"Blood, guts, death, mayhem and nudity"

Eli Roth on the atrocious state of horror movies, actresses who won't get naked, his pal David Lynch, and the flesh-eating inspiration of his new film, "Cabin Fever."


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Daniel Kraus
September 12, 2003 12:00AM (UTC)

Say what you will, horror fans take care of their own.

In 1981, Stephen King saw a gruesome little movie called "The Evil Dead" and liked it so much he gave the filmmakers a quote to put on their artwork: "The most ferociously original horror film of the year." Thousands of underage VHS junkies -- myself included -- rented "The Evil Dead" on the basis on this endorsement and were treated to 85 of the most stomach-churning minutes in motion picture history.

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"The Evil Dead," directed by Sam Raimi (who went on to make "A Simple Plan" and "Spider-Man"), inspired hundreds of budding filmmakers, including a New Zealander named Peter Jackson. The future "Lord of the Rings" director promptly went out and shot "Dead Alive," the only film to date able to approximate Raimi's wildly inventive use of gore as comedy.

Today, the cycle continues. The one sheets and TV spots for Eli Roth's "Evil Dead" homage "Cabin Fever" are dominated by a quote from Jackson: "Brilliant! Horror fans have been waiting years for a movie like 'Cabin Fever.'" The nod is merely the latest in more than a year's worth of hype, beginning with Lion's Gate dishing out a record "high seven figures" for the film at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival and ending on every horror-film message board on the Internet. Not since "The Blair Witch Project" has a horror flick been so frightfully overexposed.

The bad news is that "Cabin Fever" is not the Second Coming -- in fact, the film is somewhat redundant if you're at all up on your horror history. But stranded as we are in a sea of irrelevant rubbish like "They," "FearDotCom" and "Darkness Falls," "Cabin Fever" is a bona fide adrenaline shot, a vivid reminder of the potent potential of horror.

The setup is simple but brutal. Five college friends rent an isolated cabin in the woods and discover a bloody, pus-covered drifter who communicates to one of them a deadly flesh-eating virus. Nobody wants to be next. Boyfriends turn on girlfriends. Best pals turn on best pals. Some barricade themselves in. Others try to flee. But can you ever really outrun a virus?

Roth spoke to me by telephone from his parents' home in Boston.

It's obvious right from the start of "Cabin Fever" that you genuinely love horror films.

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Yeah, I love them and the genre's been so fucking ghettoized in the last 20 years. It's in shambles right now. We're really in trouble.

We are. Have you seen "Valentine," for example?

Things are fucked. It's so bad. I wrote the story for "Cabin Fever" 10 years ago and finished the script eight years ago -- that's how long it took us to get this film made.

Why, of all things, a flesh-eating disease?

I've had a bunch of really horrible rare illnesses. When I was 12 I got this weird virus in my hip that paralyzed me. It's called toxic synovitis and it strikes one in a million kids -- and I was the one. Then, when I was 17, I went to Russia and I got this parasite called giardia and on top of it I had mono, so I spent about five months in bed drinking this poison that made my stomach feel like it was on fire, but if I didn't drink it these things would be eating me. Then, when I was 19, I was in Iceland and I was working on this farm and got this weird infection in my face. I woke up one night and was scratching my face in my sleep and looked and there were chunks of blood and skin in my hand. The next morning I went to shave and literally began shaving off chunks of my face. It peeled like a banana.

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Yuck.

Then, when I was 22, I was lying in bed and it felt like there was glass cutting my legs. I peeled back the sheet and my legs looked like Karen's legs in "Cabin Fever" -- just rotted, black, bleeding. And I hadn't even had sex; I was like, "What the fuck is this?" And I went to the dermatologist and he said, "This is psoriasis." But I'd just picture this army of things multiplying inside me and eating me from the inside.

Now that you mention STDs, "Cabin Fever" could be viewed as an AIDS parable.

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Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times felt the same thing. My feeling was that I wanted to make a movie where if people wanted to see blood, guts, death, mayhem and tits they'd go and have a great time. But if they wanted to go again, they could think of the nature of the way people treat each other when they have a disease and that gray area where compassion turns into self-preservation. I wrote this story in 1993 and, yeah, AIDS was a big concern. We grew up watching these '80s movies where everybody's having sex with everybody and nobody's discussing condoms. Then suddenly we were in college and everyone's like, "If you have sex with the wrong person you're going to die." I mean, in a best-case scenario, bacteria and viruses get all of us.

