From the early ’80s to the mid-2000s, a wave of extremely low-budget horror films permeated the VHS market and cropped up in independent video rental stores across the country. These films were shot on videotape, featured copious amounts of brutality and gore. They ranged from completely inept and unwatchable to engaging and entertaining. Directors like Christopher Lewis, Todd Sheets, and Donald Farmer were hailed as no-budget auteurs, and executive producer Darrin Ramage took a cue from Charles Band by creating his own mini-empire with Brain Damage Films. The low-budget horror became a subgenre with its individual stars, fans, and community. The fun sadly ended as digital cameras became more available. Alabama-based director Jay Burleson takes us inside that world with an unusual blend of shot-on-video horror in his documentary The Nobodies.
Obsessed with filmmaking at a young age, Warren Werner and his girlfriend Samantha Dixon worked tirelessly on his debut feature film Pumpkin, but when he proudly presented it to his local rural Alabama community, they not only hated it, they ostracized him and spread rumors of his involvement to Satanism. The severe backlash led to Warren’s and Samantha’s retreat from society and ultimately their suicides. A documentary team attempted to tell Warren’s story a year later, but never finished the film. The Nobodies intercuts that unfinished documentary footage with Werner’s movie.
“The severe backlash led to Warren’s and Samantha’s retreat from society and ultimately their suicides.”
Had Pumpkin actually existed it would have been one of the more interesting shot-on-video films made for under $1000. One-armed drifter Johnny Knickerbocker (Lane Hughes of You’re Next and V/H/S) traverses the country to find himself but winds up captured by prominent serial killer Taboris DeWitt (Bill Pacer). He survives the ordeal by relating the story of losing his arm to a pair of psychotic murderers. The focus then shifts to DeWitt as he tracks down this deadly duo who may have more in common with him than they realize.
The documentary footage bookends and breaks the narrative, with Warren’s friends/cast, family and neighbors recounting their experiences making the film, witnessing its reception at the local community center and the way its negative reception wore down the director. As the subject matter of Pumpkin gets darker, so goes the documentary in its depiction of Warren’s unraveling at the hatred hurled at his film. The two stories become metaphors for each other, ultimately reaching two separate, but intertwined, ends of total destruction.
Despite the dark subject matter, The Nobodies sports a twisted sense of humor. This is a Troma release, after all. Pacer perfectly balances sadism and comedy with his portrayal of a serial killer, while Harold Gilliland plays a drunken detective who mumbles all his lines. The constant appearance of an obnoxious pop song adds to the levity.
“Pacer perfectly balances sadism and comedy with his portrayal of a serial killer…”
Beyond these ridiculous elements, however, comes a touching anti-suicide message aimed at anyone whose art has been dismissed and reviled by those they loved. There are always options and ways out. If your neighbors don’t get it, get out of there. Find your own community and your own family. It’s a fitting message for Troma, where social justice has consistently played a role.
Delivering a strong message through murder, nudity and ridiculous characters take both talent and a unique perspective on the world. Jay Burleson has somehow accomplished this through gutter filmmaking in direct opposition to the typical arrogant lecturing of big-budget Hollywood. The Nobodies proves to be more fun, entertaining and relevant than decades of A-listers patting themselves on the back.
The Nobodies (2018) Directed by Jay Burleson. Written by Jay Burleson. Starring Lane Hughes, Bill Pacer, LaDonna Allison, Terry Blevins, Harold Gilliland, Bart Hyatt, Hannah Hughes, Dick Tait.
9 out of 10 stars