Book Review: Day of the Living Me: Adventures of a Cult Filmmaker from the Golden Age

January 17, 2021
A review of Jeff Lieberman’s (Squirm, Blue Sunshine, Just Before Dawn, Remote Control) career-focused biography.

The name Jeff Lieberman should be familiar to anyone who enjoys, or has studied, American horror and exploitation cinema of the 1970s. While he didn’t churn out film after film like many of his grindhouse contemporaries, where Lieberman leaves his mark is with the uniqueness of his work. His debut feature, Squirm (1976), was an effective and incredibly unnerving “nature runs amok” film, about deadly worms, driven out of the ground by a wild electrical storm, spreading terror across a small backwater town in Georgia. His follow-up, Blue Sunshine (1978), was a wholly original thriller that centred on a group of young adults, who a decade earlier took a potent type of LSD dubbed “Blue Sunshine” while in college, and are now paying the price as the acid’s delayed reaction causes them to lose all of their hair and develop crazed homicidal urges.

Jeff Lieberman in red cap directing Squirm in Georgia

Lieberman would later go on to direct the offbeat slasher Just Before Dawn (1981), filmed in the Oregon mountains with George Kennedy, and the new wave sci-fi flick Remote Control (1988), which starred Kevin Dillon and Jennifer Tilly. He also wrote the screenplay for The NeverEnding Story III (1994), while his most recent feature as a director was Satan’s Little Helper (2004), another distinctively quirky genre piece about a naïve young boy who, during Halloween, befriends a serial killer dressed in a Satan costume.

One of the elements that really distinguish Lieberman’s films is their sense of character and the humour in their dialogue, and after reading Lieberman’s new book, it’s clear that much of the uniqueness of his work is simply a reflection of the filmmaker’s own personality and observations. In Day of the Living Me, Lieberman takes readers on a trip through a filmmaking career that proved fascinating and varied, and encompassed a whole lot more than just the handful of features which he remains best known for.

Lieberman intentionally focuses his book on his career rather than his personal life, though we do get glimpses of events which no doubt proved formative for him, such as his growing-up on Cape Cod during the 1950s atomic war scare, and being haunted by the glut of low-budget horror and science-fiction movies which it inspired. Lieberman also tells an amusing tale of heading off to the 1969 Woodstock festival with his future wife JoAnn, armed with nothing but a bag of Oreo cookies, which he used to barter for food, water, and pot from the stoned, munchie-ravaged hippies who swarmed to the three-day event.

While Lieberman obviously does devote space to the genesis and production of his feature films, the majority of the book is focused on the many other projects he has been involved with over the decades, and the book is all the better for it, since hardcore fans will already know a lot about the likes of Squirm, Blue Sunshine, and Just Before Dawn, thanks to the interviews the filmmaker has given about those movies over the years, along with detailed audio commentaries that he has recorded for DVD and Blu-ray releases.

There are so many memorable stories that Lieberman recounts in Day of the Living Me. Whether it’s getting mooned by Marlon Brando while working locations for Cannon Films in Little Italy (Coppola was filming The Godfather in the area at the same time), smoking pot to help inspire ideas for anti-dope educational shorts, directing Rod Serling’s narration for a documentary series on filmmaking techniques, dreaming up the ad campaign for Ken Russell’s Tommy, or double-dating with the legendary George Burns, for a night out on the town with the 80-something star, who was at the height of his late-seventies Oh, God fame.

It’s also interesting hearing Lieberman discuss several major projects he either initiated or worked on, which sadly never came to fruition. One can only imagine what a 1970s stage musical production of King Kong, with original songs written by John Lennon, would have turned out like. Unfortunately for Lieberman, Dino De Laurentiis snapped-up the rights to the property for his upcoming big-budget cinematic remake, and instantly vetoed anyone else from adapting the story in any form. There was also his 1990s screenplay for Us, a tale of an old man in a nursing home who has the chance to confront his younger self. Lieberman eyed off Dustin Hoffman for the lead character, and the actor was initially very keen on the project, but wanted a big-name director attached to seal the deal. Unfortunately, after Steven Spielberg was approached and suggested the idea sounded too familiar to Back to the Future, and then Barry Levinson reminded Hoffman of how much he hated sitting in the make-up chair on Little Big Man, the actor cooled on the project.

There are plenty of other great stories within the pages of Day of the Living Me, many of them too good to spoil here (the aforementioned Dustin Hoffman hilariously features in one memorable anecdote). My only real complaint about the book is that it has a few proofreading errors, which will hopefully be corrected in any future editions. With a piece of Rick Trembles cover art that not only helps reflect the tone of the book, but also provides a gallery of “guess-who?” celebrities who feature within its pages, Day of the Living Me makes for a highly entertaining and informative read, and at a breezy 192 pages (illustrated with a number of black and white photographs), is a perfect choice for cult film fans to settle in with over a weekend.

Available from Amazon now

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