Unsung Auteurs: Vernon Zimmerman

August 25, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the criminally under-celebrated Vernon Zimmerman, who directed Fade To Black and The Unholy Rollers.

There are way, way too many fascinating directors with only a scant resume; filmmakers that have a small collection of films to their name which prompt great pleasure through their highly specific qualities, but which also provoke disappointment by the sheer dint that there are so few of them. The careers of these directors speak of likely lost opportunities, career difficulties, stalled projects, understandable distractions, and usually a lack of celebration or discussion. Unless you’re Charles Laughton or Leonard Castle, it takes more than a handful of films to provoke adequate praise of a body of work, which has left a lot of directors out in the cold as Unsung Auteurs.

Vernon Zimmerman comfortably fits into this uncomfortable niche, with only three feature films to his credit, and a disappointing lack of cache to match. Zimmerman made his big screen debut in 1962 with Lemon Hearts, a 26-minute short starring poet, playwright, cult figure and Andy Warhol compadre Taylor Mead. Two more shorts followed (1963’s To LA With Lust and Scarface And Aphrodite), and then a 1964 55-minute documentary, The College, which tracked daily life at The University Of Chicago.

Alan Arkin in Deadhead Miles.

Zimmerman made his feature film debut in 1972 with the loose, freewheeling and wholly picaresque road movie Deadhead Miles, an oddball curio which travelled down stylistic roads not too dissimilar from those of Easy Rider. Lost for decades and penned by none other than Terrence Malick (yes, the Badlands and The Thin Red Line Terrence Malick), the film stars Alan Arkin as a truck driving con man and thief who blags his way across America. Though barely released and largely unknown, Deadhead Miles showcases a director more than happy to exist outside the mainstream and flirt with the counterculture.

After the big wheels of Deadhead Miles, Zimmerman downsized considerably with 1972’s The Unholy Rollers, an absolute belter chronicling the tough, hardscrabble sport of women’s roller derby. The perfect double feature partner to that same year’s Raquel Welch cult classic Kansas City Bomber, Zimmerman’s rough-and-ready exploitation flick stars the great Claudia Jennings – the beautiful B-movie queen star of bottom-feeders like Gator Bait, Truck Stop Women, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Moonshine County Express and Deathsport, along with the unforgettable, top-tier Brady Bunch episode “Adios, Johnny Bravo” – in her first major starring role. Jennings is fantastic as the craply named Karen Walker, a tough-as-nails factory worker who throws in her shitty job in a cat food cannery to make it in the head-cracking sport of roller derby. Karen’s aggression and almost psychotic brand of ambition, however, always put true success just out of her reach. The Unholy Rollers is a rugged delight, a crazed “women’s picture” on wheels that proves that exploitation cinema has long been an unlikely home for strong female characters.

A lobby card for The Unholy Rollers.

Despite The Unholy Rollers being such a killer of a show, Vernon Zimmerman’s directing career surprisingly stalled after its release. Though obviously a gifted filmmaker, Zimmerman spent most of the seventies working as a writer, penning scripts for a trio of fascinating projects. A wacked out mix of western, biker flick and supernatural horror, 1973’s Hex was the only feature helmed by Leo Garen, and boasted a rock-solid crew of cult figures in Keith Carradine, Gary Busey, Dan Haggerty, Scott Glenn and Cristina Raines. Directed by the infamous Mark L. Lester (Commando, Class Of 1984), 1976’s Bobbie Jo And The Outlaw starred a pre-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as a wannabe country singer who embarks on a crime spree with a hustler, played by cult figure Marjoe Gortner. The rampaging 1977 telemovie Mad Bull starred a compelling Alex Karras (you know, the dad from Webster) as a violent wrestler on the vengeance trail. Strong, unconventional films, they provide further glimpses into the incredible creative mind of Vernon Zimmerman.

Zimmerman finally directed again in 1980 with Fade To Black, which stands as his key work. A labour of love for the director plagued by production problems, this lurid thriller boasts a bravura performance from Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away) as Eric Binford, an obsessive movie buff whose social awkwardness makes him a constant target of bullies, the most sinister being an arsehole co-worker brilliantly played by Mickey Rourke in one of his earliest roles. When Eric is bewitched by an Aussie Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Wagga Wagga’s Linda Kerridge), he becomes fatally unhinged, and takes to murdering his tormentors while dressed up as famous Hollywood characters. Wacky, weird, sad, funny, moving, disturbing, brilliantly performed and wholly, wonderfully inspired, it’s an utter mystery why Fade To Black is so forgotten and under-celebrated, though it did receive a nice DVD release from the famed niche cultists at Vinegar Syndrome.

Dennis Christopher and Mickey Rourke in Fade To Black.

Very, very sadly, Vernon Zimmerman has not directed a feature since Fade To Black (his last credit was as a screenwriter on 1989’s Teen Witch), working instead as a script analyst, and a teacher of scriptwriting and filmmaking at The University Of California. It’s an absolute crime that we’ve seen so little of a director as profoundly fascinating as Vernon Zimmerman.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Lisa Cholodenko, Robert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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