The Lizard of Death


   1959 / 2000  B&W   42 minutes

Production Productions & Perceptavision Productions
Written & Directed by Benjamin J Heckendorn

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The Lizard (of death) emerges from the ocean, like most killer lizards...

The Story

Like a lot of our movies, the idea for Lizard of Death started at a bar. Back in March of 2000, two friends and I were drinking, and we met the uncle of one of the friends. The uncle was somewhat infamous for driving a tank (on loan from the armory) through the downtown during a parade in the late 70's. After the uncle had left, we started joking about him driving his tank over all sorts of things, like walls of fine China and a bear, smashing it into a convenient bear-skin rug (keep in mind we were drinking:)

Someone then suggested he would fight a giant lizard with his tank. We joked about that for a bit, and then I said the inevitable words "Hey, that would be a good idea for a movie!"

We first discussed making a movie that takes place in modern day, with a giant lizard attacking a town. It would be done cheesily of course. We then thought, why not make it in black & white, to give it the old movie feel? I then decided, why not make it a 1959 period piece, with costumes & everything, so it would be an emulation of a bad 1950's horror movie? This thought process took about 4 days. Within a week we said "LET'S DO IT!" "Lizard of Death" (LOD) was a low-budget "go" (meaning: enough of your friends agree to help :)

The basic idea was, a bankrupt movie studio made LOD in 1959, but wasn't able to complete it due to lack of funds, therefore making the film very short (and bad). We would "ghost make" this film, putting fictional actors & directors names in the credits. In theory, if someone didn't know anyone or any of the places in the film, it would look like it came from the 50's.

As mentioned above, LOD is an emulation, not a parody, of a bad 50's horror movie. For everything "bad" in the movie we had to decide why it was bad. Did the producers not have enough money? Time? A clock on the wall is more likely to just not run/change at all, rather than change with every shot (see "Destination Mars")

The most important source of badness, however, was the writing. I was a huge Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fan back in the day, and I drew upon that as a source. Whenever I put something *questionable* in LOD, I thought "what would the robots say about this?" Often I would put sub-notes in the script to give the actors clues as to what was specifically supposed to be bad about the shot, mostly to make them laugh and help them 'pre-visualize' what we were shooting for. A few bad things snuck through on accident, naturally, such as Mayor Stone holding a bundle of dynamite while smoking a pipe.

The 2 main movies I drew badness "tone" from were "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" (mostly FX-wise) and the supreme film of crappiness, "Robot Monster". If you haven't seen "Robot Monster", and you're a lover of bad film, SEE IT. If you don't laugh as a "robot" made of a gorilla suit with a diving helmet ambles like a drunken bear across someone's backyard in California towards his bubble-spewing "calcinator ray machine" that destroyed Mankind (yet sits on a card table), then something is wrong with you.

(Astoundingly enough, Elmer Bernstein did the music for "Robot Monster"! Granted, it was one of his first gigs back in 1953, but man, this is the guy who only a few years later scored "The Ten Commandments" and later on movies like "Ghostbusters". However, he came full-circle and did the music for "Wild Wild West" in 1999)

Excited about making a crappy 50's movie, I paused my other current at-that-time project for a month so I could write LOD. You may have heard of the 'other project', it was my first portable Atari 2600. Once LOD was written, I finished the Atari, but didn't make a website [for the Atari] until that fall, after I had filmed all of LOD.

The Army (consisting of a General and a Private) consult with Mayor Stone as to how they're going to stop the vile beast.

Filming began in late May 2000 at, of all places, Port Washington, WI. I wanted the Lizard to come from the ocean so I could have a big text spiel at the beginning about "atomic waste" and "the ocean, the source of all life" "the power of the Atom against nature" and that usual stuff. (For you history buffs, before there were 'carbs' or 'global warming', nothing was worse than ATOMIC POWER)

On the same trip where we went and filmed "the ocean" (Lake Michigan) at Port Washington, Mike (Adsit) and I came up with the idea for the MOVIE of Port Washington. I actually started writing Port Washington later that week, when we had barely began filming LOD.

