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Iím in the basement of Zootz, the old Rec Room, where, in my younger days I would get really, really stewed with a menagerie of Portland night owls, many of whom had embraced the so-called gothic subculture ó Zootz was their home. This time, Iím not drinking because Zootz is no longer. However, there are at least a dozen people milling about where the old pool table used to reside and the atmosphere is decidedly goth.
Itís Wednesday afternoon. The retro bar is gone, there isnít any booze in sight, and in the spot of the old pool table is a makeshift bed. Covered in a white sheet, the bed and other portions of the old Zootz are serving today as the set for the full-length movie tentatively titled Zombie, a low-budget, digitally-filmed horror flick that has been in production in Portland for almost a week.
On hand are Alex Dove, the Boston-based producer, director and all-around maestro of Dove Productions; Draven Gonzalez, the writer who last year served as the company manager for Portland Stage Company; a handful of techies; and several semi-nude gay men who are all awash in red light, wearing macabre makeup, and completely staid in, shall we say, compromising positions.
" Weíre wrapping up the final scene, " Gonzalez whispers to me as I trepidatiously make my way to the hushed " set. " In addition to writing the script for the film, Gonzalez is also one of the main characters in Zombie. He is gay and I assume that all the other actors on hand today are gay as well because, come to find out, this isnít your garden variety screamer.
Dove Productions, based in Boston, specializes in one type of film ó gay horror ó a genre within a genre that both Dove and Gonzalez say is the next big thing in cinema. More than that, itís their raison díetre and Zombie, Doveís third full-length homoerotic, all-male slasher flick is likely to be the one that makes its way to the coveted film festival circuit next year.
To be sure, not many were made aware that this full-length, direct-to-DVD feature was being filmed in Portland. Casting was done mainly through Internet solicitation and word-of-mouth among those in the gay-horror know. The Phoenix only caught wind of the project when Gary Wagner phoned to let me know that something spooky was going down at his Hanover Street home earlier in the week. My interest piqued, and I forewent an afternoon at the beach to check out the Fangoria-esque happenings. Looking exhausted from round-the-clock filming (the 90-minute film had to wrap by weekís end), both Gonzalez and Dove took a break from filming to give me the 411 on what has to be the most bizarre filmmaking, as far as we know, ever to go down in the Portland area.
I ask Dove what heís filming today. " The main character, Christian [Jonathan Williams], is possessed and heís a zombie and his best friend Jason is trying to find out whatís going on with him. So, this is a good example of a traditional relationship in the gay community that involves a person and his best friend. Your best friend always knows whatís going on, always asks the important questions, " he says, adding a caveat. " But the questions heís asking are different ó ĎWhy are you coming home late at night all rolled up sleeping on my floor and covered in blood?í So, thatís kind of the gist of the scenes of the film that weíre shooting here today. "
Macabre? You bet!
But the actors who have been flown in from all over the country to star in Zombie are stunning, despite the blood ó and thatís the point. Draven, whoís very name conjures something dark and foreboding, is among them (although heís probably the oldest of the bunch at a youthful 27). As is often the case with his films, Dove has also employed a " name " actor to give the film a little boost. This time itís Jason Tyler, er, at least thatís this Boston nativeís moniker when heís making hardcore gay porn films for the wildly popular Falcon Studios of San Francisco.
" Oh yeah, Jason is in the film, too. In fact, I think weíre killing him off tonight, " Gonzalez tells me on Tuesday, when I visit that dayís set, the Bayside home of Wagner, a Portland gadabout who, Gonzalez says, had a perfect kitchen for some of the scenes in Zombie. Tylerís death likely involved a hemorrhage of fake blood ó most scenes do and, as I sit speaking with Gonzalez about his involvement in this bizarre undertaking, a member of the crew arrives from a trip to Hannaford with a bag full of detergents.
" We got a little too much blood on the wall during the last scene, " he muses.
Itís true that Zombie isnít getting nearly as much mileage in the press as, say, the proposed filming of Empire Falls in Waterville (a project that has me admittedly star-struck since it is happening in my hometown). In fact, Zombie and the many similar films that have preceded it have flown well below the radar, something I find a little unusual. I donít mean to toot my own horn, but when it comes to gay culture, well, letís just say Iím up to speed. Besides, just about everything gay is chic these days, even if it involves gore, and the films that Dove and Gonzalez are making are essentially Interview with a Vampire, except this time, Brad and Tom are actually having sex and the yuck level is elevated ó just check out www.deadguyscinema.com; thereís little left to the imagination.
