Annie Choi and Joe Ziemba on Their New Tome “Bleeding Skull!: A 1990s Trash-Horror Odyssey”

I really dug Bleeding Skull!’s first book, which did a deep dive into the forgotten SOV horror of the 80s, and when I found out they were doing a book on the 90s, that instantly became one of my most anticipated pickups in 2021. The reason I’ve followed their site now for over a decade is aside from being obsessive and knowledgeable in their takes of these mostly forgotten and ignored works, is how they try to view them with an empathic and understanding eye. Unlike a lot of sites that dig into these sorts of films, basically exploiting their shortcomings for clickbait, Bleeding Skull! instead celebrates these movies and those that engage in this kind of DIY art.

Last week I got to speak with two thirds of Bleeding Skull! Annie Choi and Joe Ziemba, who also is one of the forces behind the American Genre Film Archive or AGFA — about their latest Bleeding Skull!: A 1990s Trash-Horror Odyssey that just released. We go into their process a bit on the book, which digs into the 90s with the same fervor and grit as the first book. Of course discussing how the book came to be, while also dipping into their future projects both Bleeding Skull! and AGFA. All this while also answering the age old question of will The Astrologer ever be released by AGFA?

You have two choices with this interview, you can view the longer more free flowing conversation with clips from the films below via video, or skip to the text based more edited interview below the video.

So congrats on the book, love the color pages! With one book under your belt, how did you you know you wanted to tackle another, and what were some of the things you wanted to do that you didn’t get to with your first book?

Joe Ziemba: It was pretty natural. I think when we looked at it,we accomplished this version of Bleeding Skull with the 1980s book and we were happy with it and we thought, if we get the opportunity to do another one, let’s try to step it up. You know. Let’s find out if it’d be possible to do color, because all of the VHS sleeves in ads are always colorful, but I think in the nineties they really kind of exploded in terms of, you know, interesting cover designs and things like that. So I think wanting to capture the spirit of the nineties too is important. So the fact that we could do full color was just kind of a bonus, because that is something that we wanted to do, but we weren’t sure it was possible.

Once you do one big project first, I’ve never done a book before in my life, Annie was actually a veteran of releasing books. But, I think once you’re over the initial bump of this is scary and this is scary to put this out – what’s it going to be like? Once you have one under your belt, the next one becomes okay. I know how to do this now. So that’s, let’s do it this way.

Annie Choi: It’s like how do you step up, what you’ve done before and outdo yourself. It’s more work, but it’s also more fun. We set a pretty high bar for the first one. The 80s are really beloved and the 90s I think are filled with more lesser known titles, so you can’t really bank on the bigger names. But because of that you can go really deep and make some discoveries.

Dan Tabor:Now are you going to do a hardback version of this one too. Like you did it the first

Joe Ziemba: No, the hardback of the first one was really kind of an afterthought of Head Press the publisher. It was more like the soft cover sold out so quickly that they decided to do a hard cover version, so they could make it available on their site. So that was why that happened. But, this one from the outset with Fantagraphics, it’s the one vision. They do one version of the book and that’s it.

How did you decide who tackles which film?

Annie Choi: It’s a land grab! So we had this huge spreadsheet of titles that people added to, and then, you know, people definitely have preferences. I happened to get there a little bit later than the other two to see all the good titles had been scooped up.

Joe Ziemba: Oh, that’s not true.(Laughs) I remember distinctly…

Annie Choi: FIVE DARK SOULS!(Laughs) BOTH OF THEM landed on my plate, that was like 250 minutes of content. They are like “HA! HA! HA!” and I am like “NOOOOOOO!”.

Joe Ziemba: I remember Zack writing in the spreadsheet, this movie is two hundred and forty minutes long and it had like an X by Annie’s name. It was so good!(Laughs)

Annie Choi: I did get some great titles of course and everyone chose stuff they were passionate about, stuff where they knew a lot about the filmmakers. Joe is a big fan of Dave “The Rock” Nelson. I am less of a fan. He’s great, but I can only take small doses. Joe can pretty much live with him in his house. We were also swapping titles back and fourth.

Joe Ziemba: I think part of the fun with this book is, when we did the 1980s book, we knew pretty much what the movies were and what they were going to be. But in the 90s we had seen less of the movies, so we had the giant list and we had them all in our collections but we hadn’t watched them. So that was part of the fun, sort of randomly choosing things and seeing what we got.

Speaking of which, how did you unearth some of these titles, there are definitely some rare and hard to find ones here? One of the great things for film fans like myself who feel like we’ve possibly seen everything is coming across something here we’d never heard of and tracking it down and checking it out.

