Jeff Lieberman remains one of the most important American indie directors to emerge from the 1970s, and his work consistently been interpreted as combining shock value with social commentary. Initially hailing from the New York film school scene, Jeff Lieberman’s interests spanned both fiction and documentary film practice, with his 1972 short film The Ringer (1972) demonstrating an early ability to fuse multiple lines of quasi realist narrative action around a single act of criminality. Other formative entries included screenwriting duties on the early serial killer thriller Blade (1973), which provided the springboard for Lieberman’s feature length directorial debut: Squirm (1976).
This film (which is discussed by Jon Towlson in his contribution to this edition of the Cine-Excess journal), is often classified as part of the so-called ‘revolt of nature’ cycle popular during the 1970s, Squirm uses the theme of earthworms running amok in rural Georgia to cleverly knit together longstanding phobias surrounding the American rural space with more contemporary ecological fears surrounding the monstrous disruption of the animal kingdom. Featuring early SFX from Rick Baker, Squirm remained decidedly ‘old school’ in the treatment of its unsettling subject matter.
Devoid of any CGI to create the monstrous assault of the creatures, Lieberman instead relied on thousands of live earthworms, which adds an additional element of grisly realism to some of the film’s most disquieting scenes. While the emphasis is clearly on stomach churning shocks, Squirm also featured Jeff Lieberman’s eye for incisive social commentary, which the director would later go on to explore in other celebrated cult productions. In particular, by divesting the film’s attention between earthworms and the rural dispossessed, Squirm remains as much a eugenic study as it does an exploitation expose.
It was a critique of ‘radicalism’ rather than the rural that dominated Lieberman’s next production: Blue Sunshine (1978). Widely regarded as the director’s most political production to date, Blue Sunshine casts a critical eye over the declining counterculture in the new corporate friendly culture of late 1970s America. The film focuses on the plight of Gerry ‘Zippy’ Zipkin, (Zalman King), a drop out finding it hard to adjust to the changing social values and social scene facing former radicals in the post-hippy era. Zipkin discovers that a random and violent killing spree is being committed by former hipsters who consumed a batch of bad acid during the summer of love. Ten years after taking the drug, all of its consumers suffer from violent headaches, a sudden and dramatic loss of hair and homicidal outbursts.
As the bodies begin to pile up, Zipkin discover a crucial link between the murders and Edward Flemming (Mark Goddard), a former dope dealer turned politician, who is running for congress on a morality ticket. By combining pulp politics with on-screen carnage, Blue Sunshine remains a closely observed critique of the changing cult and cultural trends of the 1970s. By naming his disenchanted male lead as ‘Zippy’, Lieberman signals the character’s connection to 1960s counterculture and the fate that befell groups such as the hippies and zippies in the corporate culture of 1970s. As we also discover in the movie, Zippy has been sacked from his job after questioning his employer’s attitude to female employees, and this highlights the extent to which fractured gender relations also haunt the film and Jeff Lieberman’s wider cinema. Indeed, One of the more interesting, but less discussed aspects of the film remains the markedly de-sexualised relationship between Zipkin and the central female lead Alicia Sweeney (Deborah Winters), which also points to an interest in conflicted heterosexual bonds that runs through many of the director’s works.
This theme was particularly marked in Just Before Dawn, Lieberman’s rural horror entry from 1981. Released during at the height of the home video boom, the film offers an indie redux of Deliverance (1972), while also providing a much needed feminist corrective to the stalk and slash craze popular during the period. Just Before Dawn deals with a group of young city dwellers stalked and dispatched by hideously deformed mountain dwellers before the surviving heroine Constance (Deborah Benson) enacts her own form of primitive retribution in the film’s startling finale. Although now seen as a seminal backwoods horror entry Just Before Dawn suffered from uneven distribution, often circulating in alternate versions, which added to its cult status.
Although Jeff Lieberman’s genre output since the early 1980s has been less frequent, titles such as Remote Control (1988) and Satan’s Little Helper (2004) saw the director taking self-reflexive swipes at both the US domestic video scene and moral panics surrounding video game violence. As well as being the noted screenwriter for the 1994 franchise entry Never Ending Story III, he also won an EMMY award for his 1995 documentary Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion (HBO), and most recently brought his own distinctive and satirical stance to ‘Til Death Do Us Part: a TV series about murderous spouses (2006-2007).
