A couple of months ago, I had the chance to chat with Greg Lamberson, a writer/filmmaker who’s responsible for the 1988 cult film, Slime City. Greg has been pretty busy lately, between turning one of his own screenplays into a novel (Johnny Gruesome), getting a sequel to Slime City up and going and running a new horror themed website, FearZone.com. But, after reading Johnny Gruesome (and loving it) I thought it would be fun to catch up with Greg talk about Johnny, Slime City and what’s on the horizon for this very busy friend of ours!
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BM – How did you come up with the idea for Johnny Gruesome?
GL – I grew up in the village of Fredonia, an hour south of Buffalo, and I guess you could say the blizzards of ’76 and ’77 were formative events for me. Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY really spoke to me when it was published in paperback my senior year of high school. That was MY town! And then the movie came out and I was really disappointed that the teenage characters I most identified were cut out. So when I moved to New York City to study filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts I knew that someday I’d write a horror film that would connect with teenagers the same way that Straub’s novel had me. And when I say teenagers I don’t mean the cast of GROWING PAINS; I mean real kids who hang out late at night, get stoned, and get laid—all the things that adults pretend their saintly princes and princesses aren’t doing! Around 1984, I had stopped going to film school (I won’t say “dropped out” because I finished my first year) because I was unhappy making short films, and with the tremendous time and expense that SVA expected me to lavish on classes like still photography. I was working as an assistant manager at a great movie theatre in Times Square, and that summer I wrote SLIME CITY. Six months later, I was working at a horrible movie theatre on 181st and Broadway, the pits. But I discovered this old box full of movie posters, and I took home this really cool one for a J.D. film I’d never heard of which showed one hoodlum holding a switchblade to another guy’s throat while his buxom blonde girlfriend watched. I would stare at that poster and think, “Who are these people? Why are they doing this?” A couple of months after that, completely burned out by the two hour commute from my Queens apartment to that theatre, I decided to move back home for a few months and write JOHNNY GRUESOME. Between being back in my home town at winter time, and thinking of that poster, and the missed opportunities with the GHOST STORY film, and having my first electric typewriter, I wrote the script pretty quickly.
BM – Johnny Gruesome was initially written as a screenplay, how hard was it to turn it into a novel?
GL – Frankly, very hard! Everyone who read that script loved it, and Vestron Video almost produced it until they saw how young I was. I had really tapped into something, because Johnny is a murdered heavy metal high school kid who’s murdered and comes back as a wisecracking zombie. This was two years before A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and he would have been the first monster of that kind. I’d dust the script off every few years, but nothing ever came of it. After I turned another unproduced screenplay of mine into my first novel, PERSONAL DEMONS, my wife and I moved to Buffalo to buy a house and start a family. And once again, being close to home at winter time, I couldn’t shake Johnny; I wanted to write other things, but I had to get him out of my system. When I turn screenplays into novels, it isn’t just a matter of filling in extra words; everything grows and changes and becomes deeper. It was a lot easier with PERSONAL DEMONS, which has so many different layers and ideas fighting for space. JOHNNY GRUESOME is a much simpler story, a straight on horror tale aimed at people who love horror movies. There were other challenges as well: I wrote the script when I was around 20, and the novel at 43. I had to find a way to make teenagers interesting to myself, and I did that by adding a LOT of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll!
BM – Between the two, which do you prefer writing novels or screenplays?
GL – For me, screenwriting is a snap. I have a sideline business, CREATIVE HORROR FILM SERVICES, for which I write scripts for low budget filmmakers, and I’m able to charge very little for them because I can turn them out so quickly. The structure, the beats—all of these things come very naturally to me so I don’t have to waste time outlining. It’s not like that writing novels. These days, I consider screenwriting a fun way to flex my writing muscles, whereas other authors probably view writing short stories that way. Writing a novel is a solitary process, and the author is solely responsible for what appears on the page. I find it liberating that I don’t have to worry about a performance or special effect turning out the way I’d envisioned it, or whether or not my team has the budget necessary to make something look good. So for that reason, my novels are much more satisfying to me than my films are. I’m also older now and know how to tell a story better. But nothing compares to the rush of making a movie!
