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Is there a better example of zero budget auteur than Mr. Edward D. Wood? It’s doubtful, since first outed as “The Worst Movie Ever Made” PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE cemented Ed into America’s consciousness, it was no longer just a bad movie, it was the worst. Of course, that being said it then became a hit of sorts. Ed Wood became “cool,” when someone realized you watch weird cinema or “b-movies” they would say “like Plan 9” or like that “Ed Wood guy.” Of course, it became some well known that even Hollywood thought it was time to immortalize Ed Wood and with the help of superfan Tim Burton a major Oscar caliber film was made depicting parts of Wood’s life and the making of “Plan 9.”

Of course, even the slowest follower of “bad film” has heard the stories of the hardships Wood endured, up until the end of his career and life. Sad stories, stories of being broke, being alone, being kicked out of flops. One of those stories involves a script for a film that Wood purportedly liked enough to save when he was evicted from his Yucca Street apartment when he got the boot in 1978. He and his wife Kathy were taken in by friends, but 3 days later, Wood died of a heart attack. He also tried for years to get the script made into a feature, but to no avail. Most of Wood’s later work ended up in grindhouses serving as jerk fodder for semi-retarded stiffy holders but this script, I AWOKE EARLY THE DAY I DIED, was classic Ed Woodian pulp. Ripe with strange character after strange character, Wood was inspired in part by Russell Rouse’s 1952 THE THIEF, which starred Ray Milland as a nuclear physicist selling secrets to a foreign government. The film was notable because Rouse choose to defy convention and make a silent film except for ambient sounds and a couple screams and a final agonizing bellow from Milland.

Of course, where Rouse’s Thief would be involved with international intrigue and spy games, Wood would substitute his usual cinematic obsessions of graveyards, death, burlesque, Angora, transvestitism and the typically grotesque as the main motivations behind his story. It’s interesting that Wood considered this script too good for A.C. Stevens, the pseudonym for Stephen C. Apostolof, the producer director who turned many of Wood’s scripts into soft-core masterworks of weirdness. Apostolof was a Bulgarian refugee who escaped from a Communist jail in the 50s to some how wound up churning out some slick porn work in the 70s. All in all he collaborated with Wood on seven features under the AC Stevens moniker. ORGY OF THE DEAD being the most well known. Maybe AC wasn’t into making “regular” films any longer? Who knows but Woods shopped for a producer himself for I AWOKE, getting as far as securing Aldo Ray as his thief and Great American John Carradine as the sinister undertaker. Wood shopped this script till he died, leaving it in the hands of his widow Kathy who for 10 years was approached by folks willing to make the film but of course wanting to “change it” from it’s original form. Kathleen held out till 1998 when Billy Zane and newcomer director Aris Iliopuolos decided to show some interest.

I AWOKE EARLY THE DAY I DIED became I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED (IWUETDID) under the direction of first-timer Aris Iliopuolos Iliopuolos (sometimes spelled Iliopulous) was a successful fashion photographer and painter. His studies in design and fine arts had taken him to Milan and Rome and he had also studied acting in New York. He had made about 3 short films before being considered to direct IWUETDID. He offered something unique, an unfettered desire to be responsible to Wood’s script, agreeing that shooting the feature as a “silent” movie was the only way it should be done as an homage to Wood’s writing style. He also was not tainted by any Hollywood bullshit being a rookie. What better than have a first time director have his initial project be an Ed Wood “lost” work? It makes perfect sense; a “good” director might start some shit about his vision or whatever. Iliopuolos would stick to the script at hand, the point of doing the project in the first place.

IWUETDID traces the steps of Wood’s demented Thief from the insane asylum literally to the grave. These steps are the film. Beginning in the mental hospital The Thief (Billy Zane) dressed in a nurse’s uniform injects a hospital worker and escapes. Of course, the escape shows us Zane bedecked in white from toe to head, from pumps to blond wig as he exits the hospital and this journey, both for The Thief and the viewer, into his silent, private Hell has begun. Within the first 4 minutes of the film, the first sequence through the opening credits (which are absolutely a blast) you realize you are in a New Waved-up, Ed Wood wet dream. I didn’t want to wake up, well not before getting my nut…

