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A Different Kind of Zombie: An Interview with Marius Penczner

by Rich Rosell

Marius Penczner wrote and directed the 1982 cult classic I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I., a throwback to 1950s sci-fi/G-men serials made for an astonishing meager $27,000. The film developed some underground sea legs after airing on USA's Night Flight in the mid-1980s, and in 2005 is getting special edition DVD treatment from Rykodisc. Penczner, with a long career in music videos, commercials, and political spots, spent some time with dOc reminiscing about the production and how it has evolved.

dOc: You wrote and directed your first feature film, I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I., in 1982. It's a black-and-white sci-fi/serial/adventure film, with evil aliens and heroic FBI agents.

Marius Penczner: I grew up with The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Day The Earth Stood Still; those are the kind of films I watched back in those days. The group of us that made this film just loved that genre. We were originally going to do the movie as a spoof, and we wanted it to be a straight comedy, more along the lines of Blazing Saddles, but it takes a certain level of acting talent to pull that off without it being really, really goofy. When we went through the casting we started watching these people and we said their demeanor would be perfect for a '50s, straight Dragnet-y type thing, and we'll just kind of spoof it that way. To the people that were in the movie, they played it like it was a straight movie, like this world was very, very real. Particularly the G-men, because in their world zombies are no big deal.

dOc: On the DVD there's a disclaimer before the film about "enjoying it in the spirit in which the film was made." If you were talking to someone who knows nothing about it, who's your ideal target audience for I Was a Zombie...? Was it made for people raised on those kind of films you grew up on?

MP: Yes, I think so. It is kind of a spoofy cult thing, so if you like Living in Oblivion or Young Frankenstein, that kind of film that pays homage to the other genres—that's what we're trying to do with I Was a Zombie.... This is not 28 Days Later, because our zombies are not the flesh-eating type of zombies. So people who are looking for flesh-chomping thrills, it's not going to be there. But if you remember the G-men movies, or I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., that's what this really is a spoof of.

dOc: I grew up on those same movies, and when I try to show things like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invaders from Mars to my 14-year-old daughter, I can tell that they don't have the same impact on her that they did on me when I was that age, or a little younger. I sort of feel sorry for her generation, because they're just missing something, because there is a real charm to that style of moviemaking.

MP: There are a lot of things we did in the course of making I Was a Zombie..., that if you're familiar with those films, are little nods we do. It's not Batman Begins, with a thrill a minute, but by the same token people that can just go with it tend to like it for what it is. It's an acquired taste.

dOc: You managed to evoke the look and feel of those black-and-white 1950s genre titles—a little sci-fi, a little noir. Did that prove easier or more difficult to do than you imagined?

MP: When we got into it we knew what our limitations were. We didn't try to do it like a Hollywood movie, because then it would be judged in comparison to those films, so both on the acting and production side we picked kind of an area that people would say 'Given the fact that it's not the greatest production value, films of that era weren't that good either.' So it didn't seem out of context with those movies.

dOc: I know your film was made for a very, very modest budget [$27,000].

MP: Whatever change we had lying around.

dOc: With money very tight, what was the costliest part of the production?

MP: A lot was spent feeding those damn zombies. It's surprising how much those people could eat and drink. They drank a lot of cola, and they were there to party. But a lot of the money went into film stock, processing, and telecining. And we didn't finish out on film, we just couldn't afford to do that.

dOc: What was your goal for I Was a Zombie...?

MP: Back then—in 1982—you hoped to get on cable. This was just when MTV was starting, and music videos—and I've done a lot of music videos—were actually done on video. We did the film because it was what we had fun doing. It's like in the music business, a songwriter who write songs because it's something they like to hear. We did the same type of thing. Somebody asked me once if we were looking theatrical release, and we were really just having fun with the genre. A lot of us who worked on the film have remained friends. James Raspberry, who plays the Rex Armstrong character, is the godfather to my oldest son and I was talking to John Gillick, who plays one of the Brazzo Brothers, last night. He's in New York, and when I told him about the DVD release, he said, 'You know you've arrived when they're already bootlegging copies of the DVD.'

dOc: That's how you know you're happening. It's been 20+ years and now there's a DVD release. How did the relationship with Rykodisc come about? How did the project get off the ground?

