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Chatting with Bill Corbett about Riffing: ‘Night of the Living Dead’

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Thursday night, the RiffTrax guys will be back and in live simulcast at theaters all over the U.S. and Canada as Fathom Events presents a special Halloween treat: George Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead. (Tickets still available at the Fathom website.)

Who (or what) is RiffTrax? Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett are three guys who publicly (and very humorously) heckle movies just for the sheer pleasure of it (and to the delight of audiences). Borne of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K for short), RiffTrax are not to be missed by anyone who enjoys a good heckle at a really awful B-movie.1968_NightLivingDead

I had the opportunity to speak to Bill Corbett by phone the other day to get his thoughts on riffing, and George Romero’s granddaddy of all zombie movies.

I’ve enjoyed your stuff since back in the Mystery Science Theater days.
Well, thank you.

It was — it was definitely must-see TV back in the day for my husband and me when we were just but newlyweds.
Yeah. We bring families together.

So is this the first time you guys are riffing Night of the Living Dead?
Well, it’s the first time we’re doing it live, but we actually released it as a video on demand some years ago. I don’t remember how many years ago it was, but it was one of our earlier things with RiffTrax, which has been around for close to seven years now.

So it’s been a while since we’ve visited it. And what we found looking at our old script is that we really have to change a lot for live performances. A lot of our lines are just a little too “talky” and so we’re going to be rewriting it pretty extensively.

Okay, especially with zombies being the in thing now. Is that part of the reason for doing Night of the Living Dead at this moment in time?
Yes. That — that plus Halloween. We’re just one week before Halloween, so we were looking for something seasonal that ties in with the holiday. But, yeah, this is sort of the granddaddy of all the zombie movies.

It totally is. So do you love the movie?  Or are you, like, embittered and cynical about it? In other words, what can we expect? 
I’m somewhere in the middle. I actually don’t think it’s a terrible movie. It has its creepy side. The black and white helps me, at least, make it seem like an artifact from a long ago time ago. It almost looks older than it is. It’s like from ’68 and it seems like a ‘50s movie to me. I think it is among the first times that that whole idea of zombies as we know them today was presented. So it’s kind of interesting for that alone. And it’s got a pseudo-documentary feel here and there, too, which surprised me when I first saw it. I thought it was going to be a little more like a monster movie. It just takes itself really seriously, and we’ve found that even if a movie is pretty decent, we can make something funny out of that.

Do you find it easier riff on good movies or really terrible movies? Or is it just a different vibe?
It’s a different vibe. And I actually like that we get to do a mix of that in RiffTrax. The premise of Mystery Science Theater was always that they were cheesy movies. And, you know, to some degree that was a self-fulfilling prophecy because we could only get what we could afford to license or buy outright. For RiffTrax, we sometimes do video on demand, which is when we have the whole movie and do a commentary track for it. For those, we’ve either made a deal with somebody or it’s in public domain. But we also have MP3 commentaries, which you roll together with, movies that we could never get the rights to, like, you know, Lord of the Rings. For those we will do something that’s either out of our price range and maybe not something that we love, like, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example or something we really dislike, like Transformers.

So what was the absolutely worst movie ever that you’ve riffed?
Well, to my mind, I just said it:  Transformers.

Worse than Manos or Plan 9 from Outer Space?
Well, yeah. I mean, and I have a specific reason for thinking that. They had all the money in the world and it’s evident on the screen that they had all the money for CGI. And the whole Transformers series just gets worse and worse. But, yeah. I mean, in terms of pure cheesiness, Plan 9 and Manos, when you see the strings on the flying saucers, obviously is bad in terms of technical film making. But in terms of, like, intention and pure mercenary, just grabbing the money awfulness, Transformers is hard to beat.

There’s a lot of material out there.
Yeah. They keep making it, as it turns out.

What was the hardest movie you guys have riffed?
Well, I think some of the harder movies were ones where we probably made a strategic error and did something that was not great for our brand of, you know, of riffing. And one that comes to mind immediately is Pirates of the Caribbean.

Why that one?
Because it’s sort of cheeky and sort of humorous in itself.

But it was hard to make jokes on top of jokes.

Right. It was kind of a self-parody. Right?
Yeah. Absolutely. And it was pretty smart about that, too. So that was sort of a blunder on our part in my mind.

Mm-hmm. Okay. Is there a movie that you’d never touch?
Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of movies that we’d never — well, you know, comedies, for one thing. Bad comedies, probably, we mostly avoid. But, you know, we can do films that have comic moments and get through them. But if they’re just — like, we would never do a Will Ferrell movie or something like that…

…because his humor would overwhelm ours. Or even if it’s a movie that tries to be funny and fails, we would probably be reduced to saying versions of, you know, “That’s not funny,” over and over again. Then we would just seem like jerks. But, yeah, things like Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List… Those we probably wouldn’t touch. You just can’t watch those things and have three guys chiming in, without us seeming like monsters who are ignoring what’s going on, on screen.

Is there a movie that’s on your wish list?
Well, I’ve for a while wanted to do an old ‘70s movie that I loved as a kid called Billy Jack.

Oh, I love Billy Jack.
Yeah. I have weird obsession with that movie and that series that I don’t think my partners share. But one day I’ll sell it to them.

I love that song, One Tin Soldier.
Oh, yeah. One Tin Soldier.

That was, like, the best thing. And gosh. And Howard Hesseman was in it. In the days before playing Dr. Johnny Fever, he played a street [musician].
That’s right. Yeah. For, like, some hippie improv group.

Yeah. Right. I love that movie. I wasn’t crazy about the rest of them, but I loved that first movie.
Oh, but they just got worse and worse.

They did. Oh, they did.
The third one, which I’m not sure was ever released in theaters, was called Billy Jack Goes to Washington.

I remember that.

Yeah. And it was — and it was sort of a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but… if you believe it, Billy Jack, who had killed, like, dozens of men by that time would be elected to Congress.

What else are you doing these days? I know you put in a stint with Prairie Home Companion (on NPR)…
I do a little — I still do a little work with Public Radio. I do a show called Wits, which is sort of new. It’s only been around a few years.

What is that about?

It’s done in the same theater as Prairie Home, the Fitzgerald Theater. It’s sort of a comedy and music show. I guess, a variety show is probably the best way to put it. But they usually have one comedian and one, you know, musical guest and then a lot of skits. So I usually do the — I’m sort of a funny actor.

RiffTrax Night of the Living Dead will debuting live on theater screens across the U.S.and Canada Thursday, October 24. Watch for my review over the weekend!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.