Not surprisingly, Zombie Strippers began as a joke. Lee, who runs a production company with his sister Angela Lee, was making a low budget horror film called The Slaughter, "the joke was well at least we weren't shooting something like Zombie Strippers, " Lee tells me by phone from LA where the film was about to have its premiere, "And every time I said that it got a laugh. It just dawned on me that it would be the perfect next vehicle for me."
Originally, it was to be a direct to DVD feature. But after actress-producer-director Jenna Jameson came on board and Sony picked it up, the film ended up with a limited theatrical release. San Diego is only one of about a dozen lucky cities to get the film (but there wasn't even an ad in today's paper so it's not getting a lot of marketing behind it, at least not through conventional media; there is a MySpace page ).
Set in the near future, the film opens with news montage informing us that George Bush has just entered his fourth term as president (talk about horror!). He has dissolved congress because they "cramp his style." Apparently we're still fighting in Iraq but we're running out of soldiers. The solution to this problem is to create a serum that reanimates dead soldiers so they can fight again. Talk about being into recycling. But of course the serum or chem virus gets out and the government has to call in some troops (with some of the sexiest looking soldiers you'll ever find). When the commander arrives, he lifts up the blinds to a laboratory (think Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now ) and declares dryly, "Zombies, sh-t."
Of course the soldiers don't quite contain the virus. An infected soldier gets out and manages to bite a stripper at Ian Essko's Rhino Club. The stripper, Kat (porn star Jenna Jameson), becomes a super energized zombie stripper who wows the audience and then picks one lucky customer to eat in the back room. Kat, who's been reading Nietzsche had quoted the famous philosopher's comment about "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger." After she turns undead, she looks at Nietzsche's book again and declares, "This makes so much more sense now."
Club owner Ian (Freddy Krueger's Robert Englund) is happily surprised by Kat's reanimated success. So what if they have to find a place for her victims undead and still moving body parts. When Kat returns to the stage the club DJ announces "Now back from the dead..."
Kat becomes so popular than no one is interested in mere human strippers. This creates pressure for the other girls to join the undead. The Goth stripper Lilith (played by rocker Roxy Saint) is happy to join the living dead, but the other girls aren't so sure it's a good thing. It all ends with a riotous showdown on stage between Kat and Jeannie (Shamron Moore) that involves ping-pong balls and billiard balls in ways they were never intended.
Fighting off the zombie horde in Zombie Strippers (Sony)
Zombie Strippers is not in league with Shaun of the Dead (my all time favorite zom-com) or any of Romero's zombie films, but it is definitely in the same vein and boasts some inspired comedy. Lee's film has a lot in common with Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror (which is technically infected people and not zombies, an important point for some of us). Both are a homage to the old 70s grindhouse pictures. These are films that revel in their low-budgetedness. But in Lee's case he really did have a low budget and his film reveals the smarts of someone who has to make do with what he can afford - that means keeping most of the action in one location and making limited effects go as far as they can.
Lee definitely knows how to deliver the gore and has fun with the strippers' poor but initially eager victims. What's most fun is that there's very little CGI work, most of the gore is done with make up, live on set. That approach gives the film an old school "real" quality that's fun. And it's fun to see these gorgeous women have so much fun looking bad and letting their sexy bodies start to decay. Jameson in particular seems to have no qualms about poking fun at her own image.
The film also boasts another icon: Robert Englund, the man who brought Freddy Krueger to life. Englund also has fun tweaking his horror image. As Ian Essko (riffing on absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco), he's a germ-phobic, chauvinistic, racist club owner who worships only the almighty dollar. He's also a card carrying NRA member with a closet full of guns and no clue how to use them - but dammit, it's his right to own those guns.
And that's the fun thing about Zombie Strippers, it's dumb and absurd yet it's always willing to make social and political jokes too, mostly, Lee says, to point out the "hypocrisy" in America.
