[I don’t need a photograph to recognize Roy Elliot. We meet for coffee on the restored Malibu Pier Fortress. Those around us also instantly recognize him, but, unlike prewar days, keep a respectful distance.]
ADS, that was my enemy: Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome, or, Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome, depending on who you were talking to. Whatever the label, it killed as many people in those early stalemate months as hunger, disease, interhuman violence, or the living dead. No one understood what was happening at first. We’d stabilized the Rockies, we’d sanitized the safe zones, and still we were losing upwards of a hundred or so people a day. It wasn’t suicide, we had plenty of those. No, this was different. Some people had minimal wounds or easily treatable ailments; some were in perfect health. They would simply go to sleep one night and not wake up the next morning. The problem was psychological, a case of just giving up, not wanting to see tomorrow because you knew it could only bring more suffering. Losing faith, the will to endure, it happens in all wars. It happens in peacetime, too, just not on this scale. It was helplessness, or at least, the perception of helplessness. I understood that feeling. I directed movies all my adult life. They called me the boy genius, the wunderkind who couldn’t fail, even though I’d done so often.
Suddenly I was a nobody, an F-6. The world was going to hell and all my vaunted talents were powerless to stop it. When I heard about ADS, the government was trying to keep it quiet—I had to find out from a contact at Cedars-Sinai. When I heard about it, something snapped. Like the time I made my first Super 8 short and screened it for my parents. This I can do, I realized. This enemy I can fight!
And the rest is history.
[Laughs.] I wish. I went straight to the government, they turned me down.
Really? I would think, given your career…
What career? They wanted soldiers and farmers, real jobs, remember? It was like “Hey, sorry, no dice, but can I get your autograph?” Now, I’m not the surrendering type. When I believe in my ability to do something, there is no such word as no. I explained to the DeStRes rep that it wouldn’t cost Uncle Sam a dime. I’d use my own equipment, my own people, all I’d need from them was access to the military. “Let me show the people what you’re doing to stop this,” I told him. “Let me give them something to believe in.” Again, I was refused. The military had more important missions right now than “posing for the camera.”
Did you go over his head?
To who? There were no boats to Hawaii and Sinclair was racing up and down the West Coast. Anybody in any position to help was either physically unavailable or far too distracted with more “important” matters.
Couldn’t you have become a freelance journalist, gotten a government press pass?
It would have taken too long. Most mass media was either knocked out or federalized. What was left had to rebroadcast public safety announcements, to make sure anyone just tuning in would know what to do. Everything was still such a mess. We barely had passable roads, let alone the bureaucracy to give me full-time journalist status. It might have taken months. Months, with a hundred dying every day. I couldn’t wait. I had to do something immediately. I took a DV cam, some spare batteries, and a solar-powered charger. My oldest son came with me as my sound man and “first AD.” We traveled on the road for one week, just the two of us on mountain bikes, looking for stories. We didn’t have to go far.
Just outside of Greater Los Angeles, in a town called Claremont, are five colleges—Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, Harvey Mudd, and Claremont Mckenna. At the start of the Great Panic, when everyone else was running, literally, for the hills, three hundred students chose to make a stand. They turned the Women’s College at Scripps into something resembling a medieval city. They got their supplies from the other campuses; their weapons were a mix of landscaping tools and ROTC practice rifles. They planted gardens, dug wells, fortified an already existing wall. While the mountains burned behind them, and the surrounding suburbs descended into violence, those three hundred kids held off ten thousand zombies! Ten thousand, over the course of four months, until the Inland Empire could finally be pacified. 1 We were lucky to get there just at the tail end, just in time to see the last of the undead fall, as cheering students and soldiers linked up under the oversized, homemade Old Glory fluttering from the Pomona bell tower. What a story! Ninety-six hours of raw footage in the can. I would have liked to have gone longer, but time was critical. One hundred a day lost, remember.
We had to get this one out there as soon as possible. I brought the footage back to my house, cut it together in my edit bay. My wife did the narration. We made fourteen copies, all on different formats, and screened them that Saturday night at different camps and shelters all over LA. I called it Victory at Avalon: The Battle of the Five Colleges.
