Los Angeles, 1997. I’m in a Hancock Park mansion for three marathon days working on a low-budget mafia/vampire/zombie flick starring an ex-Playboy Playmate and an actor who’s been dead for more than a year. My pay: $75 a day. My position: props/art department. The fact I’ve never worked with props or art department is never discussed.
The male lead is John Carradine who died ten years earlier. The producer, a well-known straight-to-video king, had the foresight to hire Carradine for several days work in 1987. He had him wear dark suits and appear in gothic sets uttering classic lines like, “They need human blood to survive,” and “By day they sleep, by night they kill.” Somehow, entire screenplays were written around Carradine’s dialogue and now he was starring in his fourth posthumous film.
Day one finds me as assistant snake wrangler. I guard a 14-foot long boa constrictor in a glass tank, feeding it a small white mouse every few hours. Just prior to shooting, I’m told to rub Vaseline on the snake’s skin so it will gleam beneath the 5K lights. I reach into the cage and the boa bites me between my thumb and forefinger tearing away a patch of skin.
“Don’t grab him there,” the prop man/animal wrangler yells. “Grab him behind the head.”
The set nurse cleans my wound as I watch the boa perform its big scene. The snake slithers atop a naked female vampire asleep in her velvet-lined coffin. The prop man takes up Vaseline duty leaving me to clean the snake dung out of the coffin.
Day two has me filling explosive squibs with fake blood and gluing dead insects to the walls. Several cockroaches are still alive as I stick pins through their exoskeletons.
“Isn’t it against SPCA guidelines to harm bugs?” I ask the prop man.
“We’re not harming them, we’re killing them,” he says.
By 3:00 pm, we run low on fake blood. I’m given fifty dollars and sent to Joe Blasco Cosmetics in Los Feliz to replenish supplies. The money buys me four quarts, not enough to revive a sick dog let alone a sputtering horror film. The prop man accuses me of pilfering the money. I show him the receipt. He berates me for getting the wrong brand of blood.
I’m given a shovel and told to dig ditches in the backyard for the movie’s final scene. The scene: a horde of naked female vampire zombies arise from their graves and attack the mafia bosses responsible for their un-deaths. My task is to dig graves six feet long by three feet wide by three feet deep. It takes me two hours to finish my first hole.
At sundown, the prop man checks my progress. He’s incensed at my slow pace. “What’s your problem, buddy? You’re moving like a four-year old girl.”
“I’ve never dug graves before,” I tell him.
“You’re going to be digging your own grave if you don’t start hustling.”
I ask if I can take a dinner break. He tosses me an apple and a bag of pretzels. At 1:00 a.m., I finish the final hole. I’m exhausted, sore and covered with mud. The prop man sends me home and instructs me to return at 7:00 am to move the dirt piles out of the backyard. I begin to wonder if this is a hidden-camera TV show and I’m the rube.
Day three, I oversleep and barely make it to set on time. There is no coffee. The craft service person quit after the previous day’s 22-hour debacle. As I’m hauling dirt from the backyard in a wheelbarrow, the automatic sprinklers activate. I slip and fall into one of the freshly dug graves. I emerge cold and wet and splattered with mud. I walk to wardrobe and ask for dry clothes. I’m given a zombie suit covered with dead cockroaches. At least it’s dry.
I finish moving the dirt by noon. We break for lunch. Cold Big Macs, greasy fries, watered-down coke. Food has never tasted so good. We move inside for the penultimate shower scene. The scene: two naked mafia mistresses are attacked and transformed into maniacal, full-breasted, seething vampire zombies. The French director, in his broken English, demands the scene be “an orgy of skin, breasts, and squirting blood.”
The prop man tells him there is only enough blood-filled squibs for two takes. The director is not pleased. “We must have more blood,” he screams. I wonder if he realizes he’s quoting John Carradine.
The two actresses enter the bathroom wearing robes followed by one of the vampire zombies. The director, cameraman and makeup artist cram into the bathroom behind them. I stand outside the door. They shoot the scene. I hear running water, vampire roars, French calls for “blood, blood,” then a yell of “Cut! Merde! That was terrible. Go again, right away.”
The prop man clears the set and calls me into the bathroom. “You’re up,” he says. “Clean the set and make it fast.”
The bathroom is splattered with fake blood. It looks like a Weegee photo from True Crime magazine. I’m given towels and a mop. The blood smears across the floor like maple syrup. While I toil, Frenchy gives the actresses tips on how to scream. Fifteen minutes later, the set is clean. I glance at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I’m covered with blood and dead cockroaches in a torn zombie suit. Impressive.
By nightfall, we move to the backyard for the climactic graveyard scene. The prop man tells me to retrieve the dirt I moved to the front yard that morning.
“Why’d you have me move it in the first place?” I ask.
“Just get the frickin’ dirt,” he says.
Two hours later, we shoot the final scene. Six naked female vampire zombies are told to lie down in the ditches I dug the previous night. The prop man covers them with dirt up to their necks. They squeal at the cold, wet mud. The director eyes the set through his viewfinder then yells into a bullhorn.
“You are angry, you are evil, you are undead. You hunger for the blood of the mafia bosses who turned you into vampire zombies. When I say action, rise from your graves and take revenge. And make sure to shake your breasts.”
The cameras roll. The director yells action. Nothing happens. Somehow the wet mud has hardened and the vampire zombies are stuck. I’m sent to Home Depot with a pickup truck to buy a half-ton of dirt. A security guard tails me as I walk through the store. Only then do I remember my bloody zombie outfit. I flash my production badge. He leaves me alone. I return to set an hour later. In my absence, the prop man is forced to move the wet dirt himself. This pleases me.
The actresses take their place in their graves. They’re covered with fresh dry dirt. Again the director yells action. The vampire zombies rise from the earth and march forward, arms extended, viciously attacking the mafia bosses. I try to imagine how a script would justify a group of mafiosos hanging around a graveyard at midnight.
The director yells cut. He complains he can’t see enough zombie breasts beneath the dirt. He wants rain so the dirt will “ooze off their naked flesh.” The prop man and I scurry to the rooftop with garden hoses. We put our thumbs over the nozzles and imitate rain. To us it looks terrible but the director is pleased. Zombie breasts are plentiful.
We wrap at 4:00 am.
The prop man instructs me to refill the ditches so the backyard can be re-sod by the homeowners. This takes me two hours. As the sun rises over Hancock Park, I can barely keep my eyes open. I seek out the prop man and find him scouring the ivy in front of the house. His boa constrictor has escaped and he’s in a state of panic. He asks me to help him search but I show him the snakebite on my hand conveniently displaying my outthrust middle finger.
“Fine, get out of here,” he says.
I find the producer in the makeup trailer watching the half-naked vampire zombies clean themselves. He removes a wad of bills and pays me. I thank him and return my zombie costume to wardrobe.
On the way home, I stop for bagels and coffee. I pull out my wallet and pay with a $20 dollar bill. The money is covered in fake blood. My hair and face are speckled with mud. The cashier eyes my production badge. “Horror film,” he asks. I nod and drive home for much needed sleep.