ONLY DEATH IS REEL: Interview with Deathgasm writer/director Jason Lei Howden

If you didn’t catch Richard Christy’s review in Decibel #136, let me introduce you to the most metal horror film ever: Deathgasm. It’s a Kiwi midnight party flick made for and by metalheads where blackened doom riffs unlock portals to demonic dimensions and “metal up your ass” is less of a threat than a literal promise. We’re talking corpsepaint, monsters, hilarious black metal music video parodies, dildo fights, and enough blood to satiate the most demanding gorehounds.

Sure, there are Trivium posters aplenty, but there are also nods to Autopsy, Death, King Diamond, Pungent Stench, Skinless, New Zealand-based Beastwars, and dozens more. Plus, it shares the name with a brutal label. With the kinetic splatstick of Peter Jackson and Edgar Wright’s sharp humor, writer/director Jason Lei Howden is a horror talent to watch – and also wears battle vests to film premieres. Decibel accosted Howden just after Deathgasm’s DVD release to discuss heavy metal, horror, and uncooperative blood sprays.

How were you first introduced to heavy metal?

Through school friends. I’ve always liked the dark imagery, even when I was a kid. But it wasn’t until I was 13 that a friend started giving me dubbed tapes. Pestilence, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide were some of the first. It scared the fuck out of me at first, but then I got really into it.

When did you get into cinema?

I’ve been obsessed with monsters and horror since I was a toddler. Some of my biggest inspirations are Return Of The Living Dead, Evil Dead 2, Suspiria, Eraserhead, Monty Python, The Beyond, and Hausu. I mainly love movies that are bizarre, campy, or over-the-top. Some would call these movies trash, but they’re everything to me. You walk out feeling stoned because your mind is reeling from what you just witnessed.

What were your goals for this project?

I just wanted to make a fun, gory horror film with a brutal metal soundtrack. I felt although there are a few heavy metal movies out there, they were never as over-the-top as I wanted. I was just making something that my friends and I would enjoy, so I’ve been shocked at the response and how well it has done.

The soundtrack is kvlt-approved, with tracks from Midnight, Ihsahn and Emperor, plus a slew of great New Zealand bands. How involved were you in the creation of the film’s soundtrack?

I chose all the music, which was one of the coolest jobs in the movie. Metal band members are generally the best people in the world to deal with. Straight up, no bullshit, and very supportive. There were a few bands we wanted to get songs from but couldn’t – Enslaved and Obituary, to name a couple. That said, I’m really stoked with the soundtrack. We are putting out a vinyl soon, released by Death Waltz Records, so look out for it.

When the film is inevitably remade in the states in 20 years, what contemporary metal bands do you feel will reach the iconic status of King Diamond and Death, who are both memorably featured?

That’s a hard one. Ghost and Cattle Decapitation? My gut feeling is that you couldn’t; we are entering a period without massive rock stars or legends. Bowie and Lemmy just died, who is this generation’s equivalent? They just don’t exist. Or maybe I’m just getting too old.

Decibel just unveiled our list of 1991’s top 30 albums. What’s your vote for the best metal album of ’91?

So much awesome metal came out in ’91. I’m going to go with Sepultura’s Arise, although admittedly I probably listened to Use Your Illusion by Guns N’ Roses mostly that year, as I didn’t get into metal until ’92 or ’93. Great year, though.

The film’s practical gore effects are fantastic. Without too many spoilers, what was the most difficult gore sequence to stage?

They were all pretty difficult given the time and budget. Most of the gore gags were one-take wonders. I won’t say his name, but a certain character gets chainsawed through the mouth and his head cut off from the jaw up. We prepped the blood rig, called action, and the blood went straight up in the air for meters. It landed across the studio on some gear that cost more than our whole film! We were up for hours cleaning it. The worst thing was, you hardly saw the blood through the camera so we had to do it as a pick-up later.

The film’s title was changed to Heavy Metal Apocalypse for DVD releases sold in American Walmarts. Thoughts on that decision?

Well, it’s a shitty, generic title straight off the bat. But it had to be changed if the distributor wanted to sell it in Walmart, which is their prerogative. I want a copy for myself, they will probably be quite rare one day.

What it comes down to is US conservatism. But it’s ironic that you can wander into Walmart wearing a pink tutu, a T-Shirt saying SUCK MY DICK, soiled underwear, buying a shovel, rope and hacksaw at 3 AM but you can’t buy a DVD called Deathgasm. The Waltons just don’t understand their customer base.

The Deathgasm title resonates well with smart, genre-savvy people, but some people just don’t get it. It looks like Netflix are avoiding it based on the title too.

What are you working on now, and are rumors of a Deathgasm sequel true?

I’m working on a lot right now, we’ll see what the future brings. Whatever I do, there will be an element of metal in there, whether it be a character or a song. And Deathgasm 2 is still in the cards. If it gets made it’s going to be seriously insane, but that’s the issue. I’ll only do it if it has MORE GORE and MORE METAL. Otherwise, there’s no point. It’s set years after the first movie, everyone is older. So it’s about dealing with a world where music is changing, fashion is changing. Do you grow up, mellow out, and conform? Or stay the same and tell the world to go fuck itself? Spoiler: It’s the last one.

But I need more money to achieve that. So it’s based on how well Deathgasm sells. Braindead (AKA Dead Alive) cost $4 million but only made $200K back. I worry that splatter movies will die out, which is sad because it’s such a kick-ass genre.

What would a new band have to prove to you in order to receive your blessing for taking the name of the film’s fictional shredders, Haxansword?

They would have to murder rabbits on stage with a hammer. Kidding, please don’t do that. They would have to party pretty hard to do the Haxansword name justice.  

Deathgasm is out now on DVD, which you can buy from the official website or Amazon without that hilariously puritanical alternate title. Follow the Deathgasm Facebook page for other updates, check out the soundtrack from Death Waltz, and support this flick so Howden can spray some more blood in our mouths. Now check out the bloody trailer below, comrades.