The Laughing Dead (1990) Retrospective

Father O’Sullivan is a Catholic priest who has lost his faith in God and who cannot forget the nun with whom he once had an affair (and a son). O’Sullivan serves as tour guide for archaeological student Cal, New Agers Wilbur and Clarisse Lemming, runaway Laurie, and tourists Dozois and Frost on a bus trip to Mexico. No one is more surprised than O’Sullivan when his love, Tessie, also boards the bus with her bratty son Ivan. In Mexico, Cal reveals his knowledge of a crucial ancient text, just in time for the Day of the Dead festivities. Meanwhile, evil Dr. Um-tzec is planning an apotheosis for himself that will culminate in his incarnation as the Death God, and what he needs to accomplish this is the hearts of sacrificial children … lots and lots of hearts. While Father O’Sullivan grapples with the emotions of seeing Tessie again, he is approached by Dr. Um-tzec to perform an exorcism; but Um-tzec has deceived him and O’Sullivan is thereafter occasionally possessed by the Death God. Fighting the possession, O’Sullivan tries to rescue Ivan, who is regarded as a perfect sacrificial victim. Now Tessie, Cal, Laurie, and the bickering Lemmings must pull together to stop Dr. Um-tzec and O’Sullivan from completing the apotheosis ritual.

Not that I’m superstitious, but every seven years, I seem to change careers. My first was as an avant garde composer, my second a science-fiction, fantasy and finally horror novelist. The third seven-year stretch was coming up, so I showed up in Hollywood a year and a half ago with a vague notion of doing something in film. I took meetings, jacuzzed with grim determination, and flashed my fake Rolex watch at all the right people, but no new career emerged. One day, I read in Twilight Zone magazine that I was one of the ancestors of the literary splatterpunk movement. A number of other ancestors were mentioned, but they were all either twice my age or dead. I began to feel like a has been. Then, one day in June 1988, it all changed. Nine months later, much to my own astonishment, I looked on as my first film, The Laughing Dead, screened for a crowd of avid genre fans.


Lex Nakashima was the next person to show up. He was a young producer who had developed a number of large scale fantasy projects, and an old friend. “We have to gain credibility in this town,” I said. “We have to make a movie – no matter how small-scale–so that we can gain the clout to raise money for the huge projects we’ve both been dreaming about. A horror movie would be nice.”

“Can we set it in Oaxaca?” Lex asked.

I thought about it. Oaxaca, Mexico, is the home of the festival of the laughing dead, a strange blend of Catholicism and pre-Columbian religions- people dressed as skeletons dancing through the streets, celebrants feasting over the graves of their ancestors. “Sure,” I decided. “I can write that.” My mind was racing wildly, trying to figure out a plot.

“Fine,” said Lex, “I’ll get a second mortgage on my house. You’ll be the executive producer, and I’ll produce.” At his best, Lex is one of the most decisive people I know.

Lex went to a New Age bookstore in Santa Monica and came back with a couple hundred dollars’ worth of books about the culture of the ancient Mayans, and in a few weeks’ time, I had the beginnings of a viable story. I wanted to have a lot of spectacle, I wanted a lot of black humor, and I wanted colorful, imaginative gore that would really appeal to the crowd. Could we really do it on $250,000? Probably not, I told myself, although I did not then envision that the budget would eventually reach seven figures.


Who could direct the film? I thought of another friend, Wendy Ikeguchi, who had been an assistant director on projects as varied as Wisdom and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. Would she care to direct? I inquired, knowing full well that although I had conceived the story and already mentally cast it, I didn’t at that time know much about the technical aspects of directing. I only knew what I wanted to see on the screen.

“Direct it yourself,” Wendy told me.

I didn’t quite trust myself yet. I tried to talk Wendy into it for some weeks, but to no avail. She’s a member of the Director’s Guild and, in the final analysis, we couldn’t afford their rates. Instead, she signed on as executive producer and directorial advisor, in which capacity she could tell me what to do in no uncertain terms. “You’re supposed to say ‘action’ now, Somtow, she reprimanded me when my mind started wandering one day. We disagreed about many things in fact, it might be fair to say that we fought like cats and dogs but her input proved indispensible to the project.


