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Interview: Tal Zimerman on his documentary ‘Why Horror?’

“Why Horror?” – the title of Tal Zimerman’s film – is a question horror fans have been asked by friends and family alike throughout their lives. This film will put that question to bed. Zimerman brings audiences an adventure in horror, dotted with interviews from the “who’s who” of the genre, and a trip around the world to answer the question posed in the film’s title. I had the pleasure of interviewing Zimerman shortly after the sold-out screening at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Why make “Why Horror?”

There are a few reasons. One reason is that, as an actor, I was sick of waiting for projects to come to me. So I thought it would be a good idea to approach a production company and try to start something from the ground up. We decided on “Why Horror?” after a few conversations where I was asked why I liked horror so much, and I didn’t have a straight answer. I just had a bunch of interesting observations on the genre and we all thought it would make for a good, original (documentary) with a lot of potential.

Can you pinpoint exactly when and what it was that turned on the horror switch inside you?

Watching “Summer School” (1987) at age 12 was big for me. I instantly fell in love with Chainsaw and Dave. They became my heroes. In the same mall as the theatre was a magazine and tobacco store, and I bought my first Fangoria immediately after the screening. A few months later, I saw “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) on home video and that was like a religious experience. I changed as a person during those two hours. It’s like Andy Nyman says in “Why Horror?,” “It was like my proper bar mitzvah.”

At this point in your life, what are you afraid of or view as horror?

I guess it’s the same as it’s always been; bad things happening to my family.

“The idea was to show that horror, or dark storytelling across a variety of mediums, is a (form of) human expression.”

The film helps break the stigma of horror as a “loners’” genre and goes on to display large community involvement. Do you think there is still a mainstream stigma attached to horror and, if so, why?

Things are definitely changing for horror as it moves toward a more acculturated, accepted language of storytelling. But there will always be some people who, no matter what, will never understand art or its function. Many horror fans are curious and imaginative, and if you’re one to take everything at face value, you probably won’t get horror. There’s also the traditional marketing of horror itself, which has done quite well by injecting the experience with the perception of danger. For example, in the 70s the distributors of “Snuff” (1976) advertised real on-screen death, and it turned out to be a double-edged sword. It was a brilliant marketing campaign – that, as history shows, couldn’t be fulfilled – but made everyone associated with it, from producers to theatre owners, complicit in murder, as far as the public was concerned. That’s the kind of thing that makes stigmas hard to shake.

You traveled the world making this film. What was it like to see how different cultures and societies approach the genre?

The idea was to show that horror, or dark storytelling across a variety of mediums, is a (form of) human expression. So seeing how other cultures do their thing was extremely fulfilling. But, really, everything points to cinema. The reason I can travel anywhere, speak the same horror language as anyone out there, is that cinema travels well and has been the most influential in fostering a tangible, global horror culture.

Can you tell us about a standout moment you experienced during your travels?

The horror bars in Tokyo. I would advise every horror fan on planet earth to stop what they’re doing right now and book a trip to Tokyo. All three of (the horror bars) made it into the film, and the crew had to drag me out kicking and screaming. I never wanted to leave.

Out of a plethora of possibilities, how did you choose whom you would interview about horror for your documentary?

We tried to go broad, with accessibility in mind. So a lot of the interview subjects are people I know personally. Then we picked based on who would be in Toronto and shooting during two Fan Expos, and (the Toronto International Film Festival) meant that a lot of people were in our vicinity. Most of our Japanese interviews were suggested and arranged by our fixers out there. But we wanted to really mix up the disciplines, so we hired a researcher who found a lot of the academics who were largely split between London and New York.

Your family members are real scene-stealers. What was it like to involve them in this project and how do they feel about the finished product?

We are all very supportive of each other, as you can see in the film. So to involve them was great for me because I think people need to see a strong, happy family where people like weird stuff and are supported in their pursuits. During production, when we started getting the word out, I got an email from a guy who said no one, from his family to his co-workers, understood his love of horror, and some even expressed concerns for his well-being. I think if people can see my folks and siblings supportive of one another, no matter how offbeat our tastes in entertainment are, and it makes them reevaluate their own prejudices, it could be a great thing. And naturally, my family is impressed with the final product, but my wife is sick of me traveling everywhere without her and our son!

Would you say your mother has now become a horror fan since making this film?

Not a chance!

As a horror aficionado and a parent, how will you approach a discussion of the genre with your child?

Well, lucky for me, there’s lots in place to facilitate a child’s love of monsters and creepy stuff. How many of us learned to count courtesy of a vampire? So if my kid wants to pursue monsters past “Sesame Street,” I’ll be there for him. If not, who knows? I think pretty soon I’ll have to stash my DVDs and books.

The collectables in your house are featured in the film. How much do you estimate you’ve spent amassing such a personal collection, and do you view it as a long-term investment in art?

I have hundreds of rare movie posters, lobby cards, pressbooks, VHS tapes and other assorted ephemera. I stopped counting a while ago because I can never admit to myself that I have a problem. I think knowing exactly what I have would make it very apparent that I have issues. I do believe it to be a long-term investment in art, and I’m seeing it become a reality. I have stuff that I bought in the 80s that has increased twenty-fold in value.

The film was whittled down from a massive amount of footage you shot. I’m sure we didn’t get to see some real gold. Can you tell us about some of the scenes you regretfully cut to stay within the time parameters you set for yourself?

There was a whole section talking about childhood, and a lot of the experiences interview subjects described just made me grin. Steve Niles talking about catching “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) on TV or Gary Pullin talking about getting a pack of pencil crayons from the family priest, only to start drawing severed heads and the like – that material, to me, is wonderful stuff that just didn’t need to be fully explored to make our point. And then there was Takashi Shimizu doing the voice of Kayako from “Ju-on: The Grudge” (2002), which is one of my all-time faves.

Horror has been a vital genre in Canadian cinema for ages. Which films stand out for you as paramount Canadian offerings within the genre?

You can’t talk Canadian horror without talking about David Cronenberg. Other favourites include “Rituals” (1977), “My Bloody Valentine” (1981), “Visiting Hours” (1982), “Ginger Snaps” (2000) and “Father’s Day” (2011).

Do you think that the Canadian market supports homegrown horror?

I think the fans get a distinct thrill from supporting Canadian horror. I know I do.

What’s next for “Why Horror?”

We have a few more festival screenings coming up, and then we’ll probably go to work on an awesome Blu-ray.