Still, despite the somewhat disturbing nature of the films made by Dove (the short Physical Education is tagged with " this movie is not rated and contains graphic images of implied rape and murder " ), he says that he is doing nothing more than providing a product to a niche market. His product? Scream kings, a tongue-in-cheek answer to the scream queens genre that began in the í50s and remained popular right up through the low-budget, but very high visibility, í80s. And Dove has assembled a talented stable of like-minded filmmakers who are bent on bringing the product to market before, he says, mainstream high-budget efforts eclipse his home-grown projects.
Gonzalez, for example, is a native of Texas and has a degree in theatre from Southwest Texas University. He says that he initially became involved with Dove Productions after some writing he did as a treatment for an adult film in Los Angeles, namely mixing death with homoeroticism. " It was a little too much for them, " says Gonzalez of his tome, adding that it oozed of sex and gore. Toned down significantly, Gonzalezís work caught the eye of Zombie co-conspirator Dove who had already made a number of short and full-length homoerotic horror films.
Phoenix: So, Draven, I know Iíve seen you at the gym and schlepping drinks at Maine Street in Ogunquit a couple times, but I had no idea that you were an aspiring filmmaker, actor, and writer. You left Maine after a stint at Portland Stage, but I understand that you really wanted Zombie to be shot here. Why did you choose Portland and, in particular, Wagnerís house, for the locations?
Gonzalez: Three months ago Alex [Dove] asked me what I had in mind for a setting for Zombie. At the time, he was like, " How about something in Pennsylvania or someplace like that? " I had no idea of any type of setting and I kept writing and re-reading it and I thought, " Wow, this is exactly Portland, " everywhere that I know in Portland, locations and everything. So, I asked Gary [Wagner] if we could use his place ó and I remember mentioning to him a year ago when I was living here that he has such a great kitchen for a film. A year later weíre here to film the movie and he has been very gracious to let us film here.
Phoenix: How did you get hooked up with Dove?
Gonzalez: Heís been making gay horror films for five years and he picked up my script, read it, loved it, added some new characters, and gave it some plot twists.
Phoenix: What exactly is your role in this madness?
Gonzalez: Iím the writer and production manager and Alex is the producer and director.
Phoenix: Will people be seeing Zombie on the marquee at the Nickelodeon?
Gonzalez: No, but it is a full-length feature that will go direct to DVD. We are gonna send it through the indie circle and hopefully get it included in some festivals. This is a whole new genre right now thatís bubbling up: gay horror movies. They are starting to surface everywhere and weíre gonna try to beat it before it becomes too mainstream.
Phoenix: I think that I have anecdotally heard that these films exist, but I really havenít paid too much attention . . . sorta like how I reacted to reality TV four years ago, I guess. So, give us a peek. Whatís Zombie about from your perspective?
Gonzalez: Ultimately, itís about redemption. The main character is struggling with all these emotions that are coming back to him. Itís mainly my metaphor for a numbing of sorts of a person, you know, people get numb, they have no emotions. Thatís the type of people the guys in this film are, thatís why theyíre zombies. I mean, theyíre not dropping bits of flesh or having eyes drop out.
Phoenix: So audiences shouldnít expect anything like, say, Michael Jacksonís " Thriller " video which, being a Jackson project, is frightening on many levels.
Gonzalez: No. Itís ultimately about Christian-the-main-characterís redemption because heís having all these flashbacks and he doesnít know why heís having them, but, all of a sudden, all these memories keep flooding back to him. Every victim that he has ever killed is coming back to haunt him. But, what he doesnít know is that a rival zombie, who was once the favorite of the devil, so to speak, is the one releasing his soul. Heís pulling out all these memories, releasing all these barriers that are holding his memories in, and Christian is just wigging out.
Meanwhile, within this zombie nation, all the other zombies are starting to rival against each other. Basically, itís like a mutiny within the family. And ultimately, Christianís goal is to get out of this completely because heís becoming more human now and he wants to get the hell out of the situation.
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Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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