I just want to thank George Demick for taking the time to sit down with Daily Grindhouse and discuss his career, his upcoming work, and – of course – BURNING DEAD. He’s had some fascinating experiences, and the stories of meeting (and working with) George Romero and adapting Stephen King are the sort of things that tickle genre fans’ jealousy bone. George was good enough to agree to a follow-up interview in the near future, so if you have any questions – or have your own film you would like covered on No-Budget Nightmares – e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sweetback (SB): Now, your career started in Pittsburgh, which for an entire generation of fans is sort of ground zero for horror movies. Were you a big horror movie fan growing up? And when did you first become aware that writing and directing was something you wanted to do?
George Demick (GD): I’m happy to be here. Yes I always loved horror movies on TV. The old hammer stuff, But some friends of my parents decided to take me to see NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD when I was FIVE! I remember everything about that night. There was a Dead End Kids short on first, then a Bigfoot movie (it might have been Japanese. I remember it running down a hillside smashing trees) then NIGHT. So the dead are coming to life and eating people and they are saying to go to McKeesport hospital which was 2 blocks away. I remember leaving the theater, it had just rained, to this day I can still smell it and see the water dripping off the brick building. I had nightmares for six months.
I started making movies when I was eight. I used my dad’s 8mm camera. I always knew that was what i wanted to do.
SB: The bio on the Flickering Candle Productions site mentions you apprenticing with Romero on KNIGHTRIDERS. Now, for someone who loved horror films – particularly in Pittsburgh – that must have been a dream come true. How did this come about, and what was the experience like?
GD: I was 14 and saw that George was going to be at a sci fi convention in Monroville at a hotel just off from the mall. They had just finished shooting DAWN OF THE DEAD, but I had no idea a movie had been made. I went to meet this maniac that had caused me to have all these nightmares. I met George and he was the nicest person on the planet. He gave me his address and we became pen pals. Remember this was before emails. Anyway jump ahead I got to meet him again when I was 16. By this time I was utterly star struck. I couldn’t remember any of my questions I had wanted to ask him. My mother stepped in and said “He (I) makes movies too” I could have died! George then invited me down to his office to talk. My dad took the day off from work (which he never did) and took me down to Laurel Entertainment. I spent the afternoon with George asking him all my questions that I had written down. He offered me the apprenticeship that day. Working on the film was AMAZING. The movie (which I think is his best film) mirrored the working experience. We were that troupe.
SB: The bio also mentions Romero introducing you to Stephen King. At the risk of having you repeat stories you must have recounted dozens of times, I’m sure everyone reading wants to hear about what must have been a really memorable experience. How did this meeting come about, and what did you end up talking about?
I’m a big pro-wrestling fan (I was even a pro wrestler for 3 years) and I saw George and mentioned I was going down to South Carolina to watch a wrestling card. He suggested I stop by and meet Steve at Dino De Laurentis Studio. I was 21 at the time, I called down expecting to speak to a secretary, but Steve answered. He said George had told him I was coming and to just call when I got in town. When I got down there I called and went in to meet him He was prepping MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. I took DANSE MACABRE for him to sign. He was extremely nice.
SB: King rather famously has his Dollar Baby/Deal which allows selected filmmakers the ability to adapt one of his short stories for a dollar. Some very notable directors – including Frank Darabont – have gotten their start with the help of King’s subject matter. Was your adaptation of King’s short story “Graveyard Shift” as a result of one of these deals?
GD: It was. I asked him if it was available. He said it was and picked up the phone called his attorney and told him to let me option the rights to it. I was blown away.
SB: Talk about your experience adapting that work. It must have been an amazing learning experience. And what happened to the completed film?
GD: Through another friend, Tom Savini, I was introduced to John Esposito who I hired to write the screenplay. John is still my closest friend in the business. I partnered up with Greg Nicotero and his partner at the time to produce it. Tom was set to direct. We had a deal with New World Pictures which got me out of the 40,000 debt I was in for legal and paying for the script. We were 2 months away from preproduction when New World went bankrupt. Eventually I gave the rights back to Steve. A couple of years later the person who had the rights, asked to buy our script so I sold it to him. They made the film that is out there deviating greatly from all the cool stuff in ours.
SB: So, you’re a young writer/director. You’ve worked with Romero, and had Stephen King’s blessing for an adaptation. In Pittsburgh that must have been like being anointed by God. What was your next step? Your first IMDB credit is ASYLUM OF TERROR, but that was obviously many years later.
GD: Actually it really didn’t seem like all that big of deal. It wasn’t until the internet exploded that I really realized just how big George was and what an amazing gift my friendship with him was and is.
I worked as a location scout and production assistant on several projects. On my 21st birthday I played one of the zombies that killed Rhodes in DAY OF THE DEAD I had one of his legs and dragged it down the hall.
All the while I was trying to raise money for films, but never had any real luck. To make a movie on film cost real dollars then. So I used video, which at the time was hard to come by too. John Russo’s company distributed 2 of my early efforts; SO SAY THE DEAD and BLIND TERROR. I also moved around the country several times. Forming companies and trying to get projects off the ground. I ended up in Nashville and decided to take time off to raise my first son. When he was 8 I decided to try again and I made ASYLUM OF TERROR and I was off and running again. Haha.