In the following interview Jeff Lieberman discusses his key film entries, as well as the theme of rural excess relevant to the wider theme of the current journal issue. In his own unique style, he also dissects the rights and wrongs of interpreting the cinema of Jeff Lieberman.
Xavier Mendik: Your route into filmmaking came through the New York Film School, with its emphasis on film experimentation and cinema as a political tool. What were your memories of those formative years of film training at the tail end of the 1960s?
Jeff Lieberman: The whole idea of film schools was just coming into its own at that time, with NYU leading the way in New York and UCLA and SC the leaders in Los Angeles. I attended The School of Visual Arts which was foremost an art school and the film department was only two years old when I signed on. There was no particular emphasis on anything, just teaching us the nuts and bolts of the craft. But being in NYC at that time certainly exposed us to the notorious filmmakers of that time.
Xavier Mendik: As a genre filmmaker, we do associate you with that classic era of 1970s horror cinema, and some of your most notable productions were made in this era. What are your memories of working in this decade?
Jeff Lieberman: The 70s seem to be a big focus right now – I guess they ran out of clichés in the endless glamorizing of the 60s! I didn’t have any relationships with fellow filmmakers of that time in NY and only got to meet them way later when our films were known to each other, so as far as my story goes, there was no NY ‘scene’ as it were. Funny how to this day I have yet to make a movie that’s set in NY! Blue Sunshine was supposed to take place in NY but was moved to LA for budgetary reasons.
Xavier Mendik: Many people talk about the ‘exploitation’ element of your 1970s movies, other people have commented on their thematic and stylistic excess. One aspect that often does not get discussed is the economics of your films from the 1970S. How were they funded, who invested in them and how did this kind of finance affect the types of production that were created?
Jeff Lieberman: My first two movies were financed by the same producers, Edgar Lansbury and Joe Beruh. They were big broadway producers at the time and were able to tap into their financing resources from the theatre. There were no ‘min-majors’ back then so anything not financed by a studio had to be done with private money.
Once the movie was completed, the hope was to attract major studio distribution, which is what happened with Squirm and AIP who snapped up all world rights and put the producers into profit immediately.
Xavier Mendik: To what extent do you think your films from that era reflected the wider tensions in 1970s American society?
Jeff Lieberman: I don’t think they reflected their times any more than in any other era. Far as tensions goes, there was a hell of lot more going on than that in the 70s. The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977) Jaws (1974) all definitive movies of the era had nothing at all to do with any particular tensions of the 70s. Unless you count the fear of sharks! But even that wasn’t particular to the 70s.
Xavier Mendik: OK, well one film that could be seen as embodying the tensions of the culture that has created it is Squirm, which embodies all of the features of rural excess that are covered in this edition of the Cine-Excess journal. Why you feel the theme of debased rural development remains such a potent theme to American horror?
Jeff Lieberman: I can only speak for myself, but I think first and foremost it is the sense of isolation that you can’t get in even a small city. An unspoken sense of whatever happens, you’re on your own out here. “In rural Podunck, no one can hear you scream!” Squirm was actually set in a New England seaport town with a slant toward a Lovecraft feel. But by the time the financing was put together we’d have to shoot in the winter months and wanted wall to wall greenery to give the movie not only that sense of isolation but to hide whatever could be lurking right behind those bushes or trees.
Xavier Mendik: What are your memories of the production of Squirm?
Jeff Lieberman: Being my first feature I sure didn’t allow myself to have any fun that’s for sure. Four weeks of actors and one week of worms! And the worm effects were by and large hit and miss right there on the location, just trying out techniques and if they seemed to work, bam, they went on the shot list schedule. Everyone working on the movie seemed to feel it would be successful, but they had an entirely different point of view than I did which was just to somehow get it all in the can and hope that I was right way more than I was wrong when it’s all cut together. Guess I was.
Xavier Mendik: Squirm proved a big hit on the 1970s cinema circuit, both in the US and the UK. Why do you feel the film was so successful?
Jeff Lieberman: Well, by definition it’s an ‘evergreen’ in that the fear of snakes and worms is pretty universal and there’s nothing in the movie that really dates it. I think there’s only one car in the whole movie. And nobody’s talking on those old phones because all the power is out. But I think much of the success comes from the characters interactions with each other and their ability to make such an absurd story seem real. Then of course there are the special FX which have become iconic over the years, mainly because they’re referred to as ‘practical FX’ as opposed to CGI.