MP: My partner is Len Epand, who used to be head of music video with Polygram and Arista for many, many years. I used to do music videos for him [back then], and we became friends. From the Night Flight days, he always kind of liked the movie, and since people knew that we worked together they would ask him about copies of the film, sort of in the pre-eBay days. It strangely had a certain amount of legs over the years—I can't explain why, other than people still like the show for what it is. A couple of years ago we discussed reviving it, fixing it and cleaning it up. Back when we originally did the film, who would have envisioned DVD?

dOc: Who would have? It was VHS: The Wave of the Future.

MP: That was going to be 'it.' If you could just get home video distribution that would be it. So after having moved around, I just didn't keep all those film cans, but we did keep all the videotapes of the transfers, and we started discussing ways to bring it to DVD. Other people had little bits and bobs, like an old tape of an interview with [special effects artist] Bob Friedstand that was in somebody's closet, so we decided to look around and see if anyone was interested. We ran into Jay Douglas over at Rykodisc, and he pretty much put the whole deal together. He remembered it from Night Flight, so they always like the Raspberrys.

dOc: The DVD sports a "special edition" status. How different is the DVD version from the original?

MP: Back in the late 1990s, when Lucas came out and redid Star Wars and added new scenes, I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said, 'When are you going to do that with I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I.?' Probably a half a dozen or so. We never had a nice shot of the cola plant, and when we started to prep it, we fixed a little thing here and there and then we said, why don't we fix this. One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were putting in all sort of different little shots here and there.

dOc: How much additional runtime did you add for this special edition?

MP: Actually we shortened it. This is kind of the anti-Peter Jackson approach. Instead of making it longer, we mercifully cut it and made it shorter. One of the complaints we had about it was that it originally ran a little too long. It was a little too slow. This happens with a lot of people when they're doing their first show, so we just overall tightened it up and sort of put on Slim-Fast.

dOc: At 75 minutes, it moves along fairly quickly.

MP: There was one person that did a review that said it was still way too slow for him.

dOc: I'll bet he's in his 20s or younger.

MP: Yes.

dOc: There's a mindset of sorts that unless there's a multitude of explosions, fast cuts, and CG effects, a film will just be lost on certain people.

MP: I think this may be the year we're moving a little past that. If you look at The Island and Stealth, [which] haven't done quite as well, and people are moving toward things like The Wedding Crashers.

dOc: How about post-production in the early 1980s, back in the pre-digital age? MP: The toughest thing back then was doing creature effects. In those days it was either a guy in a rubber suit or stop-motion. I though that Bob Friedstand did a brilliant job with what he had to work with on that little creature. It took him months to do that.

dOc: Speaking of creatures, you directed the ZZ Top TV Dinners music video. I haven't seen that particular video in a long, long time, but I recall some creepy creature that climbed out of a microwave. My memory is telling me that the monster in I Was a Zombie... and the one in the ZZ Top video are very similar.

MP: They are the same one. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top liked the film, and he's always liked that kind of '50s stuff. I was working at Ardent Studios in Memphis, and we did all of ZZ's albums. At the time they were doing Eliminator, and Billy had seen the movie and wanted to know if there was a way to get that creature in one of their videos.

dOc: Who else have you done music videos for?

MP: Allman Brothers, Everly Brothers, Bar-Kays, Travis Tritt. Altogether about 60 or so videos.

dOc: What do you like better: videos or features?

MP: Well I do political stuff, too, as well as commercials. But we all want to do movies, that goes without saying. I liked doing music videos when it was fun. It's less challenging now.

dOc: Why is that?

MP: Well it's less fun because it's a little more formulaic. It doesn't quite have the same energy that it had during the '80s, when everything was experimental and everything was new. At that time, in the MTV days, you could experiment, and there was a certain kind of energy and feel to it, and it was vibrant. You just don't get the buzz that it had back then.

dOc: Getting back to I Was a Zombie... for minute, there is a new 5.1 surround mix on the DVD. I have to imagine that the original film didn't support a surround track. What was the process like to remix the audio?

MP: Rich Machar of Button Sounds in New York was a friend of Len [Epand] and a fan of the film. When he heard it was coming out on DVD he said 'Do you mind if I try to give a 5.1 sound' and we said, have at it. He put in new sound effects, and on the DVD, at my request, there is a little demonstration on how he approached it. It is an interesting process that those guys go through, and so many people don't appreciate it as much as they should.

dOc: How does it feel to finally have a proper DVD release, even 20+ years after the film was originally made?

MP: The great thing about it is that you look back on it and think about all those little things that you wish you would have done, and then you go in and do them. It's about as good as it can ever be.

dOc: Do you look back on it and see things you wish you could change?

MP: It is what it is. You can always second guess yourself, but people have found it entertaining, so that's good enough for me.