Nov 29, 2012

Interview: Ian McCulloch

31 years after it was made, Lucio Fulci's legendary video nasty Zombie Flesh Eaters [or Zombi 2, or Zombie] is finally making its way to Blu Ray, thanks to those gorehounds at Arrow Video. In celebration, 24FPS was lucky enough to sit down for a phone interview with the film's star Ian McCulloch.

In the brief preamble before the interview I told Mr McCulloch that Zombie Flesh Eaters was, at least in part, responsible for me doing what I do, as it was one of the films that really turned me into a horror fan, which led to this little exchange...

Ian McCulloch and Co-Star Tisa Farrow in Zombie Flesh Eaters
Ian McCulloch: You don't have a tattoo of me do you?

24FPS: No, I don't. Is that something you see a lot of?

Ian McCulloch: I've met quite a few people who have tattoos of me on their backs, and a lot who have tattoos of various scenes from Zombie Flesh Eaters on various parts of their anatomy.

24FPS: It must be quite an experience, meeting someone who has a tattoo of you.  What's that like for you?

Ian McCulloch: It is horrifying. I don't like tattoos anyway, I dread that one day one of my children might get a tattoo, or that my wife might suddenly say that she has one, but if it's me that makes it even worse. [Laughs] It's not a pleasant sight or a pleasant thought.

24FPS: I wasn't actually meaning to begin by talking about Zombie Flesh Eaters, I wanted to go back, and ask how and when you decided to become an actor.

Ian McCulloch: Well, that's nice. That's the first time anyone's asked me that question. When I was at school I used to get the main acting parts, mainly because I spoke English in a fairly proper way, and hopefully because I had a bit of talent as well. When I was 14 somebody saw a school play and said "Ian's good" and that I could play character parts and leading parts, and should think about being an actor. My English master quoted that to me, and from that moment until I became an actor as far as I was concerned that was what I was going to do.

So I left school, I had to do my national service, and then I went to Oxford, but I always assumed that acting was what I was going to do, it was what I wanted to do, but that was what I was going to do, and I was fortunate that when I was at Oxford I was talent spotted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and offered a long term contract before I sat my finals. So I knew that I had three years work guaranteed, two terms before I left University, so it didn't matter whether I got my degree or not - well, I did - but it didn't matter. I had a very fortuitous start; the fulfillment of all my ambitions and dreams just sort of happened, almost by accident.

24FPS: I know that after the RSC you did a bit of British TV, and that was fundamental in getting you into Zombie Flesh Eaters. Could you tell us a bit about that, and how you found out about and were cast in the film?

Ian McCulloch: I did quite a lot of TV.  I did one episode of Colditz, which was a wonderful acting part, and the director was Terry Dudley, and then he was the producer on this BBC series called Survivors and he cast me in one of the leading roles in that.  Survivors was a big hit all over the world, but particularly in Italy, the first series was a huge success.  I was rehearsing a play in Plymouth, and I got a phone call from my agent who said there was an Italian film company that wanted me to play a lead role in a film about zombies, it had location work in New York, the Carribbean, the Mediterranean coast, they'd pay me a good wage, give me a living allowance, they'd fly my girlfriend out to any of the locations first class.  They didn't want to see me, they just wanted me to say yes.  I said yes very very quickly.

I met Fulci and the casting director, I had dinner with them in London, just to say hello, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to New York to do the film. 

24FPS: Were you able to see the screenplay before you signed on?

Ian McCulloch: No, I was just told it was about zombies, which I thought might be like a Bob Hope film, or a Hammer horror.  I had no idea what it would be like or what it would entail.  I obviously had no idea what the end product would be like, which did come as quite a surprise when I saw it 25 years after I'd made it.

24FPS: I want to ask you about that in a little while, but before I do, the link with your earlier career and Zombie Flesh Eaters is Richard Johnson, I understand you were contemporaries at the RSC.

Ian McCulloch: Well, Richard is ten years older than me, and he was the leading man at the RSC when I arrived, and of all the actors there he was the one that I, arriving, admired the most, both as an actor because I thought he was formidable and as a - Lothario is not the word - as a man about town.  Richard was never out of the papers, and always associated with some of the most beautiful women there have ever been, I mean he was married to Kim Novak.  He seemed to have a gilded existence both on the stage and off, which I sort of envied and admired, and hoped that I might one day emulate.  Principally it was his acting, I just thought he was a stunning actor; wonderful face, fantastic voice.  I've always been a fan of Richard's, so I was going to be doing some thing that I hoped would be fairly respectable and would have some decent acting in it.

24FPS: Did Richard have any advice for you, because obviously he had done some Italian horror films before this?

