In the wake of our third installment of CAMP CARNAGE—a retrospective of the 1981 backwoods-survivalist horror flick, Just Before Dawn—Diabolique had the great pleasure of catching up with director Jeff Lieberman, looking back on one of the most favored entries in his filmography and discussing what fuels his unparalleled ability to spawn films that become instant cult classics. Lieberman talks about how his filmmaking career came to fruition, other horror gurus that he’s met along his journey and the significance of original ideas when it comes to making films…
DIABOLIQUE: You attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. What drew you into filmmaking? Was it your passion right from the get-go or were there steps towards reaching that particular creative medium?
JEFF LIEBERMAN: I went to art school for cartooning. I had a natural ability to draw that I didn’t really learn; it was just one of those talents. So it took me all the way to school and up until after my first year, I had no interest in film whatsoever—even seeing movies, except for when I was a kid. I used to love sci-fi horror movies of the ‘50s; All the radiation scare movies, I used to eat them up. I saw every single one of them—matinees, double features. But that didn’t give me an overall interest in film. I didn’t even think of movies as an art form. In fact, pretty much nobody did back then. It took the Europeans to show the Americans that it was an art form.
DIABOLIQUE: So how did your career as a filmmaker come about exactly?
LIEBERMAN: When I was making Squirm, it was a logical extension of the ‘50s, and the template for Squirm was actually The Blob (1958). I was fashioning it after that, only with worms instead of the blob—whatever the blob was made out of. Squirm actually just instantly launched my career. It was made independently and was picked up by AIP (American International Pictures). [AIP] was a big a studio, and they distributed it all over the world. It was sold in every country in the world and it played all over the United States, and in New York, where I live, it played in 50 theatres. Back then it didn’t seem like a big deal, but try to do your first movie, low-budget and all of that and try to get it in 50 theatres. It’s very rare today. In fact, it’s almost impossible because you’re competing against movies that have title sequences that cost more than your whole movie. So yeah, and it still makes money all over the world, in every language. Hey, worms are worms. They go back billions of years, so they’re not going to get old in 30 years!
DIABOLIQUE: Aside from the sci-fi horror movies of the ‘50s, where else did you draw inspiration from?
LIEBERMAN: The most immediate inspiration that I had—you know, Micheleangelo Antonioni made Blow Up, and that was probably the biggest influence on me. And the idea of making genre movies came from Brian De Palma. He was older than me, but he wasn’t that much older than me. So he had a bigger influence on me than Hitchcock., because Hitchcock was just somebody that you learned about, that you knew about. Not that I knew Brian De Palma, but he was so immediate. He was a New Yorker, he was working close by…
DIABOLIQUE: 1970’s New York was obviously a huge time and place for filmmaking. Who else did you know in the industry at that time?
LIEBERMAN: I knew Jack Shoulder, who did The Burning. And I knew William Fax, he did [The Incredible] Melting Man. We used to hang out. These were guys who were in New York and we were all doing the same thing. I knew John Carpenter from a bit later. When I did Squirm, I started to meet a lot of these people. Now there’s this thing called the Masters of Horror. Mick Garris has a group out in California and they meet. It’s pretty much all the big names in horror movies. I’m one of them but I’ve never gone to one of their dinners. I know Armon Mastrionni pretty well because he did a movie for the same producers as Squirm and Blue Sunshine, called He Knows You’re Alone out of the same offices, right after I did Blue Sunshine. I know most of them now.
DIABOLIQUE: So would you say that you were always a fan of the horror?
LIEBERMAN: It’s hard to say what I was a fan of because there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t like. It’s very weird. To me, it’s tricky to say you’re a fan of the whole genre because there’s so much crap. Even the word “genre” is a misnomer because they say, “Oh, you do genre movies.” When I went to film school, when we were introduced to that word, it was the western genre, the mystery genre… So when you say, “I do genre movies,” it has no meaning. The western genre—well, some westerns were total crap and some of them were great. So to make an overall broad [statement] that I like horror movies… What I don’t like is that Friday the 13th started a whole trend of movies that I can’t stand. You know like, “Let’s dream up a different way for a girl to get killed, and we have the special FX makeup guy that knows how to do it, and we have enough of a budget to put a hatchet into someone’s head, cut off an arm and have the blood squirt…” whatever it is. To me, that’s not filmmaking. That’s nothing to me. It never had any effect on me whatsoever. But neither did Linda Blaire’s head rotating in The Exorcist. I loved that movie until they used all those special FX things. When her head rotated, I laughed my head off. It was so ridiculously stupid, but the last thing it was was scary to me. So when you start seeing these unrealistic things and people behaving in a way where they know they’re in a horror movie… But I guess Scream actually made a movie about just that, which was brilliant.
DIABOLIQUE: Can you elaborate on your distaste for the slasher subgenre?
