If you took mid-career George Romero, the late, great godfather of the zombie flick, and injected him with a wayward dose of DNA from Alex Cox (Repo Man) and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), financing the whole project from the bottom of Roger Corman’s indie-cinema barrel, you might end up with something like Henry Weintraub’s 2009 debut horror movie.
Then again, none of that really describes the distinct and disorienting pleasure of watching Melvin, which might best be described as a zombie nerd revenge flick shot through with equal parts outrageous gore, apocalyptic gallows humor and joyous punk-rock petulance.
Shot in Eugene with a shoestring budget, Melvin tells the story of Norton Pinkus (Patrick O’Driscoll), a high school geek who is enlisted from beyond the grave to help avenge the murder of the film’s title character (Leif Fuller, also the film’s cinematographer).
In a series of increasingly gruesome and sadistically slapstick kills, Melvin/Norton enacts a scattershot vengeance that comes to resemble a small-scale Armageddon on everything sucky and mean and stupid. Channeling the spirit of Troma’s low-budget horror grinders — Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman makes a cameo in the film — Weintraub creates a decisively anti-John Hughes teen fantasy, full of high-concept raunch and low-blow delight.
Having recently re-watched Melvin, I was again surprised at how funny, icky and invigorating it is — a good bad movie that celebrates bad good movies, or vice-versa. It is unpretentious and ironic, oozing with updated nostalgia for the underground culture of the 1980s, and the pointedly lunkhead humor vibrates with an undercurrent of sharp social satire that is echoed in the oddly good-natured gore as well as the fantastic soundtrack, laid down by local bands at the time.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Melvin’s release, Weintraub has teamed up with Broadway Metro for a special screening Saturday, Aug. 24.
Weintraub hasn’t seen the film in about five years, he guesses, though he does think of it fondly as “a bit of a mess.” For him, recalling Melvin is a mixed bag: full of the excitement of making his first full-length, and all the craziness that involved, but also a reminder of how much he still had to learn.
“I was green,” he tells me. “I didn’t know what I was doing as a feature. I think of it as shitty, but when I go back I’m always sort of surprised how it holds up. As flawed as it is, I’m pretty proud of it. It was a fun movie to make.”
“There’s a fondness to it because of how it captures Eugene in that time period,” Weintraub says. “There’s something sort of fun about it.”
Fun and innocence often go hand in hand, and despite the grisly nature of the movie, Melvin captures an almost childlike spirit — an infectious joy in simply making a movie with whatever’s at hand and with very little financial support. Weintraub guesses the film was shot for around a thousand bucks. “We had equipment and props,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t even provide food or water.”
As for the innovative and, considering the budget, highly effective special effects, which were done mostly by Weintraub’s wife, Sara Weintraub (credited as Sara Larson), “We made shit up,” he says.
“Horror movies are the easiest movies to make on a shoestring budget, especially horror movies,” Weintraub explains. “Questionable acting or effects often get a laugh and can even enhance the experience. The cartoonish characters we created in Melvin couldn’t pass in any other genre… Horror is forgivable. The acting can be really over the top.”
Weintraub says he’d always wanted to make a feature-length movie, but he also realized it would be a difficult and time-consuming process. To build up a head of steam for such a project, he produced a series of short films, including 2007’s MindSlime, which screened at DIVA and inspired a letter to the editor in The Register-Guard condemning it as “filth” and “bottom-dwelling garbage.”
Nonetheless, Melvin garnered enough interest and success (it has screened in five countries) that Weintraub went on to make two more features, a noir thriller The Darkest Corner of Paradise (2010) and the serial killer dark comedy Killing Me (2012). Each of these, he says, benefited from the raw experience of making Melvin.
“I learned a lot working on my first feature,” he says, “more than I could begin to list. Those lessons carried over to the other features I made which, in my opinion, got better and better. When you’re working on something like moviemaking, experience is really the only thing that can help you perfect your craft.”
The making of Killing Me, he says, “crushed my soul.” Gone was the exuberance of on-the-fly filmmaking with lots of energy, a handful of friends and no money: Killing Me’s 12-day shoot was “exhausting,” he says, and spending a year in post-production took it out of him, followed by a tepid response upon release that is baffling in the face of the growing craft and artistry the film reveals.
Despite these disappointments, Weintraub’s enthusiasm for movies remains undiminished. He’s a successful video producer and editor for Shout!Factory in Eugene, which releases new and vintage movies and TV shows. Just mention Scorsese or Peckinpah or Wilder and watch him light up.
He also says he’s not averse to making another feature film. “I would love to do something else,” he says. “Maybe I should go back.”
For now, though, he’s excited for upcoming screening of Melvin.
“The 10-year anniversary showing is just an excuse to get everyone together to watch Melvin again,” he says. “It was a really fun movie to make with a large local cast and crew, a lot of whom — including myself — haven’t seen this movie in years. It was also shot at a lot of great local locations that no longer exist. It’s pretty wild how much a city can change in 10 years.”
Melvin screens 9:30 pm Saturday, Aug. 24, at Broadway Metro; no passes. More info at broadwaymetro.com.