The Dead Pit (1989) Retrospective

The once-celebrated and respected Dr. Ramzi has been transformed into a bloodthirsty lunatic. At the state mental hospital, he performs macabre experiments and it is not until Ramzi’s colleague, Dr. Swan, manages to kill the doctor that the tranquility lies deceptively. Dr. Swan hides the body after Ramzi in the cave where the remains of the bizarre experiments are stored and seals the place. Twenty years later, a young beautiful woman with total memory loss is admitted to the hospital and when an earthquake suddenly shakes the facility, terrible things begin to happen.


After making some award-winning feature length films in Super-8 (including a horror item called The Filer), Brett Leonard made a pair of 35mm shorts before the hospital became the muse for his first feature. “The entire film was based on the location,” he reveals. “It is now, as in the film, half-abandoned. We went into buildings that had been empty for 20 years, where mental patients had been housed. It’s actually one of the greatest locations I’ve ever seen, a horror film waiting to happen.” In fact, only one set had to be built- the Dead Pit chamber itself. This allowed Leonard and producer/co-writer Gimel Everett to take full advantage of the extant atmosphere. “We utilized the location’s design to the lighting requirements, to give it a neo Gothic look. The film’s got a real striking visual design, using the natural things the location offered.”

In fact, on at least one unnerving occasion, the filmmakers found life imitating art a little too closely in an incident following the shooting of the movie’s earthquake scene. “We shot the scene, and went back to the hotel to sleep.” Leonard recounts. “And as soon as we arrived back on the set the next day, a 6.1 earthquake epic entered directly where we were. The funny thing was that the building we were in had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, killing about 300 mental patients- there were almost as many casualties there as in the rest of San Francisco-and we found out that the victims of that earthquake were put in a mass grave right on the site, which was similar to the pit in our film. That was pretty scary.ā€


Produced for well under $1 million. The Dead Pit delivers the ghoulish goods and has garnered praise for its big-budget look. The film introduces several new faces to the fear filmmaking arena, among them Ed Martinez, director of the film’s special FX. For the 29-year-old Martinez, The Dead Pit is a stepping stone to bigger pictures. Still, he’s proud of his association with writer/director Brett Leonard and the others involved with this project. Though a newcomer to horror features. Martinez has a decade of experience in commercials, rock videos and other smaller endeavors. He was tapped for The Dead Pit in part due to his reputation within the San Francisco Bay area film industry.

“A friend of a friend recommended me to Brett,” Martinez begins. “We set up an interview, and I went down to see Brett and his partner Dead Pit co-producer Gimel Everett. I showed them samples of my work, then we talked. We seemed to have an on-line. on-track kind of communication, because as we discussed the film. I seemed to share his vision of what he wanted. I’d suggest something, and he’d say, ‘Yes. that’s what I want exactly.”


From the first he had to grapple with two enemies: time and money. The first hurdle involved time limitations. We had to move very quickly on this There was a rush. because the picture’s main financial backer wanted it done in time for the Milan Film Festival.” Normally, a script is sent to an FX person well before he or she gets hired. Based on what he reads in the script. the FX expert will do a breakdown listing the FX and how much each will cost. In essence. the breakdown is a budget, and if the FX artist wins the bid, that quoted price will be his operating expenses for the movie.

“But because this was my first feature.” explains Martinez, “as well as the producers and we had so little time, we didn’t work that way. I hadn’t even read the script when I was hired and began to assemble my effects workshop from the ground up. There are literally hundreds of effects in the movie, yet we had to move rapidly forward. I was flying blind -no breakdown to go by. and I’d never done some of the effects called for. Principal photography started in two weeks, so I had very little preproduction time.” With The Dead Pit. Martinez’s creative focus was on the film’s spectacular finale in a kind of otherworldly Apocalypse, a tower filled with holy water blessed by a lunatic nun crashes into the asylum’s clock tower building. Because zombies take to holy water like vampires take to garlic, the undead creatures begin to disintegrate in terms of FX. Martinez broke the finale down into the meltdown sequences, makeup FX and the pyrotechnic model FX or the three categories, the meltdowns were perhaps the most challenging.

Jeremy Slate as Dr. Gerald Swan
Jeremy Slate as Dr. Gerald Swan

The Dead Pit’s exposure at the Milan Film Festival came to the rescue. On the strength of an 18-minute trailer. Skouras Pictures picked the movie up for distribution rights. Armed with the presale largesse, the filmmakers went back to reshoot some scenes that December. The four or five-month hiatus gave Martinez the time he needed to reline his techniques and come up with a few new tricks.

“There were numerous meltdowns in the script, but because of budget limitations, several had to be cut. Martinez discloses, “which left us with four. The first three were zombies, and the last was Dr. Ramzi. His was definitely the best of the melt downs. Though I worked just as hard on all the others, they ended up as research and development for the Ramzi melt.” The zombies were attempted first. “The core of a zombie head would be a stone skull on an armature,” he describes. “The skull itself was made of Ultracal #30. a gypsum substance that hardens to the consistency of cement-hence the name stone. We then would layer on everything from wax to different densities of gelatin. I used multiple colors, pieces of red wax for veins. pink wax for muscle tissue, and even white gelatin for eyeballs! Finally, the whole head would be placed in a mold, and gelatin poured in to form the surface of the head.”