Xavier Mendik: The film is often viewed as part of the 1970s revenge of nature cycle, and I wonder if you see Squirm as somehow distinct from this cinematic trend?
Jeff Lieberman: When I made the movie in the fall of ’75, there was no ‘nature runs amuck’ trend. Jaws was certainly a stand-alone horror thriller book, not intended to cash in on any trend when written. My inspiration was The Birds (1963), which again, wasn’t part of any trend. Certainly a trend did develop after Jaws, with writers asking which other of God’s creatures can we turn against mankind? Grizzly (1976), Willard (1971), Slugs (1988), Cujo (1983) and on and on. But when I got the idea for Squirm, it never occurred to me that it’d be part of some bigger category. Funny how all those categories emerged at the beginning of the 80s – ‘slashers’ ‘kids in the woods’ and in music ‘heavy metal’ ‘punk’ etc. I like shit much better when there were no labels. Each thing stood on its own merits – even if it was trying to cash in on someone else’s hit.
Xavier Mendik: You followed Squirm, with the 1978 release Blue Sunshine, which you have stated represented very specific issues in American society. What were the key elements you were seeking to discuss here?
Jeff Lieberman: My inspiration for the movie came from my youth in the 1950s. Specifically, the government’s fear campaign against ‘The Russians’ and the inevitable atomic war with them. I was inundated with propaganda fear campaigns of what atomic radiation did to the survivors of Hiroshima and what’s it going to do to us. This was all bullshit to unite my country against the dreaded ‘red’ Russia and in turn justify more billions to make more of our own mutant forming bombs. Hollywood realized the govt. was spending millions scaring the crap out our youth so why not cash in on that fear? The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Day the World Ended (1955), The Amazing Colossal Man, Them (1954) and on and on – we went to see those movies already sold on the horror of nuclear war and scared shitless about it and actually believed the stories could happen. After all, our govt. wouldn’t lie to us, would they? So in the 60s and into the 70s, the govt did the same thing with a huge drug fear campaign. And top of the list was LSD, which they portrayed as the demon of all drugs. And just like with radiation they made incredible claims about DNA mutations without any proof at all. So I figured, why not do what the Hollywood people did back in the 50s with radiation, make a movie that will tap into that fear the govt is selling, even though I meant it as a satirical statement.
Xavier Mendik: Blue Sunshine seems to offer a very melancholic assessment of the death of the so-called 1960s radical movement. Was this your intention?
Jeff Lieberman: My intention was to illustrate what the ‘baby boomer’ generation had become, the very ‘straight’ members of society they rallied against when they didn’t have to face the realities of the real world. Once they did, they conformed pretty much in the same way as generations before them. They not only joined the ‘establishment’ but strongly supported it. The entrenched big government, special interest money, big labour and pharma where hallmarks of the Obama years and Hillary Clinton promised to carry that same mantle if elected. To me, one of the biggest overlooked ironies of the ‘16 election is that the majority of Trump supporters echoed the very same frustrations of the disenfranchised baby boomers of the 1960s and 70s! They felt left out, that government was there only to take their money and serve a status quo they weren’t a part of. So of course they embraced an outsider who voiced their frustrations. And boy did the establishment hate getting their boat rocked. And it’s still rockin.’
Xavier Mendik: By ranging lead character ‘Zippy’ Zipkin against this corrupt new right wing class, you seem to be explicitly proclaiming yourself as a political horror director. Was this your intension?
Jeff Lieberman: The Ed Flemming character was a long haired hippie freak back in college and sold drugs to help pay his way just like so many others of his (my) generation. The fact that he went ‘straight’ like the others and in his case chose politics doesn’t in any way make him any more ‘right wing’ than the other characters in the movie who joined the straight world, like Dr. Blum played by Robert Walden. Bill Clinton was a draft dodger against the Vietnam war, smoked pot in college but then when he ran for office he claimed he never inhaled it. To me that makes him just another bullshit politician but not ‘right wing’ in any way. This is a prime example of how all these labels have been rendered meaningless – Flemming was the ‘bad guy’ so therefore he must be ‘right wing.’ The speeches Mark Goddard makes as Flemming in the movie were lifted from Kennedy and Eisenhower. His rallying line ‘It’s time to make America great again’ was pure Kennedy of decades ago, not Trump’s. Zipkin’s character’s ago, not Trump’s.
