Making Horror Weird: A Talk With Brian Yuzna

Brian Yunza Interview 0
Brian Yuzna photo credit: Melissa Hannon

For fans of ’80s cult classics, Brian Yuzna most likely played an important role in shaping our love of horror. His impressive list of genre credits include producing Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dolls, as well as directing Society, the Re-Animator sequels, The Dentist, and Return of the Living Dead III, among many others.

We had an opportunity to talk with Yuzna at the North Dallas Film Festival prior to a screening of Re-Animator, presented by Fangoria.

Horror Geek Life: Brian, with two film events happening this weekend in Dallas – the showing of Re-Animator at the North Dallas Film Festival and Society at Texas Theater – did you ever imagine that horror fans would be lining up for your films decades later?

Brian Yuzna: I think with Re-Animator, it really is a good horror film. It’s really a classic. I mean, if you like horror, man, it’s hard to argue with it. The film has a whole lot of fun, which I find not in a lot of the movies today. It seems like a lot of horror movies are self-conscious and have some sort of a pretentious sense to them, and they just don’t have fun. You have fun in Re-Animator, and it’s totally ridiculous, but it’s played straight. And it’s real horror. So, I think it’s just really well done, and, you know, it came out when Evil Dead and Return of the Living Dead came out. Now, I think Evil Dead doesn’t age that well, but the second one does. The remake, I think, probably has more life. Of course, when Evil Dead came out, we thought, “Wow,” and I think Return of the Living Dead still works really well.

So, those three movies came out around that time, and I’m not going to go into other ones like The Thing. It’s just…Stuart Gordon…nobody was ready for that. Who had ever made a cheap, cheap horror movie shot in 16 days with the first-time director? He had been a theater director for ten years, so he already had super experience. This guy wasn’t like coming from ignorance. He wasn’t a filmmaker, but he knew how to direct, and I think he loves horror.

I find that a lot of horror movies are made by people who just want an entry. They think a horror movie is a way to get in on the movie business. Whereas for me, I always wanted to make horror movies, without explanation. It’s what I like. There’s other stuff I like, such as fantasy, especially dark fantasy, but I’m not sure if I had to make that movie, I would do it. If somebody said, “Here, make this action movie,” I would do my best, but I would be kind of like…why have me do it if there’s no horror? That’s where I feel more comfortable.

Stuart has more interest than just horror, but he’s a true horror guy. He did plays in theaters that were all over the place. Dennis Paoli told me once, “You know, when they ask me, I will say that Stuart and I could have done anything. It’s just that Brian wanted to do a horror movie, so we did that!” But, they sure did a good job.

HGL: Oh, without a doubt! Re-Animator has some over-the-top, cringeworthy scenes, including naked, gory zombies and the moment Barbara Crampton is on the table naked. Other films you have made, with Society and The Dentist immediately coming to mind, push those limits as well. Do you just love making the audience shift uncomfortably in their seats?

Brian Yuzna: I really want to get a response out of the audience. I want them to enjoy it. There’s something about making horror that you want to keep pushing it, and when I’m doing a scene, I get to a point where I’m going, “This is it!” and then you can cut it however you want. The Dentist was a little bit different because I was very uncomfortable going in to make it. This wasn’t the kind of movie I normally do. I normally hadn’t done a movie with a body count. My movies are not about killing a lot of people; it’s weird stuff. I’m comfortable with the weird. The guy who owned the company that financed told me, “Look, I have this idea…The Dentist…” and I thought, “Oh, no. Is this like Dr. Giggles?” Then he said it can’t have any sci-fi, it’s got to be all about the chair.

So, we went trying to find the writer and we started evolving the search, and it is a body count, so I tried to get into the fantasy part of his head, because, what a despicable guy. I tried to go into his world, and there’s a stomach-churning scene where he’s taking advantage of a girl on the chair. If you show that, if you just do that scene, it’s not fun. It’s not horror. It’s too real-life. I don’t want to see a movie about cancer, I want to see a movie about alien cancer. You get distance with the genre so you can enjoy very uncomfortable topics. So, with that scene, for example, I just tried to get sympathy for him by showing this guy in his own world, and kind of as a bumbler as well. The whole idea of him being an opera singer and feeling deceived. And, I think, you gotta like a guy that loves opera and is such a sap because he’s taken advantage of.