We filmed the majority of the movie during the summer of 2000. (Summer is about the only time to consistently film here in Wisconsin :) Filming was done on weekends, with prop & location acquisitions done during the week. Also when we weren't filming we built the models.

Of all the movies I've done, LOD had the highest number of actual thespians. In this case we're talking about people who have been in multiple local plays and productions and even a few Hollywood movies. That may not sound like too much, but it's a heck of a lot better than "your friend's brother's girlfriend who'll be in this scene if you give her gas money" Another thing I loved about filming this movie is that I am only in it for a couple scenes as "Lenny the Town Drunk". The rest of the time I was just directing and could wear my Perfect Dark hat and not shave.

Now that I had my good actors, I had to make them act bad. It was my belief that by having them deliver the lines from the script as earnestly as possible it would come out believably bad instead of "forced bad". So the key was bad writing with good actors trying to make it good. I would give them direction such as "you're a 2-bit actor in 1959, and this is your big break movie, so make the most of each and every line! Really go for the emotion!"

By September the principle photography was mostly done so we started filming models. The model town was built, along with model lover's lane and the tunnel, and for a couple weekends in a row, we spent extremely long nights filming it.

That fall I started editing. We filmed a pick-up scene in late October and on December 13th, 2000, we filmed the last shot. (seen in the preview, it's the awful composite of the woman being held by the toe with the fake background) A few days later the movie was done.

LOD was fairly easy to film, in fact we did the whole thing, from idea to finish, in 9 months, which I believe is my personal best record. The most time-consuming part was making/assembling all the models. We had:

  • A model Lizard (actually 2, the first one I built sucked, so Mike built the one that appears in the film)

  • Several model cars, which were all smashed at least once

  • A model tank, which we melted in the end

  • A 12 foot long model town for the Lizard to stomp down

  • A full-size chicken wire & paper mache Lizard toe (to trap Linda, while Rip attacks it with an axe)

  • A model Lizard foot (that was actually a shoe so a person could wear it and smash cars)

  • A model train tunnel that a camera could be pulled through so we could super-impose a crappy looking Lizard later

  • And my personal favorite, a model forest for Lover's Lane. It actually didn't look too bad during the "through the trees" shot

We set pretty strict rules as to what we could do, so the LOD stayed true to its "source". Though the movie was filmed with a DV camera and edited with Adobe Premiere, we used a plug-in called "Film FX" to make the footage run at 24 FPS (like film) and de-interlace it, adding film grain, scratches and other crappi-fications. The camera had a B&W setting, so at no point was the movie ever in color.

For the FX, we mostly used models, but we did a few composites. However, I only allowed myself to use luminance mattes and splits.

A luminance matte is seen above with the Lizard in the tunnel. You light something, usually a model, then film it against a black background. After you process it, the black becomes "transparent" allowing a different background through. Thing is, anything dark or black on your object becomes transparent too. This is why the "50 Foot Woman" is transparent in some scenes, and why you can see stars through Flash Gordon / Rocky Jones' rocket ships.

The other composite effect I allow were splits. A line is basically "cut" and one footage runs on one side, something else on the other. These were seen a lot in films like "Earth vs the Spider" and "Attack of the Colossal Beast" I only had about 4 of these in LOD because they didn't look crappy ENOUGH.

Though these effects were done digitally using Premiere, the effects themselves (and their crummy results) were consistent to what was available in the 50's.

(Note: Luminance mattes do work well with things that are ALREADY semi-transparent, like when filming flames, smoke or water)

The following March "Lizard of Death" was shown at the 2001 Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison. (The best part was that they allow beer in the theatre)

If you have any other questions about "Lizard of Death", or would like to inquire about getting yourself a copy, feel free to email me!

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