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THE PORTSIDER

Field of Screams
By Staff Writer

There have been good baseball movies and bad baseball movies, but there's never been a bigger dog-bomb-turkey-egg-laying-piece-of-lox-frigging-disaster-from-hell than Revenge of the Zombie Black Sox. And I was the star. Sorry. Forgive me, Cecil B. DeMille. I didn't want to own up to this credit, but since the DVD director's cut just came out (available at EFQ.com for just $29.99, which includes additional commentary from the director of photography, the best boy, and the head of craft services), I thought maybe it was time to tell the story.

I never wanted to be an actor. Oh sure, I'd been in a couple of school plays. I was the guy in Dracula who went crazy and started eating spiders. And I was in Frankenstein. I played the "creature," complete with bolts in my neck and a crew cut that was decades ahead of its time. My high school theater teacher loved putting on horror plays and he saw me as a guy who people believed was either insane or assembled out of spare body parts, so I shouldn't have been surprised when Marvin Sean Gardner approached me after a game in Waterloo, Iowa. He was a tall guy, with shuttered eyes behind his Ray-Bans. He had a Dodger cap slung low over his forehead and wore a Hawaiian shirt. He didn't look like any Iowan I'd ever met while managing the Waterloo Napoleons (the owner insisted we start every play with our right hand stuck into our jersey shirts—and he wondered why we made so many errors!). Marvin looked me in the eye—I guess he was looking me in the eye, it was hard to tell with the sunglasses and the hat—and he said, "You remind me of Kevin."

"Kevin who?"

"Yeah, you could do it. Costner."

"Do what?"

"Play his father. But I don't know. My producer would kill me. He's trying to get Robert for this, and if I came back and said I'd found the natural, the perfect guy, then he'd have to get on the phone and say, Bobbie, sorry to break your heart, but my director said he's found the guy and the guy isn't even Paul!'"

"Who's Paul? Who's Robert?" I was getting confused.

"Robert Duvall. Paul Newman. Although Paul isn't really right for this. He's a little elegant, you know? I need someone whose soul has a jangle of broken glass. I think that's you, Staff."

"Who are you?"

"Marvin Sean Gardner. My friends call me MSG. My enemies are legion. The price an indie filmmaker pays. Can we talk about this in a bar?"

So we went to the Dude Drop Inn, a surfing-themed bar which didn't really make a lot of sense in Iowa, but MSG seemed right at home. He told me about his "project." It took me awhile to figure out he was talking about a movie, because he never used the word "movie."

"It's a zombie project. Zombies are huge, especially in the direct-to-DVD market. My friend Woody—"

"Woody Allen?"

"No, Woody Hertzberg. His zombie project sold 470,000 units! You figure twenty bucks a unit and you can see we're talking about some real money here. That's why I'm telling you to hold out for the back end. Some people say, I want that day-player rate,' but they're shortsighted. The smart ones hold out for the back end, and then when the DVD drops, it's Katie, bar the door to the bank, baby!'"

He was grinning behind his sunglasses and under his cap. He ordered another margarita.

"So, you're making a movie about zombies?"

"It's zombies with a twist! Remember that scene in Field of Dreams? When the old ballplayers come out from the rows of wheat—"

"Corn."

"Corn, some vegetable. There they come, these friggin' old ballplayers. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth—"

"Uh, actually it was—" He didn't stop.

"There they come and it's like, wow, here are these great old ballplayers and son of a bitch, there's Dad! Right? It's Kevin's dad coming out of the watermelon patch and everybody's crying and it's one of those moments where you just go, Man, this is friggin' great.' Right?"

"Sure."

"So now imagine you've got this cornfield. And here's our hero and he's built a ballpark and the lights are on and friggin' Kevin and James Earl Jones are standing there with Rita Wilson or whoever the wife is, and here come these players out of the corn! And oh my god, here comes Dad! And it's so beautiful and everybody's crying—except this time they're zombies! And they start eating everyone!"

"They're zombies?"

"Yeah, they're the zombie killers from the Chicago Black Sox, and they're pissed 'cause they got screwed out of the Hall of Fame and baseball and shit, and here comes zombie Shoeless Joe Jackson, and he's saying, I'm in friggin' limbo and someone's goin' down!' And he's chasing after Kevin and James Earl and he can really move—we can CGI the legs—and he jumps on Kevin and like he's chewing and howling at the moon, and here comes friggin' zombie Ty Cobb and big ole fat zombie Babe Ruth, and he's grabbed the wife and he's porking out, and here's zombie Dad! And he's raving and frothing at the mouth and biting into his own son's leg like it's a pork chop. And the whole town in Iowa has to flee, but they get together with their torches and come to the zombie baseball field late that night and there are these freaking zombies playing a game! And it's like they're using a freakin' leg bone for a bat and a skull for a ball and you realize, holy shit, they've eaten Kevin Costner and now they're pitching his skull and batting with his femur and the catcher's wearing his rib cage as a chest protector! It's awesome, man. And look, there's his right arm—it's first base and they're using Kevin's left foot for second and third base is like his ear or his friggin' testicles—how huge is that! I mean, I got this script and I'm on the phone that night—that night!—to my producer, and I'm saying, R. J., we've got to get these rights and I've got to scout Iowa and you get friggin' Bobbie Duvall this script because he's gonna flip! Bobbie reads this and he's gonna flip and he's gonna say, Sorry, Mr. Spielberg, but I've got a franchise here, I'm goin' to the bank on this one!' I mean, I told R. J. this is gonna be friggin' huge!"