HGL: He’s a great character; Corbin Bernsen is always a treat to watch. A couple of years later, you both went on to make a sequel, which had a different tone and was even more over-the-top.

Brian Yuzna: It was even cheaper than the first one! It sounds self-aggrandizing, but on the first one, I was working on the script and there was no ending all the way up till shooting. We were just trying to find a way out of this thing. I designed all the scenes, I storyboarded them and tried to make every killing a scene, and I basically took almost all of them from Hitchcock. So, if you look at it, I can show you which Hitchcock movies I got the shots from. The one who gets the air in the vein, and she’s reaching back to try to grab the scissors, well that’s Dial M For Murder. I tried to make it so cheap, and we had a short schedule. This is, what, 1998 or 1997? I always tell people you know how cheap this movie was because most of the crew are women and foreigners. Because they were cheaper.

HGL: I have to go back and revisit to try and catch those scenes! After all of these years, do you think about these films when you go to the dentist? Do you realize how many people you’ve terrified?

Brian Yuzna: I never had a problem going to the dentist. Now, I had bad experiences when I was a kid because they didn’t have fast-speed drills and I grew up in the Tropics. I grew up in a third-world country. They had these drills that had bands and when you push too hard, it slows down. But, as I got older, it didn’t bother me. Now, after I made that movie, I was really bothered to go to the dentist! Actually, I was in Spain for the label I did there in Barcelona, and I went to the dentist for the first time there. I went in, sat down in the chair, and he comes out with this long needle and as he leaned in, he said, “I saw your movie, The Dentist, last night…” And I’m going, “LET ME OUT OF HERE! I GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE!” (laughs)

The producer, Pierre David, really didn’t like that I just sort of took the script wherever. So, on the second one, he wouldn’t let me see the script until the weekend before shooting so that I wouldn’t mess around with it. The first couple weeks of shooting, we would shoot all day, and then Corbin and I, and Jillian McWhirter, and I forget, maybe somebody from Trimark, would go to this one sushi restaurant on Ventura and we would rewrite the scenes for the next day. But, it’s definitely totally a different movie, but I do particularly like the scene with Corbin and Clint Howard. Those two guys together, I thought that was great.

HGL: What was it like working with Corbin on these films?

Brian Yuzna: He wasn’t the easiest guy to work with (laughs), but we work together and we have projects together. After The Dentist, he said, because he’s a celebrity and people recognize him, he would go out and they would say, “Corbin! L.A. Law!” or “Corbin! Major League!”. He said now they were doing “Corbin! The Dentist!”. He was walking down a street in Manhattan when a limo pulled up and Danny DeVito jumps out and said, “Corbin! The Dentist!” and jumped in the car and left. He said, “We have to do more of this. These horror fans are for real.”

HGL: Yes, we are! We stay pretty loyal to the genre.

Brian Yuzna: I like it. In The Dentist, I do wish I could go in and redo the music. Not change it, though. The music was done by Alan Howarth, he did everything from his little studio, that’s how cheap we were. We did the music over one weekend. I was in Florida and I came Friday and stayed at his place all weekend without sleeping. I mean, I would crash out with coffee, but we picked these opera themes and he just he came up with a theme for it and we went through the whole movie. But, it’s a one-man thing, and it’s really quick. I think the music works very well, but I’d like it to be redone. Not with an orchestra. But, whenever I watch it, I always think that I’d like to restore it. I’d like to do the 4K version because it’s more stylish than the movies I usually do.

My movies usually have really weird stuff, and that’s what carries you and it doesn’t really matter how you shoot it. But, with The Dentist, it’s not really weird stuff, but it’s rigid framing and all the transitions are really worked out so it keeps the pacing. I mean, we were so cheap, the guy who did the major special effects, it was his first credit, Josh Logan. What we paid him paid for his ticket from Texas to L.A. and he did it for nothing, but he did a great job.

HGL: Bless those talented people, right?

Brian Yuzna: Oh, absolutely.


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