If you’ve ever seen the 6’3” Joe Zaso walking down the streets of New York City, you’ll notice that he cuts an impressive figure. Your first thought may be: “That guy should be in the movies!” Sure enough, Zaso spends a lot of time in front of the camera, both as a model and an actor. His filmography includes such titles as “And Then They Were Dead”, “Rage of the Werewolf”, “Demon Resurrection“, “Beast”, and “Braincell”. By now you may have guessed that most of his credits fall into the horror and sci-fi genre– roles he seems especially well-suited for thanks to his unique brand of darkly dangerous sex appeal. His work has resulted in Joe being given such labels as “scream king“, “horror himbo”, and “gore male”.
Zaso’s latest film, new to DVD from Lionsgate Entertainment, is “Virus X”, a medical thriller originally named “H1-N1”. Zaso plays a not-so-virtuous doctor who forms a malevolent conspiracy with an even less virtuous villainess, played by horror movie icon Sybil Danning (“The Howling“). In a twisted experiment, the two arrange for a group of medical students to be trapped in a medical lab, where the youths have to survive a particularly toxic virus and, later, the psychotic albino henchman of Ms. Danning‘s character. It’s a testament to Zaso’s acting ability that the can–with the help of glasses and a lab coat– downplay his sexy charms to play a morally conflicted doc who seems one step away from total mental meltdown. Nevertheless, in one scene where Zaso’s character is confronted by a group of angry survivors, all I could think of was how the star could have fought them all off with one thrash of those washboard abs. Zaso will next be seen in a new thriller named “Amongst the Living”, which is also set to star Derek Long (“Bio-Dead“, “3 Day Weekend“), NBC political reporter Kelly O‘Donnell, Lesleh Donaldson (1981‘s “Happy Birthday to Me”), and Zaso‘s frequent horror movie co-star Raine Brown. The film, written by and to be directed by Justin John Costello, is scheduled to start filming in Pennsylvania and Manhattan in June. Hopefully, the conditions will be more than those of “Virus X”, which was mostly shot in a Van Nuys furniture factory that also substituted as a rehearsal hall for drummers. The temperature, Zaso remembers, was 100 degrees.
In addition to acting, Joe is a film producer and a self-proclaimed aficionado of horror flicks, with a special fondness for the dark, culty, “so-low-budget-that-it’s-hard-to-distance-yourself-from-the-movie” flicks of the Disco Decade. “I enjoy 70’s movies and ‘70’s TV movies.” he tells me. “You could say that they were ‘slower‘ and more ‘boring‘ back then, but I believe that they are also more effective. When I watch modern horror films, I just kind of tune out. It just looks like a headache waiting to happen. Even the new sci-fi movies that come out… they’re so (rolls eyes)… I’d rather see a talky drama.” The actor with the size 13 shoe (really!) and I met at a Chelsea eatery to discuss his latest films and his career as a “horror himbo“… as well as the second and third greatest things in life: food and movies!
JR: Thanks for meeting me, Joe. So, you told me that one of your hobbies is cooking. Are you a “foodie“?
JZ: Am I a “foodie“? Well, I love to cook. I’m not a big eater, but I am always cooking for someone because I enjoy it. As much as I like restaurants, I prefer to “do it myself”. I am always trying to hone my skills. It’s about creating. I guess it’s also about partly being Italian; It’s in the blood! When you’re in between projects, you gotta do something! Keep yourself busy. That’s that thing you have to do– whether you‘re doing movies, or cooking!
JR: Speaking about projects: Your latest movie is called “Amongst the Living”. Tell me about it.
JZ: The movie is written and to be directed by Justin John Costello. To put it the way someone else put it, it‘s “Clive Barker-ish“. The one pitch I was going to give it– the movie’s tag line– would give too much away. Basically: It’s supernatural, it’s homoerotic, and it is more or less “straight” horror.
JZ: Make that “straightforward” horror! It’s not over-the-top. It’s not played for laughs.
JR: What role do you play in the movie?
JZ: I am the lead character, Markus. He is secretive, conflicted, and more or less finding himself. It’s a dark role– dark as in “brooding”– and as I said, he is more or less finding himself… and finding a mystery at the same time. Whenever I look at the artwork so far for the movie, I think it’s a Michael Lucas film! I‘m like, “Is this “Men of Israel?”!
JR: (Laughs) Well, with that cast, there will be a lot of eye candy, no doubt! So, are you working on any other projects at this time as well?
JZ: There is another script which should start later this year, taking place in Baltimore. I can say that much! That’s something I’d like to do very much. But right now I am pushing “Virus X” and “Braincell”, also new on DVD. I like to act, but I like to keep working on something, no matter what… It seems like because of the economy, the projects are kind of “pitter patter, pitter patter“. It‘s very erratic. But you gotta keep yourself involved. I am always looking around for interesting projects. You never know. They always seem to fall into my lap. Like with these ads I did for Legal Sea Foods: being the “fish man” for Boston Magazine… it just kind of happened! My work with the New Jersey Devils just came my way also. It’s the Zen philosophy. When you stop chasing after something, it chases after you.