The name, Avalon, comes from some stock footage one of the students had shot during the siege. It was the night before their last, worst attack, when a fresh horde from the east was clearly visible on the horizon. The kids were hard at work—sharpening weapons, reinforcing defenses, standing guard on the walls and towers. A song came floating across the campus from the loudspeaker that played constant music to keep morale up. A Scripps student, with a voice like an angel, was singing the Roxy Music song. It was such a beautiful rendition, and such a contrast with the raging storm about to hit. I laid it over my “preparing for battle” montage. I still get choked up when I hear it.
How did it play with the audience?
It bombed! Not just the scene, but the whole movie; at least, that’s what I thought. I’d expected a more immediate reaction. Cheering, applause. I would never have admitted this to anyone, even to myself, but I had this egotistical fantasy of people coming up to me afterward, tears in their eyes, grabbing my hands, thanking me for showing them the light at the end of the tunnel. They didn’t even look at me. I stood by the doorway like some conquering hero. They just filed past silently with their eyes on their shoes. I went home that night thinking, “Oh well, it was a nice idea, maybe the potato farm in MacArthur Park can use another hand.”
Two weeks went by. I got a real job, helping to reopen the road at Topanga Canyon. Then one day a man rode up to my house. Just came in on horseback as if out of an old Cecil B. De Mille western. He was a psychiatrist from the county health facility in Santa Barbara. They’d heard about the success of my movie and asked if I had any extra copies.
That’s what I said. As it turns out, the very night after Avalon made its “debut,” ADS cases dropped in LA by a whole 5 percent! At first they thought it might just be a statistical anomaly, until a further study revealed that the decline was drastically noticeable only among communities where the movie was shown!
And no one told you?
No one. [Laughs.] Not the military, not the municipal authorities, not even the people who ran the shelters where it was continuing to be screened without my knowledge. I don’t care. The point is it worked. It made a difference, and it gave me a job for the rest of the war. I got a few volunteers together, as much of my old crew as I could find. That kid who shot the Claremont stock footage, Malcolm Van Ryzin, yes, that Malcolm, 2 he became my DP. 3 We commandeered an abandoned dubbing house in West Hollywood and started cranking them out by the hundreds. We’d put them on every train, every caravan, every coastal ferry heading north. It took a while to get responses. But when they came…
[He smiles, holds his hands up in thanks.]
Ten percent drop throughout the entire western safe zone. I was already on the road by then, shooting more stories. Anacapa was already wrapped, and we were halfway through Mission District. By the time Dos Palmos hit screens, and ADS was down 23 percent…only then did the government finally take an interest in me.
[Laughs.] No. I’d never asked for help and they sure weren’t going to give it. But I did finally get access to the military and that opened up a whole new world.
Is that when you made Fire of the Gods?
[Nods.] The army had two functioning laser weapons programs: Zeus and MTHEL. Zeus was originally designed for munitions clearing, zapping land mines and unexploded bombs. It was small and light enough to be mounted in a specialized Humvee. The gunner sighted a target through a coaxial camera in the turret. He placed the aim point on the intended surface, then fired a pulse beam through the same optical aperture. Is that too technical?
Not at all.
I’m sorry. I became extremely immersed in the project. The beam was a weaponized version of solid-state, industrial lasers, the kind used to cut steel in factories. It could either burn through a bomb’s outer casing or heat it to a point that detonated the explosive package. The same principle worked for zombies. On higher settings it punched right through their foreheads. On lower settings, it literally boiled their brain till it exploded through the ears, nose, and eyes. The footage we shot was dazzling, but Zeus was a popgun next to MTHEL.
The acronym stands for Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, codesigned by the United States and Israel to take out small incoming projectiles. When Israel declared self-quarantine, and when so many terrorist groups were lobbing mortar rounds and rockets across the security wall, MTHEL was what knocked them down. About the size and shape of a World War II searchlight, it was, in fact, a deuterium fluoride laser, much more powerful than the solid state on Zeus. The effects were devastating. It blasted flesh from bones that then heated white before shattering into dust. When played at regular speed, it was magnificent, but at slo-mo…fire of the gods.
