Camp David


By • Jan 25th, 2010 •

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Dan O'Bannon at home in Santa Monica during filming of Return of the Living dead. Photo by Dan Golden.

The recent passing of genre writer/director Dan O’Bannon caused me to unearth my picture file on his directorial debut, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which since its first screening has steadily built a substantial horror fan base as a classic zombie film in the tradition of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. This act created a Pandora effect, unleashing a flood of memories I thought long forgotten about my time on the LIVING DEAD set during the months of May and June of 1984. When the Mike Dalling Company first asked me to cover this film for them I thought it was a vampire film, agreeing at once to go down to the Burbank location with my photographer, Dan Golden, and check out the scene.

Looking back I can better understand why Dan O’Bannon was so paranoid about the press in Hollywood, especially concerning his image, since he was after all an outsider, a maverick railing against the system he so wanted to be a part of. Yet he refused to play the game. It is very telling then that when I asked him what his favorite H. P. Lovecraft story was he replied, “THE OUTSIDER,” a short story filled with the intense longing to escape from a desolate castle into the outside world only to discover at the climax that he, too, was a monster unable to take his place among the living. When I asked about his favorite work of Poe he chose the poem ALONE, a piece in which even Lovecraft could see himself in the words, “From childhood’s hour I have not been as others were.” Neither Dan O’Bannon nor his literary idols could see themselves as part of the mainstream no matter what endorsements came their way in terms of praise or success. Dan wrote blockbuster screenplays like TOTAL RECALL and ALIEN, yet never achieved the kind of mega-success of, say, a Joe Eszterhas, who could turn in a treatment and receive a million-dollar advance for rubbish like SHOWGIRLS. The last time I spoke to Dan was about the time of his second directorial effort, THE RESURRECTED, ironically an adaptation of Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD (filmed once before by Roger Corman as THE HAUNTED PALACE). Dan had chosen to frame the tale in the present-day with a neo-noir motif and, to his credit, it was somewhat successful as a stand-up Lovecraft film with Chris Sarandon giving a creepy performance in the dual role of Charles Dexter Ward and his evil ancestor Joseph Curwin. Dan was, as usual, at odds with the company who produced it, as they cut his film without his approval, de-fanging the film of its blood and gore and trimming away his vision yet again. Dan would get his revenge at the end of his life by writing his own adaptation of Lovecraft’s most famous creation, THE NECRONOMICON. Dan himself was always an outsider, first as a child his parents did not understand, then arriving in Hollywood after film school only to find the same situation on a larger scale, failing to adapt successfully in what he regarded as a nest of vipers cannibalizing themselves in franchise film-making.

Dan O'Bannon rehearsing zombie attack...with assistant at window.

Dan rehearsing James Karen and Clu Gulager onset.

Sometimes these on-set encounters can be fun, since you get to not only engage with the director and crew while they are at work but (as with this film) also lunch with the actors and hopefully stay long enough to observe some cinema magic in the process. My first experience on the LIVING DEAD set was anything but fun since I arrived just in time to witness actor Clu Gulager square off with his director in a verbal shouting match that left the crew silent and tense. Now, before I go on with this it is important to know that both Clu and Dan, who would lock horns several more times before this film would wrap, came out of the process the best of friends and remained so until Dan’s death this past December.

After witnessing this encounter I stayed away from both men until lunch broke. As I entered the area set aside for the cast and crew to eat I saw Clu heading straight in my direction, whereupon he greeted me like a long lost relation. “You are the journalist from the Mike Dalling office, are you not? I am Clu Guluger. Please just call me Clu.” He then walked me over to where the food was being served and together we took a table and sat down to our lunch. Clu was concerned about what I had just witnessed and was determined to deflate any bad press that might come from it. He explained that what I observed was a very heavy scene in the film where his character was supposed to react with rage and frustration over the hopelessness of the situation his character was in and at that moment someone had walked into his range of vision causing him to lose his concentration altogether, which in turn caused him to lose it for a moment since, in his view, the director is supposed to keep the set free of distractions, among other things.