Joe Ziemba:I think it’s decades and decades of collecting and researching and we’re getting up there now in an age. So we’re at the point where it’s been a good two decades of collecting and finding these movies. Everything from just being out in the world when I was 22 years old and just collecting and finding things, to trading with people over the years. Zack (Carlson) is almost a superhuman collector of films, so he puts my collecting to shame. It’s incredible what he has.

So I think it was a combination of that and when you laser focus on a specific era like the nineties and you say, I want to watch all these movies and review them, you get the opportunity to enjoy your collection and find out what you have and actually watch all these things.It’s a really good personal experience, I think collecting these films over the years and then finally having a place where we can use them and write about them and have an outlet for it.

You mentioned this was a lot of blind watches. What were some discoveries? Were there any that you happened upon that became and all time favorite.

Annie Choi: So we watched a lot of shorts anthologies. One that really stood out to me was Bad Karma, which was something that I was surprised I enjoyed as much as I did. It was as short made by two Brits and it was, how do I explain this? Demons crash a barbecue, there’s also Dinosaurs, and a chainsaw AKA the “Butt Saw” …

Joe Ziemba: Wait, I haven’t seen this one. Is the chainsaw coming out of a butt?

Annie Choi: No, the chainsaw is really for butts.

Joe Ziemba: Wait, is the chainsaw made of butts?

Annie Choi: No, it’s a tiny little chainsaw geared for butts. (Laughs)

Joe Ziemba: Ohhhhhhhhhh! A chainsaw that attacks butts.

Annie Choi: Yeah, but, it’s so ambitious, they built these sets, they apparently used someone’s apartment and completely ruined it. Clearly done by a bunch of punks. Super fun, super ambitious, really funny, exploitative, offensive, great papier maché effects, but still very joyful. This just has so many ideas coming at you — they really tasted it all.

I found another short called Cellar Space in an anthology called The Dark Dealer. It has probably one of the best animal transformations I’ve seen in the book. They knew what they could do within their means and really sold it.

(Dan’s note: The reason this interview was delayed a bit is I was pulling a clip for this for the video and ended up watching Dark Dealer in full, and it is pretty great!)

Joe Ziemba: Limbo. All I knew is it was directed by Tina Krause from all the W.A.V.E. films and those films are pretty extensively covered in the book. But going into it I had no idea what to expect. So the great thing about it was, it was such a surprise. In the book and we talk about this too, there were so few women in the shot on video horror scene at the time making movies. So not only was it written and directed by a woman, but it was something I really like, which is kind of more on the experimental side, like the trash horror art spectrum. For me it was like the greatest, I really enjoyed it and that actually led us to releasing it on Blu-ray with AGFA and that was a real treat. It was a real happy discovery because it wasn’t the kind of thing I normally get excited about from this era.

Annie Choi: Same with I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, by Sarah Jacobson. Also not expected at all. Not what you would expect from a 90s horror movie made by a Riot grrrl, but it was so amazing.

That’s something I want to highlight in this this book — Joe, some of these reviews, like The Embalmer for example, offer not only a review, but some sage-like advice for white dudes in horror. That Embalmer review, I just wanted to frame it and put it on my wall because it hit me hard, same with the Limbo review. I’m hoping those well placed nuggets stick with folks and give them a different perspective or way of thinking about these films.

That was something I’ve noticed with the book is this effort you placed on finding and spotlighting these voices of minorities and women, that couldn’t have been easy to track down some of those films. There has to be more diversity in horror because that keeps things interesting, otherwise the genre would just become an echo chamber.

Annie Choi: Because these movies are already hard to find, its not even doubly hard to find people of color and to find women, because they’ve been blocked out of the process. I mean imagine how hard it is for a white man to do a DIY low budget horror film and get that out there, right. Now Imagine a woman who no one’s taking seriously, Limbo is actually a really good example of that.

She made this film and she submitted it to a festival and it didn’t get accepted. Her friend was sitting on the committee and was kind of pissed off about that she wasn’t selected and asked her to basically resubmit it under a different name. So she did, she used her dad’s name and she got in.

Dan: Wow.

Annie Choi: So that just gives you an idea of what she had to deal with and she had already been an established filmmaker not just doing W.A.V.E. films but she’d worked on other stuff as well in the nineties. Like she never stopped. So if it was hard for her. Someone who had access, someone actually had access to equipment, someone who had edited stuff on film for her own projects, you know, in college even, and for her, it was really hard.

Now you can imagine anyone who didn’t have any of that, any of those connections, didn’t have the luxury of doing a short film and putting it in a festival. So those films become even harder to find. When you find something like The Embalmer, you know, it’s really, truly special. And we’ve searched, we searched for it and it was still really hard to find, you know. There’s such a small handful of filmmakers who weren’t like black shirt, white horror dudes, you know.

