Exclusive interview with Joseph Zaso

I discovered Joseph Zaso through two movies he did when he was still a teenager, Screambook and Screambook 2. Watching them, I felt like he was a kindred spirit and wanted to learn how he made the film, about his career and how movies like those two and It’s Only a Movie! got made. I’m happy to report that Joesph lived up to my expectations and then some. To learn more about Joesph, visit his official site.

Note: Main image courtesy of Jay Jorgensen.

A moment from Screambook.

B&S About Movies: I found your movies on YouTube and just fell in love with them. They have such an energy to them for being made by a teenager.

Joseph Zaso: You picked the right time, because they’re going to be available not just on YouTube soon enough! I’m sworn to secrecy but you’ll find out soon enough!

B&S: How old were you when you made Screambook?

Joseph: I had just turned 13. It was the beginning of 1984 and my birthday is in November…it was like a zillion years ago! I just keep thinking how everything in it is green! But yes, that’s my first movie even though I made little ones before. It’s the first time I did a feature. I was just having fun, really, and I had this camera that was the size of your computer. Maybe bigger! (laughs)

I had to use two VCRs to edit it. It stars my little classmates and it’s like Bugsy Malone does Creepshow with a 99 cent store budget!

B&S: There’s some maniac energy in both films, but the birthday party scene in Screambook 2 is incredible.

Joseph: It was whatever was going on in my teenage head!

B&S: That kind of scene is why I love shot on video movies. You don’t expect it at all. And I love that these things get out into the world and we get a chance to see them maybe decades after they were intended.

Joseph: 40 years basically. That blows my mind. It’s like it took 40 years for people to like them. So you’re in Pittsburgh, right? I always thought it was bigger than it is, because when I visited there once, it seemed tiny.

Joe gets surprised.

B&S: You’re just seeing how amazing it looks in Striking Distance. (laughs)

Joseph: When I first started acting in the early 90s, I remember there was this phone number you would call to see what movies had work. One had a recording that said: “Now filming…Three Rivers with Bruce Willis. Please contact the William Penn Hotel to be an extra.” 

You have Tom Atkins from there! How is he 87? He looks like he’s twenty years younger!

And that other actor — Bingo O’Malley!

B&S: He was the most important stage actor we had here.

Joseph: He was the consummate character actor and was in a lot of big movies. You need to write about him because he was the best character actor that no one knows!

If you see Bingo in a movie, you knew it was shot in Pittsburgh and not Toronto. (laughs)

B&S: Shot on video is sometimes a hard sell to younger audiences, as they’re used to seeing things in pristine quality now.

Joesph: You’re talking to somebody who didn’t know the difference between SLP and SP.

Does Joe live in the home of The Sentinel?

B&S: How did you make the jump from being really into movies to wanting to make them?

Joseph: I always had a fascination with movies. Even when I was a little kid I used to pretend the refrigerator was like a movie marquee and put the magnets on there.  Titles like Shampoo. My brother, who’s a doctor, made some Super 8mm movies. He was just clowning around, but I acted in them and I started getting the bug.

I did direct those movies you mentioned, as well as It’s Only a Movie!, Maligno and Guilty Pleasures, but I’m really more about the acting these days. Not so much the producing anymore. That takes a special person to handle that.

B&S: What was it like working with Andreas Schnaas?

Joseph: I very much enjoyed working with him on Demonium in Rome with mainly Italian and German production people.  It’s probably the closest I will ever come to appearing in a spaghetti co-production.  As for Nikos the Impaler – no comment…

Credit Jay Jorgensen

B&S: It’s funny, coming from advertising, I was just talking to a creative director who was saying that the bidding and everything leading up to the shooting is so much work and then after all that, the shooting is even worse!

Joseph: I think Brian DePalma said he enjoyed the preparation of a movie, but not the actual shooting. That’s when you lose control.

B&S: Argento always worried about losing control over his movies. Have you read his book Fear? It’s kind of crazy because he’s like, “I’ve never been to therapy. My therapy is making my films.”

Joseph: Mothers are always monsters in his movies!

