I Sell The Dead is far from your typical horror movie. In the words of writer-directo, Glenn McQuaid, it’s “an old-fashioned buddy flick… about robbing graves and, more importantly, robbing graves of the undead.”
The movie is based on McQuaid’s 2005 short film, The Resurrection Apprentice, about a young boy inducted into the world of grave robbers. With the help of moviemaker Larry Fessenden (who helmed Wendigo and both produced and acted in I Sell The Dead), the script was turned into a comic book before it was brought to life as a feature-length movie. Featuring a cast of quirky character actors from some of today’s most popular fantasy franchises (including The Lord of the Rings’ Dominic Monaghan, Hellboy’s Ron Perlman and Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm), I Sell The Dead seems primed to become the newest cult phenomenon.
As McQuaid readied his film for its Slamdance premiere, the writer-director spoke with MM about the making of his offbeat feature debut.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): I Sell The Dead revolves around the macabre world of grave-robbing. What kind of research did you have to do into this grisly subject in preparation for the movie?
Glenn McQuaid (GM): The subject of grave robbing has intrigued me ever since seeing Boris Karloff give the performance of his life in the Rober Wise/Val Lewton classic The Body Snatcher. Over the years I have also read James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches from 18th-century Ireland as well as Sarah Wise’s The Italian Boy: A Tale of Murder and Body Snatching in 1830s London. It was these two books that got me enthusiastically writing a script about grave robbers. I visited and researched the history of places such as Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin and Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn. When writing the script, I listened to the album Murder Ballads: The Complete Collection by Mick Harris and Martyn Bates. The haunting folk/drone ballads within were the perfect soundtrack to the world I was creating. I use a lot of music during my creative process, even giving my actors mix tapes designed specifically for their characters.
MM: The movie’s eclectic cast includes Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman and Angus Scrimm. How did you assemble such a diverse cast for your feature debut?
GM: My producers, Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok, were instrumental in getting the script out to our name talent. Larry had worked with Ron Perlman on The Last Winter so we got the script out to him at a very early stage. He liked my writing and was encouraging of the project. Peter is the world’s biggest “Lost” fan and as soon as he read the script he felt Dominic Monaghan was the ideal actor for the role of Arthur Blake.
Having Dom and Ron both interested in the project was huge for us and with some patience and realignment of stars it all fell into place. Larry had also worked with Angus Scrimm before on the set of Jim McKenny’s The Off Season and Automatons and so we had an in there. I am a huge Phantasm fan and the prospect of working with the Tall Man himself was very exciting. I personally reached out to the Irish actress Eilleen Colgan to play the role of Maisey. I had seen and admired Eileen in John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Innish and a wonderful forgotten gem of a movie called Quackser Fortune has a Cousin in the Bronx.
MM: I Sell The Dead is based on your 2005 short film, The Resurrection Apprentice. Had it always been the plan to expand it into a feature? Was adapting your original story a difficult process?
GM: When I wrote the short I thought it would be a standalone project. It was only when I finished with the edit that I felt there could be more to the world I had created. It wasn’t particularly difficult to expand on the initial idea because the reason for doing so came from a desire to see more of my grave robbers Grimes & Blake and their environment.
MM: You’ve said that the movie was inspired by the classic, chilling British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s. What are some of the movies in particular that inspired you, and how did you seek to emulate them in I Sell The Dead?
GM: I don’t think I tried to emulate anybody when making I Sell The Dead, but the films of Hammer and Amicus from Britain are certainly an influence on the film. The work of Terrence Fisher, Roy Ward Baker and especially the images of Freddie Francis are a big inspiration. I tried to use in-camera effects when possible, such as a split diopter over the camera lens to allow dual focus of background and foreground elements; Freddie Francis used this technique to incredible effect in his work on Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and beyond. John Badham’s Dracula was an influence for the look of the film, the desaturated palette of that film, with its day-for-night photography and gorgeous production design, has always been a favorite of mine. Mario Bava is also a big influence, though the film carries very little of his bold signature photography.
MM: What are some of the hurdles in shooting a low-budget period movie in New York City? What’s the best piece of advice you could offer independent moviemakers hoping to shoot in the Big Apple?
GM: New York is a great place to shoot, the crews are terrific and there is an amazing independent spirit to the town. I Sell The Dead is a testament to the diversity of locations in the five boroughs. Making an authentic-looking period movie on a low budget is always going to be a challenge and I think it’s good advice to location scout as much as possible. See what’s out there, explore what each of the boroughs has to offer.