Joe Ziemba: I do want to say that push 100% comes from Annie and I’ve learned a lot from her, through working with her about that. I think if it was me on my own, I think I would be aware of it and I would think I should watch some of those films, but it wouldn’t be so important for me of why it’s important. We have a platform as people so we need to do the best that we can to put it out there.

Are you format purists at all? How do you feel most folks will be seeing these films via streaming/Youtube?

Joe Ziemba: I think, with Bleeding Skull! it’s not about the format. It’s about seeing the film and experiencing the film and being able to enjoy it. So in general, in terms of the message of Bleeding Skull!, there’s no format, you know, who cares? Just see the movie.

Annie Choi: That’s exactly right. I mean, some of this stuff, like all we have is like a crappy fourth generation bootleg from like some guy in a garage, you know what I mean? It’s just like, this is the best it’s going to get and you know, and you love it anyway. If the movie is good, then it’s good, and you hope that maybe there’s a great copy out there somewhere, but there probably isn’t.

Given the break here from VHS to DVD in the next decade do you plan to do another book, or do you want to dig deeper into another subgenre like W.A.V.E. films?

Annie Choi: A W.A.V.E. book would destroy me. (Laughs)

Joe Ziemba: (Laughs) That would not be for us to write.

Annie Choi: I don’t know if I could do 30 hours of women drowning in quicksand.

Joe Ziemba: (Laughs) What’s your problem.

Dan Tabor: When I saw you talk about W.A.V.E. films at Fantastic Fest, and you mentioned that, I thought you were exaggerating about the quicksand thing, but that is a very prominent theme and I’ve seen like four movies that somehow worked quicksand in there. I just don’t understand it.

Joe Ziemba: I don’t either. You know what’s really weird? There’s a video store called Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in LA, that I think closed during the pandemic, but they might be reopening.

They had an entire section in the back which stuff that was pre-recorded off of TV and like tapes and stuff, and if you rented one movie you would get one of those for free and you would look at this massive catalog. There was always this guy that came in and would say, “do you have that quicksand compilation?” I was there when he asked for it one time, and I was like, “what?” Then they gave it to the guy and I was next in line and I got up there and the guy was like, “yeah, its this super weird compilation of people drowning in quicksand over the years from tv shows and stuff.” This guy wanted that tape and, I’m just I don’t know, like I don’t know what that is.

Annie Choi: The world is a very big place. No judgment, all kinds of people.

Joe Ziemba: That was a tangent. Anyway to answer your question, yeah! We have plans.

It’s either going to be one of two things? We are pretty deep in the research and compiling info stage. I would like to have it out sooner than eight years, between books.

Annie Choi: Eight years is a long time between books.

Dan Tabor: It gave people time to watch all the films from the first book, now they have to start all the films in this one.

Annie Choi: Alright you have eight years everyone, to finish this one in time for the next one.

Finally, anything we should be on the lookout for? Other than picking up the book?

Annie Choi: Just the book..

Joe Ziemba: … and the AGFA/Bleeding Skull! Blu-ray releases.

Annie Choi: What’s next?

Joe Ziemba: Treasure of the Ninja is not a horror title, but it very much aligns with everything we’re talking about the DIY. William Lee who is a black filmmaker and martial artist, who is still working today. During the 80s he made a whole slew of films that were never ever released and no one has seen them so we’re releasing the best of the best on a blu-ray set that is coming out in July. We have a really exciting title coming in October from AGFA and Bleeding Skull!, it hasn’t been announced yet. Its not only the biggest title we’ve tackled, but the most robust package we’ve had for a release, so its pretty exciting.

Dan Tabor: The Astrologer?

Joe Ziemba: No. To set the story straight on that its owned by Paramount and it’s never coming out, that’s the deal.

Annie Choi: Unless someone has an in at Paramount.

Joe Ziemba: Unless someone has a lot of money.

I really dug the Smut without Smut disc you did with Vinegar Syndrome are you going to do another of those? I loved Things to Come and it sent me down this weird rabbit hole of adult Westworld knock offs. But that one was actually really great and I loved that meta ending that felt Jodorowsky-eque.

Joe Ziemba: I am glad you liked that it was a total labor of love doing those Smut without Smuts, because. It was a concept that started when I was programming at the Alamo, and during the pandemic we decided to bring it to home video with AGFA. Its worked out really well, so we’re doing another one in November.

Dan Tabor: Does that mean the first one will go back into print? That turning into a pretty sought after disc?

Joe Ziemba: That one was a limited edition from the start so it wont be back. We only pressed a certain amount. All the Smut without Smuts are limited edition and only available from Vinegar Syndrome. So they’re not widely released, they’re only available there.

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