It's rare these days to see a horror film without an identifiable villain.

We got a lot of stupid comments from people saying, "Where's the killer? There's no killer!" When a [potential investor] would come up with a suggestion like, "We gotta have the disease start from aliens" -- which was an actual suggestion -- we'd say, "You're fucking ridiculous." When we were shooting two years ago, people kept saying, "Aw, God, the girl gets sick and they lock her in the shed? That's so horrible." But look what happened with SARS. When people don't understand something, they isolate it. It's something very dark in human nature that's been going on for hundreds of years, from leper colonies to smallpox isolation and now SARS.

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I was surprised that your film contains nudity. Not only is that rare these days, but it's particularly effective when you see these nubile young bodies start to decompose.

That's the idea. But it was a nightmare to find a girl who could act who was beautiful and would take her clothes off. Peter Jackson told me, "I can't believe you had nudity in a horror film!"

Really? It was difficult? Once upon a time, nudity was mandatory in horror films.

Oh my God, no girls would do it. When people see nudity in a horror film script, they think it's going to haunt them for the rest of their lives. If you do nudity in an artsy movie like "Monster's Ball" then you're rewarded for it, but if you do it in the wrong movie, it ruins you. I'd come in and meet with these actresses and they'd be stunning and gorgeous and they could act and were perfect for the part and they'd say, "But I won't do the nudity. It's exploitation." They've just heard this term from their managers and don't understand it.

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I'd say, well, what about the seven-page spread you did in Maxim magazine, topless, covering your nipples, with your legs spread in a G-string? What's that?" And they're like, "That's publicity. That's different." It's like saying, "Yeah, I'll be a secretary but I won't answer the phone." Acting is a job and there's certain things that are required of this particular job, and one of those things is being naked in a sex scene.

Your film is filled with explicit references to other films. "The Evil Dead"...

"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"...

"Deliverance"...

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"Dawn of the Dead"...

"Last House on the Left"...

"Night of the Living Dead," "After Hours"...

OK, so you're into all these great "feel bad" movies of the '70s, films that pressed buttons and pushed boundaries. Why don't horror films do that anymore?

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What happened was, in the '70s making a horror film was taken seriously as an art form. You had every major director in the world, from Spielberg, Kubrick, Philip Kaufman, Richard Donner with "The Omen," Ridley Scott, William Friedkin, all making horror films, going, "I'm going to make the scariest movie I can. I'm going to get the best actors, the best screenwriter, the best D.P., the best composer, and make it a world-class production that could win Oscars." At the same time, you had a whole wave of young filmmakers making films about subjects that really terrified them. Tobe Hooper felt that you could be living right next to the Manson family, and so he made "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." George Romero felt like America was cannibalizing itself and we were becoming zombie slaves to consumerism, and so he made "Dawn of the Dead."

Kind of like how you came up with "Cabin Fever" based on what scared you.

Exactly. Here's what killed horror: In the '80s the studio heads realized that even their shitty horror movies were making money. Movies like "Prom Night," which were fun, but they weren't "The Shining," they weren't "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." The slasher films killed horror. And then in 1985 Schwarzenegger took over and every time he killed someone, like in "Commando," he made a pun and people ate that shit up. So now you have the Freddy Krueger sequels and every time he kills someone he makes a joke. By the end of the '80s, horror films were a joke -- filmmakers weren't taking them seriously, fans weren't taking them seriously, and at the same time there was a big backlash against the "Rambo" violence of the mid-'80s, so the MPAA starts cutting back on the gore and by 1990 you get the "Night of the Living Dead" remake and it's bloodless -- a bloodless movie! Then "The Silence of the Lambs" came out, right?

Right.

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Fucking terrifying movie. But they go, "No, we're not a horror film" because they don't want to be associated with those shitty slasher movies, all those Freddy and Jason sequels. So they call it a "thriller" and it wins every Oscar. So then "Misery" comes out and they make a big stink saying they're a thriller. And they win Oscars.

So now I'm trying to make my film, and people are like "horror is dead" and I'm like, "What about 'The Sixth Sense'?" and they're like, "That's not a horror film -- that's a supernatural thriller." Bullshit -- that's a fucking horror film! The term "supernatural thriller" did not exist before "The Sixth Sense"! Even movies like "28 Days Later," you will not find a single interview where [director Danny Boyle] calls it a horror film -- they call it a "viral thriller"! Despite the fact that the last third of the movie is completely stolen from "Day of the Dead"!

