Graveyard Shift (1987-1988) Dilogy

Night brings out the hunger in people, especially mysterious vampire cabbie Stephen Tsepes (Silvio Oliviero) pushes his Black Cat cab through the dark, Stygian streets of the city (actually Toronto, although the film never states that), collecting fares and victims with equal dexterity. Things move along pretty well until he sinks his fangs into a video director named Michelle (played with an edgy, urban precision by Helen Papas) who, it turns out, is dying of an incurable disease and rather welcomes the vampire’s bite. Before it’s over, an undead romance develops between Michelle and the vampire, with the woman’s estranged husband and a vampire-hunter friend on one side against a legion of undead bloodsuckers on the other.


GRAVEYARD SHIFT is Ciccoritti’s personal vision of vampirism, filmed at the end of 1985 with funds raised from New York producers Arnold H. Bruck and Stephen R. Flaks. Also shot on a fast schedule and cheap budget, Ciccoritti’s story of a big city cab driver cursed to live forever is released by Shapiro Entertainment.

“The city is the myth,” explained Ciccoritti of his approach to GRAVEYARD SHIFT. “The city is a mythic place where anything can happen. In this particular city the vampire is tired of living forever. I’ve sort of cross-pollinated vampire mythology with the myth of Dionysius, the god of rejuvenation, who was continually killed to be reborn and live forever. He’s a contemporary god.


“My vampire is neither the Universal or Hammer studios’ monster. He isn’t a handsome, romantic, Byronic, Frank Langella hero. There is a little bit of that but at the same time he’s something more ancient and mythic. Instead of being attracted to just anybody, young virgins or what have you, he’s attracted to women who are close to death and are afraid of dying. He forms with them a symbiotic relationship. He gets their blood and at the same time his bites restore them.”

For example, Jerry Ciccoritti and his partner, Robert Bergman, figured they were going about things the right way. The two Toronto men wanted to get into feature filmmaking, but they knew better than to plunge right in, so they formed a production house called Lightshow Communications and busied themselves for three years with advertising films and commercials. Then, when they were convinced they knew what they were doing, they worked up a few ideas for movie projects and began trying to drum up financing. For the better part of a year, they traveled the United States and Canada, taking meetings, showing proposals, having lunches with potential financers. At the end of the year, they had managed to interest quite a few people in what they were doing. Not enough, however, to get a feature off the ground. They ended up back in Toronto with lots of good ideas but not enough money.


There are plenty of things to do in a situation like that. You can rail and moan and curse the fates. You can go out and get loaded and find yourself nose-to-tile on an unfamiliar floor. You can just say the hell with it, throw in the towel and go out searching for that good day job your folks always wanted you to have. Or, if you’re Jerry Ciccoritti, you can make the movie anyway. “The company was practically broke from all our business trips to Montreal, Los Angeles and New York. We even went down to Mexico for awhile to raise some money,” recalls Ciccoritti. “So we were sitting around one Friday afternoon. I just slapped my knee and said, What the hell, how much film do we have in the fridge?’ And Robert said, “Oh, I don’t know, about 30,000 feet, I guess.’ I said, ‘Well, Robert, is that enough to shoot a 90-minute film?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’

“I said, ‘Fine. Tonight’s Friday. I’m going home, and Monday I’m going to come in with a script. We’re going to spend next week casting it, and then we’re going to be shooting in two weeks.’ Robert said, ‘OK.'”

Psycho Girls (1986)
Ciccoritti laughs at the memory. “That’s literally what we did. We put the thing together with about two weeks prep, and we cast several friends of ours, some of whom were real actors-not professional actors, but on their way-and some who were just friends. And we begged, borrowed and stole costumes, props and sets, and we did Psycho Girls. It eventually cost $130,000, but we finished and sold the film for about $20,000. That’s what we actually spent. Everybody worked on deferred salaries, as did the equipment rental house and the lab.”