Ian McCulloch: No, again, no one's ever asked me that question.  I think I vaguely asked 'how do they do things' or 'why do they do that' because the impressive thing about the Italians is their work ethic.  Having done small parts in big films like Cromwell and Where Eagles Dare, they waste so much time setting things up, and everything moves at such a snails pace.  In Italy they work like slaves - happily, they're not under any pressure - but you'd think they could make six films in the time it would take a British unit to make one. 

So I may have asked how do they do things and what does one do.  I think he just said, because he'd done quite a lot of these, 'This is the way they do thing, just sit back, know your words, hit your marks, and everything will be happy'.

24FPS: In terms of your part.  With the greatest respect to them, because I love these films, but Italian zombie films tend not to be known for their great acting [laughter on the other end of the line], given that, did you approach playing the part in the same way that you would any other part, did you do any preparation for it?

Ian McCulloch: No, no.  I may qualify as one of those lazy actors in that I don't really do much preparation in terms of psychology or personality for anything I'm doing, whether it's Shakespeare, David Hare, Dr Who.  I tend to say that something will evolve as I'm doing it, which more or less has always worked.

I was laughing when you were asking the question because there's the story about someone at the BBC seeing Gregory Peck's old script and page after page marked with NAR and one marked AR.  When asked what it was he said "Well, AR is Acting Required".  I have sort of felt that other than pulling faces and doing the physical, macho stuff, there's very little acting required in these films.  The film is carried by the zombies, the bizarre plot and the effects.  The lines more or less link up the iconic bit that people remember about the film.

24FPS: Talking of those bits, Lucio Fulci had something of a reputation of being difficult to work with, particularly for his female stars I think, so how did you find him on set and as a director?

Ian McCulloch: Well I have to sort of retract things that I've said earlier, though I don't do it fully.  I always got on quite well with Lucio, but I thought he was sort of a bully.  I don't know that he did it with leading actresses, but like a lot of people in theatre and film they need a whipping boy to vent their anger or frustration on.

Fulci picked on Auretta Gay, who was the beautiful Italian girl in it, who did the swimming stuff, who wasn't an actress.  I think she may have been a model, but anyway it was her first job.  He treated her pretty poorly but his view was that unless he bullied her he wouldn't get a performance out of her, that he wasn't getting anything out of her by being nice to her so he felt he had to be fairly ruthless and unkind, which he certainly was, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously.  During one of the scenes in the water she was actually drowning, they were still filming and she was calling out "Help, Help" in the water.  I dived in and, I didn't save her life, but I certainly kept her afloat in the water. 

He sort of picked on her, but the other side of that coin was when you said he was unkind to leading actresses... I was at a convention in America and there were about twelve Italian actresses who had done films with him and the interviewer went round the table and said exactly your question, and they all said the most wonderful things about him; that he was charming, courteous, civilised, that he had beautiful manners and couldn't have been nicer and one by one they all said this, and it was just me at the end of the line saying that he was rather different from all that.

Because of that, I should have done it before, but I looked at his track record and saw that he trained with some of the greatest people in Italian cinema, that his CV was full of films, and that he really was quite a distinguished director who, because of Zombie, got stuck in this genre and died in it, making his last films.

24FPS: We touched on this earlier, but when you were working on Zombie, did you have any expectations for it, any hopes for it, for instance did you think we'd be having this conversation 32 years later?

Ian McCulloch: I was astonished however long ago it was to be asked to do a commentary for the 25th anniversary DVD of it, I thought it would just have a short life in the cinema, might come out on tape and that would be it.  That people would be talking about it thirty plus years on, 14, 15, 16 year olds who came up to me in Florida two weeks ago and think it's the most wonderful film they've ever seen.  It's amazing, and I can't explain it, so I certainly had no thought when I did it and even when I'd finished it that it would have a life expectancy of more than a year, but it has, and I presume once the Blu Ray is done someone will probably bring out a 3D version of it.

24FPS: Let's hope not.

Ian McCulloch: Then we'll be talking again two years down the line, asking the same questions.

24FPS: Well, I'll think of some different ones if we have to do that interview.  Talking of the video release, that was a big controversy over here, and you have the distinction, along with your co-star Tisa Farrow, of being in two of the 'Video Nasties' ...

Ian McCulloch: I was in three of them...

24FPS: Oh.  I didn't realise Zombie Holocaust was an official nasty [Note: This is still very unclear, some regional lists seem to have included Zombie Holocaust, but neither the definitive book on the nasties, See No Evil, nor the excellent censorship website Melon Farmers list it as an official DPP list member]

Ian McCulloch: I may be wrong, but I've always said three.  It's an old family story, but it's true, I met my wife's uncle [who was a member of the House of Lords at the time of the Video Nasties moral panic] in London and he didn't look very happy - less happy than he normally did - and I said "What's the matter Martin?" and he said the Metropolitan Police had put together a compilation of films they thought should be banned, and obviously I'd heard about it, so I said "Well, you're in luck because you'll see me, because I'm in three of them", and he just looked at me with total disdain and said "Ian, how could you?"  And then off he went and they banned them.

