Under the leadership of their ancient and powerful leader Jozek Mardulak, a colony of vampires seek a peaceful life in the desolate desert town of Purgatory. Key to the transition is the town’s artificial-blood making facility and it is just not working. Mardulak summons the human designer of the plant, who brings his wife and two young daughters along for what he thinks will be a pleasant desert vacation. Soon, he and his family are caught up in a civil war as another vampire elder, who abhors the idea of vampires being anything other than predators, organizes a revolution, and a descendant of the Van Helsing family arrives intent on destroying all vampires.
The original script by John Burgess was not intended as a Western parody, although it contained the same basic premise of an isolated town of vampires. “It was meant to be an answer to Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS,” said Hickox. When Vestron offered Hickox the chance to direct the film, they asked if he wanted to rewrite the script. “During the rewriting, all these Western cliches came up,” said Hickox. “Then when filming, we decided to dress everyone up like cowboys.”
Of course, cowboys and vampires make for a strange mixture, but part of the fun of the project was finding ways to make the two sets of cliches work together. For example: how does one justify a shootout between characters impervious to ordinary bullets? Hickox’s answer: wooden bullets. “I know my lore,” he said, explaining why he avoided the DARK SHADOWS error of using silver bullets, which (as any fan knows) work only on werewolves. Added Hickox, “They wooden bullets actually work. The Germans manufactured them during the war because they were running out of metal. I didn’t know that when I wrote it; somebody told me afterwards.”
Another sly touch is the casting of David Carradine, whose role in the philosophical western series KUNG FU hardly leads one to think of him as the aristocratic Count Mardulak-until one recalls that David’s father, John Carradine, played Count Dracula on several occasions, including one of the few previous vampire westerns, BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966). Said Carradine, “I play it like my father would have, in that ‘grand’ old style of acting. As soon as I read the script, I kept thinking of the way my father would do it.”
The film was shot entirely on location in Moab, Utah, during four weeks last summer which lent an authentic atmosphere and helped keep the budget down. “It was a tough movie because it was low budget, but it doesn’t look cheap,” said Hickox, a former English resident who admits he had never been out in the American countryside before going on location. “As an outsider, you pick up the cliches better-you aren’t afraid of them. Which is why, I think, Sergio Leone could make a great western.”
One scene called for an old fashioned crane shot, with the camera rising from behind a small hill to reveal a wide valley below-similar to scenes in dozens of Hollywood Westerns. “We couldn’t afford a crane that would go that high,” said Hickox. Fortunately, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE was filming nearby. “We were driving back from the location, wondering how we were going to get that shot, and down the other side of the road coming toward us was a Titan Crane, the one we wanted, going home from RAIDERS III. We pulled it over-hijacked the truck and got our shot. Luckily, our producer Jeff Richard knew the guy driving the truck.”
A concern of a more personal but less substantial nature arose when Hickox’s directorial debut, WAXWORK, opened the same weekend he was about to start shooting SUNDOWN. “That was terrifying,” he said. “Can you imagine-just about to start and people ring up to say, Hollywood Reporter called you the worst director ever.’ I thought Vestron might read the reviews and throw me off the film.”
Portraying vampire leader Count Mardulak, David Carradine admonishes the dead townsfolk for considering a return to drinking human hemoglobin. After all, didn’t he rescue them from their predatory, bloodsucking ways? Hasn’t he spent all his money to bring them here? To build this town? To manufacture synthetic blood so they could live in peace alongside their natural food source, humans?
Threatening clouds seem to gather overhead in response to Carradine’s speech. As winds whip around the vampires, director Hickox calls for several more takes and some reaction shots of the undead crowd to edit in later. Meanwhile, two dozen onlookers and technicians applaud Carradine’s performance. Vampire bodyguard Chris Caputo meanders over to discuss some fine points behind the action and introduces Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell.
Campbell has the distinct honor of portraying Van Helsing’s grandson, aptly named Van Helsing. “Van Helsing, being the descendant of the great vampire hunter who chased Dracula around, has a family destiny to live up to-even though socially, he’s pretty much a nerd,” explains Campbell, decked out in goofy moustache and suit. “He’s very sharp when it comes to vampires. Ask him anything about a vampire, he can tell you. He thinks killing them is cool. He just doesn’t function in the real world.”
