The Supernaturals (1986) Retrospective

SUMMARY
One hundred years ago, deep in the sullen backwoods of the Southern United States, a Confederate town is held captive, the soldiers forced to walk through a piece of woodland laced with mines. Because he is found wearing a Confederate States Army outfit, Jeremy (Chad Sheets), a young boy is also forced to make the crossing. If they make it across the minefield the Union Army 44th will set them free. Only Jeremy and his mother (Melanie) – who runs to save him – survive, despite the fact that the mother has stepped on a mine. Jeremy exhibits unearthly powers. Jump to circa 1985 and a platoon of soldiers are out on maneuvers in the same backwoods. They too are the 44th, descendants of the Union platoon of years before, those who committed the atrocities. The main character here is Pvt. Ray Ellis (Maxwell Caulfield), the only soldier to catch glimpses of the beautiful and mysterious Melanie; Ellis also has a romantic interest in Pvt. Angela Lejune (Talia Balsam). The platoon decide to camp inside a circle of yellow grass seemingly caused by brush fire, a spot from which the wind only blows outward. Pvt. Ellis is reluctant to camp there, but Sgt. Hawkins does not like having her authority undermined. Whilst the platoon are setting up camp, Melanie reappears – this time witnessed by all in the platoon – and takes a strong interest in Pvt. Ellis who bears an uncanny resemblance to her husband, Evan.

Trouble for Sgt. Leona Hawkins (Nichelle Nichols) and her platoon begins with the soldiers’ drunken and childish antics; however, events take a sinister turn when Pvt. Cort (Bobby Di Cicco) is found shot in the head. They inexplicably lose radio contact and the nearest town is over twenty miles away. Hawkins and her platoon go in search of – and arrest – Melanie, who lives in an old wooden shack with what looks to be her father or grandfather, a withered old man. In the cabin they discover the relics of muskets and an old diary, written by Evan. They take Melanie back to camp, but leave the old man at the cabin; he is too old and frail to go anywhere. During the night, an eerie fog rolls in, encompassing the 44th, and the Confederate Dead close in on their camp. Most of the 44th are subsequently killed – one-by-one – whilst Pvt. Ellis heads off into the woods in search of the old man who, it turns out, is Jeremy (he has used his powers to keep his mother the same age). Along the way he is forced to do battle with the Confederate zombies and also runs into Melanie, who shows him a locket. Inside is a picture of Evan, and Ellis immediately recognizes the resemblance. He snatches the locket from around her neck and runs in the direction of the cabin. Once there he persuades Jeremy to end the evil spell and send Melanie and the zombies back to wherever it is the dead are supposed go. Exhausted, Jeremy dies and Ellis returns to the camp where Lejune and Hawkins are waiting, the only survivors. Ellis embraces Lejune and the locket falls from his hand to the woodland floor, where it is lost amongst the leaves

DEVELOPMENT
The Supernatural is a $4.2 million production directed by Armand Mastroianni and starring Maxwell Caulfield, Le Var Burton, Nichelle Nichols, Jacoby, Bancroft, Margaret Shendal, Talia Balsam and Bobby DiCicco. Filmed in California and Alabama, the movie is a variation on the theme used in Herschel Gordon Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs.

“Sandy Howard, the executive producer” Soisson explains during a break in the grisly action, “had an original title which he loved, called The Ghost Soldiers, and he had this poster of a skull wearing sunglasses. Based on that, he asked Michael and I to write up a military-meets-the-supernatural script. By the time we’d finished writing what I considered a very interesting screenplay, Ghostbusters had come out. We did not want to seem derivative, so we ended up having to change the title. Soisson and Murphey have worked in various production capacities on four of Howard’s films. Their previous writing credit was for Hambone and Hilly, a family film about a wandering dog, which Howard also executive-produced. The Supernatural, both writers’ first foray into the gruesome and grotesque, is a far cry from that soft and cuddly opus.

“This film is almost an amalgam of different outre genres.” Soisson explains. “What we tried to do was take elements from some of our favorite films-Poltergeist, Howard Hawks’ The Thing and weave them in with this very terrifying encounter that these troops have with the undead.