Is it true that the number of ADS cases were halved a month after the movie’s release?
I think that might be an overstatement, but people were lined up on their off-hours. Some saw it every night. The poster campaign showed a close-up of a zombie being atomized. The image was lifted right from a frame in the movie, the one classic shot when the morning fog actually allowed you to see the beam. The caption underneath read simply “Next.” It single-handedly saved the program.
No, Zeus and MTHEL.
They were in jeopardy?
MTHEL was due to close a month after shooting. Zeus had already been chopped. We had to beg, borrow, and steal, literally, to get it reactivated just for our cameras. DeStRes had deemed both as a gross waste of resources.
Inexcusably so. The “M” in MTHEL’s “Mobile” really meant a convoy of specialized vehicles, all of which were delicate, none truly all-terrain and each one completely dependent on the other. MTHEL also required both tremendous power and copious amounts of highly unstable, highly toxic chemicals for the lasering process.
Zeus was a little more economical. It was easier to cool, easier to maintain, and because it was Humvee-mounted, it could go anywhere it was needed. The problem was, why would it be needed? Even on high power, the gunner still had to hold a beam in place, on a moving target, mind you, for several seconds. A good sharpshooter could get the job done in half the time with twice the kills. That erased the potential for rapid fire, which was exactly what you needed in swarm attacks. In fact, both units had a squad of riflemen permanently assigned to them, people protecting a machine that is designed to protect people.
They were that bad?
Not for their original role. MTHEL kept Israel safe from terrorist bombardment, and Zeus actually came out of retirement to clear unexploded ordnance during the army’s advance. As purpose-built weapons, they were outstanding. As zombie killers, they were hopeless duds.
So why did you film them?
Because Americans worship technology. It’s an inherent trait in the national zeitgeist. Whether we realize it or not, even the most indefatigable Luddite can’t deny our country’s technoprowess. We split the atom, we reached the moon, we’ve filled every household and business with more gadgets and gizmos than early sci-fi writers could have ever dreamed of. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, I’m in no place to judge. But I do know that just like all those ex-atheists in foxholes, most Americans were still praying for the God of science to save them.
But it didn’t.
But it didn’t matter. The movie was such a hit that I was asked to do a whole series. I called it “Wonder Weapons,” seven films on our military’s cutting-edge technology, none of which made any strategic difference, but all of which were psychological war winners.
A lie? It’s okay. You can say it. Yes, they were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The lies our government told us before the war, the ones that were supposed to keep us happy and blind, those were the ones that burned, because they prevented us from doing what had to be done. However, by the time I made Avalon, everyone was already doing everything they could possibly do to survive. The lies of the past were long gone and now the truth was everywhere, shambling down their streets, crashing through their doors, clawing at their throats. The truth was that no matter what we did, chances were most of us, if not all of us, were never going to see the future. The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. “We’re going to be okay.” That was our message. That was the message of every other filmmaker during the war. Did you ever hear of The Hero City?
Great film, right? Marty made it over the course of the Siege. Just him, shooting on whatever medium he could get his hands on. What a masterpiece: the courage, the determination, the strength, dignity, kindness, and honor. It really makes you believe in the human race. It’s better than anything I’ve ever done. You should see it.
Which version did you see?
I wasn’t aware…
That there were two? You need to do some homework, young man. Marty made both a wartime and postwar version of The Hero City. The version you saw, it was ninety minutes?
Did it show the dark side of the heroes in The Hero City? Did it show the violence and the betrayal, the cruelty, the depravity, the bottomless evil in some of those “heroes’” hearts? No, of course not. Why would it? That was our reality and it’s what drove so many people to get snuggled in bed, blow out their candles, and take their last breath. Marty chose, instead, to show the other side, the one that gets people out of bed the next morning, makes them scratch and scrape and fight for their lives because someone is telling them that they’re going to be okay. There’s a word for that kind of lie. Hope.