LIEBERMAN: Friday the 13th is the template for what I can’t stand that started when there was no such term as a “slasher” movie. That came later. Now people say, “Oh, well, I’m going to make a slasher movie,” which I think it retarded. But you know, like heavy metal, say, like Led Zeppelin. They didn’t say, “Oh, let’s form a heavy metal group, man.” There were enough of these guys with great guitar riffs and everything and then someone branded all these groups “heavy metal”, or “metal” bands. And then they took it to extremes. But the innovators are never people that are doing something to fit into something that’s already there. It’s the same thing with the slasher thing. I don’t think John Carpenter ever heard that word when he did Halloween, which I thought was brilliant. See there’s the difference: Halloween, even though you could say the same things about that as Friday the 13th, the difference is night and day. There’s a guy who’s a real filmmaker, a huge talent, and he did this one note, he knew like, “I’m going to make a boogeyman, and what’s every teenager’s—every babysitter’s—worst possible fear. And that’s all I’m going to do for 90 minutes—beginning, middle and end—one note.” It’s a one-note movie. Even the sound, the score—which he did—is one note. And that was brilliant. I wouldn’t call that a slasher movie. It was called The Babysitter Murders for that reason. I think John is one of the rare talents that came out of that time.
DIABOLIQUE: Let’s talk a bit about Just Before Dawn…
LIEBERMAN: Get this: I never saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. First of all, I never saw it, and then it got to the point where I was reading all these reviews that were saying that I ripped off Texas Chain Saw in Just Before Dawn. I said, “Well, wait a second: I know I never saw that movie.” With Just Before Dawn, the book and the movie of Deliverance had a tremendous impact on me and I just said, “Here’s a chance to do the same thing that Deliverance did, only with a woman.” That’s what Just Before Dawn is. It follows a different story line but the basic arc of the thing and where it goes and the transition of this one woman is the same as the transition of Jon Voight in Deliverance. That’s what I did.
DIABOLIQUE: At a time when the majority of horror movies were primarily portraying women as victims, Just Before Dawn was doing the exact opposite. Your movie basically turned cinematic gender stereotypes upside down and inside out. What are your thoughts on this?
LIEBERMAN: That’s what I was attempting to do: empowering a woman. And now, it’s become like a cliché since then, and whether it attributed to my movie, I don’t know, but it was certainly something I did consciously. People discover that movie and it’s amazing how they bring it back to all of that stuff. With the nail polish and the makeup, [Debra Benson] asked me why is she doing this and I said, “Debbie, it’s war paint.” And she said, “I got it.” And once I said that to her, she was so on board with what I was trying to do. A lot of people criticize the movie and say it’s the formula—slasher, kids go in the woods… blah, blah, blah. But they don’t even have the sense to just look at the date it was made. It was made in 1979. So now, OK, what was the formula for kids going into the woods and all of that then? At least be fair and look at that. Don’t look at Wrong Turn 3, 4 and 5 and say, “Oh this is formula.” It doesn’t make any sense. There was no formula back then. I had never heard of Wrong Turn, but a lot of people emailed me saying, “They remade Just Before Dawn!”
DIABOLIQUE: You’re fairly well known for making really sort of odd-ball, eccentric genre pictures, yet you always seem to effectively balance those elements with significant social commentary. Your movies are actually very thought provoking and intelligent. Where do you come up with your ideas and how do you approach writing and directing?
LIEBERMAN: People are always asking me how I come up with my ideas, because they’re referring to original ideas. It’s kind of impossible to describe how you come up with an original idea. It’s almost built into the definition of originality: you don’t have a way to do it. The only answer I can scratch at the surface is to first and foremost eliminate everything that’s already been done. So, I ain’t doing a zombie movie, I’m not going to do a [vampire] movie. All this stuff that’s become such a mainstay, they don’t need me to do it—unless it’s an ingredient of a brand new idea that would have nothing to do with the fact that there’s been 800, 000 zombie movies and 800, 000 vampire movies. You know, like they always say with writing, the hardest thing to look at is to look at a blank piece of paper. So you make a list of all the things that have been done and you take that list and you put it in the shredder. And now you’ve got a new list, which is an empty white piece of paper. The reason why it takes me so long between movies is because I always think, “They don’t need me to do this, and they don’t need me to do that.” So you’re going to get something fresh, original and thought provoking. I can’t just sit down and think, “So what’s fresh and original?” It’s gotta hit me. Once I get [the idea], the writing part comes naturally.
DIABOLIQUE: Your movies are always based on a solid foundation of social commentary. What can you say about that?
In the 1950’s, the radiation/mutation movies played on fears that people already had. The government was working night and day to make you afraid of it—you know, mutations and stuff. So I thought, “Well, here’s another opportunity.” Instead of saying, “Oh the government’s full of shit,” I said, “Well, it’s more fun to do what the Hollywood guys did back then in the ‘50s with radiation movies and pretend that [LSD] really does damage your chromosomes,” and I took it one step further and said that it could happen to the person that took it and it’s like a time bomb. But I put more social commentary in Satan’s Little Helper than I did in Blue Sunshine.
