by Michael Varrati
When one considers the wild and unorthodox world of avant-garde schlock king Mark Pirro, it is likely that the individual never makes the correlation between his late night fare and the hallowed halls of our nation’s universities. However, as far apart as these two notions may seem, that is exactly the scenario in which I first encountered the work of this audacious auteur.
During my days at Kent State University (setting of several Stephen King stories and one particular real life horror), I had the tendency to enthusiastically enroll in as many film class oddities as my schedule would allow. One such spring, I found myself in a class devoted entirely to the history and dissection of the monster movie. Joining me in this fright film endeavor was fellow-future Ultra Violent scribe and dear friend Ally Melling. Entering the room with an already vast knowledge of horror and exploitation cinema, the two of us were looking for a fun and simple class to coast through, all the while getting credit to talk about something we’d likely have talked about for free.
However, our professor, the wizened Dr. West (not to be confused with Dr. Herbert West, Re-Animator) proved to be a formidable opponent. West’s knowledge of cult cinema was revealed to run far deeper than one would expect of an octogenarian, and his gorehound status was soon revealed over the course of our many discussions.
It was during our conversation on werewolves, however, that West played his ace.
“Tomorrow,” he said with a hint of mystery, “I will show you both something I guarantee you’ve never seen.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I try not to be too cocky, but I’ve seen SO many obscure movies, such promises are often hollow. Ally and I laughed about what werewolf “oddity” he would spring on us, assuming it to be something totally expected, like The Howling or one of Paul Naschy’s Spanish howlers.
Yet, the following day when West revealed his prized rarity, Ally and I could do nothing but sit in perplexed awe. Not only had we never seen the movie before, but it was so awesome, we were baffled as to how it passed us by.
The movie in question was titled Curse of the Queerwolf.
Completely outrageous, uninhibitedly absurd, and simply out of control…
…it was love at first sight.
Delivering a premise that is blatantly promised in the title, Queerwolf serves as Pirro’s subversive take on the traditional werewolf story. Directly parodying the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man films, Queerwolf tells the tale of Larry Smalbut, a man bitten by a beast he perceives to be a transvestite. Once infected with the transvestite’s bite, Larry is doomed to transform into a “queerwolf” when the moon is full and the disco music is loud. What follows is a delightful send-up of both horror tropes and the stereotypes of the gay community, culminating in a deliciously fun viewing experience for audiences willing to venture into completely non-PC territory. By adhering to none of the usual rules of horror or gay cinema, Pirro manages to create with Queerwolf a midnight movie experience so unique and original, it can only herald the work of a cult film genius.
Naturally, following my discovery of this little gem, my appetite for more Pirro was insatiable. Luckily, the midnight maestro had a full buffet of films to discover.
Pirro’s career began in 1985 with the release of his first feature, A Polish Vampire in Burbank. The film, about a vampire’s night on the town, became something of a notable success in the 80s. After repeated showings on late night programs such as USA Up All Nightand high-rental sales on home video, the small movie that cost Pirro just little over $2500 had earned him back over a million in return. As the “little indie that could,” Polish Vampire’s success even became the topic of many newsmagazine television programs of the era. Yet, a cursory viewing of the film shows the discerning B-movie fan why the movie was, and is, so beloved. Sharp dialogue, witty humor, and a near irreverent streak run through the film’s entire run time, cementing Pirro’s wacky style from the get-go. Whereas many filmmakers require more than one movie to lay the foundation of their trademark style,Polish Vampire in Burbank seemed to announce Pirro’s arrival with a gleeful, “take me or leave me” flair.
With 1986 came Pirro’s most ambitious effort of the 80s, a mocking tale of television slaughter titled Deathrow Gameshow. Playing like a darkly comedic version of The Running Man, Deathrow Gameshowintroduced viewers to a world where deathrow inmates are forced to compete for their lives on national television. Equal parts silly and sinister, Deathrow Gameshow seemed to be an indictment of American television culture, and an eerie precursor to the era of reality television that has risen to prominence on our small screens today.