But I understand why. It makes sense, because when I told people I was making a horror film, it was like I was making a porn film. People said, "Oh, that's great, I love B-movies." And I said, "I love B-movies too, but I'm not making one." So now you get these awful, awful movies like "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Valentine" and a bigger problem happens: Now you have TV stars like Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt say, "I wanna go be in a horror movie" and you get stuff like "Halloween H2O." All of a sudden, TV stars are looking at horror films as their vehicle to get famous. Only there's one problem: They have a young fan base and, because they're already stars, they don't want to do what's required of them in the role, i.e., nudity and effects scenes.

Which results in all these horror films being rated PG-13, right?

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You get these fucking bullshit pussy-ass fucking suck-ass neutered-down castrated horror films where nobody is thinking, "How is this idea scary? How can we be pushing the envelope?" But if horror movies have shitty dialogue and a script like "Freddy vs. Jason" and they're still successful, there's no incentive to make them better.

Then why aren't the eminent directors going back to make these kick-ass $500,000 horror films -- guys like Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Wes Craven -- filmmakers who clearly aren't doing their best work anymore?

Tobe Hooper just did. He just shot "The Toolbox Murders" in 18 days. But it's tough for some of these guys. I think a lot of these guys -- I'm not saying anyone in particular -- got lazy. There's no incentive, they've lost their drive, they've done it, they've proven themselves. And they've just gotten beat down by the system -- every time they make a movie it's just years and years and years of all the good stuff being taken out and being told, "You can't do this, you can't do that." It takes a lot out of you, and if you're like 50 or 60 it's not easy to do that. That's why I'm setting up this company Raw Nerve, so that there will be a fund for them, for guys like Tobe Hooper.

I thought your company was called Dragonfly.

Dragonfly is my main company, but Raw Nerve's goal is to make low-budget no-bullshit fucking scary fucked-up horror movies. It's tough right now. You get a lot of scripts and they suck, so we're just waiting and finding the right people -- young filmmakers who want to do something really sick and older filmmakers that have been fucked with and have had their movies compromised. We want to be a safe haven for those people.

Would it be too grandiose to say Raw Nerve intends to reinvent the horror genre?

No. But it's up to people like me and up to the fans to support them. Because I can sit here and squawk all I want, but ultimately my movie's got to kill at the box office on opening weekend. You gotta realize the way Hollywood views "Cabin Fever": R-rated, low-budget, no stars. Can it compete with "Matchstick Men" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"? Can you have a movie that's just scary and disgusting and sick and people will still support it? If the answer is yes, it'll open the floodgates for filmmakers to get their movies made.

You've been called a protégé of David Lynch...

I wouldn't use that word. It's not like I went to the David Lynch Academy.

But you've done research for him and did a lot of original work on his Web site.

On Thanksgiving 1999 Lynch called me and said, "We're going on the Net, DavidLynch.com," and he invited me over to talk and start throwing out ideas. And I started helping him coordinate these ideas and produce these shoots and it was a blast. He'd been so frustrated with "Mulholland Drive" -- which had shut down at the time -- that he just wanted to grab a camera and shoot with no boundaries. And that's what we did.

Did he give you any advice before shooting "Cabin Fever"?

I said, "What's the one piece of advice you could give me?" and he said, "Keep your eye on the doughnut, not the hole." And he's like, "What I mean by that is your movie -- all the information that's recorded on those 24 frames -- that's the doughnut. Everything else, all the distractions, all the egos, all the temper tantrums, all the bitching and the whining, everything -- that's the hole. But the only thing the audience members are ever going to see is what's in front of the camera." Keep your eye on the doughnut, not the hole.

That's good advice.

Yeah. You know, if nothing else, people are finally remembering that horror films make the greatest date movies. If you wanna get laid, take your girl to "Cabin Fever." You take her to a so-called date movie like "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and the whole time you'll be wondering when to make your big move. I personally guarantee that every two minutes in "Cabin Fever" there will be a chance she'll grab you or stick her head in your chest. Your date should be in your lap in no less than 20 minutes. If you can't score after seeing "Cabin Fever," you're hopeless.


Daniel Kraus

Daniel Kraus is the director of the award-winning film "Jefftowne."

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