MSG started chuckling. He went on:

"And now here I am in friggin' bumfork Iowa and I've got to call R. J. and tell him, Forget Bobbie, I found the real guy right here, and he's going to play zombie Dad and that's that.'"

He paused. "Son of a bitch, I forgot my goldarn credit cards; you get this one, Staff, and I'll get it next time."

Four weeks later I was standing in a cornfield wearing an old flannel White Sox uniform (although the logo was just spray-painted on—"Reads fine on film," MSG said) and a facial prosthetic zombie mask that made my jaw ache and my eyes pop out.

MSG had brought his crew in from L.A. Well, he said L.A., but when I started talking to the DP (that's movie talk for director of photography—in our case, the guy who ran the camera), it turns out he was from San Diego, where he'd been shooting industrials for pre-fab housing and filming bar mitzvahs.

The gaffer had come from Sacramento and the sound guy (who didn't speak any English) was from Mexico City, so I guess MSG figured he'd triangulate their location to L.A.

The costumer was this cute little thing with dyed red hair the color of a stop sign. She was a college student from Cedar Rapids and she said she was doing this to get her foot in the Hollywood door. She seemed to know a lot about filmmaking, and she'd sit in a trailer jammed with baseball unis and zombie masks and squirt bottles of blood, and she'd smoke and look over a week-old copy of Variety and talk about what was going into production and how hard it was to get work nowadays, but she had some connections. Then after a day of shooting wrapped, we'd see her going to the Dude Drop with MSG, and early in the morning someone else would report seeing her leave the Rose 'n Thistle Bed and Breakfast where MSG was housed.

The screenwriter showed up one day. Anton was wearing a lot of turquoise jewelry and a wide brimmed leather hat and a blue work shirt and jeans. He looked around and then settled into a chair next to Arlene, the script supervisor, a cheerful blonde intern from Iowa State. She was broad in the beam but sturdy, and Anton seemed to enjoy leaning in close and pointing out where the actors paraphrased.

"You hear that? That actor said, I love the scent of plasma in the morning,' but it's got to be the smell of plasma in the morning, or else the reference is just lost." Arlene nodded and made a note and was generally in awe of him until it came out that he actually no longer lived in L.A. but had relocated to the Ozarks and was teaching screenwriting and public relations management at Southwest Missouri State.

"And background—go! And action! Staff, here you come!"

I stumbled out of the corn rows, blinded by my zombie mask, which was already slipping over my pupils, and shrieking, "Arrrfffggg! Here comes the suicide squeeze!"

I was then supposed to grab Ernie around the neck (Kevin Costner turns out not to have been available, so Spirit Lake-native Ernie Olson had consented to do the role), and start chewing. The mask had slipped further and the false teeth were sliding around inside my gums. I couldn't see a thing and lurched toward what I thought was Ernie. I grabbed and lowered my head and started chomping. It felt tough and fuzzy. I had seized a cow and was trying to bite its neck.

"Great! Great! Keep rolling!" I heard MSG shout. "This crazy zombie's eating anything that's not nailed down! And chew—chew—"

The cow had had enough. Of either me or MSG. She flicked her head, and I was tossed through the air like a sack of feed corn. Mid-air I heard, "Keep rolling! This is great!"

I landed on corn stubble and it felt like I was hitting a bed of nails. "Aaarrrfffggg!" I screamed in agony, writhing on the ground.

"Fantastic! Great! It's the cows! Now I see it—the cows will save the town! Zombies can't eat through their hides! And the cows want revenge because for so many years they've been slaughtered to make baseball gloves! Now it's bovine revenge time for the whole zombie baseball scene! Genius, Staff! Let's get cranking on some new pages! We'll have goldenrod pages in the morning!"

I lay there in misery, the make-up on my zombie mask now melting through the nose hole, my zombie teeth mashed into a thousand pieces inside my mouth. I felt like my soul was jangling with broken glass. I murmured, "Mhgmmm"

"Great. . . . And the zombie dies—for now!"

After nineteen frantic days, we wrapped; there was a big party at the Dude Drop, and MSG toasted his cast and crew, growing teary-eyed, and his voice choked and then later no one could find him and we had to split the bar tab. Heather from the Rose n Thistle said she had heard a car start up late that night and she never did collect the last $370 of his bill.

A year later I was in a Blockbuster and walked by the Cult section, and there it was: Revenge of the Zombie Black Sox! I couldn't resist. I rented it and relived the pain of biting a cow and landing in corn stubble, and then it got even worse because during the credits MSG inserted outtakes, including me repeatedly flubbing the one line I had besides "Time for the suicide squeeze." It took me ten tries but when I finally got it, the crew burst into applause and I had to say it again: "Build it and they will come—and then eat you!"

That's a wrap, from a man with a lifetime in baseball, forty years in the upholstery business, and one movie credit to his name.

—EFQ

Every once in a while STAFF WRITER has this dream where Bud Selig is kidnapped by a band of irate fans and dragged around the country from one retro stadium to the next, forced to watch the action from the upper deck while fans pepper him with insults. Then he's visited by the ghosts of vanished ballparks, who show Bud all the little boys and girls who will never become baseball fans because of what he and his cronies have done to the game. But, just as Bud promises to change, promises to stop all the madness, the dream ends, and Staff wakes up screaming.

© 2005 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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