Plan 9 Makes Its Debut at the Grandin

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John Johnson brought his Plan 9 to the Grandin Theatre.
John Johnson brought his Plan 9 to the Grandin Theatre.
John Johnson brought his Plan 9 to the Grandin Theatre.

Zombies, various ghouls and creatures of the night – not to mention actors, extras, costume designers, and other movie support crew members – came out for a special one night showing of “Plan 9,” a remake of the Ed Wood 50’s film “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” That earlier Plan 9 – widely panned as one of the worst films ever made and one which featured the last movie images of Bela (Dracula) Lugosi – was the inspiration for Charlottesville filmmaker John Johnson.

His homage to Lugosi in Plan 9 is that two actors play the same role – mimicking what happened in the original when Wood ran out of Lugosi footage. The replacement played the same role with a cape covering his face – just like in Johnson’s remake.

Johnson’s production company, Darkstone Entertainment, has crafted more than two dozen films for the straight-to-video market. Johnson, who used to show his films at Roanoke’s now-defunct Blue Ridge Vision Film Festival, said at the Grandin Theatre showing recently that he has more freedom as a filmmaker by avoiding mainstream distribution to movie houses.

Johnson is also featured prominently as an actor in Plan 9, where an otherworldly electrical impulse brings the dead back to life as flesh eating zombies. He portrays a deputy sheriff in a script he wrote, often giving himself the most humorous lines. Most of the movie was shot on location in Bedford, although the underground parking lot at what was the Ukrop’s store in Roanoke served as a filming venue one day when the weather was too rainy to shoot outdoors.

Some of the zombie extras from Plan 9 showed up at the Grandin Theatre screening in full makeup, wobbling around ominously on the sidewalk before the doors opened up. Johnson used almost 260 local extras during the Plan 9 shoot. He also employed a helicopter for some shots and used a megaphone for the first time. “It was really exciting. We took over Bedford.”

Actors included several who have appeared on network or syndicated shows, including Brian Krause (Charmed) and Matthew Ewald (Star Trek). Darkstone marketing manager Elizabeth Drew was the stand-in for Sally Field during the filming of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Johnson said he did not set out to make a Plan 9 remake as bad as Wood’s original was supposed to be and for a movie with a budget of less than one million dollars the production values and acting is surprisingly good. It’s certainly no worse than some much bigger budget horror films that show up in theaters, and its funny in many spots to boot.

“The concept was kind of a love letter to the original and the crew that made it,” noted Johnson of his motivation. He was also hoping to recreate a vibe from moviemaking in the 80’s and 90’s, when he said life was a bit simpler – and films didn’t “try too hard. I wanted to make more of a fun movie.”

Johnson first came up with the idea for a Plan 9 remake in 2008 and an online teaser that had “well over a million views,” convinced him it would successful. Johnson is now negotiating with distribution companies. Before the Grandin screening he could feel the “weight on my shoulders from fans of the original Plan 9…and zombie fans in general,” not to let them down.

He was “excited” before the Grandin showing, hoping to get a feel from the audience: “do the jokes work? do the scares work?” he wondered. Johnson has had ten offers to date for the film, sight unseen, based on the concept or some of the actors in the film. (Seinfeld fans will remember that Plan 9 from Outer Space got a mention in two episodes of the popular sitcom.)

Johnson hopes to release Plan 9 next year. He praised the help from localities like Bedford and Roanoke, which made his production company feel welcome. He has filmed in the Roanoke area previously and hopes to shoot here again in the future. In fact the Grandin Theatre was used in a Dudley Moore flick, Crazy People. Johnson joked that the Texas Tavern is one reason he likes to shoot movies in Roanoke. “I keep coming back for the 4am hotdogs.”

 Jason Turner, a Roanoker who operates a website that advises people on things to do in the valley (roanokedoesntsuck.com), got to play a Plan 9 zombie several years ago during the filming. “I went to Goodwill and bought some clothes. We got to sit in makeup. You get to be someone else. I got to run around and be scary.”

 Turner said he was in makeup for about 12 hours one day – when he got to play two different zombies. He hopes to see more moviemakers come here: “Roanoke has a little bit of everything. The city is full of talented people.”

 Fellow zombie extra Brenda McGuire said she liked the “star treatment” during the Plan 9 shooting, when they used latex as part of her makeup. “You learned how to act [as a zombie] in five minutes.” What she saw of the movie making business during Plan 9 production seemed like an “arduous process.” And now it’s about ready to go to market. See plan9movie.com for more on John Johnson’s new film.

By Gene Marrano