Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reliving the Living Dead: An Interview with Marsha Dietlein

Return of the Living Dead film poster.
(c) Lorimar Film Entertainment
Jason Bachand, Writer/Director CvsRZ 

For many zombie and horror movie fans, the 1980's were a golden era. The decade saw the birth and rapid growth of the "slasher" genre in the successful Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, there were new and exciting experiments in science-fiction/horror crossovers (Aliens, Lifeforce), and an entirely new type of film - the horror comedy - was enjoying wide popularity. Many film historians credit the low-budget flick Student Bodies as 'inventing' the horror-comedy, but the fact is there were scores of highly enjoyable scary and funny horror films made in the '80s - from the cult classic Night of Creeps to the hysterically campy Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

So it was only a matter of time before zombies decided to get a little funny. George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead (1968) had spawned two sequels by 1985 (Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), but the series remained very much in the "horror" camp - deadly serious, never funny. Most of the other zombie films of the 1970s had also stayed true to Romero's formula and, while there were some very good zombie films made during this decade, they were meant to terrorize and not to amuse.

(c) Lorimar Home Entertainment
It wasn't until 1985's Return of the Living Dead, made with Romero's permission but not his participation, that zombies finally found a sense of humor. Writer/director Dan O'Bannon found the right balance of gruesome fright with a very tongue-in-cheek sense of parody, probably best exemplified by a scene in which zombies slaughter two EMTs and then get on the ambulance radio to ask the dispatcher to "Send more paramedics." The performers all play their parts with deathly seriousness and the laughs arise organically from the plot. Audiences loved it, and the film was a financial and critical success. It now enjoys the status of being one of the definitive movies of the horror-comedy genre.

Equally funny, scary, and enduring was the immediate sequel, Return of the Living Dead Part 2 (watch the trailer for the movie here). RotLD 2 brought back the brain-eating zombies and knowing self-parody that made part one such a success, even recasting the comedic duo of Ed and Joey (Jimmy Karen and Thom Mathews) despite the fact that both of them died in part one!

RotLD2 was one of the first zombie movies I ever saw, and so it's become an integral part of how I envision a successful zombie film. I was very lucky recently to connect with RotLD 2 star Marsha Dietlein, who starred as Lucy Wilson in the film, and she graciously agreed to do an interview exclusively for all the very lucky people on the CvsRZ website.

Marsha Dietlein in character as Lucy Wilson.
(c) Lorimar Home Entertainment
Hi Marsha, thank you for taking some time to talk to us about RotLD 2. We're honored. 

You're welcome. So happy to do this!

Tell us how you became involved with the film.

I auditioned for RotLD 2.  I remember laughing when my agent called me with the audition.  It was maybe my 7th audition since I'd moved to LA.  I had to go to several callbacks and was paired up with Michael Kenworthy and Dana Ashbrook in the final audition.  We all were cast together, which was fun.

When RotLD2 was made, the "horror-comedy" was a new genre of film. Now, of course, horror-comedies are very popular - Scream, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland just to name a few. What's the secret to striking the right balance between funny and terrifying, in your view?
I think our film was definitely ahead of its time.  Sadly, I think it got blasted by critics and fans because they didn't like the comedy tone of the film.  I think it was Ken's (director Ken Wiederhorn) plan all along, and I liked it.  I guess the key is to play the comedy as straight as possible.  I never thought I was in a comedy, and that made it funny.  I just tried to play Lucy like I was Sigourney Weaver in Alien (laughs)! At the same time, if you were playing it straight, then it made it easier to slip into the world of horror and be scary.

"You watch your tongue boy if you like this job."
"Like this job!?"
(c) Lorimar Home Entertainment
On the subject of comedy, one of the things many fans like about RotLD2 is the duo of Ed and Joey, played by James Karen and Thom Mathews. What was it like working with them - were they as funny on set as in the film?

I adored working with Jimmy and Thommy.  Jimmy is a true gentleman.  We were working nights for so many weeks, and would all get quite punchy. Thommy was always good for a laugh.  I think they liked the tongue in cheek tone of the movie and kept coming up with silly bits to add into the movie.

They really did bring a great sense of levity to the narrative. But, while Lucy was pretty deadpan, she actually had one of the best lines in the script:  "Look, they're ugly and they're dirty and they're dumb, and I don't even care if they are dead. I hate 'em, there's no way they're touching me!" Do you remember if it took more than one take for that line, or how you decided to deliver it?

That line was my favorite line in the movie.  We did several takes as I'm pretty uncoordinated and had to load the shotgun while talking at the same time.  I really was trying to channel Ripley from Alien.  Don't think I was successful at it (laughs).

Was working on set, especially at night, particularly creepy?

Working at night made us all feel like vampires, honestly.  It was a little creepy when we filmed the graveyard stuff.  Mostly, it was just cold. It actually snowed while we were filming! I don't find zombies scary,  and I find vampires sexy, but I must admit the thing that freaks me out the most are evil spirits or possessions.  I still haven't made it through The Exorcist.  It scares the shit out of me!