So some of the funny bits that occur: a patron runs out of bills to tip Kat so he writes a check with his politically correct Amnesty International logo on it; a Christian stripper, stripping for Nana's colostomy, puts a picture of Christ on her dressing room mirror; when asked by a soldier to prove he's human, a man says "I think therefore I am;" when the Mexican janitor is told they can get some badgers to eat up the undead bodies, he replies "we don't need no stinking badgers."
Lee doesn't develop characters the way Shaun of the Dead did, and his political satire isn't as pointed as Romero's, but he creates a niche for himself with the kitschy, sexy, gory fun of Zombie Strippers.
Zombie Strippers (rated R for strong violence and gore, sexuality/nudity and language) is hands - and arms, legs, feet and any other dismembered body part you have laying around - down the best comedy so far this year. Bring your dollar bills, Zombie Strippers is so good that you'll feel like throwing them up at the screen.
Here's more of what Lee had to say when I spoke with him earlier this week.
BETH ACCOMANDO: "So how exactly did
JAY LEE: "I work with my sister as a producer, we had done a couple of independent film we had that won and had premiered at Sundance, but we weren't getting our production company off the ground in a successful business sense and so we started dabbling into horror movies. So we were looking to make an ultra-low, non-budget horror film that could be shamelessly marketable but at the same time that we could infuse with our independent film sensibilities and put as much message behind the absurdity of Zombie Strippers . It was from the ground up, kind of finding a mix of something that we could market and sell and attract money and talent and at the same time be able to put our own message to it."
BA: "So why
, why a zombie film?"
JL: "One of the great American films is Night of the Living Dead, just because of the social implications and how essential the film was at that time. And I think if more people saw it as a social work as opposed to a horror movie - I know that a lot of people are just recognizing it now as essential American cinema but I think it should have been realized that so much longer ago because its relevance at the time and the genre it created. So many people use zombies, especially George Romero, as a metaphor and allegory of what's going on with this country with the development of our country in the past forty years since Night of the Living Dead that I think Romero was pretty dead on."
BA: "What is it about zombies makes them such a good metaphor for social and political commentary as well as for horror?"
JL: "That's a good question. The kitsch factor first of all. It's such an open book on what you could do, what you can play with in terms of this genre of walking dead, living dead. Just the fact that it's an oxymoron in the first place. But there's something about zombies, maybe half of it is that you don't have to put too much into them -- they're just these lumbering, voiceless beings but then again you can almost script almost anything you want them to say or anything you want them to do because they are such a blank slate."
BA: "Now when did you decide to use Ionesco's
as a template for the film and to have Jenna quoting Nietzsche? Was that the idea from the start?"
JL: "That was pretty immediate. I knew that if I was going to make a movie about something that I was joking about in the first place I was going to, for my own benefit, go the complete opposite and use something like Ionesco's Rhinoceros as a template and to parody that and use that absurdist viewpoint that Ionesco did with and apply that to Zombie Strippers , which is arguably equally absurd but is definitely more marketable that's for sure."
BA: "How did you get Jenna Jameson to come on board?"
JL: "We basically had one phone conversation with her and she agreed to do it and we talked about how the film definitely wants to throw the hypocrisy of the society right back in its face and & 'That's what you're about Jenna.' And she said that's exactly what she's about and that's one of the main reasons she agreed to do it on top of the fact that she loves horror films."
BA: "Did you have any trouble getting these beautiful women to go undead?"
JL: "Jenna was the first one who couldn't wait to do it. But then going through the process, she was in make up 4-6 hours a day, then going home taking a couple hours trying to get the make up off of her. That was when she started feeling a little vulnerable is what she had said one time. She said that was a woman's worst nightmare, trying to get ugly off her for two hours a day. Shamron who played Jeannie didn't have so much make up but at one point she was the one who said, & 'Can I please be pretty again.'"
BA: "The final showdown between Kat and Jeannie was pretty extreme, did you just keep trying to think about how to push it further?"
