Years ago, I made an offhanded, negative comparison of Rob Zombie to Jim VanBebber, and it’s ironic that one of the talking heads in Diary of a Deadbeat voices a similar sentiment. While I’ve grown to value Zombie’s contributions to the horror genre, his films often fall victim to studio interference (House of 1000 Corpses was held hostage at Universal for years; Dimension mandated reshoots for his remake of Halloween). On one hand, it’s easy to sympathize when an artist has to deal with such restrictions; on the other, it’s the artist who acquiesced to working on the studio’s terms in the first place. To a fault, VanBebber is a fiercely independent filmmaker – uncompromising and unhinged.
Not to single out dues-paid veterans like George Romero, John Carpenter, and the late Wes Craven, but their most potent, rabblerousing works existed outside the constraints of the studio system. And there is a touch of irony in the nostalgic interviews these filmmakers give now – tales of slashed budgets, creative interference, and poor distribution paint “the industry” as a place fueled not by artists, but producers who fancy themselves directors (to a sometimes disastrous degree).
The even greater irony of all this may be that someone like VanBebber, who plays by his own set of rules, suffers for his art in a way not incomparable to the directors who make the leap from shoestring indies to big-budget mainstream fare.
Diary presents VanBebber as a madman in the best and worst possible sense. Unlike the feature-length retrospectives that appear on many genre Blu-ray releases these days, writer-director Victor Bonacore is less interested in his subjects (including musicians Phil Anselmo and Nivek Ogre, to filmmakers like Richard Kern and David Szulkin, and all fans and collaborators in-between) recounting “wonderful experiences” than speculating on what makes the director tick. While the film ends on an optimistic note, Bonacore avoids wistful sentimentality as much as possible.
This may not be a proper VanBebber film, but simply seeing VanBebber given his due as an impassioned cult icon is cause for celebration. In documentaries like “The VanBebber Family” (an extra on Dark Sky’s DVD of The Manson Family), the auteur has shown himself to be extremely candid in discussing his technique, influences, shortcomings, and overall approach to cinema (including selling plasma to drum up funds). One of my favorite anecdotes: his decision to direct one of Family‘s sex scenes in the nude to put the actors on-screen at ease.
Bonacore’s film begins with an ingratiating look at the Greenville native’s appearance at the 2010 Cinema Wasteland Convention in Strongsville, Ohio, where he engages passionately with fans, smokes the occasional bowl in the parking lot, and sometimes gets hostile toward the questions at a Q&A panel. VanBebber is as genuinely straightforward in his advice to fans as he is enthusiastic to share in the experience of the con itself (later in the doc, he tellingly states: “I don’t believe in having fans; when I meet people, they’re my friends”). He seems incapable of the boredom that some convention guests fall victim to, and even breaks out his trademark nunchuck skills at one point.
The documentary’s aesthetic approach to VanBebber’s life story is fascinating, beginning with shot-on-video footage of him recollecting his early career and building to the shot-on-digital segments of his recent location scouts in Florida. In many ways, the technological evolution of the medium serves as an odd parallel to VanBebber’s own refusal to budge from his own deeply-held beliefs in art. It’s amusing to hear his recollection of enrolling in a college film program, only to funnel his loan money into financing his 1988 cult classic, Deadbeat at Dawn. There are great tales told by collaborators, including prowling the highways for dead animals to lend authenticity to the serial-killer short, Road Kill: The Last Days of John Martin. The clips of VanBebber’s early backyard films are possessed of the same manic enthusiasm and low-budget ingenuity that bleeds into his subsequent features.
Outside of the talking heads, who convey a sense of respect, skepticism, and fascination at VanBebber’s drive as a filmmaker (that admittedly enriches this portrait), what I found most sobering about Diary was how seamlessly it depicts the changes – from the physical to the philosophical – that inform him as he ages. The SOV footage of VanBebber as a young man in Ohio gives way to a slightly older man working on screenplays and music videos in Hollywood, to his eventual residency in Florida, where his most recent effort – the short film Gator Green – was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign.The high energy and anarchic spirit of his earlier interviews gives way to a more reserved, thoughtful take on life and art (his existential ruminations at a cemetery are particularly insightful) that only underlines the complexity of this one-of-a-kind talent.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 9 out of 10