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Exclusive: “Johnny Gruesome” Review Plus Interview With Director Gregory Lamberson

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 | Review

By: Rick Hipson

Starring Anthony De La Torre, Byron Brown II, and Aprilann
Written and directed by Gregory Lamberson
Red Hill Movies

If ever there was proof you can’t keep a good zombie down, it would be Johnny Gruesome, a fun-loving, head-banging rebel from hell. Johnny Gruesome has seen several incarnations over the years since Greg Lamberson first wrote the script at the ripe ‘ol age of nineteen. Producers weren’t exactly quick to give an unknown kid a million bucks of their money so he could play movie-maker with his monster script so Greg put his focus toward making cult classic Slime City instead. Years later Greg would turn his zombie script into an award-winning novel and, always the promotion machine, would elicite a hard-hitting shock rock infused soundtrack from the talented G and Dean Italiano of Waterloo, Ontario simply titled, Gruesome. As some point there was also a special edition comic book, a presidential political banner, a short music film staring scream queen, Misty Mundae (AKA Erin Brown) and a wearable Johnny Gruesome face mask, allowing fans to literally get inside Johnny Gruesome’s head.

The original script was shelved as Greg put his attention towards various other film projects, writing award-winning novels, and launching a film festival in his own backyard of Buffalo.  Only now do we finally meet the monster that’s been festering in Greg’s muse over thirty years in the making.

Lucky for us, Greg’s dead rocker refused to die and we get to see what happens when you give an independent film-maker like Greg with passion to spare the biggest budget he’s ever had to make his monster movie. As the story goes, John Grissom’s best bud is forced to kill him in order to save them all, but quickly realize it would only be the beginning of Johnny’s true rage. Like-wise, Greg proves his monster film was always only just waiting and finally gifts the silver screen with his movie about the zombie teen who returns from the grave to kill everyone who ever did him wrong.

Ultimately, Greg created a film which knows exactly what it is and what it isn’t. A veritable love letter to classic slasher films, Johnny Gruesome is as campy and fun as they come with enough carnage and hard-hitting rock songs to keep even the most seasoned fiends well satiated. Johnny Gruesome, the movie, provides a joyful romp through an arena of gore, gags, and the kind of slapstick terror-filled fun shared just as fondly over a few beers with good friends as it might over the sticky floors of some seedy theatre house amongst strangers and new friends.

No longer the unknown film maker of his youth, Greg was able to utilize a larger budget to good use with superior equipment and unionized actors for the first time in his film-making career. The title character alone is proof positive of what some added production value can achieve. Never before has Johnny looked quite so gruesome, owing his rotten good looks to veteran special affects creator, Craig Lindberg (Boardwalk Empire, The Amazing Spiderman). Who took there weeks off of his regular gig at Saturday Night Live to bring Johnny to undead life.

Actor Anthony del Torre (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tails) adheres to the role of Johnny Grissom turned Johnny Gruesome as though he were born of the Gruesome DNA. Backed by a talented cast, co-stars Chris Modrzynski (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Law And Order) and Byron Brown II (The Romans) play Johnny’s best buds, Gary and Eric respectively. The natural chemistry between Byron and Chris who had worked on several film sets together before this one translates well on screen and really cements the comedic timing between the two, especially while everything else around them turns to crap as it does for most of the film.

To compliment the gory eye candy is a musical feast for our ears. Music from G and Dean Italiano’s soundtrack enters several scenes based on what the characters are listening to at the time. All the music is unique to the film and seamlessly integrates with a fantastic score composed by Armand John Petri, who also wrote the lyrics to the theme song, Dying Tonight, performed by Robby Takac of Goo Goo Dolls fame. The combined musical efforts produce a complete soundtrack that’s sure to be as enjoyable on repeat as the movie on its own is.

And for those who enjoy getting to the guts and roots of their favourite monster movies as much as I do, I had the pleasure of corning writer and filmmaker, Gregory Lamberson, long enough to pick his brain on the ongoing making of his beloved rebel corpse. Sit back and listen in as we discuss all things Johnny Gruesome, from teenage brain child to feature film over thirty years in the making.

After your sold-out Canadian premiere in Hailton Ontario’s Hexploitation festival, we chatted about how you were glad to just be done with getting Johnny Gruesome to the big screen. I suppose I expected you to be a bit more enthusiastic about finally making the film, short of doing a few cartwheels down the aisle. Can you elaborate on what it means for you to you to finally give fans the film you began creating when you were 19 years old?
I had a lot of fun at our Canadian premiere for Johnny Gruesome! I loved being at Hexploitation in Hamilton again, and seeing a lot of friends. But this was a long journey, 35 years. The real joy came on set, during shooting – seeing all of those actors portray the characters I created so long ago, seeing the cars and the locations and the special make-up effects, and hearing the music as it came together. But post production and finalizing distribution took way longer than they should have. You grow old waiting for things to come together. When I see it on a big screen, the film makes me very happy. There aren’t many authors who have managed to turn their books into movies, or filmmakers who have waited over three decades to shoot one of their first scripts. We put together a talented team and the movie is a lot of fun.