JR: Hmmm… I guess I’ll have to stop chasing after eternal youth and wealth! Now, is there an original idea that you would like to do…or a project that you’d really want to do?
JZ: You mean, a “dream” project? At the moment, not really. As much as I love horror, I would like to do other genres. Just for variety. I’d like to do something– I hate to use the word “mainstream”– but maybe a little less “over the top“, a little less “offbeat“… as long as it’s something good or something interesting. I am looking for the ultimate character to play, but I always seem to get typecast as the villain, or adult lead, or something athletic– but not necessarily the “important” role and nothing that really involves acting chops! Like, getting cast as evil doctors!
JR: Now, you’ve been on both sides of the camera: as an actor and model, and as a producer. What’s different about the two roles?
JZ: Oh, boy! Acting is a lot more fascinating and a lot more fun. No matter how much torture you may have to put yourself through, you just show up and do your part, and that’s it. When you’re the producer, it’s like having a nervous breakdown every day– because all you do is worry, pace, panic, listen to egos, be a people pleaser, and work wonders with no money– because usually you have no money! But it’s one of those things where you keep coming back for more, no matter how stressful it is. I’ve worked on a few productions that almost made me stop wanting to do movies, period– like, I’ll be an insurance salesman for the rest of my life! But then you find that when I get my…I can’t find the word…
JR: “Second wind“? “New inspirations“?
JZ: …my “pacings“… my “pretendings“… my “bearings“?! (Laughs) Anyway, I think that producing is something I think I do well because of my organizing skills and such– but it’s also very, very stressful. That‘s also why I enjoy just being able to act. That’s why in between projects I produce, I’m only too happy to do appearances. It’s such a small community in the horror scene. It’s almost incestuous how everybody works on each others’ movies. You’ll notice that there’s this one actress I work with all the time, Raine Brown. I call us– to show you how old I am– the “Steve and Edie” of horror…I don’t know if you know what that means…
JR: I do! I have been trying to auction off their Christmas album on E-Bay for five years now!
JZ: (Laughs) Rayne and I worked on a movie called “Angel’s Blade“ many years ago, and we hit it off. Now we’re good friends. We just seem to work on one movie after another together. Sometimes she gets me gigs, sometimes I get her gigs, we go to the conventions together…Everybody seems to know each other in the biz.
JR: Which of your movies do you consider the best? Put another way, which ones are “essential Joe Zaso” for people who want to see your work?
JZ: Hmmm… The ones I am proudest of? “Virus X” has good acting, in general. “Barricade” is good– if you can find it, and if you like gore. It‘s an entertaining potboiler more or less. “Barricade” seemed to get a lot of attention, and it’s not even a genre that I enjoy that much. I don’t want to call it “torture porn”, but it’s very much like “Saw”– very violent. Yet, out of any title I have worked on, that one sold the most. I say to myself, “Why?” I am proud of it, but there are things that I would rather be noted for; movies that were better crafted, with more story, or with better performances. But this one hit it off. I don’t know. It’s a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe it’s because it came out at the time when “Saw“ and movies like it were popular. But it still baffles me.
JR: As a horror movie expert, what are your favorite horror movies of all time?
JZ: It’s not considered scary anymore, but the one that really did it for me was “The Omen”. The original one. Now when I see it, I see through it and I laugh my ass off… but I saw it when I was a little kid, and it disturbed me. There are scarier films than that, but that one did it for me. I think the whole “mood” of it frightened me. Stuff like ”Jaws” didn’t bother me and “The Exorcist” didn’t bother me. The whole idea is, if you don’t want a shark to eat you, then don’t go in the water. If you don’t want the little girl to scare you, don’t go near the little girl! But with “The Omen“, you’re just kind of caught in the plot by accident… you know, it just seemed eerie. I also like things like “Gremlins”, “Suspiria”, “Squirm”, “Creepshow”, “Demons”… One of my favorites– even though the book was good but the movie is so trashy– is “The Sentinel”.
JR: I didn’t see that one!
JZ: It’s “Big Fucking Trashy TV Movie“! It’s hilarious. It’s Michael Weiner and a thousand camera angles for one scene. And, an all-star cast you will never see again! Beverly D’Angelo masturbating in the first scene…!
JR: Oh really?!
JZ: It tried to be, you know… “in vogue” with all the Satanic movies at the time. It’s about a model who’s in a Brooklyn brownstone and she… well, you can get it on DVD! Universal released it. You can rent it down the street if you want to! The book was creepy but the film had that “TV movie” look and feel, and it had that has a few shocking little scenes, especially because it involves real freaks. But it’s just very heavy-handed!
