Three aspiring actors have a dream to take Hollywood by storm and become movie stars.
One of those actors was named Billy Bob Thornton.
He made a vanity-starring projected called Slingblade. If you don’t know how that movie turned out, you deserve to be banished to Hell’s Video where you’ll check out copies of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and Corky Ramono (and all other SNL-bred movies) for all enternity. (Sorry, all the copies of John Travolta’s Gotti are rented at the moment. Can I interest you in a copy of The Fanatic?)
The second actor was Tommy Wiseau.
He made a vanity-starring projected called The Room. In spite of its critical panning, it became a worldwide hit that is still playing in theatres around the world to this day. The film’s production was chronicled in a New York Times best-selling book that was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film: The Disaster Artist.
Then there’s the fate of Leo Grillo, an actor who knocked around the industry since his 1977 film debut with a bit part in Between the Lines, a little seen film that featured the pre-stardom bound John Heard and Jeff Goldblum. On TV, Grillo made his debut with a bit role in George Peppard’s (Battle Beyond the Stars) Banacek (NBC-TV, 1972-1974).
And Leo made a vanity project called Zyzzyx Road—a film that earned the distinction as the lowest-grossing movie of all time, earning a measly $20 dollars in domestic box office against its $1.2 million budget. Adding insult to injury: It would have made $30, but Grillo personally refunded $10 bucks to a crew member who purchased two tickets. Adding more salt in the wound: Grillo had to pay a $1000 week-long theatre rental fee for the screening (at Highland Park Village Theater in Dallas, Texas), in order to comply with the Screen Actors Guild’s release-distribution regulations regarding low-budget movies (shot for under $2.5 million).
Huh? But why was the film premiere held over 1,400 miles away from Los Angeles, where it should have debuted?
To hear Grillo tell it all these years later, Zyzzyx Road was never intended to be released theatrically.
It’s a darkside of the film industry: Low budget productions sign the dotted line on SAG’s low-budget agreements with the nefarious purpose of low-balling their actors—and “legally” not have to pay them the full SAG rates. Then, once the production fulfills the agreement by showing the film in at least one theatre, once a day for one week—they issue their film on DVD. Those DVDs were released later that year in 23 countries across Eurasia, South America, and Indonesia and cleared just under $400,000 in sales—still a long “road” to recouping its original production cost (and the cost of the DVD production). Inspired by its midly successful overseas showing, four years after its (purposeful) failed theatrical release, Zyzzyx Road was issued on video for the first time as a 2010 DVD in the U.S, while the first online streams appeared stateside in 2012. (The DVDs are currently out-of-print and the streams are no longer commercially available. You can find used DVDs in the online marketplace.)
It almost makes the film’s bad luck and unwanted attention as the lowest-grossing movie of all time more deserving, doesn’t it?
That bad luck for the film that was to be Leo Grillo’s industry calling card began in the summer of 2005. During the course of its 20-day shoot in the Mojave Desert, lead actor Tom Sizemore and his friend/personal assistant Peter Walton were arrested for failing drug tests while on probation. (Yes, and there are more actors and crew members “on probation”—with long criminal records—on film and TV shoots than you realize. How do you think all that coke makes it to the set? Opps! There’s another “hot” background-extra being “bumped” to a day-player role in the trailers out by the honeywagons, you rascally, scuzzy P.A, you!) Fortunately, Sizemore was able to make bail (out of his own pocket or the film’s production budget?) to complete filming. (Walton’s bail was revoked when police discovered he had a warrant out for his arrest—for child pornography. Keep that factoid handy for the later irony, coming up.)
According to Grillo’s promotional materials, Zyzzyx Road is a Tarantinoesque road where Death of a Salesman meets Lolita—he being the “Willie Loman” and Katherine Heigl being the “Lolita.” In reality: Zzyzx Road (yes, that’s another unfortunate problem with the film: they misspelled the name of the road that’s the title of their own movie!) is a mostly dirt, rural collector road in the Mojave Desert that runs just over 4 miles long—and has an infamous, creepy reputation for its use by various criminal elements to dispose of bodies.
What a great place to dump this movie.