B&S: When he made Four Flies On Grey Velvet, he said, “I never realized that I made a movie about a woman who looks like my first wife who is trying to kill her husband who looks like me.” You didn’t? Then again, this is the man who was upset people thought he was too rough on women, so his pro-women movie is Tenebre.

Joseph: A movie in which beautiful women die horribly. Perhaps another bit of therapy that needs to be worked out?

B&S: Argento and DePalma are two sides of the same coin.

Joseph: They were both born in 1940. And both had meltdowns in their early 40s. They both treated their wives badly. You know, maybe they got too successful too quickly and dealt with an early midlife crisis? Now they’re just mellow. DePalma doesn’t live far from where I live and I’ve seen him in the street, walking back from a bakery and he looks almost childlike. (laughs)

B&S: To his credit, he got me into puberty fast after I saw Dressed to Kill. People still hate that movie!

Joseph: Growing up, my parents said “you can see as much blood and gore as you want, but you can’t see nudity and sex.”

B&S: I used to go through our Catholic newspaper and circle all the movies that received the O rating for morally objectionable. The movies they rated O in 1981 are the basis of what I love in movies. Like Amityville II: The Possession.

Joseph: I’m editing a book on that movie! My friend Bryan Norton is the author and I have been transcribing interviews for it. The book is hopefully coming out this October and it’s going to be a beautiful coffee table book. I know more about Dino De Laurentiis and Damiano Damiani than you can imagine. 

It’s Damiani’s only horror film. He mostly made dramas and films that referenced the political and civil unrest of Italy at the time. And you know, that’s why he was a good choice to make it. Because it’s, you know, it’s a freaky movie.

B&S: It’s the most anti-Catholic movie of all time.

Joseph: Not to give anything away, but he made that differently than a genre director would have been and that’s why so much of the Catholic guilt is in it.

When this book comes out, there are so many little details you’ll love. Like why is it called Amityville II: The Possession instead of just Amityville Horror II? It’s just amazing. I mean, the poor town of Amityville really didn’t like all the business they were getting. It was like their town was made into a mockery. 

B&S: Italians in America is my favorite genre. They’re maniacs making movies in America with American crews that have no idea what they’re saying or are trying to get across.

Joseph: And they’re always making movies in Florida and the south, like Nightmare Beach and The Visitor. That movie is like fifty different movies in one and none of it makes sense but somehow we can’t take our eyes off of it either.

B&S: I’m fascinated by the Americanized names of Italian directors.

Joseph: Actor Bobby Rhodes (from Demons) I was sure that was a fake name. He was on my cooking show and he has such a thick accent because he’s Italian. I asked, “Is that your stage name?” No. His father was a GI from Baltimore and his mother was an Italian girl from Sicily. It just sounds like a deliberately made up name.

Joe cooking with Bobby Rhodes

B&S: Are you still acting?

Joseph: I still enjoy it, but I have a day job. So instead of doing twenty crappy things, I’m just looking for one slightly better role here and there. I have more perspective now. 

I have a different perspective. I know how to act better or differently. There are more subtle ways to approach a role or maybe not so heavy handed way

B&S: What’s the Horror Himbo all about? 

Joseph: A few journalists referred to me as a “Horror Himbo” (a male bimbo of horror movies).  About 12 years back, I decided to start a cooking blog and then later a Youtube show and then multiple cookbooks.  I chose the alias of Café Himbo.  That name has become something of a brand and synonymous with campy, sexy, silly fun in the kitchen.

B&S: When you made It’s Only a Movie you really went for it. I mean, there’s a whole gospel choir.

Joseph: I happened to have a crew member/friend from Harlem and he had access to a choir and church that was used for the movie. I had fun with that movie because we just went big with it. No one was supervising us.

I was interested in things like Phantom of the Paradise and Little Shop of Horrors. I can’t sing and dance to save my life. But I was into musicals, musical theater, and that was always inside my head at the time. No one was watching us to say, “Don’t do that!”

Also, I’m not sure if it comes through, but I was really into Demons at the time. (laughs)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.