24FPS: What did you make of the controversy at the time, as somebody was in them?

Ian McCulloch: Well, I hadn't seen them, so I didn't know how much had been added to them by the special effects, even though I'd heard word of mouth.  I just thought it was ridiculous, I mean, to ban Contamination was just... it's one of the most stupid films that has ever been made, with one of the silliest stories and terrible special effects.  How it could be seen as obscene or likely to corrupt the morals of the British public was beyond me, I just thought it was stupid.  But, having said that, without it I'm quite sure we wouldn't be talking about it now.  That was what, I think, mainly led to its longevity.

24FPS: I know you only saw the film the first time when you recorded the commentary for the laserdisc.  What was that like, to see it for the first time after so long?  How did you feel about it, and has that reaction changed if you've seen it since?

Ian McCulloch: The main thing was that I was actually seeing the story from beginning to end, but the problem was I was in another studio, watching it through a window, and what I'd been asked to do was if I saw something to tell a story about what had happened at scene, or something I remembered about one of the actors so, having seen that moment I then came back to my microphone and missed everything until I had finished talking an went back to the screen so I didn't see all the film.

I didn't see it in full until two or three years ago, I showed it at the Burns Centre in Dumfries, and I did a Q and A afterwards, that was the first time I saw it in full on a big screen.  I thought it looked fantastic; it's a credit to Fulci and his director of photography that it looks superb.

24FPS: What do you make of yourself in it?

Ian McCulloch: [Laughs] I'm not the greatest fan of myself.  Being rather crude, but when I was in Stratford, it was the early days of television and there was an actor there called John Hussey, and one night he was talking about watching yourself, and he said watching yourself on TV was like masturbating in front of a mirror.  It is not a pleasure watching myself on screen, I don't like the way I look and I don't the way I sound.

24FPS: I know you probably didn't work with him much, but you did work with his creations, and fans would probably not forgive me if I didn't ask you about Gianetto DiRossi, and what he was like, and what your reaction was to his work on set.

Ian McCulloch: I've said it before, and I'm happy to say it again; as far as I'm concerned the star of the film is Gianetto DiRossi.  It's his special effects that carry scene after scene, and carry the conviction which makes the film plausible in the ways that it is, and leaves a deep memory in people's minds.

He was a lovely bloke, his wife was there working on the film.  He was a fairly athletic bloke, a great tennis player, and I bought my first tennis racquet on his recommendation, a Bjorn Borg special, which I still have.  It's very old fashioned now.  I haven't seen him since the film ended, the second film [Zombie Holocaust] his assistant did, but with very little of the finesse or cleverness that he had.  He's still around isn't he?  But as I said, a really nice bloke and a fantastic professional.

24FPS: I've just got two quick final questions from two of my Twitter followers.  @Supermarcey asks if you had any particular high and low points from during the making of Zombie Flesh Eaters.

Ian McCulloch: [After a LONG pasue] I think the high was actually getting the job in the first place, because it was so totally unexpected.  I was doing an Alan Bennett play and the last thing in the world that I expected was to be offered something like like this.  I'd done The Ghoul, which was a moderately successful independent British film, this was just so out of the blue, and to be offered it with all the places it was going to and be paid for doing it was probably the highlight.

The low was not really about Zombie but all of those Italian films.  There was never any professional reward at the end.  I don't mean in a financial sense but in a working sense.  They, particularly Zombie but the others as well, made huge amounts of money, and you'd think that being associated with them would put you in demand to do other things, and the biggest disappointment was that when I finished them I never had another interview for a film, ever.  I know that probably isn't the answer she wanted, but in all honesty that is the high and low of my Italian career.

24FPS: Well, I hate to bring you down at the end, so here's another from @conor9613.  Do you think the zombie apocalypse will happen, and if so how?

Ian McCulloch: [Laughing] Erm... No.  I mean, they don't exist.  They're a successful part of drama and culture, but there's nothing about them that's real.  It's a wonderful launching pad for lots of films and TV, it makes some people a lot of money, and gives many more people a lot of pleasure.  But I think no one's ready for the zombie apocalypse, and if it happens we're all going to be in trouble.

Many thanks to Ian McCulloch for taking the time and for taking a few silly questions quite seriously, and thanks to Will at Noble PR for setting up the interview.  

The restored edition of Zombie Flesh Eaters is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Steelbook from December 3rd (Arrow Video).   If you order from the link below you can help out 24FPS, free of charge.  

1 comment:

  1. I'm just rewatching survivors and ian mcculloch is without doubt one of Britain's greatest actors. I'd seen him in colditz and he impressed me hugely then. I wished I'd seen him on stage but even seeing him in zombie due it was great to see him with richard Johnson who I was privileged to meet because they raised the level of the film by the sheer sincerity and acting skill that they brought to anything be it Shakespeare or zombies!!!