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Interview With John Penney Writer Of Return Of The Living Dead 3
By James Whittington, Saturday 2nd November 2013

John PenneyTonight at 10.40pm catch the channel premiere of the cult classic Return Of The Living Dead 3, the superb shocker written by the multi-talented John Penney. Here John chats about this movie and the plans he has lined up including a new project with director Brian Yuzna.

HC: You started off as a film editor, what was the first film you worked on?

JP: The first feature film I worked on as an assistant editor was The Dorm That Dripped Blood. After that I did a number of editing jobs, including the original Return Of The Living Dead. Shortly after that I had my first screenplay produced, The Kindred, on which I also served as an editor. After The Kindred I stopped editing and became a full time screenwriter and producer and eventually a director.

HC: Where did the idea for Return Of The Living Dead 3 come from?

JP: Having worked on the original Return as an assistant editor, I was very familiar with the mythology that Dan O’Banon had created. The thing that struck me most was the scene where the half corpse spoke and described the feeling of being dead. It was really the first time I had seen a zombie speak and reveal emotions. I loved it. There was also a scene where James Karen was slowly becoming a zombie and the paramedics told him that rigor mortis was setting in. You could really feel the agony of what it would be like to become a zombie. When my agent called me and told me to go in and pitch an idea for part 3, I immediately went to the uniqueness of those scenes. To tell the story in which a zombie was a protagonist. At the time my father had recently passed away and I was dealing with that loss. Plugging that emotion into a zombie world just fit. The core of the idea for me was dealing with loss. The inability of Curt to let go of Julie. I went in and pitched the basic “Romeo and Juliet” approach and luckily Brian was also thinking along the same lines.

HC: Did the script take long to put together?

JP: It seemed to move rather quickly for me. I’m a big believer in outlines and treatments. I would go off and do an outline, bring it to Brian, and then we’d carefully go through it. Brian would tweak, and challenge the beats and come up with great ideas. I’d go off, do another draft and then bring it back again. It went like that for a month or so, then I wrote the first draft. The script process was the same as the treatment process only with more detail.

HC: Did the story change during production at all?

JP: Once production started, there were really no script changes. Brian and I had worked closely and we both seemed to be on the same page. He was very generous in including me in the entire process. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had working on a film. The only scene we never shot that was in the script was a final tag ending in which we followed Curt and Julie’s ashes up from the incinerator and into the sky. It was a kind of homage to the original Return. Ultimately, it didn’t really add much. The movie was over when the flames climbed up around them as they kissed.

HC: Were you on set during the shoot?

JP: I was there every day. It was a lot of fun. Eventually I got a chance to have a cameo as the Sergeant who tells Curt’s Father where Julie and Curt were. It was a plot point so I was sure I wouldn’t get cut out. I also come back again in the end and get eaten by the rampaging zombies. It was a blast.

HC: Why do you think the film has built up such a loyal following?

JP: I’ve been approached by a number of people through the years who tell me how much they like the film. Most of them identify strongly with the love story. It’s very gratifying because that was always the intention behind the film for me. Brian, of course did a fantastic job on all fronts and Mindy and Trevor really committed to the characters.

HC: What’s your favourite moment in the movie?

JP: I always loved what Mindy did when she first “woke up.” She really played the moment well. I also thought Brian did a fantastic job with the ending action.

HC: Have you ever been tempted to make a direct follow up or even re-write it?

JP: I always felt that the movie had a closed ending. I did want to make a follow up to the franchise. We even talked about doing more with the zombie soldiers but that never came together.

HC: What state do you think the horror movie industry is in at the moment?

JP: I think the horror genre is in one of the best places it’s ever been. From the supernatural stories like The Conjuring to the zombie stories like The Walking Dead the genre has never been better.

HC: You’re a multi talented person but are you happiest directing, producing or writing?

JP: I just like telling stories on film. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Obviously directing gets you closer to your vision in some respects, but I have had a wonderful time writing and producing as well. It all depends on the story and the people.

HC: So what projects are you working on at the moment?

JP: Derek Gibson (who used to run Hemdale with John Daly) is putting together a couple projects for me to direct. Both are based on novels that I wrote. One is Truck Stop and the other is Killing Time. They are supernatural thrillers that are in the same wheelhouse as Hellgate, the film I wrote and directed in 2011 with William Hurt and Cary Elwes. (The film was originally titled Shadows and won the Bram Stoker International Film Festival in Whitby in the UK) I am also working with Brian Yuzna on producing a few new projects. One is with Carles Torrens directing and another with Tinieblas Gonzales as director. We also have a multi-platform project that Brian and I wrote together and Brian will direct called The Pope. The first comic book will be out in January with the novel and film following afterward.

HC: John Penney, thank you very much.


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