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Professor and author S. Torriano Berry’s greatest achievement just may be a low-budget horror flick in which he used groceries for guts.
The childhood chant sounds innocent at first. The rhyme is coming from a gaggle of grade-school girls bouncing within the chalked outline of a hopscotch grid. The seemingly benign song that animates their nimble steps—one, two, one, one, two—mingles sweetly with the parka-weather wind on a December afternoon in the nation’s capital:
Tell you a story about Undertaker Zach!
He killed his wife with a whack! whack! whack!
His daughter started crying ‘cuz her mama was dead!
He shut her up by chopping off her head!
Oh, it’s nasty. But Embalmer, the feature-length flick in which the pigtailed girls tell their grisly tale—written, produced, and directed (and scored and edited and catered…) by one S. Torriano Berry—is not your typical horror movie. Don’t be fooled by the trio of whacks! or the cheeseball tag line—”He Kills So the Dead Can Live”—or that video-case blurb from the bloodlusters at Fangoria.
Yes, the scenario dreamed up by the Howard University TV and film professor is ordinary enough. It involves four sex-addled teens who unwittingly seek shelter in a decrepit old house that—legend has it—belongs to Boo Know Who, a misguided mortician who murders wayward strangers so he can transfer their life force to the wife and daughter he now wants back. Select unluckies eventually get diced to pulpy pieces, and the Halloween-esque soundtrack is relentless and jarring.
But here’s where Undertaker Zach and Freddy Krueger part ways: In a denouement that is somehow both heartwarming and unnerving—and straight outta Rod Serling’s think-again playbook—the indie film’s finale winds up being more family values than Manson family. Embalmer, shot on and around the Howard campus, may not be worthy of a place in Berry’s encyclopedic new book, The 50 Most Influential Black Films—although it would be interesting to see Undertaker Zach go up against such cinematic rebels as Shaft, Coffy, and, in the blood-bath royal, Blacula. But it definitely inspires more debate than most in the bogeyman milieu.
“I don’t like horror movies,” says the 44-year-old Berry, who, because of scheduling, financial, and Hollywood hassles, needed several years to complete his 85-minute film. “I don’t go to see horror movies. I wanted Embalmer to be more than a slasher film. In most of those, people walk into a room, say, ‘Hi, I’m George’ and then—ack!—they’re dead. I wanted to develop the characters so that when people started to die, you felt something for the loss. I’m against gratuitous violence.”
Gratuitous or not, Embalmer has a whole lotta violence (and screaming and gurgling and a spectacular heave of wino puke). For a movie that cost Berry only $30,000 (it was self-financed) and whose crew was made up mostly of student filmmakers and untrained actors, Embalmer is well-crafted, decidedly polished, and convincing. There is even a miserable moment in which Berry, not able to afford whiz-bang special effects, used store-bought short ribs and beef strips for a far-too-close view of a dead girl’s viscera—to appetite-spoiling effect.
Berry also had to rely on other makeshift means in order to create a film he’d be proud of, a quirky work of art he’d been struggling to put together since he was a film-school student in the mid-’80s. For a pivotal scene in which a cop car chases the kids into the killer’s garage, Berry used a connection he’d made in the classroom.
“One of my students had done a music video where he needed some police,” he says. “So he’d made a contact in the [Metropolitan Police Department’s] public-relations office, and he got a squad car for our movie. The police were extremely amenable. But they said, ‘If we get a call, we gotta go.’ I regret not using them more—maybe shooting from their POV inside the cop car or shots outside the car. That’s the director’s dilemma: The film is never finished, because no matter what you’ve done, you always see other things that you could have done or should have done.”
Berry, however, has invested too much of his often frustrating life as a filmmaker into Embalmer not to stand tall behind the finished product. “This is a film that I’m hoping becomes a cult classic,” he says. “You watch it for a second time and you start picking up on the foreshadowing and the plants, and then everything starts to make sense. What I wanted to do with Undertaker Zach was take him from being a scary myth to him actually becoming—I don’t want to say a liberator—but basically, he becomes almost a hero at the end.”
No, this is not your normal horror movie—and not your normal horror-movie director—at all.
Dressed in a gray sweater, gray sport coat, and gray slacks, Berry is digging away at some gooey goods this Friday noon at Meskerem, an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan. He says he’s “trying to be positive today,” but as he climbs deeper into his past as a filmmaker, he can’t help but allow a little negativity to slip out.
Berry wrote the initial script for Embalmer back in 1984, when he was a graduate student at UCLA. “Initially, I wanted to be a cinematographer,” he says. “I didn’t want the headaches and the hassles of producing and directing. I just wanted to make beautiful images that leap off the screen.
“Back in the early ’80s—this was pre-Spike [Lee], pre-[Robert] Townsend, pre-[John] Singleton,” Berry continues. “There were no black filmmakers out there, other than Oscar Micheaux and Gordon Parks and a few of the blaxploitation filmmakers. It really looked bleak for us back then. So I realized that, if there were no black producers and directors to put me to work as a cinematographer, I had better start training myself and getting more into producing and directing and writing.”
