Gay of the Dead: Joe Zaso, Part One
Let’s be honest – 99% of the pants-tent-inducing content in horror films centers on hot chicks. So, straight guys and lesbians – you’re welcome. But for the 1% of content aimed at the 10% of the audience (aka The Gays), there is one name you can count on for those pants tents – horror himbo and Scream King, Joe Zaso. Actor, model, producer, and more recently cookbook writer/publisher (CAFÉ HIMBO), Joe is first and foremost a really nice guy. These days you can also see him assisting Hedda Lettuce at her Chelsea’s Bow Tie Cinemas screenings, or in print ads for Michael Kaye. Later this year, look for Joe in the 2015 calendar “Ripped Genes: The Mature Men Edition.” (I have a feeling he won’t be wearing many clothes in that one).
I interviewed Joe from sunny Los Angeles as he suffered through the punishing winter in NYC.
FANGORIA: You’re a New York City boy from day one. Do you miss the old, grimy Times Square?
JOE ZASO: Absolutely. I remember it vaguely, but it definitely had character. Whores, hotheads, grindhouses… I remember my Dad taking my brother and I to see PARASITE there when it came out. Now, it’s all Starbucks and Disney.
FANG: When did the acting bug bite?
ZASO: During my college years. I had always wanted to work behind the scenes in film, but at that time, I started to find myself more fascinated with acting. I did a lot of plays until my early 20s.
FANG: So tell me about your first IMDB credit, IT’S ONLY A MOVIE, which lists you as writer, director and actor. Horror comedy?
ZASO: Everyone, I guess, has to have an ISHTAR in their filmography. This is mine. It was a “well-meaning, would-be musical spoof” as Variety described it (yes, Variety actually reviewed it). I was 19 and very inspired by things like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. The plot has a movie crew go to stay in a mansion to shoot a romance epic where they unwittingly awaken a demonic count who spreads a demonic contagion. It was “the first possession musical” and a very mixed bag of genres and characters. None of it worked – a train wreck. But I had fun at the time.
FANG: 5 DEAD ON THE CRIMSON CANVAS; is the name meant to evoke FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET? This looks to be your first major role. What can you tell us about this flick?
ZASO: This is one of my favorite projects to have worked on. This was made when I started producing features as a way of creating vehicles for myself. I was a big fan of Italian horror and in particular, the giallo film. My filmmaker and college friend Joe Parda gave me a script, which I liked, but I wanted to develop it a lot more. And so, a few months later, we both collaborated on this. It was shot on Super 8mm silent film and redubbed later entirely (every single sound effect, etc). It was like making the movie twice. Very hard work and very stressful overall, but the final product was something to proud of. It won some awards and actually got me to Italy for the FANTAFESTIVAL where I began my love affair with Italy.
FANG: You’ve actually produced quite a few projects. Is this something you enjoy? Or is it a means to an end?
ZASO: Producing is something I seem to do well, but I must say I prefer acting. You can focus entirely on your character and that’s it. You don’t have to worry about ten million things. I’ve found producing to be very thankless. Thing is, producers are harder to come by and many filmmakers always try to convince to you produce for them.
FANG: You did several projects with Joe Parda—5 DEAD, GUILTY PLEASURES, EVIL STREETS, MACHINES OF LOVE AND HATE. He seems to have dropped off the map. Can you talk about working with him, and maybe tell us what he’s doing now?
ZASO: As mentioned before, I worked with Joe on 5 DEAD ON THE CRIMSON CANVAS and then on a few other projects. We did a two-parter called GUILTY PLEASURES (sort of our rendition of TWO EVIL EYES). It was to be a series, which never happened. We also did a film called EVIL STREETS, which was another anthology. Joe and I worked on an episode called “Szamota’s Mistress” with scream queen Tina Krause. The entire film was mainly known for SaRenna Lee, a busty Playboy model who appeared in one of the other episodes. Although I’m proud of my episode, it was hideous working with the other filmmakers on that one. MACHINES OF LOVE AND HATE is Joe’s biggest film, a very surreal, trippy movie in the vein of LOST HIGHWAY. It featured Tina Krause and the divine UK scream queen/singer Eileen Daly who I became friends with on the set. A movie not for all tastes, but definitely an interesting one. Although we’ve kept in touch, I haven’t worked with him since.
FANG: All indie filmmakers have their horror stories; what has been the most difficult shoot for you, either as an actor or producer (or both)?
ZASO: NIKOS THE IMPALER, without a doubt. As an actor/line producer/chauffeur/ costume designer/etc/etc/etc. The most physically, emotionally, financially and professionally horrendous experience of my life. Sad to say, it wasn’t worth it.
FANG: At some point your “Horror Himbo” status was codified online—probably by our friends over the gay horror site, Camp Blood. There are other culty male actors out there, but none that really serve up the beefcake on a consistent basis like you do, and certainly none that market themselves as a “scream king.” Do you remember when you realized you had a cult following?
ZASO: I think after I did four or five of these movies, around the time of BARRICADE, is when I was started to get labeled as a “Horror Himbo.” There seem to be many actresses who do several horror films and get branded as “Scream Queens,” but very few actors who consistently work in indie horror. Not sure if I’m a pioneer, but definitely one of the few.
FANG: I have to be honest. I watched Timo Rose’s BARRICADE awhile ago, and damn, is it gross! I have a pretty high tolerance for screen gore, but that tested my limits. Are you a fan of a good gross out?
ZASO: Ironically, I’m not a gore fan. I’m one of those who prefers psychological horrors more. In fact, I think I hate special FX, because even though they can look amazing in the finished film, they are migraine-inducing to deal with on the set. As an actor and as a producer, I prefer not to deal with FX. However, BARRICADE turned out to be one of the most successful and popular movies I ever worked on. I must say when it comes to gore, nobody does it better than the Germans.
FANG: You’ve worked with the notorious Timo Rose several times. Care to share the gory details about your working relationship?
ZASO: I worked with Timo a few times (twice in Germany and once in Italy) and I have to say he’s quite a character. All of my working experiences with him were pleasant and productive. He’s a bit of an imp and devoted to his favorite genre. Fun to have a beer with indeed. When he offered me the lead for BARRICADE, he also asked if I would co-produce. I usually don’t impulse shop, but his persuasiveness paid off. One of my favorite experiences on a film. The Germans are definitely eccentric and fun. He did some gore FX for my Italian-made second giallo, DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA, and then again on BEAST. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed working with all German horror filmmakers, but Timo was great.
In the second part of this interview, Joe and I talk about his scream queen friends, cooking, and his frequent nakedness. Top photo, courtesy of Michael Kaye Couture.
For more on Joe, check out his website.
For over 30 interviews with queer horror folks, check out my book – OUT IN THE DARK: INTERVIEWS WITH GAY HORROR FILMMAKERS, ACTORS AND AUTHORS here.