Talking horror with filmmaker Nick Verdi and author B.R. Yeager
By Brian Zayatz
“Anthropologists have come to understand over the years that every society is haunted by slightly different nightmares, and these differences are significant. Horror stories, whether about vampires, ghouls or flesh eating zombies always seem to reflect some aspect of the teller’s own social lives, some terrifying potential in the way they are accustomed to interact with each other that they do not wish to acknowledge or confront but also cannot help but talk about.”
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
As a teenager, it was always a treat to see Nick Verdi work. In basements or the woods of Cape Cod, I made my way into the credits of his DIY horror films by way of holding a mic or spotting continuity errors between shots while my theater-kid friends delivered grimaces and screams. Though I wasn’t much of a horror fan at the time, it was readily apparent that the skinny kid two years my senior would be making movies for the rest of his life, and I couldn’t help but be drawn to such artistic integrity.
Over the ten years since, little has changed but production value. Verdi’s latest film, Cockazoid, credits many of the same people who helped bring his teenage visions to life, as well as Northampton-born horror author B.R. Yeager. The two met while taking classes at Holyoke Community College, and Verdi eventually drafted Yeager to star in his short film Angel of the Night (in which I also played a small role), about a loner college administrator on the verge of cracking.
Cockazoid was Verdi and Yeager’s first collaboration as writers, following a young white man in Massachusetts’ pandemic winter who is determined to kill all white men. I caught up with the two at a cafe in October the week before the film premiered at the Salem Horror Fest, and they politely evaded my attempts to define their work and modern horror broadly. (Cockazoid is available for streaming via Salem Horror Fest October 22-31. The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
Brian Zayatz: I feel like both of your works kind of imbue social forces with a supernatural power. And I’ve also kind of heard you talk almost disparagingly about what you turn out, like, ‘it’s just like blood and gore and whatever.’ But what is the middle of the Venn diagram there, of, like, is it social commentary or is it just vapid gore? And what do you think those things have to say to each other?
NV: When it comes down to it, the extreme violence in film is us, dealing with literally what is right there all the time. And the fear that anything can pop out, anything can touch us. It’s almost like the elephant in the room is our very easy demise. I think your writing gets at that a lot. But the sense of sensing your impermanence, and the sense of a heightened threat of the potential of violence in a society where it’s always just right around the corner.
BRY: Right, and I definitely don’t, like, live in fear of that. But there is this kind of engendered paranoia that is like, very distinctly American in a lot of ways that people are constantly out to get you. It’s not even so much an intentional social commentary as it is extremely personal. Like, you’re not going out like doing a didactic thing or trying to do, like, a message or trying to get something across. It’s more about exploring these things about the interior that make you uncomfortable that feel like they’re worth exploring.
BZ: Yeah, I mean, when I watch Cockazoid, I see the way that you shoot Massachusetts in the winter and it literally feels like all the gray is just about to close in and crush me. I think you did a great job of capturing that, and I think [Yeager’s 2020 novel] Negative Space, too, they just both feel very rooted in New England to me. And so there’s obviously this internal aspect but I’m wondering what of New England is in the things that you make? Because it feels like if they were set somewhere else they would be pretty different.
NV: It just makes me think of—someone had commented who had seen Cockazoid, they were saying that they really felt like what was captured was the very Massachusetts thing where everyone seems to be one argument with the neighbor away from absolutely losing it.
BRY: And it’s underneath a veneer of cultural sterility, too. Like, I don’t really drink or anything, but it’s such a hard drinking state, it’s such a slosh state, and there’s just this very unpredictable edge that comes along with it.
NV: You’ve also said to me when we met and you’d seen Fuckboy Madonna, you were like, ‘your stuff is so Massachusetts.’ And I never thought about it, but it’s one of those things where I’ve simply never not lived in Massachusetts, so I don’t know how to not be Massachusetts. But the Massachusetts in the winter thing is really big for me because I’m always like, ‘this looks like shit and I want to die.’ You know what I mean?… So I don’t know, I feel like unconsciously a lot of the whole notion of a guy killing all white guys is probably something that comes out of being in Massachusetts, too. But I still don’t know what the hell it’s supposed to be, I really landed on the name Cockazoid and that idea because it sounded really controversial. And I was like, that’s great. Let’s do that. And so it was never an idea to comment so much about the real, it’s more of the notion of a guy who’s a horse’s ass, it’s a certain kind of mindset of a certain kind of person, I don’t know if it’s area specific or something, but like a certain kind of guy that hides away and projects what he believes about the world and stays alone so it can stay true.
BZ: Right—and then you have a character like in “Angel of the Night” where you don’t get any of the violence that’s in Cockazoid, but just the invocation of the white male loner figure, the lone wolf. I mean, a wolf is a beast, right? So what does it mean to invoke this figure of the white male loner?