When the awkward nerd meets sultry vampiress Deborah Foreman, his feet predictably turn to jelly. “Like I said, he’s naive in the ways of the world, but not in the ways of the vampire,” Campbell grins. “He’s about to become kissy-face with this girl he’s falling for, and he catches their reflection in his car hubcap but only sees his own. He goes, ‘Oh my God, she’s a vampire!’ He never thought of this-hey, she’s a little pale, but no big deal. So instantly, he pins her down with a stake aimed at her heart. He keeps them in a holster. He’s like Rambo, only with vampire-killing stuff.”
“Sandy’s been a vampire for just six months, and she’s kind of confused,” is how Deborah Foreman puts it during Sundown’s Moab, Utah location filming. Sitting at a bowling alley snack bar on a Sunday evening as cast and crew relax in preparation for the next day’s start of all-night shooting, she expounds upon her character’s inner conflicts. “Sandy was converted to vampiredom by Mardulak (David Carradine) himself. She’s dealing with human feelings, and losing them. When Van Helsing (Bruce Campbell) comes to town, well, he’s a male human to her, and she wants to know if she can still please a man.”
The skies open up, and another downpour sends Campbell jogging to his dressing room, where he explains the comedic aspects of Sun. down. “It’s hard to define this whole comedy thing,” he marvels. “I still have a character, he still has a mission, he’s still serious about everything. In Evil Dead, Ash goes from being an idiot to a fearless idiot trying to get by, day to day. In Evil Dead II, Ash breaks plates and bottles over his own head, but it’s not played funny. If you did it laughing and smiling, the audience just wouldn’t accept it. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s funny, you still have to play it straight. Otherwise, it’s a farce.
“I’m from the Sam Raimi school of moviemaking,” defends Campbell when discussing the differences between his past and present experiences. “Sam is very technical. The camera’s in your face. You’ve got to hit very precise marks. He’ll do 10 takes to get it right. This is a little different. Tony Hickox is very fast, but he’s still extremely aware and gets on you if you start slouching off or sliding into another character. He’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re Ashing out on me.’ ”
Suddenly, Dana Ashbrook, a thespian veteran of Waxwork, Return of the Living Dead, Part II and the upcoming Girlfriend from Hell, enters the small dressing room with a Scrabble board tucked under his arm and a challenge for the ever ready Campbell. “I get vamped in a jail cell. M. Emmet Walsh bites me, but I live in this one…for eternity!” beams the 21-year-old. “For this part, I’m pretty much playing myself, a sarcastic wiseguy. Tony Hickox tells me how he wants it, and if it doesn’t work, he changes it. He’s a real actor’s director.”
Vampire has built a retirement town for the undead. “We wear dark glasses and number 100 sun block,” Carradine deadpans. “We can come out in sunlight if we wear hats and gloves. Basically, we’re trying to stop biting people. I have a factory that produces synthetic blood. There’s a certain contingency among us that wants to go back to the old ways. They stage a mutiny, and we have a war between the good and the bad vampires. The good win.
“It’s a send-up of vampires. Most of ’em are, these days. You never see a serious vampire picture anymore,” the actor muses. “It’s an old genre that people don’t take seriously. The only way you can sell it is to say to the audience, ‘I don’t take it seriously, do you?’ There’s also a secret in the movie,” he adds from the doorway while caressing his wife and manager, Gail Jensen. “I’m really Count Dracula. All the way through the story, you think my name is Mardulak. He’s not telling anyone he’s Dracula. At the end, you learn who he is and that he’s 1,000 years old. It’s the first movie ever where Dracula is the hero.”
Leaving the Carradines and wandering the darkened desert set is like strolling through an actual Old West ghost town, where the agonizing moans of victims from ancient gunfights is almost audible within each gust of wind. Up ahead, director Hickox helms a scene in which vampire M. Emmet Walsh encounters Dana Ashbrook and Elizabeth Gracen (1982’s Miss America). Ashbrook and Gracen have just seen Walsh decapitate their friend, and they’re pretty freaked out. “My character, Alice, came out of this dream and now she’s in hell, vampire wonderland!” explains the former beauty queen.