SB: Let’s jump in to BURNING DEAD. I know you have some reservations regarding the quality of the film, but I actually think there’s a lot that’s really interesting and unique about it. Particularly the concept as a whole, which involves someone returning to their home town many years after a tragic event. How did you come up with the concept?
GD: It came together the way most of my scripts do. An image or a thought pops in my head and I start to flesh it out. I usually just write and let the story take me along its journey. With BURNING DEAD I believe the idea was what if you were haunted by an entire town. However writing along with film making only improves the more you do it. My dialogue was …not as good as it could have been. Also we didn’t have the budget or abilities to show the town burning.. So scene after scene people talk about the fire, but we never show it. I do like how the story pieced together and unveiled though, just not the execution.
SB: The film simply wouldn’t work without a strong lead. I was actually really impressed by the performance of D. Vincent Ashby as Jim Reed. How did you end up casting him, and was it difficult to anchor your film’s success so fully on a single actor?
GD: We auditioned him, like we did the whole cast. He was game for anything we threw at him. The shower scene at the last moment I said we’re showing a naked woman here you should be naked too. He dropped his shorts and did the scene. It’s interesting, it is Jim’s story, but I look at all my films as an ensemble cast. You need everybody to deliver and that didn’t happen on the movie quite a few times.
SB: Was it a difficult production? I noticed the credits mark the production as taking place in 2002, but the movie wasn’t released until 2004. What caused the delay?
GD: No, Not really. The only problem that happened was that Cathy the lead actress is a good actress who unfortunately the weekend we shot her stuff was in a car wreck, gave the person who hit her a ride home and they ended up stealing her purse. So her performance just wasn’t there. From prep to the end of post I think it took almost a year. I didn’t have any thing to do with the release that was my producer at the time, Russ Cring.
SB: While slightly different than traditional Romero-style zombies, BURNING DEAD is ostensibly a zombie film. Considering you were filming in 2002 – before the re-igniting of the zombie craze – was it difficult to get people to volunteer to be zombies? What were some of the biggest difficulties in preparing make-up for such a large number of people?
GD: The zombie thing came about cause we didn’t have any other effective way to do the ghosts of this town. It was actually very easy to get extras. We contacted some casting directers and they got the word out. People have always been crazy to play zombies – EVERBODY wants to do it. One couple wore their wedding clothes and let us trash them. The hardest part was just the time factor, We would start make up in the early evening to shoot by 10.
SB: Looking back, what are some of your final thoughts on BURNING DEAD. What works well, and what aspects would the 2012 version of George Demick do differently?
GD: Hmm. I like the basic story, and few of the set pieces, like at the park. Other then that I really don’t like it. Making it now the ghosts would be more like ghosts. (laughs) Really scary floating entities of burned flesh and the dialogue would be a lot better. The acting would be better also, as well as the overall look of the movie.
SB: What did the release of the film entail? Did you shop it around or submit it to any festivals? What do you remember the response being like?
GD: We had a local premiere. Everybody seemed to like it. I know I was proud of it at the time. Then my producer shopped it. We had parted company by that point, so I’m not sure what the response from distributors was, or what deal he got.
SB: Now, George, you’ve been good enough to pass along some of your later films for us to talk about – and with your permission – I’d like to do a follow up interview in the near future to discuss them. But what have you – and Flickering Candle Productions – been working on recently?
GD: I would be happy to. Chuck Nicholson, my producer and I are the core of Flickering Candle Productions. We finally did a real zombie film! I’m very proud of it’s called DEAD START. It takes the premise what would you do if the dead really did come back to life? We handled it in a very realistic way. Terry Kiser (Bernie from WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) has a small role in it. We are in preproduction on our next movie. This will actually be the first public announcement of it. It’s called INCANDESCENCE. The only thing plot wise I can say is something is attacking people at night. We plan to shoot in June.
SB: At this point in your career you have ten feature films to your credit and have seen the low-budget film industry develop and change. What do you think has changed for the better when it comes to young filmmakers trying to break in to the business, and what has changed for the worse?
GD: Ok … For the better? The resources. You can do effects on your own computer like the big budget studios did a couple of years ago. It enables you to compete. The bad? The whole distribution system has changed. It’s very hard to get a money deal for your film. You end up having to be your own distributor, which is a business I never wanted to be in.
SB: If someone wants to pick up your films, or follow what you’re currently working on, what would be the best way to do so?
GD: They are available on flickeringcandleproductions.com We are re-doing are website in the coming months to include video on demand as well as merchandise.
SB: Anything else to plug?
GD: Not really. Just follow us as we start the journey of making INCANDESCENCE!
SB: And, finally, what advice do you have for filmmakers just starting out?
GD: Make movies. There are no more excuses. Get a job, save your money, buy the equipment. It is not out of your reach. Don’t talk about making movies… make them!
SB: Again, George, it’s been an absolute treat. I hope you take me up on that offer of a follow up interview, and I seriously can’t wait to check out your other films.
GD: I can’t wait!
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016