Lloyd Kaufman ’68 did not always want to be a filmmaker. Before coming to Yale, he wanted to be a “teacher or a social worker … someone who teaches people with hooks for hands how to finger-paint.” It took four years of hating a school filled with “only men and some hairless men” to convince him that he instead wanted to “film the hook-hand people finger-painting.”
After making, among other films, a superhero story about an ex-geek transformed by toxic waste and a punk adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” Kaufman has teamed up with another Yale grad, Kiel Walker ’04, to produce “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead!” In case the title doesn’t say enough, here is the chorus to the theme song from the film, due to be released by Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, an offbeat — to put it mildly — film studio, in February of 2007: “This is ‘Poultrygeist’ where the blood keeps spilling/ This is ‘Poultrygeist,’ where there’s lots of killing/ You’ll be eaten alive by zombie chickens tonight/ You’re all gonna die.”
These cheery lyrics convey the essential elements of this movie, described in the production journals as “the goriest musical in the history of American film,” and in the synopsis as “cinema’s first chicken-zombie horror-comedy … with musical numbers!”: gore, nudity, puns and political satire. Often occurring in the same mind-blowing scene, these pieces have become de facto elements of the Troma tradition.
In “Poultrygeist,” a military-themed fried-chicken food chain is built on the “Tromahawk Tribe sacred Indian burial ground,” which is then overrun with possessed chickens. Grisly mayhem ensues, fueled by a veritable army of underpaid, underfed, exhausted and blood-and-feathered cast and crew members.
When asked about the progression from Yale University to chicken zombies, Kaufman explained that he “roomed with the president of the Yale Film Society” in a tiny dorm where Kaufman could not escape from his roommate’s “Godard-stinking feet.” Therein was “the aroma de Troma born.”
“The Troma family is like the Manson family and LSD working together as a team with very little money,” Kaufman said.
It seems incredible that Kaufman managed to turn into a flesh-eating zombie rather than the khaki-and-blazer-clad kind, given who his classmates were.
“I was in George W. Bush’s class,” Kaufman said, “and he was always going around campus looking for weapons of mass destruction.”
A more recent graduate, Walker, also attributes the inception of his film career to Yale.
“My adviser was the head of the film department,” Walker said. “He wouldn’t sign my sophomore year schedule unless I wrote down that I was going to major in film.”
From this fateful moment, Walker’s gradual conversion to Troma acolyte was inevitable. After graduating, he worked at a bookstore and as a security guard, and in both professions, he was paid more than he would be at Troma. A craigslist posting led him to Kaufman, and though he had no idea what he was doing, he wound up “basically in charge of production” for the feature-length “Poultrygeist.” This, however, seems to be the nature of working for the world’s longest continuously-operating independent film studio, a hectic and underfunded endeavour that creates a near-religious experience for everyone from the fake-blood boys to the producers.
The housing during the shooting of “Poultrygeist” was in fact literally of a religious bent, as masses of devoted Troma workers slept in the basement of a church in one of the purportedly worst neighborhoods of Buffalo, N.Y. An employee, Richard Taylor, who concocted fake-blood, slime and vomit on the set, described the holy accommodations.
“Anytime the landlord came around, we had to pretend to be perfect Christian children,” Taylor said. “We had to hide the penis monsters, the slime, blood and porn.”
Walker detailed how the original “Poultrygeist” script included a scene where one character was nailed up on a cross. As the Troma crew was packing up to vacate Buffalo, the church’s landlady kept taking photos of them, suspicious of the giant leftover prop cross and convinced she would eventually need to prosecute.
“We filmed nude scenes in the basement of the church,” Walker said. “That pretty much sums up the production of ‘Poultrygeist.’ ”
Emilie Jackson, an extra hand on the set, described the awkwardness she felt when sent “to a convenience store to buy only a lot of duct tape, Elmer’s Glue and KY Jelly,” the essentials for cheaply “hand-feathering 500 locals.”
“It was also kind of awkward that every older man you feathered would be like, ‘You are fulfilling every dream I’ve ever had,’” Jackson said.
Charlotte Kaufman, the youngest daughter of the director and also a member of the crew, described her job on set in Buffalo as “rubbing glue over fat men’s hairy bellies,” as she feathered “Poultrygeist” extras. Kaufman seemed blase about the hairy bellies, but she did add that seeing her father dressed up as a young girl was “pretty disturbing.”
“That’s what the Troma experience is all about,” she said. “It’s an acquired taste.”