 SPECIAL EFFECTS
The team responsible for Supernatural’s zombies and other makeup effects is headed by Mark Shostrom, whose previous credits include The Mutilator, Deadly Force and Klaus Kinski’s head removal scene in Android. Also on the team are Ed Ferrell, a former commercial fisherman who began his makeup career working with Shostrom when Mutilator was filmed in his home town of Buford, North Carolina, Bart Mixon, Shannon Shea and costume designer Lisa Jensen.

Full-body suits were created to cover eight of the featured zombies from head to toe. These were made from taking plaster casts of the actors’ bodies, which were then filled out with rigid foam that was subsequently fiber glassed on the outside. Spandex understructures were placed on these mannequins, which in turn were covered with rubber, sculpted, baked and painted. Hands with cracked, yellowing nails made from dental acrylic were also cast, and different full-face masks were struck for each suit, along with some extra masks to be worn by background cadavers.

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Fully articulated mechanical heads have been constructed for close ups of such things as a corpse smiling, getting its skull smashed or having its wax jaw knocked off. No appliances were used to create the zombies.

“For the look, we weren’t very worried about comparisons to all of the other mummies that have been done recently.” Shostrom reveals. “Everybody says that they were influenced by EC comics and the mummies of Guanajuato, but I haven’t really seen that recently. I think ours is very close to the EC look, something that really hasn’t been shown before.”

Two things immediately stand out about The Supernatural’s corpses. The first is that they definitely have the dry look. Figuring that cadavers that have been lying in the ground for 120 years would be pretty much lacking in precious bodily fluid, Shostrom and director Mastroianni worked hard to insure that each of the reanimated revengers made a decidedly dusty appearance. Even when they are hit with bullets, the zombies bled dirt out of their squibs instead of liquid. The other EC’ish touch is provided by a wonderful new product that no modern household should be without: Nurnies, which are also known by their generic names Chunks of Flesh and Mounds of Rot. These delectable, swiss cheese-like formations are made from painting latex onto a clear plexiglass square that has had holes scratched into it. The latex is pulled down, powdered and then peeled off when it looks as disgusting as possible. The resulting clingy little piles of scuzz are draped and hung at strategic points on the cadaver suits for that fashionable, “I just rose from the dead and I can’t do a thing with my skin” look.

Don’t get the impression that Nurnies are just some frivolous fad, however. These valuable couture accessories take a long time to dry, and only four or five of them can be made on any given working day. The good news is that, once dry, they last forever, which is no doubt reassuring to the legion of chic gorehounds who will want to use Nurnies for at least that long.

Perhaps the most unusual influence on the look of The Supernatural’s zombies came from an unexpectedly respectable source: the Civil War pictures of pioneering photographer Mathew Brady. Joel Soisson explains: “During the Civil War, since that was close to the advent of photography, they really couldn’t photograph moving people very well. Subjects had to stand very rigidly. So a lot of these Civil War photographers, especially Brady, captured predominantly dead people.

“A lot of the inspiration for the whole picture came from those Brady photographs, not only from the makeup end but from the story end as well. In fact, we’re opening the film with a montage of Brady photographs.

“He took some of the most graphically gruesome pictures of corpses rotting and people dying in fields, and the expressions of the dead are probably the most moving images that you could ever went to see. Not just because they are gross, you really get a feeling from a lot of them for the sentiment and emotion about an experience that was completely shattering for this country!”

“Many of our masks” Ed Ferrell adds, “have expressions taken directly from those corpse photos. Lisa and all of us have checked into various period costumes and pictures. Some of the wounds and the flesh that’s been ripped away, to the best of our knowledge, look like what you would get from the types of bullets and landmines and junk that they had back then.”

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While the makeup designs were a truly collaborative effort, with producers, director and members of the makeup staff each contributing on numerous levels to the creation of the film’s effects, most of the designing was done by Shostrom. Ferrell concentrated primarily on the second unit work (mechanicals and understructures), Shannon Shea sculpted and painted, and Bart Mixon handled special makeup (which included aging an 85 year old actor with old age stipple to make him look 125) and provided the script with its Infamous Page 95. “One of the zombies grabs Bobby DiCicco’s rifle by the barrel,” as Mixon describes it. “DiCicco pulls the trigger and blows the zombie’s hand off. The corpse looks at his shattered arm, from which the bones are sticking out, then shoves it into DiCicco’s chest, killing him.