In 1991, Pirro tackled the world of the movie musical with likely the first all-singing, all-naked zombie flick, Nudist Colony of the Dead. Concerning the tale of a nudist colony shut-down by a religious zealot, the naked campers of the film do themselves in as part of a suicide pact. Unfortunately for those who wronged them, the nudists have also sworn vengeance, and return from the grave for some blood-splattering silliness. With an extraordinarily catchy soundtrack, Nudist Colony of the Dead is at once a wonderful amalgam of the Romero zombie movies of yore (with a splash of Rocky Horror, for good measure), but also a refreshingly fun take on a genre monster that has certainly seen more than its fare share of dismal outings. A particular fan favorite amongst Pirro-enthusiasts, the popularity of Nudist Colony is such that the film has seen a number of revivals, including a live stage version that was performed in the mid-90s. There have been mumblings in the horror community, occasionally from Pirro himself, how audiences may not have seen the last of the naked dead…
…and I personally am filled with lusty rigor mortis at the prospect.
But, I digress.
The remainder of the 90s saw Pirro take a small break from genre cinema, albeit not from his own unique brand of hilarity. 1992’sBuford’s Beach Bunnies was Pirro’s entry into the wacky world of the late night sex comedy. Although Buford (starring Jim Hanks, brother of Tom), was not as well-received as some of Pirro’s previous outings, it nonetheless scored a heavy rotation on several cable channels, marking another victory in Pirro’s mounting incursion of midnight television.
Alternatively, 1998’s Color Blinded, about an African-American woman who wakes up to discover she has become a white lady, allowed Pirro to step outside of the cult milieu to create a film with a message. However, the film’s dissection of the mores of interracial relationships lacks none of Pirro’s trademark wry sensibility, and may well be the filmmaker’s most unsung achievement.
2003’s Rectuma saw Pirro return full-force to the biting genre comedy for which he had become known. The film’s unique premise, about a man whose butt becomes a radioactive, murderous entity, delivered to fans all they had come to expect from the Pirro of yesteryear. A triumphant return to form, Rectuma made its premiere at the prestigious American Film Institute, and had a healthy run through some of the world’s most notable film festivals (including a smash screening at Cannes). Nearly twenty years after his debut, Pirro’s success withRectuma proved that the filmmaker had no intent of slowing down. Though the film’s premise seemed laughable on paper, through deft work and an extreme understanding of the cult audience, Pirro was able to create something wholly unique and exciting for viewers. Yet again, Pirro had created something that the world had not quite seen before.
With such a vast and diverse body of filmic work, Pirro has left an indelible mark on the world of cult cinema. In considering all he has done over the last few decades, there is no discernible reason that this low-budget icon should not be canonized as a cult filmmaking legend. Yet, even as we consider the work of Mark Pirro’s past, the writer/director continues to create cinema to challenge and delight his audience.
Pirro’s most recently completed effort, The God Complex, takes on the most sacred of sources with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Banned from a plethora of film festivals and earning the ire of the religious right, Pirro’s take on Biblical events is as acerbic and incendiary as they come. Yet, whether you agree with his poking fun at such material or not, it cannot be denied that as an artist Pirro had the guts to pursue a vision that he almost assuredly knew would spark a strong reaction.
This, of course, is what makes Mark Pirro truly a Cult Filmmaker You Should Know. For serving up a consistent buffet of the taboo and controversial, Pirro and his film company (the slyly named “Pirromount”) have made it a consistent mission to make movies that shock, awe, and inspire laughter. From gay werewolves to the big G himself, Pirro has developed an oeuvre that proves nothing is sacred and everyone can (and should) be a target.
Audacious, bold, and bawdy, Mark Pirro is truly an unsung midnight movie legend who rocks the establishment with every single frame.
…which is, of course, why it’s so funny to me that it was in the confines of the establishment that I was introduced to his work. Yet, for bringing to my attention Pirro’s outlaw style, I forever owe Dr. West a debt of honor. Hopefully, in some small way, I’m paying that debt forward today.
Go forth, my dear children of the popcorn, and mount Pirromount.
You’ll be glad you did.
Until next time!