BM – What are the odds that Johnny Gruesome might ever be made into a movie?
GL – I’d say they’re pretty good. One filmmaker already offered me $35,000 for the rights, but I turned him down. I don’t have to direct the movie myself, but I at least have to write the screenplay, and I expect WGA minimum for that. JOHNNY GRUESOME was published as Limited Edition, signed and numbered, illustrated hardcover by Bad Moon Books in January. I had a lot of input into the book’s design, and it was great working with Roy Robbins over there. There are still 50 copies left, out of 250, and then that will be it for that collector’s edition. But Medallion Press is going to publish it nationwide—worldwide!—as a trade paperback this October. They’re really behind the book, and after 20 years of trying to get my work out there, it’s exciting to have a company with a real marketing budget supporting one of my projects. JOHNNY GRUESOME will be carried by every bookstore chain, so horror fans will be able to walk into almost any bookstore and pick it up. So that increases the possibility of a movie sale quite a bit, I’d say. Medallion has also acquired my first novel, PERSONAL DEMONS, which they’ll publish as a paperback in October of 2009, and they have right of refusal on the one I’m writing now.
BM – I can tell by reading it that you were really passionate about this book. How much of you is in the character of Johnny?
GL – All of the characters are me in some way, you know? Well, that’s not exactly true: a lot of the characters are me, but most of the murder victims are people who have rubbed me the wrong in way in life. It’s fun to kill off assholes, you know? I would say that the two main characters, Eric and Johnny, represented two sides of my personality when I wrote it as a script. And when I wrote the novel I really delved into my high school years in terms of location and atmosphere. The abandoned school bus where the kids party in that valley? That really existed in Fredonia. The bridge and frozen creek that are so central to the story? They’re half a mile away from my old house. So JOHNNY GRUESOME is as personal and autobiographical as a book about a head-banging zombie can be.
BM – Johnny Gruesome is the only novel that I’m aware of that also features a mask and a soundtrack album. How did those come about?
GL – When PERSONAL DEMONS was published, the reviews were through the roof. I thought, “All right! Things haven’t really worked out for me as a filmmaker, but the future looks rosy as hell for me as a novelist!” The trade paperback came out in 2005, almost simultaneously with the SLIME CITY DVD, and I promoted them together at horror film festivals and conventions. I was pleased with how the book sold at these events, but it was NOTHING compared to the attention SLIME CITY received. So I decided, when I decided to write JOHNNY as a novel, that I would embrace my 80s horror filmmaking roots rather than dodge them, and promote the book as I would a movie. My friends Giasone and Marcy Italiano wrote and recorded a theme song, “Gruesome,” that turned out so well we decided to make an entire album. And that really got the ball rolling, and led to the two on-line JOHNNY GRUESOME comics, which won Best Comic Book at the New York City Horror Film Festival, and the GRUESOME music video starring Misty Mundae, which is going to be released with some other shorts on a DVD called THE NIGHTMARE COLLECTION, and of course, The Johnny Gruesome Death Mask, sculpted by my friend Matt Patterson here in Buffalo. If I get to rewrite my original screenplay for a movie, I’m going to do it wearing that mask and listening to the CD.
BM – I think I might need a picture of that! I’ve seen some early sfx shots for Slime City Massacre, how’s that coming along?
GL – SLIME CITY MASSACRE is still in the formative stages, but it’s coming together quickly. I started discussing the project with the film’s stars, Robert Sabin and Mary Huner, and the composer of the film’s score, Rob Tomaro, when we got together for the first of our 20th Anniversary screenings at the Beloit International Film Festival in Wisconsin back in January. Last month, a writer friend offered to be my first $10,000 investor, and 10 days later I had the first draft of the screenplay; it’s not that I’m slowing down in my old age, it’s just that I have much less free time now that I take care of my 2-year-old daughter while my wife is at work. Anyway, people responded to the script very enthusiastically, and within about a week I had concept sketches, concept posters, special effects demos, and music demos from people who want to be involved. These are all really talented people, and I can’t wait to work with them. But to do that I need to raise a lot more money, and I’m only putting the proposal together now. It’s a very ambitious project, and I promise that if it gets made it will knock people’s socks off.
