Interview by Brian Ridgway with assistance from Dan Roushey.
In the years since the release of DAWN OF THE DEAD, one person who has not been properly credited for much of the film's sustained success is ROY FRUMKES. ROY's name didn't appear in the initial prints of DOTD, but film commentary and future home media releases should take a moment to note the intelligent, thoughtful attention he has given the film. A noted film historian, Roy has helped keep DOTD in the forefront of modern horror cinema through subsequent magazine articles and most importantly his full-length feature documentary on DOTD, titled DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD.
In 1978, while director George Romero was filming DOTD, a group of technicians and students from the New York School of Visual Arts, led by instructor/filmmaker ROY FRUMKES, visited the set. Roy interviewed cast and crew for three days, and combining this with additional material, was able to produce a definitive look at the making of DOTD. The completed film, DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, stands as a thorough, detailed set-piece to DOTD, helping moviegoers appreciate the subtlety used to compose the final theatrical version of a now-classic horror film. The documentary also serves as an informative look at Romero's amazing output during a particular peak time of his career.
However, locating DOCUMENT since it's initial release hasn't been easy. Inflated video pricing and spotty distribution over the years has made owning a copy difficult for many. Only recently has that problem been solved with a beautiful updating and re-release of DOCUMENT on DVD ($29.95) through SYNAPSE FILMS, and locating it is as easy as hopping on the Internet. Featured on the new disc are re-mastered sound, computer-enhanced visuals, plus additional commentary and footage from Roy.
I admit to being ignorant too much of Roy's background before the initial interview we conducted back in April. Speaking via phone from his home in New York, he seemed very friendly and direct. Available photos of Roy are deceiving -- looking more like a film student with his curly hair and young face, it's hard to believe that he's been an independent producer for roughly 30 years. Presently, Roy continues teaching filmmaking and screenwriting at The School of Visual Arts in New York City, and his own resume includes producing/directing films ranging from documentaries (Burt's Bikers, Document of The Dead) to his own independent feature, STREET TRASH, which he wrote and produced.
Roy's screenwriting credits include additional cult-status films, such as The Substitute, Substitute 2 and Substitute 3 (all of which play in heavy rotation on HBO), as well as Slay the Bully, now in pre-production. In addition, he is also a member of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, and is editor of Films In Review (www.filmsinreview.com).
I want to compliment you on the re-release of DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD. It's quite an entertaining film, and the only recent feature I would compare it to is the documentary of the making of Apocalypse Now, called Hearts of Darkness. Hearts is an amazing film about people and creativity, and I'd like to compare it to DOCUMENT.
Well, thank you for the analogy.
I hope we don't scare people away from DOCUMENT because it IS a documentary -- it moves along so well and is very entertaining. Viewing it again recently, I forgot how much great behind-the-scenes footage you had captured during your visit to the original DOTD set.
You initially spent how much time on the DOTD set.
Three days. We took a crew of seven in two cars. We really only had enough money to do that -- the School of Visual Arts only gave me $7,000. CHUCK HIRSCH, who was chairman, grabbed half of it and ran down to North Carolina (at the same time) to shoot a documentary about Earl Owensby, which never came out. So, we went up there with $3,500for the first shoot and considering that, we got a great amount of material.
And then I continued to raise money for the film over the next few years. We did another shoot, during post-production -- we did a third shoot when they had secured distribution. So there were three days at the set and three other days, and you can do a feature out of that--out of what you get from a six-day shoot.
Your crew on the DOTD set didn't seem intrusive. It's actually funny to watch Romero work in DOCUMENT -- he is so casual, it would be hard to pick him out of a crowd as director if you didn't know who he was.
Yeah, I was lucky in terms of shooting -- what I did as writer, producer, director--I made up these charts that would say 'close-up/mediums/wide' and I'd have 20 of each. And I'd say to my two cinematographers "You have to check these off·hen you can go and do shots hanging from the roof and all that other stuff." But I needed to be able to cut a movie that feels like a story, and in order to do that, I needed spatial design. Each director of photography would have to go around with these charts and an assistant would be checking off each shot. I wasn't necessarily telling them what shots to get -- I was telling them what they had to get to for me to be satisfied.
My Director of Photography was REEVES LEHMANN and he was a Marine commando. He had been in Viet Nam at age nineteen and at one point, he had lost everyone in his platoon but himself. He was a combat-ready veteran and used to tell me great stories. He told me once that there was this firefight between the Vietnamese and his platoon that lasted 48 hours without let-up. And the Vietnamese platoon was ALL WOMEN. So anyway, you pick a director of photography the same way you would cast an actor, an art-director, etc. -- you want to find someone who is truly appropriate for the material. And Reeves, being a commando, was leading guerillas (at the shoot) crawling on their bellies across the mall to get close to George--and he loved it! A few times George would look, and see this group of 'commandos' coming up on him from the side, and he'd smile. As you see, he loves war films. The Crazies, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead are all kind of war-genre films in disguise. He lowered the veil and really let us have a lot of freedom because of Reeves' approach.
Did George seem flattered by that kind of attention?
One of the things that also really impressed me from watching DOCUMENT is that George Romero seems like he's an exceptional writer. His best films seem to be from material he's written and labored over extensively. Given the length and detail of his scripts, he really seems to be producing epic novels and appears to love the writing process.
I hope so. That's certainly what he's been up to the past few years.
