David L. Tamarin’s Notes from the Darkside
Break a Leg, My Life in Film
It was so cold that at the last moment the actor said he couldn’t do the scene. All he had to do was reach through a wall and grab a girl by the throat and pull her through the hole. Because he was a zombie, he had to be shirtless, with makeup on his arms. We were filming in the third floor basement of an abandoned gigantic train depository in Buffalo, New York, in the Winter. It was beyond freezing. One of the reasons the building was closed down was because it was filled with asbestos, which I inhaled regularly for two weeks on the set. We were restricted to the first three floors, so naturally when I wasn’t shooting I was wondering around the forbidden higher floors of the mammoth structure, where giant blocks would fall from the ceiling leaving a mushroom cloud of asbestos. I didn’t have anything to cover my mouth and filter my air, so if I get some type of asbestos poisoning at least I know I did it for art. For horror.
So I volunteered to play the Zombie Arms. I took off my sweaters and jacket and was freezing, and when they began to apply the icy cold makeup I thought my blood was going to freeze and my fingers would fall off and shatter on the hard ground like icicles. For two miserable hours a team of make-up artists transformed my arms into hideous deformities. I’ve worked with makeup effects many times and these people were excellent. I was literally shaking and trembling from the cold, which didn’t make their jobs any easier. But this was easier than my ordeal several days prior to this, when I had played a zombie and spent 7 hours wearing just my boxers getting a full body zombie makeover, followed by an extremely long and cold shoot that lasted a full 12 hours, during which I shattered a toe, followed by two hours of makeup removal.
I was running, chasing after a scream queen, and we were in these very spooky tunnels underground that looked like they were part of a dungeon. I was barefoot, it was completely dark, and I kicked a rock. It was so cold I felt nothing, but the next morning I woke up several people in the motel screaming. The pain was massive, indescribable – and I had not even noticed on set because of the Arctic-like conditions.
When I did the zombie arms, my toe was broken, and had been three days, but I did not know it yet and the cold prevented me from feeling everything. Back at the hotel, alcohol helped. When I was ready they set up the shot in this underground sub-basement room that looked like it was an ancient execution site. It was the perfect environment for the film, which was a horror zombie gore-fest, but a terrible place to spend all of your time for two weeks. We would all hover around little gas heaters in between takes. Except me, because my makeup was highly flammable, so I could not even stand near the little heaters. Of course, no one told me I was flammable and I had spent a couple of hours by the heaters, almost putting my hands in the flames to gain some feeling back. Then the cinematographer went to light up a cigarette and someone screamed “Don’t light that! David is covered head to toe in flammable material!” I jumped back from the heater and stayed away for the rest of the shoot.
As instructed, I reached through the hole in the wall and grabbed the actress by the throat and began to pull her back.
It was at this point that I realized what a unique business this is. I didn’t want to hurt her, and wasn’t pulling hard enough, and the crew was trying to get me pumped up so they could get the shot and move on. So ten people started screaming at me. “Choke her!” “Squeeze her neck harder!” “Don’t worry about whether you’re going to hurt her you’re a zombie act like you want to fucking kill her!” I felt like I was re-living the scene in The Accused where a bunch of drunks cheered on a rapist. Everyone was screaming at me to choke this woman, choke her and yank her entire body through a hole in the wall. I can’t think of any other job where people would be screaming at me for not choking a woman hard enough, and would be critiquing my choking techniques.
It was only after the actress told me I was a wimp and to get over it so we finish and get out of this icy chamber before we started losing fingers to frostbite that I was able to give a satisfactory performance.
Cut to six years later, in a Canadian barn. There’s this device you put cows in to get them pregnant, and my head was locked into one, my body twisted in a terribly painful position. Now the tables were turned. That same actress was now directing me in my own murder scene, and this time I was the one who was going to suffer. My head is knifed open by an evil doll, and my brains dumped into a plate, which she sips up with a straw. As with the other film, I was one of the writers and had a real emotional attachment to the film and would do what it took to let my words turn into visual mayhem and scare or repulse the audience.
The film debuted at Fantasia Film Fest, but there was one slight problem: someone called a bomb threat into the movie theatre and halfway through the film, a nervous woman came onstage and in a Canadian accent asked that we all leave the building as quickly as possible so that the police could search it for bombs. Feel free to add your own “that film really bombed” pun at this point, but trust me I’ve probably heard it. “I bet they were worried when they heard your film was a real bomb” is the one I hear the most. But luckily, it was a theatre full of devoted fans. And the vast majority waited outside in Quebec way past midnight for over an hour until they cleared the building and let us back in to finish the film. And far from being a bomb, the film kept the audience spellbound despite the bomb threat. As for why someone called in a bomb threat, that is another story for another column.
David L. Tamarin is an attorney, writer, and actor along with being a NEHW member. This is his first column for the site.