It’s great to see what you can do with a bigger budget than you’re used to making films with. Whereas crowd funding is something which many independent film makers have relied on in the past, you feel crowdfunding is dead. What do you feel is the downside to crowd funding and how did you do things this time around to ensure you had the budget you needed to make the film you made?
I wanted to make Johnny Gruesome for $500,000 back in 1985. I wasn’t able to raise that kind of money, so I made Slime City instead for $50,000, and fell into the trap of making movies at that budget level, and less, for the next 30 years. A lot of hard work and sacrifice with no pay days. I’ve worked for other people on movies with bigger budgets, and I tried – and failed – to raise $900,000 to make the Johnny Gruesome I wanted in 2015. I had a choice: put the script away again, or make the film for less than a third of what I wanted. I didn’t want to put it away, Johnny is too great of a character. Crowdfunding is a dead end unless you’re making a fan film about a copyrighted character, which you can’t release, so I went the investor route. I’ve always gone the investor route, I’ve only ever supplemented those funds with crowdfunding. I owe the movie’s existence to Erin Elizabeth Heald, our executive producer, who funded it; to John Renna, who plays Michael Milton, the principal in the film, for putting me and Erin together, and recommending the project; and to my wife Tamar, who did the actual producing.

What major changes from your original script were there?
Very few. The biggest was that I changed the setting from winter to summer, which honestly resulted in a less dynamic climax, but the script is essentially the same one I wrote in 1984. I rushed Johnny’s death a little to have him dead on the pavement 12 minutes in; I think he died on page 25 originally. I preferred the original way, which allowed more time for more character development and a less abrupt turning point, but with horror films there is pressure to get the supernatural elements rolling earlier rather than later. I cut one sequence from the script in which a couple of jocks almost run Johnny over in their car and he torches them. The hardest part of doing a film on a low budget like this is getting what you absolutely need in the amount of time you have. You pick and choose your battles, and your compromises.

Despite the relief of having your Johnny Gruesome film behind you, I hear you’re already put some work into a follow-up for the film. What exactly does the future still hold for our favourite headbanger from hell?
When I novelized the script back in 2007, I created a lot of new material, including some really outrageous horror scenes that would be great in a movie. But there was no way to include them in a 90 minute film, on this budget. If I’d raised the higher budget, they would be in the film. So I fashioned a crazy, brutal sequel script that incorporates those scenes. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting to see that one get made, though – this is probably a one-off. But the script exists if the opportunity presents itself.

Not to take anything away from your previous films, but the overall calibre of acting and general production value of this film was clearly a few notches above your previous film projects. What did the extra “play” money for this project impact the most, and what aspect were you the most pleased to be able to invest the extra money into?
There are some excellent performances in Johnny Gruesome, and the production value is definitely higher. But I’ve had excellent performances in many of my films: Slime City Massacre and Killer Rack have some amazing performances. And wait until you see Craig Sheffer in Widow’s Point! The extra money allowed me to pay people instead of begging them to work for free, including myself, and to have a full crew and some SAG actors, and to use higher end equipment – all of the things you need when you step up to a bigger plate.

Johnny Gruesome plays out like a bit of a love letter to the classic monster movies fans of our generation grew up on. Like a lot of those films, the score and soundtrack can often take on a life of its own and really add to the overall atmospheric fun of the thing. Not only do we have Canadian musicians Giasone Italiano and Dean Italiano providing some hard rocking riffs for the characters within the film to listen to as the film pays out, but the title track for the film, Dyin’ Tonight, is provided by none other than Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls. What can you tell us about how the music aspect of the film came together to blend so well with the film?
The music was always intended to be a key ingredient this film, part of Johnny’s DNA. Giasone and Dean Italiano created the “Gruesome” rock CD back in 2007, to promote the novelization. When I decided to finally make this film, I knew I wanted to incorporate as many of those kick ass songs as possible. Armand John Petri and Joe Rozler did a great score for Killer Rack, and they created great score for this film, just perfect. Both are Buffalo musicians who have worked with Robby in the past. Armand wrote the song, which Joe arranged, and the two of them went into the studio with Robby, who put his own spin on the lyrics. Erin and Tamar and I went to Robby’s studio to watch the recording, which was a lot of fun. It’s a great song.

And finally, where can fans get there fill of Johnny Gruesome, be it on DVD or a big screen near them?
Johnny Gruesome is available on VOD and DVD in the US. Our distributor has worldwide rights, and we’re waiting for news on international sales.

Go ahead and grab your copy of Johnny Gruesome on DVD or enjoy it free on Amazon Prime for those who subscribe to the service and get ready for a helluva night.

Long live Johnny Gruesome!