Once on the prowl we realize The Thief has problems, big problems with all the noise, Zane’s performance as Thief is over the top, played like a classic silent movie actor. His expressions are exaggerated to help tell us the story. Chaplin, Lloyd and Fairbanks all come to mind. His first goal of course is to shed his nurse’s clothes, opting instead for a tasty pinstriped, strangely cut sport coat, a wide collared polyester shirt and a pair of gray slacks he steals from a convenient clothesline and then completes the ensemble by rouging a sidewalk rack. Of course, he still has the pumps, which will have to be shed, but not before we get great shots him traipsing down the sidewalk in white heels with his new suit on. When he trades his pumps for a pair of white Florida loafers, the shop keeper find them left behind…of course, he grabs a wiff before disappearing inside with them and a scantily clad mannequin. I bring up the clothes because it tends to heighten the character’s weirdness. Zane’s hair is still in bobby pins from being worn under the blond wig, so he looks like the cracker white, bastard spawn of Rudy Ray Moore and Princess Leia. One cannot help but think his image is reminiscent of a character from 1930’s foreign cinema. I’ll gush, he looks great, the one thing you notice from the get go is the incredible production design courtesy of Maia Javan, who handled duties on THE WAY OF THE GUN and CROW: THE SALVATION. There is something so 1980s about the film, the new waveish soundtrack handled magnificently by Larry Groupe’ is total ass kicker, it’s worth noting you can grab the soundtrack directly from Groupe’ right here.

The Thief’s escapades lead him to a bank with the desire to rob the it, while there he shoots and kills a loan officer. He goes on the run. Of course, in true Woodian fashion what better place to hide from the cops than at the cemetery. He hides his loot in a coffin and when he returns he can’t find it and remembers the funeral he watched earlier while hiding in the cemetery and surmises that one the mourners there has stolen his loot. This then sets the film in full motion as he stalks each one hoping to find his stolen fortune.

The plot of the film stays right there with The Thief finding and killing “suspects” and folks who annoy and scare him along the way. Billy Zane must have pulled his Hollywood strings because the list of characters who show up is bewildering. Karen Black, Nicollette Sheridan, Eartha Kitt (she sings in what I guess is the only “dialogue” in the film), Rick Schroeder, Andrew McCarthy, Will Patton, Christina Ricci, Tippi Hedren (she punches Zane’s lights out before he hurls her into the Pacific as music from Psycho plays), John Ritter, Anne Magnuson, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Max “coke addled” Perlich, Sandra Bernhard (she strips), Ron Perlman (his bagpipe sets Zane completely off and ultimately comes back to haunt him) and even Kathleen O’Hara Wood, that’s Ed’s widow,all get a cameo.. It’s like a dysfunctional Altman film, really. Oh I forgot to mention Maila Nurmi, Vampira to you and I. is there as well, aptly described by Patty Breen from www.williamgirdler.com as “looking like ass.” Let’s just say the years have taken their toll. Creepy Carel Struyeken gets the part meant for John Carradine, Struyeken was Lurch in ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES. Wood’s copper Conrad Brooks is there as a cop and so is Leif Garrett, see what I fucking mean, it’s a little nuts. Conrad can be seen every Chiller convention, selling Snickers bars for extra cash while signing 8X10s….wow what a life.

IWUETDID is one of those films that you have to experience, the plot is so basic that I wouldn’t want to ruin any funny tidbits for you by over synopsizing. Why was film never released and is it still tied up (I assume) legally in the U.S.? CineQuaNon Pictures International, which produced the film and released it only briefly to a very small number of theaters, folded soon after the film received absolutely horrid reviews from the New York Post and the like after premiering September 10-24th 1999 at NYC’s The Screening Room. Here’s a cavalcade of horribly abysmal reviews from various publications:

New York Post / Rod Dreher: Presumably Zane & Co. had a lot more fun filming this inexplicable low-budget indulgence than any sane person will have watching it.

Village Voice / J. Hoberman: That this mime show works better than it should is, in a sense, the ultimate dis.

New York Times / Anita Gates: It's sad and misguided and boring.

Mr. Showbiz / Michael Atkinson: Sitting through the film is like Chinese water torture, for sure, and for reasons beyond the forced, idiotic campiness of the thing. For one thing, there is not one word of dialogue.