Hickox ruins the moment to tour the set and point out the custom Y-shaped vampire straws specially designed to fit over fangs while drinking synthetic blood called Neck-tarine. “Sundown has turned into an out-and-out adventure comedy,” surmises the director, “with the feel of a spaghetti Western. My lifelong desire is to make good vampire movies, the ultimate vampire movie, which I think this is.”
The film’s effects and makeup are being kept to a minimum by Hickox, who already tried his hand at excess in WAXWORK, particularly the blood drenched Castle Dracula sequence. This time, in keeping with the film’s western motif and comic tone, he’s aiming for a broader audience and hoping for a PG-13 rating, although he suspects the ratings board will hand the film an R anyway, because of its horrific elements.
“I learned a lot from WAXWORK, particularly to save the best for last,” said Hickox “On this one, I gave myself time. It pays off; the best stuff’s at the end, and that’s what you remember when you leave the cinema.”
On location in Utah was the makeup effects unit, under the direction of Tony Gardner (THE BLOB). Gardner’s unit provided several insert shots and two key sequences: a transformation of about 20 vampires into bats and the fiery destruction of the evil vampires beneath the shadow of a crucifix at the film’s conclusion.
The transformation sequence, storyboarded and directed by Gardner, features a full-body spandex bat suit, with a 14-foot aluminum armature wingspan, and a series of progressive makeups which grow darker and more clean shaven, matching the gargoyle appearance of the mechanical and stop-motion bats provided by Tony Doublin. As a humorous touch, Hickox requested that the vampires retain their hairstyles throughout the transformation, making them recognizable in bat form.
“We tried to keep some semblance of human physiology,” said Doublin. “At first, [Hickox] wanted realistic bats, basically furballs with wings. As I started drawing, he’d say “Well, like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.’ He really started going for the gargoyle look.” Doublin contributed a handful of effective stop-motion shots, most notably a continuous 47-second motion-control shot of three bats flying past the camera and speaking in lipsync animation.
Gardner explains Sundown’s bat transformations. “Basically, we’re doing a montage of progressive appliance makeups,” notes Gardner. “We’re trying to build up a sense of vampires waking up and starting to change into bats, so we came up with a very fast sequence instead of slowing down the story and saying, “Well, we’re going to show you an effect now.’ Starting with wide shots, the sequence will progressively get faster and tighter,” notes the FX wizard, who garners his first second unit directing opportunity with the scene in question.
“We didn’t have access to a lot of the actors in LA because they were trying to cast local people out here,” interjects Gardner’s associate Loren Gitthens.
“So instead of just doing a lot of generic appliances,” continues the 25-year-old Gardner, “for people we never met and that we could never make fangs for, we made teeth for the guys in our own shop. The whole makeup crew and their wives and girlfriends, even my wife Cindy, came out here and got to be in that cave scene.”
David Carradine as Jozek Mardulak
Bruce Campbell as Robert Van Helsing
Morgan Brittany as Sarah Harrison
Jim Metzler as David Harrison
Maxwell Caulfield as Shane Harrison
Deborah Foreman as Sandy White
Emmet Walsh as Mort Bisby
John Ireland as Ethan Jefferson
Dana Ashbrook as Jack
John Hancock as Quinton Canada
Marion Eaton as Anna Trotsberg
Dabbs Greer as Otto Trotsberg
Bert Remsen as Milt Bisby
Sunshine Parker as Merle Bisby
Helena Carroll as Madge
Elizabeth Gracen as Alice
Christopher Bradley as Chaz
Kathy MacQuarrie Martin as Burgundy
Jack Eiseman as Nigel
George Buck Flower as Bailey
Erin Gourlay as Juliet Harrison
Vanessa Pierson as Gwendolyn Harrison
Cinefantastique v20n01-02 (Nov 1989)
The Bloody Best of Fangoria#09