The actual meltdown filming needed time-lapse photography. What requires only a few seconds screen time took as long as 20 to 40 minutes. “We’d have these rented butane heaters,” laughs Martinez going at full blast right beside the camera, and it would still take up to 40 minutes! Yet other times, in the summer heat, the heads had to be refrigerated or they would melt.” Shooting was anything but pleasant. “It was a nightmare!” Martinez groans. “We had scores of zombies, so to get the makeup job done. I resorted to a kind of assembly line. People started dropping out for a variety of reasons, particularly after they discovered the physical conditions of the patients. They had to have their heads shaved, be very uncomfortable with very little clothing on at night, and be smeared with a methylcellulous slime to simulate formaldehyde.


Since standing around all night in a formaldehyde nightshirt isn’t the average person’s idea of show biz. the zombie count dipped to critical levels. “AL a certain point.” Martinez smiles. “I had to start digging up friends as replacements to fill the gaps. They may not be my friends anymore! Martinez wants to give full credit to his FX team, who worked with him every step of the way under grueling conditions. “Guy Conrad was a great help.” he praises. “I worked for him as a teenager. Mick Wick was also an invaluable assistant, as were others. They all worked incredibly long hours for little or no pay. Martinez is particularly proud of the Ramzi meltdown, a demise that became a totally different approach from the others. It evolved. he candidly recalls, because “after we wrapped principal photography, we weren’t on track with the Ramzi melt. We just didn’t have all the effects down quite right, perhaps because of time limitations. The last week of shooting. we were right to the wire. I hardly got any sleep! When we looked at the footage, we decided we could get better results if we had more time and money.”

“The suck down head. he elaborates, “uses a vacuum to achieve results. First, you have a skull, neck and shoulders made of expandable polyurethane foam. The cranium is just like a real human skull. painted to simulate reality-red for veins and so forth. The skull is covered with an exterior latex skin that looks real. with hair, eyebrows and the rest. The exterior latex skin is what the audience sees, but underneath that the skull is perforated with tiny holes, and also tubing through which to pump liquids. The real secret is a half-inch or so of empty space between the skull and the outer latex skin more than enough space to allow the skin to shrink.”

A vacuum pump is placed underneath the whole Ramzi head and shoulders. When the machine is turned on.” Martinez details, “the skin sucks down to the skull via all those tiny holes. On camera it appears as Ramzi physically shrinks before your eyes. Time lapse photography isn’t necessary. The tubing in the head pups liquids and smoke to complete the illusion.”

“We were supposed to have a topless zombie, but the woman we cast backed out at the last minute, after I had molded her breasts and everything. Martinez reveals. After she saw how awful the zombie makeup was, she said she chin’t want to do it because she wanted to be a ‘beautiful dead person. So we got Shauna McCullough, a local dancer and porn actress


Model Building
Since he was under the gun. Martinez arrived at a novel is simple solution prioritize the FX. I tried to determine,” he notes. “which effects were going to take the most time. and which effects were going to have to be researched. I had never done high-speed photography with pyrotechnics on a model building, for example.”

The model building and pyrotechnic phase of the FX offered new challenges and problems. To begin with. Martinez generously praises his model-building assistants. Like the makeup/meltdown people. they gave their all in bringing good results to the screen.

“I didn’t do every bit of the effects.” Martine points out. After all. I was the overall director. I was mainly responsible for the makeup effects. On the models. I did a lot of the final detailing The art director. Ransom Ricket and the construction Coordinator. Glen Kimmel, were heavily involved in the models building, Others contributed substantially. including Clair Sherrar. an architectural model builder who fashioned all the window frames for the asylum clock tower structure, and Kirk Linginfelter. who assisted in the model building. The water tower legs were made of lead, the kind church windows are made of. We used very little glue on that model so its legs could bend. twist and Splay is a realistic way when it exploded.

The explosion itself was all matter of trial and error. A group of us, including Ransom. Glen and director of pictography Mary Collins, went out to a parking lot and built a mock-up of the tower model we were going to blow up. Then I made a dozen or so little bombs with various amounts of gunpowder, aluminum powder. iron filings and whatnot. It was a matter of experimentation. Smoke density and so on. When I arrived at the right formula We went ahead and shot the scene for real.” Perhaps the movies only small setback involved a shy actress who pulled a Brooke Shields number on the crew.

Brett Leonard

Produced by
Gimel Everett

Written by
Brett Leonard
Gimel Everett

Jeremy Slate as Dr. Gerald Swan
Cheryl Lawson as Jane Doe
Stephen Gregory Foster as Christian Meyers
Danny Gochnauer as Dr. Ramzi

Makeup Department
Martin de Clercq hair stylist (as Martin DeClercq) / makeup artist (as Martin DeClercq)
Helen Mason .assistant makeup artist
David W. Mosher .special makeup effects artist: sculptor, moldmaker, fabricator (uncredited)
Michael Wick .special makeup effects artist: sculptor, moldmaker, fabricator (uncredited)


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