BM – What’s Slime City Massacre about?
GL – SLIME CITY MASSACRE tells two different stories: one is the origin of Zachary Devon and the Coven of Flesh (with Robert Sabin playing Zachary), and then the main story is set slightly in our future, at a time when the U.S. has invaded Canada for oil, and Slime City is a bombed out ghetto occupied by “economic refugees.” Four squatters discover the Himalayan yogurt and elixir in the ruins of Zachary’s soup kitchen, so we have at least four times as much mayhem. Structurally, it will be THE GODFATHER II of low budget horror films! I wrote the lead for Erika Smith, and hope to get a couple of other fan favorites in there. Mary Huner will be the one actor from the original film continuing one of her roles, but the story really stands on its own and goes off in a lot of crazy directions. It’s definitely ambitious. BM – How weird was it for you to have just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Slime City?
BM – Celebrating the 20th anniversary is not so weird; realizing that I’m 20 years older is! At Beloit, they treated Robert and Mary and I like royalty, and that wasn’t even a horror festival. I pitched SLIME CITY MASSACRE to them while we’re relaxing in a hot tub like Hollywood players. Since then, Robert has screened the film at World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City and I’ve shown it at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. It’s also been a great opportunity to release the soundtrack on CD, all cleaned up and re-Mastered.
BM – You’re working on a book about low budget filmmaking, could you tell our readers about that?
GL – It’s called CHEAP SCARES! LOW BUDGET HORROR FILMMAKERS SHARE THEIR SECRETS, and it will be published by McFarland & Company, a huge publisher of educational and reference books. 50% of the book is based on my own experiences on my films and other films I’ve worked on, and the other 50% consists of in- depth interviews with filmmakers Larry Fessenden, Roy Frumkes, J.R. Bookwalter, Scooter McCrae, Brett Piper, Robert Sabin and James Lorinz; there are also interviewers with fresh faces like Justin Wingenfeld (SKIN CRAWL), Devi Snively (TRIPPIN’), and Justin Channell, who I know you’re familiar with; an entertainment attorney; Stephen Biro, the president of Unearthed Films; and Paige Davis, the VP of marketing at POP Cinema. It really examines the low budget filmmaking process from seed to finished product, with a real emphasis on storytelling and marketing, where many indie filmmakers are weak.
BM – When can we expect to have that one in our hot little hands?
GL – I’ve submitted the manuscript, and the senior editors at McFarland are dissecting it right now, but I don’t have a publication date yet. I’ll tell you this: it’s a huge book with a lot of meat and no fat! Just getting, scanning, captioning and obtaining releases for all of the photos was an enormous task, and transcribing all of those telephone interviews! A lot of hard work and care went into this, and I think people who read it will see that I’m not someone who wrote a fast book to make a fast buck off aspiring filmmakers. I go out of my way to tell guerrilla filmmakers what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
BM – I can’t wait to see it! Thanks for taking the time.
GL – Thank you.
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I have to say, Greg is definitely one of the nicest guys in the B movie industry, he’s always there with honest advice (a rarity these days) and a kind word. Johnny Gruesome is still available at Bad Moon Books and, having read it myself, I can tell you if you’re a fan of horror movies, this is for you! Or you can check out Johnny, the mask we mentioned and soundtrack album (which is also great!) by heading over to Johnny Gruesome.com or by heading to Johnny’s MySpace page. If you’re more interested in Johnny’s creator, you can head over to Greg’s MySpace page and, Greg also serves at the editor in charge of FearZone.com a site that devotes itself to all things horror (not just movies), it’s also a pretty cool site! We here at Rogue Cinema can’t wait to see a copy of Cheap Scares, and we’ll keep you up to date on when you can grab a copy for yourself. We all wish Greg the best of luck, and hope that in the future, he’ll slow down long enough to chat with us again.