hollywood's doing — almost. As far as your talent, you'll be able to compete realistically with other movies. Now people can make good horror movies on their own terms."
"If you really want to make a movie, you can," Popko notes, stressing the importance of production values. Though the cutthroat nature of the indie film world is always on their minds, they welcome the new wave of B-movies that HD may herald.
"Now, there aren't movies like Shriek of the Mutilated that were done in the 1970s, which could compete [with Hollywood]. These movies can now come back into the fold as long as they're shot on HD — and there will be a shit fest like none other," West predicts, adding that he's looking forward to the deluge. "The world's a better place with shitty movies in it." SFBG
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