We needed someone to design the production, someone who really understood the tone of the movie, who knew a lot about pre-Columbian cultures, and who wouldn’t be fazed at the number and variety of sets needed in The Laughing Dead: the Mayan temple interior, the labyrinthine caves, seedy hotel lobbies and scenes of macabre revelry. Ryan Ellner, a former roommate of mine who worked for Freddy’s Nightmares as, among other things, a maker of Freddy gloves, introduced me to Philip Vasels and Diane Hughes. They’re responsible for both sets in Los Angeles and on location in the western-set ‘town’ of Old Tuscon, Arizona, were designed and constructed by the team. They built the seemingly endless underground caverns and, for the film’s finale, the Mayan ball court of death.

Philip later confided, “I thought, Oh no, one of those movies.’ But after I read the script, I realized there was a lot more to it.” I knew we had hired the right people when one day Philip called to tell me, “I don’t dare go into that inner room. I’m too scared.”

He meant the inner chamber of Dr. Um-Tzec’s office, the scene of a demonic possession and a kinky, bloody heart exchange sequence, the dark midpoint of the film. What transpires in the room is the hinge, the corrupt center of the entire story. It’s a metaphor for the equation of sex with death. When I learned how disturbed Philip was by the meaning of the room, I knew we were on the same wavelength. Despite the flashiness of some of the other sets, the Dr. Um-Tzec “suite– the death god’s office and the inner room-is Vasels and Hughes’ most inspired creation.

The next person I called was the man with whom I used to share a house when I lived on the East Coast: writer, raconteur and madman Tim Sullivan Beside being a very fine writer of everything from elegant horror to “V” novels, Tim Sullivan had just done a bit of acting, a PBS thing in his native Philadelphia. I was thinking of Tim for the role of a Catholic priest who, tormented by guilt over having seduced a nun 12 years before, turns into a crazed killer when possessed by Um-Tzec, the Mayan death god. Tim had wanted to be a monster since childhood. Although he was a little surprised at being asked to drop everything he was doing, fly out from Philadelphia and act, he was used to my eccentricities. He was the first person (aside from Lex) to actually believe there might be something to my claim that we were about to make a movie. Two months later, he was on my doorstep, suitcase in hand, making the sign of the cross at my neighbors.

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Many of my friends are writers, so we soon had several well known ones roped in for cameos, everyone from science fiction author Ed Bryant (whose head gets crushed by a bus in the film) to longtime collector and fan Forry Ackerman, who does a charming little turn as a corpse. As other scribes ranging from Tim (The Anubis Gates) Powers to film critic Bill Warren began volunteering to die horribly, I realized that we had a pretty good gimmick going.

Two weeks before we were scheduled to start shooting on location in Arizona, we acquired our director of photography, David Boyd. Again, I felt fortunate to have found someone so sympathetic with my vision. The quirky neo-Expressionist angles, the Mario Bavaesque lighting, the painterly composition of his shots often provide an ironic undertone to the black comedy.

David Boyd explains what it was like to have writers instead of actors on set. ‘Actors,’ he says, ‘tend to be consumed by self-involvement. These guys were different. They understood my job much better than actors – you could talk about metaphorical lighting and camerawork and they would understand.’ Then crazy, star struck writers will do almost anything for almost nothing.

Thanksgiving came and went. We were on our way to Old Tucson for the most grueling 19 days of my life, some days with as many as 52 setups. The Arizona portion of the shoot had a party atmosphere despite the peculiar working conditions. Two other films were being shot on the same location, including Speed Zone, so Robert Shelton, who runs Old Tucson, was juggling as fast as he could. One day we shared the set with more than 1,000 high school students who were having a banquet, and I prayed that the sound of distant cheerleading choruses could somehow be disguised, in the audio mix, as the sound of crickets or birds through the use of clever signal processing.