Entertainment Weekly / Owen Gleiberman: Just... bad. As in BAD bad.

Film Journal/Cole Gagne: Painfully camped-up filming of an eccentric script by cult autuer Ed Wood. Look for a fast fade to video.

Reel Views/James Berardineli: It will be hard to beat for the bottom position of my 1999 list. Aris Iliopuolos must be a brave man with cajones the size of melons. He may also never direct again.

How 'bout them hot-damned apples, could it get any worse? Was CineQuaNon absolutely down to pennies and hoping that good reviews might lead to investments to get the film distributed? When the reviews showed quickly to be beyond dismal was that the death nail? Why didn’t they sell the film, I can’t imagine this film not making it on the Art House of Midnight Movie circuit, I’m sure the film wasn’t that expensive an endeavor given the lack of dialogue, or nat sound. The producer was the star and all the actors could not have had more than a day on set. CineQuaNon Pictures has no website and checking the web archive I find reference to the home page although I cannot access any of the contents outside of the entrance page. Interestingly there is a link titled “Billy” Zane no doubt. It is very possible that a loan institution or bond company may hold the rights to the print in the U.S. The film is available in Germany on PAL tape and through Cinefear. Whatever the reason, I sure wish someone would realize the marketability of the film before it’s too late. This would be a pleasure to see on the big screen.

Dynamic, fun and a sound mix that will entertain you no matter what is taking place on screen, the critics who panned this film because they thought it was too intentionally camp, or as one critic pined “too hip,” really missed the Goddamned boat on this one, and my guess is they forced the rest of us to miss it as well. One critic called for burning down the theaters or attacking the projectionist basically! Can you get more of an endorsement for a film. It was like Ed Wood was alive and had made a film, they just didn’t get it. They expected and Ed Wood film to be conventional, and likeable in the framework of the regular movie going experience, these people get paid for their film knowledge, the assholes and they just completely missed it. It was seen as a quick, low budget cash in on Tim Burton’s success with ED WOOD, I really disagree, from the filmmakers standpoint at least. I think those involved were trying to make Ed Wood’s movie, sure there are nods to what is general knowledge about Wood, but nonetheless, I found the film to be honest, not like someone remaking and Ed Wood movie or a classic TV show from the big screen, this film tried to convey the spirit of Ed Wood’s passion for film, no matter how ridiculous or sublime, he was a gift and this was a script that deserved to made, exactly like this. Track this one down, don’t wait for a “real” U.S. release, I’ll bet it doesn’t come. It’s only fitting I guess, that the film died unappreciated, like it’s like it’s creator. Rest in peace Ed, we think about you often.

Jonathan Talyor Thomas proves he can act with the best of them, here's his 10 seconds with Tippi Hedren

Vampira must be in her 70s, the knife has not been kind...

Zane demonstrates how the distributers shove their heads up their ass by not releasing this film on the indy, midnight movie circuit.

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I AWOKE EARLY THE DAY I DIED makes it to the big screen....

Chris Wayne
The opening credits take you back to 80's music video.

From back to the 80s to back back to the 50s...Vampira shows up...

The Thief leaves the Hope Sanitarium....

Cactch a snort of those Nurse's Pumps....

The Thief doesn't like noise....

This loan officer...well, he'll soon be dead.

The shifty eyes of Ann Magnuson.....

The Thief finds a little respite from the police in the cemetery

Sandra Berhard a mourner at the cemetery.

She also an exotic entertianer.

Fuck you TITANTIC, Zane delivers a performance of his career/

The dimuniative Max Perlich and the creepy Carel Struycken.

A mix of Silent Screen ham, Ed Wood himself and a late 80s performance artist, Zane chews scenery like a starving pit bull.

And he gets to kill Tippi Hedren! Almost hitting her with a bird before throwing her out of lighthouse ala VERTIGO while PSYCHO music plays on the soundtrack.

Wood favorite Eartha Kitt deliver th only vocalization in the film....

The Thief checks in to a sleazy dive...

He ends with a little company from Cristina Ricci....

Who never faisl to remind be Big Is Beautiful!

John Ritter as the Sideshow Sharpshooter....

Get this film at Cinefear and Super Happy Fun!
Brains On Film 2003