While 1980 looked set to be dominated by The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining, a low budget horror movie was released by Paramount Pictures that would become one of the most successful pictures of the year. Despite causing controversy and attracting negative reviews, Friday the 13th became an unexpected success and over the course of the next two years would produce a wave of sequels and imitators. Among these were several films that duplicated the summer camp setting, from The Burning to Sleepaway Camp, but perhaps the most overlooked of these was Maniac.
Shot in Long Island and featuring Dawn of the Dead‘s Alexis Dubin in a supporting role, Madman, much like The Burning, was loosely based on the urban legend of deranged killer Cropsey. The movie was heavily censored on home video and remained one of the lesser-known slasher films of the early 1980s until it was rediscovered after Anchor Bay’s DVD release over twenty years later.
With Code Red set to release the 30 Year Anniversary Edition, producer Gary Sales discusses the legend of Madman Marz.
It has been thirty years since you shot Madman in Fish Cove, Long Island. Did you think at the time that people could still be talking about the movie all this time later and how would you compare it to the other slasher films of the era?
Well, Christian, in 1980, the year we began principal photography on Madman, I was still watching and talking about movies that were made thirty, forty and fifty years earlier. We all were and still do. As a film major in college it became clear to me that movies and television were the ‘literature of our day.’ Like many filmmakers, I and my late partner, Madman director Joe Giannone, would routinely refer to scenes, textures or shots from films like James Whale’s Frankenstein or Welles’ Citizen Kane – both made decades earlier, yet still alive in ours, and other fans’, hearts and minds. So the concept that a movie could be talked about many years after it was released seemed natural.
However, the idea that people would still be talking about our little indie horror movie, Madman, thirty years later – that may have been a little mind blowing to us, had you brought it up back then. When you’re an indie filmmaker, neck-deep in the production of your first feature film, you ain’t thinkin’ about the future – your focus is on the now! There were too many things to get done and fires to put out to ponder such high-minded musings. Now, when responding to your question from today’s perspective – the realisation that Madman still has fans from the ’80s, as well as young new fanz just discovering and loving it, and that the legend still lives after thirty years of Madman. Now that is way cool!
With respect to comparing us to other genre pictures from back in the day, our blood relatives so to speak, we were all watching, learning, appreciating and borrowing from each other’s work. Joey and I had great respect for John Carpenter’s original Halloween because we felt he’d merged the best of Hitchcock’s taught, slight-of-eye suspense, with a new kind of Icon of Fright in Michael Myers.
What made Madman Marz unique back then was his relentless, unstoppability. Burn him, smash him, shoot at him and he just kept on coming – an eyes-wide-open nightmare. And all, without one drop of visible blood or gore. I can’t recall any movie that had a killer like that before Halloween. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead spoke to that relentless, unstoppable quality, but he used crowds of zombies. Though they could be taken out individually, you just couldn’t stop the onslaught of the group, so I suppose it was similar in that respect. But Madman Marz was a lone, non-stop, just-when-you-thought-you-were-safe, human killing machine.
Because Paramount, a major studio, picked up Friday the 13th and grossed an unheard of $60million or so, every other major wanted in on the phenom. None had any product and that’s how the early ’80s feeding frenzy for horror began. We were among those young filmmakers taking advantage of the tremendous opportunity that created. In a huge game of catch-up the majors were buying horror movie negatives at premium prices and filmmakers were making as much as double their negative cost in pick up deals.
In fact, we based our pitch to investors on showing them copies of: The NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Time, etc. where they could read for themselves how low budget indie horror movies were making big money at the box office without stars. It was more credible than a couple of guys just out of film school with no track record and it provided a pathway for us and our colleagues to break into the movie biz. As more and more horror movies were releasing, there was a trend toward exploiting violence perpetrated on women and gore for gore sake that we made it a point to avoid. Telling a creepy and visually gory campfire tale and scaring the shit out of our audience with good suspense techniques remained our prime focus.
There were certain similarities between Madman and Tony Maylam’s The Burning, both of which were released around the same time. Were both productions aware of each other and was your story also inspired by the Cropsey legend?
Yes, Joey and I were originally doing the Cropsey Legend because when we were seeking a story to write, I drew upon the version I knew from my days of summer camp up in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Knowing it was a public domain tale, we never used the Cropsey name in public. Instead, The Legend Lives became our working title. As the fanz have heard in our commentary of the past, we found out about The Burning during our casting process when, while auditioning, actors began telling us that they’d recently read for a very similar scene. One day, an actress that was auditioning for us insisted that her boyfriend was actually on location in upstate New York shooting a movie that she was sure was using our tale.
Through our production manager, the late, great Mark Silverman, we reached out to the other show and somehow got to read their script. And, sure enough, they were also doing the legend of the Cropsey maniac. On top of that, they were five weeks ahead of us. Fanz can hear the details of this story on the new 30 Year Anniversary Edition Madman DVD coming out on 28 September 2010 from Code Red, but the long and short of it is: we rewrote our script to avoid any similarities or duplication and changed the name of our monster to Marz and the rest is history. Why Marz, you say? Because in researching music for the movie, I had been listening to Mars, one of the tone poems in Gustav Holst’s orchestral work The Planets, and was planning to draw from it as a reference to riff off of. As the god of war, Mars seemed appropriate and just to give him our own special touch, we replaced the ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and got Marz. And of course, we all know, he was a madman. We started with a known legend and ended up with a Legend of our own creation.
What was it about Paul Ehlers that convinced you that he was right for the role of Madman Marz?
His passion for the genre and the project. In addition, he was over 6’3”, 250+ pounds and a martial artist, adept with knives, swords and axes. He was made for the part.