It was impossible not to like this man. He and I became fast friends during that first lunch and I for one understood how that might just be the straw that would break the camel’s back at that moment. I later discovered that Dan had made more than a few enemies on this shoot and he knew it. O’Bannon was a product of USC FILM School and was at that moment practicing the auteur theory they teach so well at that institution. In other words the director has a vision and in order for that vision to reach the screen he has to take command of every department, telling each and every crew member and technician their job so they can do it better, thus making a better film all the way around. Most of the other actors found Dan to be somewhat difficult but it was all for a good cause since he was, after all, the very talented screenwriter who wrote ALIEN. Almost everyone on the set was in agreement about one thing and that was Dan O’Bannon had written a great script for them to make, which accomplished the difficult task of making a Horror film funny. It was a parody of George Romero’s film and that was exactly what was needed.

Zombie masks on display in prop dept.

Clu Gulager's autographed photo with personal drawings in green.

The next time I went on-set was to watch the scene where the yellow cadaver played by Terry Houlihan comes to life and causes all kinds of havoc. Terry was covered in this yellow body make-up with a bald cap in place so he all but resembled a mannequin from hell. The set was filled with faux toxic fumes from the gas leaks that set the stage in the script for the living dead to return in the first place. This made the whole set smell like black flag insect spray. It was never a comfortable shoot under any circumstances, both in temperament and design. There was a tenseness going on with Dan as he was under great pressure not only from the producers but from his special-effects people, including make-up which had to be checked and doubled-checked as so much depended on every aspect of the zombies looking just right. I remember that the producers were worried about the zombies moving way too fast in some scenes to match what they thought an audience had come to expect from their zombies onscreen. If only they could have imagined the end result, everybody would have just chilled and really dug the scene.

As I watched Terry the yellow cadaver come to life, check his marks once more, then go back behind the door, there was a break for some tech stuff and I had my first chance to speak to Dan face-to-face. He was polite with me but there was always a distance since I was after all the press, so watch out! I kept thinking all during the rehearsals for this scene that it was so like that scene in Howard Hawks’ THE THING, where all the men are watching the door knowing that at any moment a bloodsucking thing was going to break in and kill them. I had this scene running in my head so I mentioned it to Dan and bang! It was like a bell went off in his head, and he looked at me as if he had just discovered my existence. “I fucking love THE THING! Hawks is like one of my heroes. You know, I was hoping for that moment with this scene as well, and now you have confirmed my thoughts. This is great! Thank you so much for noticing.” From that moment on Dan O’Bannon liked me and respected the fact that we both were film buffs. I was no longer the dreaded press but a colleague. This was as good as it got on the set of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and a memory I will always hold dear when I think of Dan.

Production sketch of the most famous dialogue in the film...

James Karen autographed still from sequel to Living Dead.

Dan O’Bannon arrived at this point in his career with an enviable resume of credits, the most exotic of which was his involvement with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s DUNE. Dan flew over to Paris where he literally wowed Jodorowsky with his talent and creativity. He was put in charge of all the special-effects, working for six months before returning to LA to do more work on the project. This all came to an end when Dan received word from Paris that the money failed to materialize, ending a magical experience with the dean of avant-garde filmmakers. His career from his days after USC, beginning with the filming of DARK STAR alongside John Carpenter, are well documented elsewhere so let’s just say that Dan had more than enough background to direct. He just needed this baptism of fire with LIVING DEAD to understand that a good director hires the right people from day one, allowing them to do their job while you as a director involve yourself, keeping it all in focus. Dan was never much of a “people person” and this led to much of the animosity felt by cast and crew during the making of the film. There were moments during the filming like the day Dan was set to film the weird little guy they brought on set to play one of the misshapen zombies. One of the more unpleasant requirements was that he actually eat calf brains on-camera. Well the crew was up in arms about this and Dan, to his credit, walked over and ate some calf brains in front of everyone present, remarking afterwards, “I would never ask an actor to do anything on camera I would not do myself.”

James Karen remembered the shoot as being very physical from his standpoint because his character was so manic and did so much jumping around. But there is one thing on which both Jimmy and Clu both were in agreement, and that was how good the script was, really funny and edgy in ways a zombie film had never been allowed to be; even ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY left their zombie to react by the book, relying on the two comic actors to add the humor (which on that film was in short supply, making Lugosi the only reason to remember it now). I will always be grateful for RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD as the film which brought both Jimmy and Clu into my circle of friends where they have remained all these years later.

It is well known that Tobe Hooper was set to direct RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD when his schedule changed abruptly, allowing Dan, the screenwriter, to take over. Time has been more than kind to this film, allowing it to turn into a classic first-of-its-kind punk-rock zombie flick, and this in turn caused a change in Dan himself as time went by. He actually got involved with the fans’ grass roots campaign to get RETURN out on DVD, sending the internet fans flocking to dozens of websites devoted to the film to write and email their demands to the studio directly, the result of which was the deluxe edition of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. The real pleasure of this DVD is Dan O’Bannon’s personal observations about the film while he was still well enough to make them.