DIABOLIQUE: Blue Sunshine is often regarded as your best film. Would you agree?
LIEBERMAN: I don’t think it is. But then again, it’s not up to me—what’s good and what’s bad. But it certainly was a very good time capsule. It’s the timing. If you want to see the ‘70s and the beginning of disco and the drugs, it’s very laden with social commentary. Maybe in 10, 20 years, people will think of Satan’s Little Helper that way.
DIABOLIQUE: How do you feel your films gaining cult status?
LIEBERMAN: With the exception of Squirm, these films are much more well known now than they were [when they were released]. I guess they grow because people looking back in retrospect say, “Boy you know, this really captures this and says something about that.” But [my films] are all so different. I mean like, what are the similarities between Satan’s Little Helper and Just Before Dawn or Blue Sunshine? None. It’s just because it’s my name. People say like, “Oh we could tell right away that this is another one of your movies.” But I can’t tell. I don’t see that when I’m doing it.
DIABOLIQUE: Going back to Just Before Dawn, can you tell us about your experiences shooting that film? Was it mostly smooth sailing or were you faced with a lot of obstacles along the way?
LIEBERMAN: It was a very hard place to shoot, and the reason why it looks so good is because we took full advantage of…. You know, I was thinking, “Well, what’s the point of going in the middle of nowhere in Oregon and not including the audience in where we are?” From the beginning of the movie on, I wanted to include where [the characters] were almost every chance I got. So it really felt like this was happening, and you hear all the natural sounds and all that. Like when you’re seeing them going over the rope bridge, you want to get back to see how dangerous it would be if they ever fell. You don’t want to just [hear about] it, you want to see it. So in order to see it, you have to get the camera back really far, and that means you have to go over unbelievable terrain to get there. I was in really good shape making the film, and my DP was too, but to carry a heavy 35 mm camera and all that stuff to where I wanted the camera to be—it wasn’t so much where the main characters were, it was where I was shooting them from with long lenses and stuff—and that’s the reason why it looks so good. If we didn’t do that it would look like a much cheaper movie, like a slasher movie.
DIABOLIQUE: What was reception like upon its release?
LIEBERMAN: It wasn’t well received when it first came out because Universal was supposed to pick it up, and had they done that, it would have been a big deal because it’s a big studio. But since it didn’t have the gore and the scares and the body count… Friday the 13th changed the template of those sorts of movies. So this movie was more of an art film. It only caught on later. It went to television—it was on Showtime and Movie Channel… It was constantly on television, and people had more patience to watch it. But the time that I became aware that people were digging it was way later, with home video—that’s where it really got discovered, and especially first in Europe. They called it Survivance there. In Europe, it was being entered in festivals—all kinds of stuff that I didn’t know about. I went on to do a lot of mainstream stuff that wasn’t in the horror genre, so I wasn’t really aware what was happening with any of my films. The only thing I knew about was the financial side, but that’s it. Now, I know that people are getting $150 or more for the VHS of [Just Before Dawn].
DIABOLIQUE: So you didn’t make much money off of it?
LIEBERMAN: [Not a lot of money] came out of Just Before Dawn—not at all. Squirm was the most lucrative in that regard, by far, and it still is.
DIABOLIQUE: Do people recognize you as the guy who made Just Before Dawn?
LIEBERMAN: People still constantly ask about it, and when I do these—oh, we just did one—[conventions]… Have you ever heard of Cinema Wasteland? Well that was the last one, in April, the most recent one. They did a Just Before Dawn reunion and they had Jamie Rose from LA and Chris Lemmon from Connecticut and me. So we were all signing autographs and people had posters and DVDs and everything. But any time I do one of these autograph things, these conventions, a lot of people bring Just Before Dawn. It’s become one of those movies.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think the film still holds up?
LIEBERMAN: Well that’s the thing with these movies. [The fans] watch these movies so many times. And to me, the movies that I love I only watch once. So to me, it’s a strange phenomenon that they watch it so many times. Why would you want to watch it more than once? Little kids do that with Mickey Mouse. They’ve seen it 800 times. They know exactly what Mickey is going to do. But I guess that the cool moments are still cool. Like in [Just Before Dawn], the guy getting the machete in the crotch or Debra Benson sticking her arm down the guy’s throat.
There you have it, folks! The one, the only, Jeff Lieberman. Now go out and rent Just Before Dawn, Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Satan’s Little Helper. Help support great movies! For future information on Lieberman and his projects, or for more CAMP CARNAGE, check out DiaboliqueMagazine.com!
– By Lacey Paige
Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter @LaceyPaige88