Gay of the Dead: Dante Tomaselli, Part One
The terms “nonlinear” and “dream logic” are used in almost every interview and article about Dante Tomaselli’s work (and Gay of the Dead will be no exception). DESECRATION, HORROR, SATAN’S PLAYGROUND and the just released TORTURE CHAMBER – four films that ask (demand?) us to turn off that “Point A to Point B” part of our brains and just go for the ride. But there is an internal logic to all of these films – Point A is deep inside Tomaselli’s mind, and Point B is… probably TBD.
I’ve admired Tomaselli’s work for some time, and am thrilled he made time for my questions. And while you’re at it, you should definitely check out FANGO editor-in-chief Chris Alexander’s interview with him in issue #330, as well.
FANGORIA: There’s an EPK on Youtube about TORTURE CHAMBER, but also about your background. At one point you say that you were scared to look at your father, and that totally triggered a memory I have of being literally afraid that my parents wanted to kill me. Like, take me out and drown me or something. I’ll let my shrink handle that on my end, but can you shed some light for those that don’t know what it feels like to be afraid of your father?
DANTE TOMASELLI: Well, this is difficult to open up about because I get the feeling that my family doesn’t want me to talk about my father, at least in a negative light. They’re very protective because they had very different experiences and can’t relate to my point of view. My Dad died when I was 17 and there’s no doubt that we had a damaged relationship. It’s something that I don’t talk about, but I work it out in my films. Somehow. When I was under six years old, I had borderline asthma and there were many times I would go to bed at night and my nose and mouth felt sewn shut. I couldn’t breathe. And then I would panic. I’d go to my parents in the middle of the night and tell them I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I’d sleepwalk. I’d sleepwalk a lot. Usually if it was breathing, my mother would rub Vicks menthol on my chest and I’d eventually relax and go back to sleep.
These episodes were always entwined with nightmares. Lots and lots of nightmares. I remember always lying on my back, barely breathing and having the most vicious dreams where I’d wake up running from the bed. One time stands out… I was practically suffocating and ran into my parents bedroom, they weren’t there and I remember collapsing in the bathroom, pounding on the tile floor, I couldn’t breathe and I was calling for my parents. I was really calling for my mother, I knew she was downstairs. This time my Dad came to see me and I can still remember it like a freeze frame, even though I was five years old. I was gasping for breath and he looked at me just frowning. And walked away. I guess that was just the beginning of it.
FANG: Is it correct that your mother took you to see horror movies as a kid? That resonates with me as well – my mom and I shared a love of horror flicks. Can you talk about seeing horror movies with your mom?
TOMASELLI: Yes, we saw many, many horror films and she was a fan of horror herself. We both really got into decorating the house around Halloween. That was fun. Her favorite film was PSYCHO. We saw THE FOG together in theatres in 1980 at the Totowa Cinema in New Jersey. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 10. The sleek classic poster plastered on the side of the cinema, which I now have framed in my room…Mom was slightly down on the film. I loved THE FOG. And the music…I would try to emulate it on a Casio synth I had. The pounding bass. It generates suspense. I love that old-style Moog synth sound. I knew I had to pursue this kind of sound. It was just the kind of gloomy, low toned music I had been creating on my electronic organ and Casio.
And speaking of Carpenter, my mother took all my grammar school friends on my birthday to see HALLOWEEN in theatres and they were petrified, traumatized. Some of the parents got mad, I remember. Something in me craved horror films and I experienced a true masterpiece after watching HALLOWEEN. A work of art. I was caught in its spell for years and couldn’t stop thinking about it. And the evil jack-o-lantern poster art. THE SHINING and FRIDAY THE 13TH were also excellent and released on the same week in 1980. Again, I was 10. We went to a lot of Drive-Ins, the whole family. While I enjoyed the camp-like experience of being in the car with pillows and blankets, the bad sound quality of the speakers bothered me, really annoyed me, I remember. I saw lots of horror films at Drive-Ins…THE OMEN, THEATRE OF BLOOD, THE STEPFORD WIVES, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE SENTINEL, BURNT OFFERINGS, THE CHILDREN. Also, my mother was an actress, president of Playcrafters, a theatre association in West Caldwell, New Jersey. She starred in many different plays. So growing up, I used to practice lines with her a lot and it made me feel like a director already, absorbing a performance. When I got older, in my twenties, I ended up casting her in one of my own movies. She played a nun in DESECRATION.
TOMASELLI: I was emotionally congested. An American misfit kid. I kept too much inside, so it came out in my nightmares. I realize that sometimes it was just the psychic debris of the day but other times I believe these dreams meant something and I was curious about their symbolism. In my teens, I was interested in lucid dreaming and actually used it as a way to try to combat my nightmares. To say to my mind, “Look this isn’t real. You don’t have to be afraid. You’re dreaming.” For example before I go to bed sometimes I look at my hands, I visualize them. Then I try to find my hands in my dream. When I do, I’m conscious in the unconscious and I can guide or navigate the dream. You can’t completely control the content but you can nudge it with your intent. I can visit old neighborhoods, grammar school classes, baseball practices…I can go anywhere that I want. The unconscious mind remembers everything.
FANG: You’ve also mentioned before that your films are about peeling back the layers to reveal pain and guilt. Your films are so rooted in your upbringing, I get the pain part, but what do you feel guilty about?
TOMASELLI: I tap into the guilt that I had growing up. I don’t really identify with that guilt with the same intensity anymore. I’ve worked through and resolved a lot, which can’t be put into words because it will diminish it. But I can definitely channel it and when I do, these films squeeze themselves out. I’m channeling my younger self. The images, the themes, the sounds. It’s like painting. Totally unconscious. When I had apartments in NYC, people used to come over and ask if the place got ransacked or something. No, that’s just the way I create…in chaos. It’s like I go into some kind of trance and lose track of all time. It’s a place of imagination and I love to be there…to create, to paint with pictures and sounds but it’s a dark place, an emotionally violent state-of-mind.
FANG: Okay, how about a more uplifting subject? You dreamed of owning a funhouse as a kid. Describe that funhouse for us.
TOMASELLI: It was like Brigantine Castle or The Haunted Mansion at Long Branch. Those were large-scale funhouses that were well known in Jersey when I was a kid. Out of anything in the world, the one thing that would thrill me was the idea of building and designing my very own funhouse. I seriously planned it at night…lying in my bed. I would imagine the music…the soundscapes from room to realm. I saw the funhouse as a circular maze. These fantasies would light up my brain…and release serotonin. I visualized trap doors. Slides. Gates. Long hallways. Even my childhood bedroom was decorated like a funhouse. When the door opened red eyes would glow from one of my masks.
FANG: As we make our way through this interview, I feel like we’re the same person! My funhouse was a three-story home that included a slide from the attic to the basement. Someday…
Hungry for more interviews with queer horror creators? Grab a copy of OUT IN THE DARK: INTERVIEWS WITH GAY HORROR FILMMAKERS, ACTORS AND AUTHORS here.