Saturday, April 20, 2013

Interview with John Walter Szpunar

Interview By Crankenstein. Xerox Ferox is an incredible book documenting the late 80's-90's era of Horror zine culture, when people churned out devotedly stapled together reviews during off work hours and used what ever cheap sources they could find to get the message out about these films, these people were heroes in my opinion. John Szpunar ran the company Barrel Entertainment, the brave souls who put out the Criterion style DVD version of Last House On Dead End Street! Mr. Szpunar graciously accepted our interview, so please support him by buying this book and attending Fantacon 2013 where he and all those involved in the Deep Red heyday will be there, which is pretty monumental for any gorehound!

How influential do you think Chas. Balun and Deep Red magazine were on the horror community?
Very influential.  Chas. and Deep Red were the starting point for me, that’s for sure.  Prior to reading Deep Red, I was reading Fangoria on a regular basis, but by that time, it was a little too mainstream.  Deep Red introduced me to a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have been aware of.  It made a big impact on the kids of my generation.
The infamous Gore Score
Chas. had a great stable of writers working for him:  Dennis Daniel, Kris Gilpin, Greg Goodsell, Graham Rae, Steve Bissette…  Each of them had their own voice, and every voice was very important to me.  There was no bullshit when it came to Chas. and the boys.  It was all from the heart. 
The infamous Third world cannibal films

What are some of your favorite cannibal films and why?
My favorite will always be Cannibal Holocaust.  You just can’t beat the intensity of that film.  I first saw it on a bootleg tape that a friend of mine got from Donald Farmer.  Before the thing even started, there was a trailer for Shocking Africa, that mondo film by Angelo Castiglioni.  That certainly set the mood!  There was a bit of fuzz on the tape that lasted for a few seconds.  Then, Riz Ortolani’s score started up. The marriage between the beautiful music and the violence in the film was (and still is) breathtaking. 
Of course, I also enjoy its ugly stepchild, Cannibal Ferox.  The film’s a mess, but you have to hand it to Lenzi—it’s one hell of an entertaining mess.  John Morghen is so over the top.  Those are the two cannibal films that stand out for me, although I also have a soft spot for Jungle Holocaust, Eaten Alive, and Man from Deep River.  I found it fascinating that Deodato and Lenzi were competing with each other.  It’s kind of crazy when you think about it today—there was actually once a commercial marketplace for that kind of stuff!
I should point out that I never would have even heard of the Italian cannibal films if I hadn’t had read Steve Bissette’s chapter on them in The Deep Red Horror Handbook. I read that thing and immediately began searching for every film that he mentioned.  A guy that I worked with was from a pretty bad area of Detroit.  It was a tough place to live, but they had some great video stores down there.  He used to shop around for me, and he’d come back with some really weird stuff.  I’m pretty sure that he rented Mountain of the Cannibal God, that film with Stacy Keach.

What happened to your DVD company Barrel Entertainment?
We called it quits for a few reasons.  First of all, the marketplace was changing.  Even though we’d signed to Ryko for distribution, we weren’t moving many units.  Everything imploded.  Little companies like Panik House, Subversive, NoShame, and Barrel were all casualties of the times.  It’s a shame that things ended the way they did, but I’m very proud with what we were able to pull off.  We were just two guys who loved movies—we didn’t have any knowledge of the industry before we started things up, yet alone any formal business training.

When did you first learn about the film Last House on Dead End Street?
I first read about it in The Deep Red Horror Handbook and immediately tried to track down a copy.  It’s funny—I had to go the grey market route for that one.  No video stores in my neighborhood rented the Sun tape.  My friend Art Ettinger (the editor of Ultra Violent) told me that one of the video stores in his home town actually stocked it—he didn’t realize that it was a rare tape until years later.  Anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy, and it blew my mind.  I’d never seen anything quite like it before, and the mysterious origin of the film made things even more surreal.    I ended up releasing the film on DVD years later, which was certainly something I never could have ever imagined happening.  That release will always be special to me.  I felt that I was doing something very important—not only as a film archivist, but as a fan.
John 2nd to right between Jorg Buttgereit and Graham Rae.      