Zipkin’s character’s back story of standing up for feminist causes made him more sympathetic but those values were never attacked by Flemming, it only confirmed he was a ‘trouble maker.’ So the only thing Flemming had that against Zipkin was that he might expose Flemming’s past and kill his chances of getting elected. Flemming is just trying to save his political ass just like Bill Clinton did when he declared he ‘did not have sex with that woman.’ So if illustrating how a politician can lie to cover up his or her past for political gain makes me a political horror director, then so be it. But I’ll target left wing and right wing equally as it fits the narrative of the movie.
Xavier Mendik: Zippy Zipkin as we know was wonderfully underplayed by actor/director Zalman King, who later went on to become one of America’s most acclaimed erotic film creators. What were your memories of working with him?
Jeff Lieberman: He was very difficult to work with because he really wasn’t a trained actor, although he believed he was better than some very famous trained ones. So it was a battle all the way.
Xavier Mendik: One of the most interesting aspects of Blue Sunshine is its gender politics, and all of your films do seem to promote atypical and strong female characters, and I wonder what attracts you to this theme?
Jeff Lieberman: I’m a feminist at heart. I totally relate to women and what they have to endure from asshole men, me being one of them of course. I had great empathy for the ‘Wendy’ character who was dumped by her husband and left with two young children so he could pursue his ego trip in politics. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he left her the gift that keeps on giving, genetic damage from his special brand of LSD!
Xavier Mendik: One of your most strident heroines came with the figure of Constance (Deborah Benson), in the film 1981 film Just Before Dawn, and I wander what your memories are of this film?
Jeff Lieberman: Film critic Walter Chow introduced the movie as ‘the first feminist horror movie’ back when I was there for a screening at Alamo Denver a few years ago. And when I heard those words I had to agree with him. Connie is a ‘final girl’ – she’s not a victim. Tapping into her primal female nature, the root of the feminine self, she transforms into a dangerous wild animal who can fell a beast three times her size with her bare hands. Well… her fist!
Xavier Mendik: Just Before Dawn seemed to circulate with differing cuts and ended up being a very different movie that the producers had intended. In what ways was this a troubled production?
Jeff Lieberman: Actually, the production itself was not troubled at all. But while I was making the movie Friday The 13th(1980) came out and did huge business. So the producers wanted to transform the movie into that – which is what would later be called a ‘slasher.’ Of course that was not the movie I shot so they took the original cut and paired it down to focus less on character and more on the violence, also adding some silly sound effects to goose it up. My original cut was shown in theatres by Rank in the UK. And that’s the cut I recommend of course.
Xavier Mendik: The film did indeed come out at the height of the so-called slasher boom, but seemed to be more of a backwoods survival horror movie. What do you feel the true source of the inspiration was for the film?
Jeff Lieberman: Deliverance (1972), plain and simple, with a bit of Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure. There was no other movie that inspired me at all, slasher boom or no.
Xavier Mendik: How do you see the film as an evolution of the trope rural horror as represented by other rural themed horror releases such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)?
Jeff Lieberman: I’ve stated many times that although Deliverance was my key inspiration, to this day I’ve never even seen Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Nor The Hills Have Eyes (1977). But that hasn’t stopped countless critics and fans of the genre from assuming I was doing some version of those movies. Where it fits in in that evolution I have no idea. I only relate it to Deliverance and a gender flip on its main theme.
Xavier Mendik: The production of Just Before Dawn began in the late 1970s, but was released in 1981, by which time American society and its film industry appeared to be adopting a more conservative stance than in the previous decade. Did you feel any shift to the right in that 1980s decade, and did you in anyway feel inhibited by it?
Jeff Lieberman: Just because a Republican – Ronald Reagan – was elected president, didn’t mean that anything in entertainment had changed at all. In fact, Reagan used to be president of the screen actors guild at the height of the McCarthy era, and was labelled a communist himself for it. He was very pro Hollywood and friend of the creative community. Hollywood was run by liberals in the 80s just like in the 70s and the movies of the 80s still by and large had the same overall left wing slants focusing on racism, bigotry, the have nots portrayed as the good guys against the evil rich.
Xavier Mendik: Contemporary horror cinema remains dominated by remakes of 1970s horror classics, and you have often spoken of an ambition to remake Squirm. What would your ideal reimagining of this production involve?
Jeff Lieberman: I do have a very unique spin on it, but if I tell you I have to kill you. Along with anyone reading this!