NV: Are you aware of my obsession with werewolves? My whole life I’ve been super obsessed with werewolves and then [Yeager] interviewed me for HTMLGiant about this whole idea. It’s just so fun, and it was never quite a conscious thing while making “Angel,” but it’s always unconsciously there. Like, The Wolf Man is a universal, classic movie and basically every movie has been a riff on that ever since, but it really set up the notion of being the white guy who is bitten by the Gypsy fortune tellers who are coming through town, or somebody from ‘out there,’ but it’s always the guy that acquires this curse. It becomes about the notion of the shamed man losing his mind that doesn’t know what to do, he can’t handle what he’s doing every night and he’s like, ‘I’m a monster, I need to die.’
BRY: And he’s eaten up by being unable to reconcile what he is, or what he’s become, right not being able to talk about that.
NV: I’m sorry to be so referential but the other quote I keep thinking about is Bill Gunn, who wrote Ganja and Hess. Really killer black filmmaker from the 70s, he said in an interview, one of the only interviews I’ve seen with him with this little white librarian lady who was, like, getting blown away by everything he said. He said, I’ve always said the hardest thing you can be in this world is white, because it takes you the longest to figure out what the fuck is going on. You live looking at Plato’s cave the longest and that’s what happens when people really chill there forever. You’re incapable of functioning with human beings in society and with anyone else that’s on the right page, so then you can either get with it or stay alone. And I honestly feel like I’m guilty of that in a lot of ways, white people are never really pressured to leave their cocoon because they don’t have to… And so the character, as much as it’s like, ‘look at this ass,’ it’s also like, ‘look at me. Why am I like that?’
BRY: Yeah, I don’t think we would be doing any of these projects if we didn’t relate to it right away, right? Or at least see it as a heightened version of ways that we sometimes feel like. Because it is tempting having that white knight nihilistic point of view, like, ‘well, the world’s just ruined.’ Like, it’s just so easy to fall into, but what do you do with that?
BZ: Right, and I do want to bring Negative Space into this, where there’s also this character who kind of becomes a monster, and who is a young white man. I’m losing my train of thought here, but is that enough of a prompt?
BRY: That’s interesting, because I haven’t really thought about it at all, from like, any type of sociological way because writing that, it was pretty much just a matter of, like, I’m gonna write how things were when I was a teenager, and basing it on people that I knew and things like that. But yeah, I think that ties into, again, like, it’s so easy, being a loner, it’s like, in a way, a form of privilege in itself. There’s an arrogance to that that is very specific to experiencing struggle late in the game.
BZ: True, but when I was reading it, I was also reading the flip side, which is that everybody in the book is super disenfranchised. So it is interesting to bring a black filmmaker into the conversation because there are generations of black artists who have been processing the violence that they see in their communities through art. And it is sort of like white people are late to the game here where we’re just starting to unpack that a little bit. And that’s what I was reading in Negative Space, that this place seems so bleak, and nobody seems to be willing to address that, except the kids who are mucking around with black magic.
BRY: Certainly. I don’t think I have anything to add, that’s a good summation right there.
NV: I think what’s interesting to note that’s different from the movie is that Negative Space has so much about the people around the self destructive figure, and almost the cosmic-psychic blending of being around it. Like, where’s it coming from? And who does it hit most?
BRY: The way of being dragged into different orbits and things like that. On the flip side of being the loner, inevitably, our existence impacts those other than ourselves. Really basic stuff, but there’s a tendency to forget that it’s impossible to exist within a vacuum. Even if we are acting out of a desire not to impact anyone else around us, it’s inevitable, it’s something that’s going to happen regardless. And sometimes that can emerge in ways that feel almost occult or feel almost metaphysical, supernatural, paranormal.
NV: And it’s also a tragedy in a way to have that person that is cosmically linked to everyone feel like they’re completely fucking alone, which is why they’re so ridiculous.
BZ: So I want to circle back a little bit, because I also can’t help but think about Robert Eggers when I think about the works that you guys produce, because it all taps into this historical continuum of, like, New England is fucking scary. I think his films, The Witch and The Lighthouse show us these different points in New England history that have always been very violent, and of course it even goes back to something like The Scarlet Letter. So I just wanted to bring up that big picture, because that’s how I situate the things that you guys do.
BRY: One thing I always chalk it up to is that European colonization, obviously it began in other places too, but this is like one of the starting points of that. Gothic horror is like the past coming back to haunt you and, like, I was talking with this other writer, David Leo Rice, who lives in New York but he’s from Northampton, and we were asking ourselves, are we currently living in a gothic age of the past coming back to seek retribution? I think that we’re constantly in a gothic age. It might be a little more pronounced now. But I do think that it might be a little bit more pronounced in Massachusetts, too, because you have so much of the historical aspects of that preserved.
NV: I think that adds to what we were saying before, too, about the notion of ignoring the truth and the truth haunting you, where it’s like, you can’t run from our history. You’ve got to acknowledge the past. And the more you don’t, the more it becomes haunted. A haunting is something demanding to be seen or heard or touched on.
BRY: I mean, ghost stories are inherently about trauma. Specifically unacknowledged trauma, right? Because the haunting wouldn’t occur if it was acknowledged and this person was given relief for satisfaction from like the crimes that were inflicted upon them.
BZ: Nick, I have a small thing I have to ask: are you ever gonna do a Cape Cod movie?