What horror zines from the ‘80s and ‘90s are influential?
As far as the ‘80s go Sleazoid Express was the zine that got things going.  Everything kind of grew out of that—Gore Gazette, Trashola, Slimetime, The Exploitation Journal, and even Deep Red owe a lot to Bill Landis.  Those zines spawned others, and the result was one of the greatest periods of fan writing in history.  There was Cecil Doyle’s Subhuman, Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic, and Donald Farmer’s Splatter Times—I read every issue that I could get my hands on. As the ‘90s rolled along, Craig Ledbetter’s Hi-Tech Terror became European Trash Cinema. Slimetime became Shock Cinema.  Tim Paxton was always doing something. Ecco and Video Watchdog made a serious impact on me, and they got better with every issue.  It was a glorious time.

What is your opinion on Film Threat and the trash piece directed at Chas. Balun?
I was shocked when that went down.  On one hand, I can totally understand Chris Gore’s position regarding Nekromantik—Film Threat Video had the rights to the film.  What I’ll never be able to understand is the way he handled things.  A simple phone call or a letter could have cleared things up without any of the mess.  I lost a lot of respect for Film Threat when Gore started calling Chas. out as a money-grubbing bootlegger.  This was certainly not the case, and I think it caused a lot of damage to the fan community.
You know, it’s important to point out that Film Threat (pre-Larry Flint) was a very important zine.  It got the Cinema of Transgression out of New York and into suburban living rooms—I doubt that a lot of people would have known about Richard Kern and Nick Zedd if it wasn’t for Film Threat.  I’m from the same town as the Film Threat guys were from, and I really liked their coverage of Sam Raimi, Josh Becker, and Scott Spiegel. 

Please talk about my favorite zine Gore Gazette and Rick Sullivan…
Rick Sullivan’s Gore Gazette was one of the greats—rude, rowdy, and hilarious.  A lot of people compare it to Sleazoid Express, but Rick started the GG as an answer to Bill Landis.  You can say what you want to about Rick, but he kept his zine going for something like fourteen years. That’s an amazing run, and he deserves a lot of credit for what he did.  I wish I would have been able to interview him for Xerox Ferox, but I was told by a mutual friend that he didn’t want to revisit those years.
Talk about the highly anticipated Xerox Ferox...
Well, I interviewed Chas. Balun shortly after we recorded the audio commentary for Last House on Dead End Street.  As I said, I had always been a big fan of his, and that interview was a very big thing for me.  Shortly after that, I talked to Steve Bissette for a long time about his career. That sort of expanded into another interview about horror zines. Talking to those guys was great, and it got me thinking about doing a book. Life sort of got in the way, and I had to put things on the back burner for a while. The thing is, I never turned the heat all the way down. 
A few years ago, I got back in touch with David Kerekes from Headpress. I’d done some writing for him in the past (and he contributed some excellent liner notes to some of my DVD releases), but we’d sort of fallen out of touch. To make a long story short, David got my brain turning.  I resumed contributing to Headpress, as if I’d never stopped.  It was a lot of fun, and I started thinking about Xerox Ferox again.  Luckily for me, David was interested in the project.  I made a list of potential interviews, and started climbing the mountain.

The end result is a book of fifty interviews with some of the key people of the old zine scene.  It starts with Steve Bissette (who also did the cover artwork)—he gives a great introduction and overview of things.  Next up is Bhob Stewart, one of the key guys from the zine scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  He published The EC Fan Bulletin in the early ‘50s.  That was the first fanzine devoted to EC Comics—The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, Mad, etc.  The horror zines were spawned from sci-fi and comic fandom, and he was a very interesting guy to talk to. 
As I said, there are fifty interviews in the book. I talked to a lot of the old Deep Red crew—Dennis Daniel, Kris Gilpin, Greg Goodsell, Graham Rae, and Tom Skulan are all in there.  I’m really glad that I got the chance to talk to Jimmy McDonough (Sleazoid Express, The Ghastly One, etc).  He had some great stories about the old days. 
David Kerekes and Chris Poggiali conducted a few interviews, and I can’t thank them enough.  And Jan Bruun contributed a great interview with Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford. These guys really helped me round things out, and I’m very grateful to all of them…

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