JL: "The film was definitely missing a climax. That was the thing about a zombie film is you have to kill all your characters twice pretty much, so it starts to become redundant. I just knew it needed something to simulate a climax to the film even though it was kind of midway in the third act. And it was sort of how to push the envelope a little farther. That was one of the things I realized in going to the genre festivals with our other film was that the audience just wants to see more; the bigger it gets and the more you show these people something they haven't seen, the more they want to buy the tickets to see. So it was just digging up whatever I could in the gutter and dredging it up and throwing it up on the screen. I was essentially just trying to offend me knowing that I had to offend the audience as much as I could that's where a lot of this came from."
BA:" You didn't have a big budget but the make up effects were great, in a wonderfully old school way."
JL: "We had actually stumbled across Patrick Magee Studios when we made The Slaughter . We literally paid him with a credit card to do some make up effects for a week. That film was shot so fast and furiously that we didn't see any of his make up work until it was camera ready, and every time one of his make up effects was set up in front of the camera we were constantly blown away. So we gave him three times the budget on Zombie Strippers than the entirety of the last film cost. So he was able to do a lot more. He still needed more time and more budget. He and his crew were working 20 hours a day doing everything he could to get these things together. He had severed heads with remote control mechanics in it; they had a jawless zombie with remote control mechanics; they had poor Jenna standing in a makeup room for 6 hours a day... those guys were definitely the stars of the film."
BA: "It did have a great grindhouse feel, like those old 70s horror films."
JL: "That was definitely the idea. It was going back to the Roger Corman school, where if you can't afford it you try to figure out how to do it a way to make movie magic and you imply something or suggest something or say it in a line of dialogue or in edits fix stuff with a simple edit and indulge in the low budget effects, indulge in the low budget campiness of a film. That's what we did. The film had to be like that. The second we took ourselves too seriously then the film was going to fall on its face."
Robert Englund as Ian Essko in Zombie Strippers (Sony)
BA: "What about Robert Englund?"
JL: "We had Freddy Krueger in our film! It was great to work with Robert because in a sense he got to do something completely different. He is a great comedian and it's fun to watch him be so sexually ambiguous too; it's so far from Freddy Krueger. He loved being sleazy, he loved being racist, and he never took it seriously enough so that you think we are what Ian Essko is. He had a great time with it. And I think that's what makes the film fun. And he was the consummate pro."
BA: "You do have a lot of politically incorrect humor."
JL: "I actually wanted to push it even farther, in fact the film does go much further. There were a few scenes and a few lines that were lost when the studio had issues with a few of the things Ian Essko's character says. But what we felt -- and Joey Medina who plays Paco the janitor -- felt was that we had to go that far with it. The more ridiculous and absurd the character and the racism got, the more we felt we were parodying or making a statement with racism in this country. So some of the most racist things that Robert's character was saying we thought was the most hypocritical and thus we were throwing our country's hypocrisies back in their face. So there was like a line when Ian comments how illegals are wreaking this country. The other character asks, & 'Why are you hiring them,' & 'Because they're cheap.'" These scenes show how instead of making racism a joke we actually make it a statement."
BA: "Did you have trouble pitching the film?"
JL: "We never wrote a synopsis for this film, we never had to. If anyone asked what this film was about we just said Zombie Strippers, and that used to tell it all.
BA: "Wow, a two word pitch, that's pretty good. What made you decide
was better than say
JL: " That's a good question, that might be the sequel. I guess hookers can have a tragic element but strippers seem to have more campy films like Showgirls . The other thing was the opportunity for musical numbers and the striptease.
BA: "The one thing I was expecting that didn't happen during some of the body mutilation of the zombies was a joke about silicone breast implants."
JL: "We were actually thinking of how to play with that but then when you are working with people who actually do have implants, it's like you don't want to offend the actresses... well we actually offended everybody and everybody definitely parodied themselves so I see no reason why we didn't do that looking back on it now."
For zombie fans, Zombie Strippers is a real treat. It delivers exactly what you want -- gore, lumbering undead, humor -- plus a few unexpected things -- like pole dancing super zombie strippers. I have been a longtime fan of the undead and I was delighted with this latest outing. Plus I was happy to get to tag another review with "zombies" so it can remain at the top of the tag list.
Companion viewing: Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Diary of the Dead