On the opening day, I was in my UmTzec regalia atop a towering mountain and about to plunge a knife into my hapless niece Vanina, who was playing Victim #1. I couldn’t see a thing without my glasses, and I was trying to walk downhill toward Wendy Ikeguchi, whose blurry form was waving frantically in the distance, I took a Chaplinesque tumble, sprained my ankle, and thought that all was lost until my mother (who taught me everything I know about horror, and who was working with us as a production supervisor) explained to me that I shouldn’t have attempted to portray a god without making the appropriate blood sacrifice; now that my foot was bleeding onto the earth, everything would be OK. I limped away, wondering if I’d be completely useless for the rest of the shoot.

Soon everyone was ready to kill me, because my script was about warm tropical nights and the real temperature in Tucson in the middle of the night was below freezing. Timson Hill and John Anthoni, who played Dr. Um-Tzec’s evil acolytes, suffered in particular, as they stood in their skimpy costumes in the biting desert wind. One of the key FX-the crushing of Ed Bryant’s head under the wheels of a bus-didn’t come off the first time; the blood balloons failed to burst. I heard Wendy Ikeguchi cry out, “Where’s the blood, where’s the blood?” and we all rushed over to find that the head had been squashed flat. Was it ruined? We watched in astonishment as the head popped right back into shape the minute the bus pulled away. No one had ever dreamed that the head would be reusable.

We didn’t sleep much. We ate gargantuan portions of steak at the Pack ‘Em In Steak House across the street from our motel, and a week later we were ready to return to Los Angeles, where the Vasels and Hughes team had been wildly constructing sets in our absence. More spectacle was to come: Ryan Effner’s and my turning into monsters, the nasty Caesarean section dream sequence, the hotel lobby sequence in which Father O’Sullivan goes crazy and spatters the wall with women’s brains, and the climax, a recreation of the Mayan ballgame of death replete with zombies, dinosaur battle, a collapsing temple a la Last Days of Pompeii and an exploding hotel.

Interview with S. P. Somtow

004Instead of wing for going for name actors, you’ve brought together a swill of self and horror writers
S. P. Somtow: We didn’t have any money when I wrote the screenplay, so I found it easier to write the roles around people that knew, that would work for next to nothing. They really are playing themselves.

You describe the film as being a cross between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER, with a little NIGHT OF THE IGUANA thrown in at the end. That sounds sick.
S. P. Somtow: Now I guess I’d just call it a neo-expressionistic, black comedy. It has an exaggerated quality to it. I find it very hard to write about anything without looking at its absurd qualities. Horror is so close to comedy in its structure. They both depend on misleading the expectations of the audience. If a guy slips on a banana peel, it’s comedy. If he breaks his neck when he hits the ground, it’s horror.

But if they’re so close, then why does big-budget-Hollywood prefer comedy over horror?
S. P. Somtow: Horror comes from a nasty part of the mind. People with a lot of money like to shield themselves, with their money.

Your books don’t have the humorous, satirical edge that LAUGHING DEAD does.
S. P. Somtow: No, and in fact the novel version of LAUGHING DEAD. which I’m working on now. is not satirical. But it’s the ambiguity that I enjoy. And that is something that I see about my own work.

Where is your accent from?
S. P. Somtow: I was born in Thailand, and left there when I was 6 months old. We went to Europe. I went back to Thailand when I was 7. and then I went to Eton Preparatory school in London. It’s a horrible little place. This was in the mid sixties. We were a bunch of 14 year olds discussing the sexual imagery in Bergman’s films. Then I went on to Cambridge, and received a degree in Music and English Literature. I went back to Thailand, and became a hideous figure in Thailand music.