It’s along this road were we meet Grant (Leo Grillo), a philandering accountant with a young daugther who’s stuck in a bad marriage. While on a road trip to service his clients, he starts a torrid affair with Marissa (Hegyl), a femme fatale he meets in a Las Vegas casino. When Marissa’s violent ex-boyfriend Joey (Sizemore) shows up to kill the lovers, Grant ends up killing Joey in self-defense—and Marissa convinces him to drive into the Southern California desert to bury Joey. Of course, Joey isn’t dead. . . . (Now, I don’t know about you, but a chick that knows about a dumping ground in the desert . . . no “boink” can be that good!)
Granted, the biggest “star” of the film is Katherine Hegyl (2001’s Valentine) who, shortly after filming Zyzzyx Road, found herself cast in a lead role on ABC-TV’s Grey’s Anatomy. Then she found stardom on the big screen with 2007’s Knocked Up.
But the real reason I picked up Zyzzyx Road at Goodwill for a buck (along with Ground Rules, starring another one of my favorite actors, Richard Lynch) was for Tom Sizemore. He always delivers us film geeks the goods in films such as Striking Distance, Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers, and Sly Stallone’s Lock Up. These days Tom specializes in direct-to-video features and is currently working on his 226th film, Circle of 3s. He most recently starred in 2019’s Abstruse and The Pining.
Oh, and get this. Rickey Medlocke—from Blackfoot (Train, Train!) and Lynyrd Skynyrd—stars as a crazed desert meth dealer who doesn’t take to kindly to those city folk poking around his lab.
“Okay, so much for the backstory,” you say. “Is the movie any good?”
Well, let me put it this way: In the various articles written about Zyzzyx Road over the years, Heigl and Sizemore refuse to comment on the film—and they didn’t show up for its Dallas premiere.
And let’s put it another way: Have you ever read one of those reviews that inserts an actor’s name into the phase: “For ____________ completists only? This is one of those films. And in this case, it’s Tom Sizemore’s name that completes the sentence. His deciding to go deliciously hammy and overboard as the villain is this film’s only saving grace (well, that, and Ricky Medlocke showing up), but it’s also Grillo’s demise. Against Sizemore (A Matter of Degrees), Grillo’s dry and woefully out of his element. It’s not that he’s incompetent. He’d be great with bit parts on say, a Law and Order or Blue Bloods—but not as a lead actor carrying a feature film.
“Hey, what about the ‘irony’ regarding child pornography you mentioned earlier?”
Oh, right. So, throughout the film it’s implied that Hegyl’s character is underage (under 18, that is), which means that Sizemore’s and Grillo’s characters (again, Grillo’s a father with a young daugther) are both pedophiles—and rapists by definition.
We’ve seen Hegyl’s work before and we know what she can do on screen. Sadly, at the time of the production, Hegyl was already 27 years old—and she’s utterly unconvincing as an evil, high schooled-age seductress. What the film needed was a Christina Ricci (who excels in that type of role (see her Dedee Truitt in 1997’s The Opposite of Sex) or a Thora Birch (Ghost World!) (Thora was initially offered the role—and turned it down).
Director John Penney’s writing and directing resume—Zyzzyx Road was his debut—includes 2011’s Hellgate, which stars William Hurt (Altered States) and Cary Elwes (Saw, Kiss the Girls), 1993’s Return of the Living Dead III, and a baker’s dozen of direct-to-video flicks, such as 1996’s Past Perfect starring Eric Roberts. As a film editor, Penney worked on the U.K “video nasty” The Dorm that Dripped Blood and Return of the Living Dead. Casting director Valerie McCaffrey worked on 1998’s American History X and 1999’s Detroit Rock City and made her directing debut with 2001’s Wish You Were Dead.
What’s this, pray tell? Is this an alternate DVD reissue—with the correct spelling of the road?
Also known under its alternative title of Burned, Zzyzx is an unrelated, low-budget romp (also released in 2006) about desert-bred greed and corruption. It’s directed by Richard Halpern, whose most recent film is the 2019 Lifetime-styled thriller, Suburban Nightmare.