James Karen with wife Alba at wrap party for Living dead at my Beverly Hills Apt.

James Karen's death scene in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD...

Soon after the film was completed I was invited to spend some interview-time with Dan at his small house in Santa Monica where he greeted both myself and photographer Dan Golden in his bathrobe because his stomach was bothering him that day. Looking back it is now clear Dan suffered far more than he let on about the illness which would ultimately take his life. Away from the set Dan was more laid back and reflective about the experience. I think he was beginning to feel he had created something that was unique, although at that point there was no way of knowing just how popular the film was going to be. Dan was a like a proud dad, showing off his “outer office” which contained floor-to-ceiling scripts, drafts and treatments of his entire output as a writer. In rows divided by shelves, he had every draft of ALIEN from the early THEY BITE right through to the STAR BEAST and beyond, to the version we all have come to know as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Dan was always savvy enough to acknowledge Ridley’s contribution which sort of reminded me in a strange sort of way of how Robert Bloch regarded Hitchcock, the only difference being Dan O’Bannon was a far more accomplished screenwriter than Bloch. Bob was really a novelist with a real talent for the short story. His screenplays were always rather routine in comparison to his writing.

The afternoon went by pleasantly enough with Dan regaling us with tales of Jodorowsky and a couple of rather wicked observations on John Carpenter, not to mention producer Tom Fox. At one point I asked if we could do stills of the two of us together and then some portraits of just him. Dan reflected for a moment and then asked if we could hold back printing them for a time since he really wanted to enjoy being private a bit longer, reasoning that it was just a matter of time before his fame would overwhelm his life to the extent that he would be mobbed in public once his fans knew what he looked like. And you know what turns out to be sublimely funny about Dan O’Bannon? He really meant it.

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6 Responses »

  1. Thanks for a lovely summary of your experiences with Dan on “Return”. I enjoyed reading your accurate take on the production, and thank you for your tribute to him.

  2. I would like to take a moment here on the site of this Camp David to personally thank both Diane O’Bannon as well as Ferdy Mayne’s daughter for taking the time to write in here at Films in Review regarding the columns devoted to their loved ones.

    When I began writing these rather personal memoirs about five years ago it was my hope that they would entertain as well as enlighten our readers about the genre personalities I have known. So when I get this kind of feedback from family members of those subjects that are no longer with us, it makes doing this column worthwhile.

    thank you both from the bottom of my heart.

  3. Another great column, David. I actually met Clu Gulager several months ago, when I accompanied my superpal Tim Sullivan to a screening of a film called THE HILLS RUN RED at Warner Brothers. After the show several of the guests went to a nearby restuarant; as I recall, Clu actually gave us directions to the place! I was amazed that he still looked the same as he did in RETURN OF THE LIVING, made those many moons ago. His son, a director, was also in attendance.

    Never met James Karen but I gather that he and Forry were very friendly. Just before Forry fell ill for the final time, I took a phone call from a magazine publisher asking for information about FJA’s forthcoming birthday party. This gentleman asked that invitations be sent to himself and a James Karen. I recognized the name instantly and asked if this was the same James Karen who’d appeared in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. The man confimed the same and said a few words about their longstanding friendship, which to that point I’d been unaware of.

    As it happened, there never was an official birthday party for Forry that year, 2008. He was simply too ill to have one. Ray Bradbury did put together a celebration of sorts for him though, one which was recorded for posterity. A copy was handed to me at FJA’s door to show him shortly before his death.

  4. David Del Valle could you please contact me @ regarding the book titled ‘The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead’
    Gary Smart

  5. When I first moved to CA seven years ago, I attended a writer’s conference. I signed up for a few of the classes and saw Dan’s name on one of them. I couldn’t believe that I was actually getting writing tips from Dan O’Bannon! I might have been the only horror fan in the room and I didn’t think anyone else knew what an honor this was. It was my first writer’s conference and his being there made it memorable. I still have the notes he gave us. I came across them recently and thought back to how generous he was with his knowledge. I thanked him after class and he was extremely kind. I was so sad to hear of his passing.

  6. This is such a great movie. I watch it at least a couple of times a year. I recommend that everyone should listen to the DVD commentary, too, because it’s excellent.

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