First -- could I get a brief history of DOCUMENT'S release on tape? I see it's presently only available on DVD.
Yeah, the tape has been through a few hands. It was first released by a little company called Off-Hollywood Video. They did a gorgeous box design that had raised lettering. But they didn't master it well because the video portion of it was jumpy on every print. They must have made 10,000 copies and they ALL malfunctioned. I was horrified. They put $50,000 into it. They financed the second shoot of DOCUMENT, with the addition of footage from Two Evil Eyes, and they honored all their commitments to me, so I have no complaints about them, but they cut corners on the mastering. They must have gone to some cheap place or used cheap tape. I don't know what they did, but it was quite sad.
Several years later, the tape rights came back to me, and a different company put it out. They had a much better mastering, but I didn't like the box very much (laughs). I'm never completely satisfied. Now I'm trying to give it to Don May Jr., because he did that great DVD and should have the video rights as well. I'm trying to arrange that.
The new DVD of DOCUMENT did well, partially because of the Internet, which makes it much easier to sell that kind of stuff. It doesn't even have to be in stores. Also, I must say, we had an unprecedented review in Video Watchdog. Tim Lucas and his group are extremely articulate people and their review was very generous. They criticized some things, but the stuff they loved, they loved so enthusiastically that within a week of the magazine's release, the DVD was selling out. Preorders just altered dramatically.
Could you comment on the quality of DOCUMENT? That is, are you pleased with what Synapse Films has done?
When we mastered DOCUMENT for DVD, we were making shot-by-shot corrections, and I was sitting there supervising, trying not to cause any trouble because it was very expensive. Then we passed a scene in the mall, during one of the interview sequences with George, and I said, "God, you know -- that was part of the mall that wasn't built yet -- it was still under construction." There was no light -- all we had was a 'sun-gun' that we were walking with--how I would have loved to have some light coming in that window!
And they said, "Okay!" and they digitally put light in the window! I mean, they made the film better than it's EVER been! For DVD, the film FINALLY was the film I wished I had made and the reviews were MUCH better. So, I was very grateful to Synapse.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: During the discussion of the DVD's editing, Roy also commented on unseen DOTD footage--material that has since been stored away, possibly never to be seen again. He noted the alternate ending to DOTD--)
There were six boxes of outtakes from the 16mm shoot of DOCUMENT that have (since) been stored up in a vault in Westchester County. I didn't have access to it at the time of the DVD mastering, but there was footage of George as a zombie Santa Claus, and that's something that has never been seen. But I couldn't get to that. And also, Richard Rubinstein couldn't get to the alternate ending for the DOTD disc, which he knew about and which I had seen. It was shot.
Oh, you've seen it?
Memory tells me I have. It was there when I did DOCUMENT. I started halfway through the shooting of DOTD, and I was up there in Monroeville after Christmas break. And in DOCUMENT, in an interview with George, he talks about how the tone of the film had changed while they were shooting. He envisioned a lot about DOTD on paper, but in all the beautiful colors of the mall -- which were a kind of 'pop-art' look that the film ended up having -- it kind of changed everything. It went 'water-color'. The film, to a certain degree, dictated it's own form, no matter what George did with it. It became clear at a certain point, that the ending they had shot was too downbeat.
So, they went back and shot a second ending, but they had shot the original ending first. I wish now that I had used it because I had access to everything.
Roy's cult hit classic STREET TRASH has been restored and given new life! It's presently in festival re-release and has received positive comeback reaction from fans across the country.
STREET TRASH is out again, which is very gratifying. It was never shown uncut on this continent. It was shown elsewhere uncut, but never here. We recently 're-premiered' the uncut version at the Montreal/Toronto Fantasia last summer (1998).
Originally 101 minutes, it was cut to 91 minutes by Vestron, and it was their prerogative. They paid half a million for just the United States, so they could do whatever they wanted, because we put it in the can for half a million. It wasn't what it eventually cost, but that was the production cost, and we made it up with just one territory. But they cut plot -- they left in all the gore and shocks but they eviscerated the narrative, and now it's getting a revival. It's coming out at midnight shows again around the country and we struck a new print, which was supervised by Bob Harris -- he also restored Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo.
So, it's a gorgeous print -- really extraordinary. I went up to Canada with Nicole Potter, who played the winette and who narrated the 2 Evil Eyes segment of DOCUMENT, and we hit the two cities. And that was a lot of fun. So that's also cooking, and I presume they'll be a DVD down the line. One has already been released in Europe. Alexandro Jodorowsky is supposed to be sending me a copy.
Interested in ordering a copy of DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD on DVD? It's as easy as checking out the Synapse Films website. In addition, the Video Watchdog review Roy mentioned can be found in issue #49 and ordered through their Internet site or through a VW newsstand edition.
Also, if you'd like to read more about Roy's visit to the DOTD set, check out his article entitled Zombie's Testament in the August 1989 issue of Fangoria. It's accompanied by a number of terrific rare photographs and is a great DOTD reference piece. This particular issue is still available to order through Fangoria's backorder section.
All material in this interview is Copyright 1999--ROY FRUMKES and BRIAN RIDGWAY. No material from this interview is to be reprinted or duplicated in any way without expressed, written permission of the authors. SPECIAL THANKS TO ROY FRUMKES AND NORMAN ENGLAND for their kind assistance and generosity.