Psycho Girls
Psycho Girls

Ciccoritti shot Psycho Girls in Toronto in 1984 for just $18,000 in eleven days (with $100,000 of the budget deferred). “It’s a funny film, very tongue-in cheek,” Ciccoritti says.  The story of two sisters, murdering psychopaths, the film is released by Canon International, and was shot primarily at Toronto’s deserted Lakeshore Psychiatric Institute, where much movie-making has been had for a song. Previous productions have used its peculiar ambience to good effect. In Ciccoritti’s stylishly violent tale, penned with his producer Michael Bockner, no one survives, not even the narrator, who turns out to be a dead man. “I rented Re-Animator, and I think Stuart Gordon and I might be the same person, because Re-Animator is not only very similar to Psycho Girls, but it has exactly the same credits sequence. We were watching it with a few friends, and all my friends turned to me and said, ‘Who did the credits sequence first, you or him?'”

Ciccoritti all but dismisses his first effort. “It was strictly a means to an end,” he said, “to establish a name for ourselves. In many ways it’s just another run of the mill horror film, made by the numbers. With GRAVEYARD SHIFT, the movie was photographed and co-edited by Bergman, who had performed similar duties on Psycho Girls. Special makeup FX on both projects were supplied by Toronto native Tim Mogg who, since getting his feature film start with Ciccoritti, has gone on to work on several other movies and the TV series Night Heat. He is also profiled in a videotape called Splatter, a documentary released in 1986, for which Ciccoritti wrote the narration.

Graveyard Shift (no relation to the Stephen King story) distinguishes itself by its stylish and elegant look, its stately pace, and a story that presents a few philosophical and moral questions and observations, all done without pretension and without getting in the way of plenty of sex and scary stuff. That approach is no surprise after you hear Ciccoritti tell about the filmmakers that have influenced him.


“My favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick and Pier Pasolini, because those two reflect my basic interests,’ Ciccoritti states. “Pasolini reflects my interest in mythology, and Kubrick reflects my interest in formal elegance and the grace of the image. I thought The Shining was brilliant. While many people thought it wasn’t scary, it scared the pants off me. Rosemary’s Baby is another example of a horror movie that has some formal elegance. Robert Wise’s The Haunting is another one of my favorites, and I loved the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur pictures. They influenced me more than the fast-cutting horror flicks that are popular today.”

“Graveyard Shift came from a particular image that I had while resting in bed watching a music video show,” Ciccoritti explains. “There was a Bruce Springsteen video on, and while the clip was playing, my mind just wandered. I had an image of a down-home, middle American guy wearing a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled up, nailing something together. And as this song ended, in my daydream I had a zoom out, and I saw what he was building: a coffin. It was his own coffin, and he was a vampire. So the thought struck me-how about a vampire as a working stiff?

“When I started to write the film, the taxicab was just a symbol of his being your average Joe, the elegant count and everything. And from there, I kept the hack and moved away from the idea of a vampire as a working Joe to the film that was eventually made.”


You might ask yourself what Ciccoritti was doing lazing around in bed watching music videos instead of going out and getting some work done. At the time, he had a back injury that kept him out of circulation for a couple of weeks. As painful as it was, though, it worked out for the best.

Prior to his injury, a couple of producers named Arnold H. Bruck and Stephen R. Flacks had run into Canadian producer Robert Lantos at the Cannes Film Festival. Lantos was a friend of Ciccoritti, and when Bruck and Flacks told Lantos they were looking for someone to do a picture, Lantos whipped out a cassette of Psycho Girls that Ciccoritti had given him and invited them to take a look. They looked, were impressed, and flew to Toronto to talk to Ciccoritti about financing his next movie. (Bruck had been down the horror film road before, having served as executive producer on Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.)

“We met up, they liked me, and I liked them,” remembers Ciccoritti, “but we didn’t have anything set to go right then. This was June ’85. Then, in August, I had an accident and threw my back out for two weeks. So I wrote Graveyard Shift to keep my mind off my back, because I couldn’t get out of bed.”

By the time he recovered, he had completed the script. “I read it over and thought, ‘Gee, this isn’t too bad. I’ll call up Arnold and Steve. Maybe this is a thing they’d want to do.’ They came up to Toronto a couple of days later and I read them the whole script, acted out the whole thing. When I finished, they literally reached for their checkbook and said, ‘Fine. When do we start?’”