JR: When I was a kid, “Halloween” scared the shit out of me. We just got HBO and people could finally start seeing R-rated movies in the privacy of their own home. When my parents went out night, my brother let me watch it even though he wasn’t supposed to. Then he spent the whole rest of the night trying to explain that it “wasn’t real” and all that…
JZ: (Laughs) I had my parents almost rip the wires out of the wall a few times. I remember watching “Carrie” for the first time in silence, with the volume down, because I HAD to watch it.
JR: I read the book, too.
JZ: My parents took the book away from me when I was a kid. I was in the third grade. My teacher said, “I can’t believe your mother lets you read these things!” I didn’t understand half of it anyway…
JR: (Laughs) So, what’s an underrated horror classic that everyone should see? A “closet classic”, if you will?
JZ: There are so many! Oh boy! Well… I’m gonna get hit for this, but a lot of the ones that I like are Italian. Italian horror movies, with the exception of a few, are usually considered bad because they are badly made, or badly dubbed. As much as I love Dario Argento, his latest movies have me going, “Retire please!“ He’s not what he was. Not to trash him, but I like his stuff up until the late ‘80’s. Then they just started getting…
JR: …I saw one of his movies. “Trauma” (from 1993).
JZ: I am a fan of “Trauma”. A lot of people don‘t like it, but I do like it. I like it for different reasons. You have Piper Laurie hamming it up in that one. When the movie first came out, I was so excited. I was almost an extra in that movie, if I had flown myself to Minneapolis.
JR: The movie was shot in Minneapolis? Now, THAT’S depressing!
JZ: I don’t mind going for the “all-American” look, but the whole movie was this bland, “smoky yet sun-shiny” look. It was too many cooks spoiling the soup. Even the music by Pino Donaggio was like, “What is this?” I remember how everyone was “Trauma-tized” when they first saw the movie. As soon as it was finished they were like, “That‘s it?! This was his big American splash?!”
JR: Yeah, I didn’t really buy that Piper Laurie (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!) was the killer, but then again, there was one scene which really disturbed me. I must have been still somewhat shockable when I first saw it… Now, didn’t Dario get criticized too for directing his daughter, Asia (pronounced “AH-zee-uh“) Argento in a “rape scene”? People were like, “How could a father do that?”
JZ: Yes. In “Trauma” she takes her top off for a moment, and then in “The Stendthal Syndrome” she‘s raped, because the movie is about rape victims, and then in “Phantom of the Opera” she‘s having sex with Julian Sands.
JR: Yucch! The ultimate indignity!
JZ: In interviews, Dario has said, “Asia got naked for ’Trauma’, and she cry, and I cry, we all cry… and then later we do ‘La Sindrome di Stendhal’, and I tell her to get raped, and she cry, I cry…” but then he said something in an interview like “Asia is like an instrument I love to play every day!”
JR: I hope that the quote was just a misinterpretation… and that his mastery of the English language just wasn’t that good!
JZ: “I think “Opera” was Argento’s last good one. I am not a big fan of his latest one at all. Actually, I think it’s one of his worst. When it’s not clichéd to death, he resorts to extreme torture porn tactics. It seems desperate. Like he has to do something to satisfy everyone.
JR: How old is he?
JZ: 70. I heard a rumor that his next one is gonna be Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 3-D. I’m like, “WHYYY?“
JR: Now, I have to ask: What are your secrets to staying in such great shape? And please don’t tell me it’s from having a positive attitude, or from drinking a lot of water. I want REAL secrets!
JZ: It’s being hyper. I’ve always been on the hyper side, as anyone can attest. I walk down the street and I flop and bounce. I’m like “Get out of my way!” Also, I would say, “Be positive!” When you’re in a lousy mood, I’d say that that’s the best time to work out, because you can work out all those hostilities. Secrets to working out. Hmmm… Well, you have to be– I hate to use the word “dedicated”– but you have to almost seem like your driven by some force. I know so many people who want to be in shape but only talk about it. I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I have been working out for 25 years and no matter how crappy you feel, or if it’s cold, or whatever, you have to go to the gym. If you’re tired, grab a coffee. If you want to grab a few drinks, do it AFTER you go to the gym. It also helps to be a little bit narcissistic!
JR: I guess that when you are appearing in movies on a huge screen, that helps too. Knowing that you’re going to be seen by so many people is a big incentive to look good.
JZ: Yes, it definitely helps!
JR: Well, movie-lovers internationally appreciate your efforts!
Joe Zaso and I share a mutual goal: to find a 1975 telefilm called “The Secret Night Caller“, which stars Robert Reed (Yes, Mr. Brady!) as an obscene phone caller. Joe tells me, “The only way you‘ll find that movie, I hypothesize, is if some horror movie fan dies and we raid his apartment!” But you CAN find “Virus X” for rent on Netflix and also to buy on DVD.
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[…] Read my 2011 interview with Joe Zaso here. […]