How did you end up writing horror novels
S. P. Somtow: Every time a horror writer talks about his roots, it always goes back to his mother. In my case, it was because my mother would take me to every horror film, and watch them over and over. She would watch them with her hand over her eyes for the entire movies. She made me go, because she didn’t want to go alone. To this day, she rents every sleazy B movie she can get her hands on. She worked on LAUGHING DEAD as a production supervisor

By carefully conserving his budget, Somtow had enough money to acquire the services of John Buechler’s Mechanical Make-up Imageries (MMI) studio and staff to create glorious special effects. Buechler, claimed that for him The Laughing Dead was ‘a labour of love’. The feeling can certainly be seen in the wondrous effects he and his people devised. For example: Tess has a nightmare in which she gives birth to a murderous version of her own son. A bus driver is squashed by his own vehicle. And people transform into grotesque, serpentine gods of the ancient Maya.

Also producing special effects for the film was relative newcomer Rik Carter and his LA team. They created the zombie make-up and some of the simpler but no less stunning effects. In one sequence, Father O’Sullivan stands paralyzed as UnTzec’s evil assistant bares and then tears open her breasts, removes her heart and buries it in the priest’s chest, thereby giving Um-Tzec possession of O’Sullivan’s soul. And Frost loses one arm to the possessed priest, then has it stuffed viciously down his throat, his swallowed fingers wriggling out of his neck courtesy of Carter’s effects work. A gripping death, so to speak.


After John Buechler came on board, the movie really began to gel. Buechler’s name was well known enough in the horror/fantasy field to lend us the clout to draw in many other figures. I was deeply moved when John offered to do the creature transformations and the makeup FX for The Laughing Dead. I hadn’t dared ask him, because–even though our budget had, by then, tripled-I considered him, with all his credits, too exalted a figure to want to take part in our little venture. “Trn intrigued by the script,” he said. “It’s disturbing, and it’s funny. He then proceeded to make us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Buechler also talked me into playing the somewhat-more-than-a cameo role of the evil Dr. Um-Tzec. “Why, Somtow,” he kept saying, “it’s you. Can’t you see that? Rik Carter signed on to do the rest of the makeup FX, in particular an arm-down-the throat gag that became one of the show’s highlights.

“Another reason I’m doing this for you,” John Buechler told me, “is that I’ve never seen anyone attempt so much with so little money!”


Directed by
Somtow Sucharitkul (as S. P. Somtow)

Writing Credits
Somtow Sucharitkul
(written by) (as S. P. Somtow)

Joey Acedo … Policeman #1
John Anthoni … Acolyte #1 (as John-Anthoni)
Hank Azcona … Police Sergeant
Bruce Barlow … Kukulcan
George Barnett … Policeman #2
Edward Bryant … Bus Driver
Michael Bustamante Boy In Graveyard
Matt Demeritt … Harlan (as Matthew De Merritt)
Premika Eaton … Laurie

Special Effects
John Carl Buechler … designer: Magical Media Industries (as John Buechler)
Rik Carter … special makeup effects
Jake Johnson … special makeup effects
Elinor Mavor … hair stylist / makeup artist
Richard Rouse … hair stylist / makeup artist
David Stinnett … special makeup effects (as Dave Stinnett)
Jane Whitehead … special makeup effects

Michael Deak … location crew: Magical Media Industries (as Mike ‘Duct-Tape’ Deak)
John Foster … location crew: Magical Media Industries / production manager: Magical Media Industries
Mecki Heussen … lab technician: Magical Media Industries
Robert Houghtaling … lab technician: Magical Media Industries
John P. Jockinsen … special effects coordinator (as John Jockinsen)
Timothy Ralston … coordinator: Magical Media Industries (as Tim Ralston) / location crew: Magical Media Industries (as Tim Ralston) / supervisor: Magical Media Industries (as Tim Ralston)
Chris Robbins … head fabricator: Magical Media Industries / location crew: Magical Media Industries
Wayne Toth … location crew: Magical Media Industries

FEAR 08/1989

3 thoughts on “The Laughing Dead (1990) Retrospective

  1. Terrific! Rik Carter here. That picture of the five zombies? That’s me in the middle. What a fun movie to make. This brings back great memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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