NV: Oh, man. It’s so funny. Eli Powers, my friend, he said, ‘I’m gonna try to make a movie on Cape Cod this winter.’ Every time I think, who from our old crew is gonna make a feature film on Cape Cod first and make a big deal out of it? He’s gonna do it and he was like, ‘do you wanna help?’ And I was like, yeah, I wanna be there if you’re gonna do it first. Something in Provincetown. But I was thinking about it before out of competitiveness.
BZ: Well it is kind of funny that there’s this stupid TV show about P’town now.
NV: Hightown. It’s so funny, that’s one of those things, when I was fifteen making Family Blood, my fucking gangster movie, I just hated being from Cape Cod. I was like, Martin Scorsese’s not from Cape Cod! The people I was ripping off are from California and New York! So I said everything was in Brockton, because it sounded like a bigger deal. It shows how I didn’t get anything when I was fifteen, you know? In retrospect, I should’ve done everything at the beach! Why didn’t I ever do the beach like it was something cool?
BZ: So, other than that, what’s next?
NV: I’m writing, I don’t want to say, my mind is so fucked trying to write this movie right now.
BRY: That’s good, when in doubt, always withhold. I have a weird superstition about never saying too much, like exposing it to air taints it. It starts rotting or something.
NV: A horror film. Horror films are the things you can make for no money and probably make money. There’s always a gigantic audience, and sometimes the more low budget, the more edge. It’s the only genre that allows that, especially now.
BRY: Everyone is still talking about the whole thing of like, ‘horror is so looked down upon.’ Like, it hasn’t been for years. If anything, it’s too popular. It’s too well admired. It needs to go back into the gutter a little bit. I was trying to think of, like, what are the touchstones of different eras. What’s the touchstone of this era? It’s like boring, elevated… There’s a lot of stuff I like like that, but I’m just starting to see less stuff that’s like, going out and shooting some bullshit. It’s gotten too tasteful and serious. And I love tasteful and serious, but only so much.
NV: It’s gotta be dirty. It’s gotta be an affront. I’ve been watching so many Wes Craven interviews, the way he talked about the violence of Last House on the Left, the Vietnam/Watergate era, getting down to the nitty gritty of, you know, you wanna see violence? That’s a body. And that’s what’s inside it. And you’re still looking at it. So it’s a little bit of, it’s not supposed to be throwing shade at people who like violence, but it’s saying, don’t forget what we’re doing here. It’s only fun insomuch as it’s flirting with our truth and flirting with the inevitable.
It’s also, it’s COVID, too. Think about how we filmed then. It was January, February, March. We were all just one step away from actually losing our minds. Any shred of faith in humanity was lost in watching everyone die around us. But Wes Craven said, the first thing the audience has to be afraid of is the filmmaker themself. You have to be afraid of what this person is gonna show you. I’m not afraid of what these people are gonna show me! You know? And usually when they show me something really intense it’s like, great, you fucking kid.
BRY: Horror is very intellectualized right now. When you’re approaching it from a very intellectualized angle, it doesn’t leave any room for the subconscious to come through. It’s why Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about Vietnam, but he didn’t realize it was about Vietnam.
BZ: I just saw Jennifer’s Body for the first time and I was like, this is about post-9/11 America… But this conversation is funny because I’m hardly even a horror guy. So I’m kind of like the jackass sitting here trying to intellectualize what you’re doing and you’re saying ‘it’s not intellectual.’
NV: Well it is intellectual! What we don’t like now is people going, oh, it can be intellectual? Like, it always was!
BRY: Or people figuring out beforehand what it’s supposed to be about, instead of making it and figuring out what it’s about. I’m very adamant that making fiction or art or whatever, it works best when it’s an exploratory process. And even just for me, I get really bored if I understand what I’m wrestling with right off the bat. You cut out those magical moments to discover. And I think that’s why a lot of acting in horror falls flat because there isn’t that room for discovery. It’s about wanting to say something to other people rather than trying to reconcile something within your own heart.
NV: The reason I didn’t like Hereditary was the way they were like, ‘this character has post-traumatic stress disorder.’ It’s like, every fucking movie starts with the character’s family dying, and then a year later they’re haunted by something. People just say those things and don’t do the other work that’s always been there.
BRY: It’s like a tagline. ‘This movie’s different from other horror movies, this movie’s about trauma.’ Every fucking horror movie is about trauma!
NV: It’s that idea that says that people that like it are dumb. No, they like it because it deals with trauma.
BRY: It’s underestimating what came before. Like we’re doing the highbrow, intellectual, smart version. But it’s always been fucking smart, even when it’s stupid. They’re not mutually exclusive. That’s part of being human, is being both smart and stupid. We’re constantly wrestling with that, and that’s where so much of our conflict comes from is wrestling with that. Like, ‘I’m going to try to be the smart person,’ but you have to understand that you’re also an idiot.
NV: That’s what the movie’s about. That’s it, right there.
Brian Zayatz is a co-editor at The Shoestring. Nick Verdi is a filmmaker living in Amherst. B.R. Yeager reps Western Mass. Image: Jimmy Laine in Cockazoid, courtesy of Nick Verdi.
The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! Please donate to The Shoestring on Patreon.