Shot in seven weeks, Graveyard Shift began its theatrical run earlier this year, playing in theaters both here and in Europe. (In Paris, the film was shown as Central Park Driver, which may give an insight into French perceptions of America.) “The final version of Graveyard Shift was cut to be a lot more commercial,” Ciccoritti claims. The ending, especially, originally contained several scenes that are not in the release print.

“I’m quite pleased with the film the way it stands. Or, rather, I’m not too disappointed with it,” maintains Ciccoritti. “A lot of stuff didn’t make it to the final version of the film, a lot of the elegance and a lot of the more classy stuff, but I’m realistic enough to admit that it is, in many ways, just another horror movie. And of course the producer, the man who pays for it, is the man who owns it. Being a producer myself, I’d be crazy not to agree with that. Arnie Bruck has supported me tremendously in my work. On a few aspects of Graveyard Shift we had a disagreement, he recut the film, and that’s fine. The fact that he and I are making another film and have others planned shows that I have no bitterness at all.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Ciccoritti has no bitterness is that he’s able to take another shot at elegance and class in Graveyard Shift II: Flesh and Fantasy, which was set to begin filming soon. “We decided to do Graveyard Shift II last August,” the filmmaker reveals. “The idea was to go further with the classy aspect of it, that kind of thing. I’m trying to do something different visually, and the producers recognize and support that. Did you see Beverly Hills Cop II? Fun, yes, but there was a cut every two seconds. There’s much too much ‘band video’ in movies these days. I’m trying to get away from that. I prefer something that’s a bit more stately. It’s easier to reach those grace notes.

Jerry Ciccoritti
Jerry Ciccoritti

“With Graveyard Shift, we’ve proven we can be commercial,” he adds.  “It’s got a vampire, it’s got scares, it’s got all this stuff that guarantees that people are going to be interested. But now, let’s take some of the themes that we broached in the first film and see if we can go deeper. The producers are behind me 100 percent, so that’s what we’re trying to do with our second one.”

Ciccoritti and Lightshow Communications also have other film projects in various stages of development, which leads to an old question often posed to young horror filmmakers, especially those with the kinds of artistic aspirations Ciccoritti has. Did he choose to make a horror movie because that was the easiest way to break into 5 the feature business, or did he do it because he was naturally attracted to the genre? It’s a question that causes many nascent auteurs to hesitate, but Ciccoritti answers immediately.

“To tell you the truth, both,” he affirms. “I love horror films. And, just by coincidence, horror movies happen to be the easiest things to break in with. If I loved love stories and love stories were the easiest things, that would be a nice coincidence, but that’s not the case.

“I’m very happy and comfortable working in the horror genre,” Ciccoritti concludes. “I really believe that horror films can be the modern Greek myths. I mean, when you sit down and read Euripides or Aeschylus, the most horrible things in the world happen, terrifying things. When gods walk into town, as Dionysius walks into Thebes, we’re talking about an actual demon challenging the preconceptions of ancient Greece. Horror movies can do the same thing today. If you sit down and watch something like Rosemary’s Baby or The Haunting, or the original Cat People, you get the same effect. That’s the direction I’d like to go in.”

(In the Chill of the Night) Music by Nicholas Pike Performed by Steve Augeri and Caroline Martin

Graveyard Shift (1987)
Jerry Ciccoritti

Robert Bergman
Michael Bockner
Jerry Ciccoritti

Jerry Ciccoritti

Michael A. Miranda (credited as Silvio Oliviero) as Stephen Tsepes
Helen Papas as Michelle Hayden
Cliff Stoker as Eric Hayden
Dorin Ferber as Gilda
Dan Rose as Robert Kopple
John Haslett Cuff as Det. Winsome
Don James as Det. Smith
Michael Bokner as Coronor

The Understudy: Graveyard Shift II (1988)
Jerry Ciccoritti

Arnold H. Bruck
Stephen R. Flaks

Jerry Ciccoritti

Michael A. Miranda as Baisze (as Silvio Oliviero)
Wendy Gazelle as Camilla/Patti
Mark Soper as Matthew
Ilse von Glatz as Ash
Tim Kelleher as Duke/Larry
Leslie Kelly as Martina (as Leslie Kelly)
Paul Amato as Alan
Carl Alacchi as Ramoan/Apache

Cinefantastique v17n03-04

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