Goin' South: An Interview with Southern Shockers Director Dave Coleman
When I first discovered the previously unknown shot-on-video horror flick Southern Shockers, it looked like I would never be able to track down the cast and crew. Then a helpful West Point, Miss., citizen pointed me to director Dave Coleman who, it turns out, is a mutual friend of stuntman/director Gary Kent. Dave graciously took time out for an interview with The Dead Next Door, and I've posted a condensed version below.
Although he's out of the film biz now, Coleman had a long run as a screenwriter and story analyst for several studios, worked for Dino De Laurentiis, made movies in Spain with exploitation whiz Juan Piquer Simon (a.k.a. J.P. Simon), and co-founded the Bijou Café website, which eventually morphed into BijouFlix Releasing.
You can learn more about Coleman's career here and here.
For now, though, we're going to head back in time. It's the early 1980s. Coleman, a West Point, Miss., native, is a student at USC in the film program, and he's about to make what may turn out to be the most obscure horror film never released...
DAVE COLEMAN: First off, I wanted to thank you for letting us all know that the film was out and renamed Spirit of the Zombie. It was news to all of us that were involved. It's been a real thrill to find out, and I just wanted to tell you thanks up front.
No problem, Dave. I'll have to say, since I started this blog I've received a lot of tips about a lot of obscure films, but this is by far the most obscure project I've come across.
I'm flattered [laughs]! It's been through no uncertain effort, or I should say no uncertain non-effort on my part, to keep it in any way shape or form in front of anyone's eyes. I've always looked at is as a student film project, since I made it when I was in film school. I don't think the results are anything that are particularly representative of my best abilities.
But it's kind of weird. I'd almost really forgotten it, it's been that long. It kind of shocked me. That was a part of my life that was so long ago now. It's been a quarter of a century, I think. It's hard to believe it's been that long. That's when you really start feeling old.
Let's back up a bit. It's 1983 or 1984; how did you wind up in Mississippi making this movie in the first place?
I'm from West Point. I spent most of my childhood there. We moved there when I was young from another part of the state. I was actually going to USC in Los Angeles for film school at that time. Over the summer, right after, a local UHF ABC affiliate opened up, and David Hopper was the general manager there. He was a young guy, not much older than me. I came through on a trip or something, and he'd heard of me and asked if I could meet him. He offered me an internship there for the summer. As we went along we started discussing movies, and he wanted to make an independent project. I was dying to anything at that age to give me a chance to practice beyond just shooting in Super 8.
When you started planning the production, did you bring in friends from USC, or did you use locals?
It was a combination of both. When we started it out it was very low budget. I think the final cost on it was about $30,000 total over all the production time. We started out with the initial idea of making it a much more polished movie.
I'd gone out to L.A. and called on some film school friends and said, "This thing is falling together really quickly. We're going to try and shoot in two and a half weeks. It's going to be a rush job, but we can get some production experience." No one was making any real money, but it was a chance to work on a project together.
Then the script fell out. They guy wouldn't sign off on the contract. So we were left in the lurch, and we'd already spent the money. We had all the locations lined up, we had everybody there and it just seemed pointless to pull the plug on it given that no one was going to expect much from the results anyway. We decided to basically improvise and create scenario scripts. We made it a trilogy because it relieved the pressure of having a continuous shooting schedule. We could break it apart and shoot at each location as they became available.
How long did it take to shoot the film?
I think the total from start to finish was about three weeks, as I remember it. That's a little misleading because we spent the first seven days trying to put out every fire from losing the script to trying to do something far too ambitious for the means we had at our disposal. Our productivity increased radically as we went along, and got along as a core crew. Three weeks off and on. There were lots of production breaks to regroup and move forward with our ever-dwindling resources. I kind of felt like we had parachuted behind enemy lines, and it was just a matter of time before we were all taken hostage [laughs].
I do remember, toward the end, pulling off one of the very last shots. We were down to about three of us, and we pulled the shot off right before a rooster started crowing at dawn, and we all collapsed in hysterical laughter because we'd endured and we all felt like -- and I still feel this way -- we were combat veterans to survive the experience. It was really, in a sense, boot camp without any kind of drill sergeant around to help out.
What's your favorite segment?
Oddly, it's the moonshine one, the one you cited in your review. It was only by then that I felt like, as a director trying to learn how to handle something so over my head, that I had a sense of how I could do it. The learning curve is so steep on something that tremendously complicated. We had a lot of locations and extras, and it was a kind of an over-the-top production in that sense. I was always a little bit overwhelmed by it, even when I was younger and had a lot more stamina. It was like a freight train.
By that last segment, with our crew kind of battle tested, we all felt like we knew how to pull off shots with one or two takes that were acceptable. I felt really good about that.
It definitely shines, even dubbed in Spanish.
I can't wait to see it. For some reason we ended up having to cut on very low-grade, offline three-quarter-inch equipment. I think the money just fell through. I did want to mention Tucker Johnston, because I owe him a debt of gratitude. He was working at a medical facility near USC, and he had 24 hour access. He was doing their media library of industrial tapes, and he got us off-hour access for no money. We were going in and cutting all night. Ken Sanders, who cut a lot of it, also should get a lot of credit for that too, because that was during the school year, which his pretty rigorous anyway. We spent a lot of all-nighters editing and trying to get to class the next day. Everybody assumes you're out partying, but you're really in this dingy medical facility's three-quarter-inch hellhole, cutting away all night. I do remember that tested my nerves more than anything I'd experienced at that point.
What were some of the more challenging shots to pull of?
It's a great question, and the real pithy answer is every single one of them, without exception. There's not an easy shot in that picture that I can recall. I swear. I know what you mean. The city of West Point was really gracious. They obviously blocked off Main Street for us, gave us access to a lot of basic production value, and I have always felt really grateful and sad that I never had a chance to take the film into any kind of American release for that reason. I know people there would love to see it, however flawed it is.
Okay, so you finish shooting the film, you go back to California to cut it. Then what happened?
It stretched on and on because we couldn't afford to cut it. We were having to go over and use the facility, because there was no more money, and it just went on and on. It was month after month, and we could only go in every few nights to get access. Toward the end, like November or so, I took what footage we had to a guy named Robert G. Hussong. He used to release these movies like Frankenstein's Great Aunt Tillie overseas, and he had his office in this little place right above Pink's Hot Dogs, which is like this classic Hollywood joint. Hussong's place was right behind it, which was perfect, in this seedy, rundown building.
By December, I was so burnt out from school and the actual stress of the production, that I couldn't carry it forward or complete it. There were no funds, and I had reached a point where I couldn't complete it with dubbing. We had no access to the original actors, and a lot of the tracks, for whatever reason, were difficult to use and sync in those days. There were so many technical challenges at that point, in order to get the project to Hussong for delivery, David Hopper took it back and actually had a scratch track added with him and his friends to finish it out. We delivered it, limping, to Hussong in time for the American Film Market. I swear to you, I don't remember anything much after that.
Thanks, Dave! Of course, that's not the end of the story. Watch this space for an upcoming interview with producer David Hopper, who provided the behind-the-scenes photos above.
The Dead Next Door is a blog about regional or "backyard" horror and science fiction films made from the late 1950s to the earlyl 1990s (and beyond). These films were released during the peak years of independent film production, created by a motley crew of seasoned pros, gifted amateurs, and enthusiastic genre fans, along with dozens of eccentric dreamers -- doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, publishers, commercial filmmakers, TV production crews and moonlighting pornographers -- all looking for their big break or a fast buck or both.