Do you recall why Gaylen Ross decided to be credited under the pseudonym Alexis Dubin and did you reference that she had previously been in Dawn of the Dead in the marketing of Madman?
She may have been in the union at the time. Actors have been known to use pseudonyms when they feel compelled to do a non-union role for either love or money.
Having shot Madman on very modest budget, what advice would you give to independent filmmakers on how to produce a professional looking film with little funds?
You can make a great movie using a cell phone camera if that’s all you have. Bottom line is: content is king. That translates into: great story and/or great style and preferably both. Audiences don’t care that much about technical quality as long as you engage them emotionally and take them on a good journey. And here’s a big tip: audiences will forgive poor quality visuals when watching a well told tale, but they absolutely will not forgive bad sound. Tip 1: Don’t skimp on sound. Do it pro or be a shmo, and don’t take this the wrong way: always shoot the best footage you can afford to.
Tip 2: Make your first movie with whatever money and gear you’ve got. It’s better to make yourself crazy from the act of making a film and ending up with something to show, than to make yourself crazy about raising big money for grand ideas and possibly never make a film at all. On this subject, I think Spike Lee once said something like, ‘Make your film by any means necessary!’
Tip 3: Actors, money and services will jump aboard your moving train, but are less likely to do so when you’re sitting at the station. This means that people will help you out with money and services when you’re actually in production on the film. Even hard to get actors are willing to give you a couple of days for scale, if you can say something like, ‘I’m shooting next week and I only need you Monday and Tuesday.’ It’s reasonable, it’s finite and it’s better than asking them if they’d be around when you get the money six months from now.
You had reportedly taken production stills during the shoot, what kind of documentation do you have of behind the scenes?
Fans will find over hundred vintage behind-the-scenes photos on the new 30 Year Anniversary DVD coming out from Code Red. There was even a little black-and-white reel to reel video shot, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. Oh, what a treasure that would be.
Without the backing of a major distributor how challenging was it for Madman to find its audience against other horror movies released at that time?
It really wasn’t our job as filmmakers to find our audience. Our job was to find our distributor. As I said earlier, driven by hits like Halloween and Friday the 13th, the studios were rushing out to get product to supply the audience’s sudden appetite for slasher horror. When we began shooting The Legend Lives in October 1980, there were about fifteen pictures that I knew about that were in production. When we got to the American Film Market (AFM) around January of 1982, there were over a hundred and thirty-five horror genre movies for sale and it was clear that the majors had enough horror product on their shelves because neg pickup prices were dropping and buying frequency had diminished considerably. We weren’t thrilled by this and combed the halls at the AFM pitching our movie over and over.
Enter, Jensen-Farley Pictures, the distributor who picked us up. They just had a big hit with a little, R-rated coming of age sex movie called Private Lessons. They were classic four wall marketers who knew how to roll out a movie regionally. They’d squeeze every dime out of each release flat-rate-renting a bunch of theatres in a region, back in those days theatres weren’t doing so well and you could rent a house for a flat rate. They utilised saturation TV and radio ads to inundate the region serving those theatres. Simply put, any time people turned on their TV or radio they’d see an ad for Madman.
After opening night, they’d cut off the ads because this saturation technique made it rush hour at the box office for opening weekend. After a week or two as the grosses fell off, move on to the next region and repeat the process. This technique grossed a lot of money but the, we, the producers, paid for that air time because those media expenses came off the top before we could see our share. However, the technique did give Madman great notoriety throughout the country. In fact, when we broke New York with the first TV spot after the ball dropped on New Years Day 1983, Madman was in seventy-three theatres and we hit number 10 on Variety’s Top 50 Grossers Chart. Spielberg’s E.T. was just above us at number 9.
Madman was previously released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2002, in which you recorded a commentary charting the production of the movie. Were you satisfied with the quality of that release and what prompted you to compile a 30th anniversary edition with Code Red?
Our home video VHS release was messed up by the bankruptcy of Thorn-EMI and Jensen Farley Pictures so yes, we were happy about Anchor Bay releasing us on DVD. Joey and I felt they did a good job on the disc, too. The only thing is, I think we would’ve liked it more had they done a better job of promoting and distributing it. Regarding the 30th Anniversary Edition DVD it simply was time. Madman has been OOP since Joey and I chose not to renew our deal with Anchor Bay in 2006. Fanz have been seeking it out everywhere and paying high prices on eBay to get copies. At one time, I thought I might self-distribute the DVD myself but then Bill Olson of Code Red approached me with an offer I could live with, so here we are.
There has been talk for many years about the possibility of a sequel. Is this likely to ever become a reality and do you think this new DVD release could spark a renewed interest? With Joe Giannone having sadly passed away in 2006 would you consider directing a sequel yourself?
It’s more than talk, Chris. I’m actively working on the Madman Marz 3D re-imagining project. The project will reboot Madman Marz as a 3D movie. Marz will return as a worldwide icon of fear. In its ideal form, it is a two picture deal, Madman Marz (the re-imagining of the original Madman) and Hunting Marz, the sequel to the new Madman Marz. I’d created the screenplay years ago, when Joe and I were trying to pitch a sequel only to find out that everyone wanted remakes. Regarding my directing the re-imagining, it was always my deal with Joe that he’d direct the first one and I’d direct the second one. However, depending on who my new producing partners are it’s just as possible that I’ll bring on another director for, at least, the re-imagining. I’ll tell you this: at this time, we’ve been in serious talks with a World Championship Title Holding Pro Wrestler to play Marz. In fact, he’s told me over and over that he’s dying to do it. I wonder who your readers would like to see as Marz.