Hours before Dementia Part II premiered at Chicago’s Music Box theatre in 2017, co-director Matt Mercer was still finalising the sound mix. In Los Angeles. “I was sound designing it right up until that morning, until finally I just crossed my fingers and hit Export,” Mercer says. “My flight was in three hours, and the export said two-and-a-half hours.” But he got the movie on a drive, made the flight, arrived at the theatre with minutes to spare, and hit play for a packed theatre of people who had no idea what they were in for. Mercer didn’t either. “I had not slept,” he laughs. “In like a week.”
That’s what happens when you make a full movie, from blank page to big screen, in a month. One of the freakiest, funniest, and most purely joyful horror films to come along in years, Mercer and Mike Testin’s Dementia Part II is out now on VOD after a three-year tour of festivals and an unexpected theatrical run. It’s gross, it’s secretly subversive, and somehow it makes perfect sense that it was made on a bet.
Back in 2017, Josh Goldbloom, the founder of Chicago horror festival Cinepocalypse, bumped into film producer JD Lifshitz with an idea. His fest was five weeks off, his lineup was about to be announced, and he made a proposal: if Lifshitz could get a genre movie made in that time, from idea to finished product, he’d give that movie a plum midnight slot. The terms stipulated that production could only begin upon the announcement of the festival’s lineup, the movie needed to be feature-length, and then just to amp up the degree of difficulty, it needed to be titled Dementia Part II. He took the bet. And then ran to find Testin, who had directed 2015’s Dementia, and Mercer, with whom he’d worked on the zombie-STD-no-really cult movie Contracted, to convince them to make that movie.
“I said no,” Mercer laughs. But Testin won him over: “I thought it would be a good experiment in what we could pull off,” he says. Plus, the stakes were low. “There wasn’t really a way to fail. Worst case, it would only screen once.”
They cranked out a script, a sequel in name and spirit only. They called in friends to co-star, and since their schedules were already packed, they made a deal to co-direct. The challenges of the shoot started before principal photography began: “AirBNB owners in Los Angeles are wise to people renting with the purpose of shooting,” Mercer says, “so I was upfront. I’d say ‘we’d be shooting in your property,’ and they’d hang up on me.” But they found the perfect craftsman home about five days before the shoot began, “and then the day before we were supposed to start, the owner calls and says ‘they’re going to be jackhammering the sidewalk for the next few days, hope that’s okay!’ We would have to record audio, so no.” Mercer reached out to a friend who had just moved into a new home: “And he works in production, so from experience he was like ‘I am never letting anyone shoot here.’ But I begged him, and finally he agreed, and then he asked ‘When would you need to start,” and I said ‘Uh, tomorrow, 8 a.m.?’” The guys promised not to mess anything up in their friend’s brand-new house. “And then we showed up the next morning with gallons of Hershey’s Syrup,” the stand-in for the black-and-white movie’s considerable amount of blood.
The result is a jet-black and very bloody/chocolatey comedy: Wendell (Mercer), is forced by his parole officer to take a handyman job in the home of an elderly widow (Suzanne Voss) who might be just a bit senile, or...might not be completely alive. And when the woman who’s pretending to be her daughter (Najarra Townsend) shows up, the plot thickens: Yes, there’s a flesh-eating zombie in the house, but her life savings are in a box in the attic. Chaos ensues.
There was chaos behind the camera as well. Voss would shoot for two hours in the morning, go to work a full shift at her actual job, then return to set to finish the day. Townsend shot her scenes on a quick visit to LA from her home in London. Also, that premiere slot was set in stone and very close. “It was like taking the regular challenges of a movie, and cramming all of them into a week of shooting,” Mercer laughs. “All the normal headaches, at ten times the rate of speed.”
But once the shoot wrapped, something special began. “While I was editing,” Testin says, “I thought it came together in a really funny, interesting way. I said: ‘I wonder if we’ve stumbled onto something decent here.’” Mercer agrees: “It’s way better than I expected it to be. It’s actually a minor miracle.” They got the film to Cinepocalypse in the nick of time, and after Mercer hit play, the major miracle happened: the crowd ate it up. “The response was...unexpected,” Mercer says. Simon Barrett, screenwriter of You’re Next and director of the upcoming Seance, was in the house. “Simon pulled me aside and said ‘I don’t know if you know this, but that movie is a triumph.’”
Barrett put Dementia Part II on his year-end top ten, the movie got into bigger and bigger festivals, and then the movie that was made on a dare in a month got into the biggest fantasy and horror festival in the world: the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. “I was like, what?” Mercer laughs, still in disbelief, “How are we playing Sitges? We’ve had friends with much more highfalutin movies that didn’t get in, and we did?”
But again, the crowds reacted. “I think they could feel the fun we had doing it," Testin says. "We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, there’s nothing pretentious about it.”
He’s right: the movie is incredibly breezy for something this bloody, more whimsical than a movie that references Dawn of the Dead and Friday The 13th Part II ought to be, a perfect late-night watch. It’s severed-head and shoulders above the brutal and dour horror of recent years, it really feels like the work of a group of friends who set out to have a good time, infectious like a zombie bite.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say. “There definitely is an unconscious subversive undercurrent to it,” Mercer says. “That’s what I love about horror: it’s always a mirror of its time, it’s always an analogy for what’s happening in the moment. In this story, there is a monster, but the bigger monsters are our two heroes trying to rob her.” They didn’t set out to make a grand statement in this movie they made from start to finish in five weeks on a dare, but as in every other part of the process, they might have surprised themselves. “It might actually be a slight reflection on unregulated capitalism.”
And then he laughs again, in disbelief. “Oh my God, that sounds pompous.”
Judge for yourself. Dementia Part II is available on demand now. Turn it on. But lock the door first.
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