“I tried to push Embalmer to Hollywood studios,” he says, explaining that UCLA, unlike nearby USC, made students come up with their own funding for projects. “But I got letters back saying they weren’t interested in producing it. But they did say, ‘If you produce it through other means, we’d be happy to take a look at it for distribution.’
“Now, I have no proof of this,” Berry adds, a bit reluctantly, “but initially the hopscotch scene and the rhyme in Embalmer was actually a jump-rope scene. And then one day, I’m sitting there watching Nightmare on Elm Street, and here comes this jump-rope scene and this rhyme. And I’m thinking, Wait a minute! Hold on!”
At UCLA, Berry also created a show called The Black Beyond, “a horror series…specifically from a black perspective. Twilight Zone had been off the air for a while, and The Outer Limits hadn’t been on for years. So I did the first episode of The Black Beyond—wrote, produced, directed. I had scripts for eight other episodes, and had ideas for another 10. I was ready to go, right? So I sent it off to Steven Spielberg’s company. And they were like, ‘No, no, no.’ They weren’t interested. Then I look up, and Spielberg brings out Amazing Stories, an anthology series about science fiction and horror. Then there was this thing called Monsters. And then they brought back Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Now, I’m not saying I was the catalyst, but you know…”
Berry leans forward, unable to stifle just one more thing that pisses him off. “You know how I really build up on the whole urban-legend concept in Embalmer? Well, once I finished the initial version in the summer of ’96, I sent it to some Hollywood studios. And right after that, about a year later, that film Urban Legend came out. So now I’m thinking, Hmmm. Of course, I have no proof…
“I feel like Forrest Gump sometimes,” adds Berry, who left UCLA to work on video production and came to teach at Howard in 1990. “You know how Forrest Gump is always giving people ideas and concepts? If that’s the case, it makes me feel good to know at least I’m having an impact somewhere.”
In a small, strange way, Berry has Ronald Reagan to thank for the initial spark of inspiration for both Embalmer and The 50 Most Influential Black Films.
“The first movie that had an impact on me was Hellcats of the Navy,” says Berry, who was raised in Des Moines, Iowa. “It had Reagan in it, before he was president. I was probably 6 or 7 years old, laying in the living room on the floor, watching TV. Hellcats had these fighter pilots shooting down Japanese planes. And I’m thinking, Ooh yeah, that looks like fun. I was all energized. And then I remember they had a briefing scene with all these pilots in one room, and I started looking around, and I remember thinking, There are no black men in any of those seats. Nobody on that screen, flying those planes, looked like me. And that hurt me.”
Berry included many of these early memories of being black in a white-dominated world in a novel he wrote called Tears, originally written as a screenplay—and a story he’d one day like to make for the big screen. His confrontations with racism—and his continuous frustrations with the Hollywood studios—also led to the writing of The 50 Most Influential Black Films, which he co-authored with his sister, Venise T. Berry.
“We started with about 150 movies,” he says. “Basically, I made up my list, my sister made up her list, and the films that were on both lists made the book, and we battled about the rest. These are films that, had they not been made, others might not have been made, either.”
Perhaps the most controversial omission is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing—”I don’t think anyone in Do the Right Thing did the right thing,” Berry says. However, Lee’s 1986 indie hit She’s Gotta Have It is included, as well as 1996’s Get on the Bus, which is “important because 12 black men financed that film,” Berry says.
Other films to make the book include 1954’s Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, “Hollywood’s first black on-screen sex duo”; 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the controversial classic that transformed Sidney Poitier into the most talked-about actor, black or white, of his time; and 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, which renegade black comedian Robert Townsend made by maxing out his credits cards.
When pressed, Berry says that the most influential black director was probably Oscar Micheaux, who, between 1918 and 1948, wrote, produced, directed, and distributed more than 40 feature-length films. A close second is Gordon Parks, the first black man to helm a feature-length film for a major Hollywood studio. For 1969’s The Learning Tree, Parks “produced and directed, wrote the script, and did the musical score. And he had never made a film before. That’s just phenomenal. I asked him, ‘Do you think the studios wanted you to fail?’ And he said no, they gave him everything he needed. Which I was happy to hear.”
Despite the blockbuster success of such heavyweights as Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, Berry argues that “today, there’s really no person of color who can greenlight a picture in Hollywood. Some people maybe have influence, but no clout. Comes down to race, power, and money.”
Berry doesn’t require his students to read his book—or even to watch Embalmer—but he hopes they’re truly listening when he tells them about his struggles and those of the black filmmakers who came before him.
“I am in direct contact with 50 to 100 young filmmakers every semester,” Berry says. “If there is some way that I can instill just a little bit of my thought about what the world should be like and the power of film and how it should be used to create a more positive attitude, then instead of just my films out there, there are hundreds of student films out there that hopefully will have a greater impact than I could ever have on my own.
“Simply,” he adds, “I want the world to be a better place because I lived.” CP
Berry will discuss The 50 Most Influential Black Films and screen a 30-minute version of Embalmer at 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at Sankofa Video & Bookstore, 2714 Georgia Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 334-4755. Embalmer will screen at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at Erico Cafe, 1334 U St. NW. For more information, call (202) 518-9742.