The "tarman" zombie was one of the most
memorable creature effects from RotLD2.
(c) Lorimar Home Entertainment
Talking of the really scary special effects, what did you think of the "Tarman" zombie - did you actually get to see it in action, and was it as scary and revolting as it is on screen?

I didn't visit the set when they filmed Tarman. But, I'm sure he was as grotesque in person as he was onscreen.  I love the effects because there was no CGI in our movie...they were much more realistic because they had to be.  I did visit the graveyard set when all of the zombies emerge, and we all had so much fun laughing at the antics of Brian Peck, who played several of the featured zombies in the movie.

Zombies, along with vampires, are the "it" thing right now - especially with shows like The Walking Dead setting a great standard for the genre. What's the appeal of zombies, in your opinion? Why are they terrifying?

I suppose the appeal of zombies or the reason that they're terrifying is that they could be anybody. They're like the "every men" of horror films.  Anyone could be attacked by the special gas and turned into a zombie. They're also usually in gangs, so that can be a bit intimidating.

Lucy and Doc Mandel (Philip Bruns) look on while Ed
(James Karen) becomes a zombie.
(c) Lorimar Home Entertainment
The third installment of the Return of the Living Dead franchise didn't come out until five years after part two, and didn't pick up the template established by the first two. Still, was there any discussion with you about the possibility of bringing Lucy Wilson's character back?

I never heard from any of the other movies about bringing my character back, which is a bummer.  I think it would be a blast to revisit the zombie world again.

It really is a shame, since both parts one and two had such a lasting impact on the zombie movie genre. With zombies enjoying a 'revival' though, I'm curious about how you think RotLD2 paved the way for the new wave of zombie movies and horror in general.

I would like to think that ROTLD 2 paved the way for the horror/comedy genre.  It had amazing special effects. I also liked that my character was a bad ass not some wimpy girl who needed to be saved by some guy.

That was definitely a new way of portraying women in horror movies, as hero instead of constant victim. Would you do a horror film or a zombie film again if the opportunity came along?

I would gladly be in another zombie or horror film.  I had a blast doing ROTLD 2. It was my first job in the business, so I always felt very grateful that I got to do something so cool my first time out.

In addition to being a successful actress, you're also a mother. I remember how much I loved RotLD 2 as a kid. Have your own children seen it yet? What did they think? 

I have two kids, ages seventeen and ten.  My son, the seventeen-year-old, saw the movie a couple of years ago.  He loved it.  I believe his exact quote was "Mom, you were awesome!!!  That was the coolest movie I've ever seen." My ten-year-old is waiting until I say she's old enough, which will probably be around fourteen.

Marsha Dietlein continues to work
in Hollywood today. She was
recently on the show "Gossip Girl."
You've continued to have a successful acting career, and have appeared recently in the film Nice Guy Johnn" and the TV series Gossip Girl. Have you ever had a co-star say "Hey, I loved you in Return of the Living Dead 2!"

I was doing a play in NYC and working with an actor who was kind of a jerk to me until one day someone mentioned that I was the lead in ROTLD 2.  His jaw dropped and he confessed that I'd been his huge crush when he was in high school.  After that he was a doll to me and a little bit intimidated, which was much nicer!

Return of the Living Dead Part One recently got a "special edition" DVD release with a lot of bonus materials, most notably a two hour "making of" feature that included interviews with every surviving member of the cast. I think many fans would like to see part 2 get the same treatment. Has there been any talk of a DVD release or retrospective feature. Do you keep in touch with the rest of the cast?

I wish they would do a retrospective, but I haven't heard anything about it.  There is a book out, which I was interviewed for, on all of the Return of the Living Dead movies. It has tons of photos and interviews. I believe you can get it on Amazon. (you can - Ed.) I'm friends with Dana Ashbrook (who played Tom Essex) and Michael Kenworthy (played Jesse Wilson) on Facebook, but haven't seen them in years.  It's been fun to re-connect with them.  Michael sent me photos from the set that were so sweet. I'm also in touch with Robert Elswit, the director of photography for the film, and Linda Hassani, who was Ken Wiederhorn's assistant.  We'll get together and talk fondly about the experience.

Thank you Marsha, it's been a pleasure. 

Best of luck with your film!

You can read more about Marsha Dietlein's career on IMDb, and wikipedia. You can also follow Marsha on Twitter.

(c) Lorimar Home Entertainment

1 comment:

  1. I don’t know how I missed Return of the Living Dead II! I’m definitely going to add it to my Blockbuster @Home queue since I pretty much love anything with zombies. Thanks for posting this, because I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be on a zombie set. I know that one of my co-workers at Dish is going to love reading this since he makes an effort to watch everything with zombies. Thanks again!