“That was my idea. In the original script, they just had the hand explode. I suggested it would be cute if he impaled the soldier with the exposed bones.” Cute and complex. To shoot the scene, a mechanical hand with fully articulated elbow, wrist and fingers was constructed for grabbing the rifle. Explosives men blew a wax hand up, and a third arm, which had already been cut with the bones sticking out, was brought in and jammed into the soldier’s chest. Tubes connected to a prosthetic breast piece provided the blood of the victim.

“We have a lot of arm gags, actually” Shostrom admits. “Grabbing of faces, people getting stabbed. This has definitely been the most challenging film of my career so far, due to the sheer volume of work and the fact that the time we were originally given to do it all got cut short.

“Actually, our biggest worry, when we started working, was about who would be chosen to direct the film. We had been four weeks into preproduction, and of necessity had already begun sculpting faces, when Armand came on. I was quite paranoid, afraid that he would want to change everything. Fortunately, he liked the direction we were going in, and he had a number of logical ideas which helped make things so much easier!”

Indeed, director Mastroianni couldn’t have been happier with the visions coming out of Spook Central, the special makeup trailer. A soft-spoken New Yorker with an admirable string of suspense projects under his belt (He Knows You’re Alone, The Clairvoyant, several episodes of the Tales From the Darkside television series), Mastroianni’s approach to the macabre meshed perfectly with those of his collaborators.

“Since we were basically dealing with 120-year-old cadavers.” Mastroianni says, “I felt they should be skeletal. But at the same time, in order to make the film work, we wanted to preserve some of the elements that would give it a more frightening look. I don’t think walking skeletons would have done the trick. The image of partially decayed bodies is much more frightening.

“The whole idea of The Supernatural,” Mastroianni adds, “the title itself, I think is fascinating. That’s why films that deal with the spirit world coming back are usually successful. It’s something people can’t help but be intrigued by, and that’s what this film is all about.”

Mixon goes on to praise The Supernaturals for not following in the footsteps of George A. Romero, calling the film original. However, a limited and subsequently slashed budget meant that Prosthetic makeup gave way to head masks. “I think our work turned out very well,” Mixon comments on the finished product, “and I wish it was shown off a little better in the final film”.

“Beside the makeup and mechanical effects associated with the resurrected Confederate soldiers, there will be optical effects depicting psychic phenomena. We have a woman who is essentially brought back to a semblance of life by her son, who, a la Carrie, is capable of an incredible outpouring of mind energy. These scenes involve smoke, a swirling, glowing vortex, and wind and lightning effects.

“We’re also going for a very eerie, atmospheric look throughout the film. We’re trying to create a location, through heightened ambiance, that is basically very mysterious. I’m not familiar, myself, with any movie that has depicted soldiers doing battle with things that they can’t kill. To be honest, the things that impress Michael and I most about horror movies are the characters and the danger, the jeopardy the protagonists are put in, not so much the horror. We’ve concentrated our efforts on creating characters the viewers will really care about, so that once they start getting their heads torn off, people aren’t just sitting in the theater saying, “Gee, isn’t that a great effect?”

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MUSIC & SCORE
Originally, the soundtrack to The Supernaturals was scored by Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees. The score was rejected, though, in favor of one written by Robert O. Ragland. Gibb can be seen in The Supernatural’s in a cameo role as a Union soldier.

CAST/CREW
Directed
Armand Mastroianni

Produced
Michael S. Murphey
Joel Soisson

Written
Michael S. Murphey
Joel Soisson

Maxwell Caulfield as Pvt. Ray Ellis
Nichelle Nichols as Sgt. Leona Hawkins
Talia Balsam as Pvt. Angela Lejune
Bradford Bancroft as Pvt. Tom Weir
LeVar Burton as Pvt. Michael Osgood
Bobby Di Cicco as Pvt. Tim Cort
Scott Jacoby as Pvt. Chris Mendez

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Fangoria Issue 48
Wikipedia

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