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Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

SORP Films used a tie rod and hearse to flip over this cop car.
SORP Films used a tie rod and hearse to flip over this cop car.
Photos by Natalie Gonzalez

Zachary Byron Helm pushes the boundaries of horror in his upcoming film, Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway, which he's filming right here, right now in Englewood. And it should be a wild ride.

See also: - Q&A: Artist Daniel Crosier of Mother Mind Studios - Ten weird movie references in Colorado - Jennifer Goodland's photographic love letter to Colorado

Helm started SORP Films when digital film made low-budget movies a reality for "underground," not independent, filmmakers. Most of Helm's films are made on a budget of around $200, and use only live footage; there are no stunt drivers or CGI-enhanced scenes. For Death Hearse, he's creating a feature-length movie from short "episodes" first released on YouTube. Fortunately, he has plenty of free props: He founded a hearse club in the '90s, and owns eight of the vehicles.

Helm's earlier work -- The Legend of Zelda a Pain in my Ass and Emo Assault Squadron -- focuses on more comedic material, but he yearns to push the limits of horror movies as seen in the '80s: with gore, nudity, violence, destruction and, of course, gratuitous amounts of fake blood. Westword recently sat in on a day of shooting and talked with Helm about his dangerous ambitions.

Zachary Helm gives his crew destruction instructions.
Zachary Helm gives his crew destruction instructions.

Helm's shoots are rough and raw. For one chase scene, Helm and his crew transformed a vehicle they bought for $300 on Craigslist into a cop car; after being rammed a few times by Helm in his death hearse, the cop car blew a tie rod. Rather than completely wasting a day of filming, Helm cut the chase scene short and moved on to more destruction.

"I'm gonna beat the shit out of this car," he said, and proceeded to do just that. With the two "cops" still in the vehicle, Helm rammed the car until all of the windows were broken and the doors busted inwards. But first, he gave the actors a two-minute warning: "Tell Brian I'm going to hit his door!"

Then he flipped the car over with a steel cable -- actors still dangling inside. But fortunately, he let them out before he dragged the car up and down the road -- because the roof almost caught on fire from the friction. A few sparks were not enough to deter Helm, though. With some strategic positioning, he flipped the car back over in order to blow it up, at least in theory, with a sawdust cannon. Surprisingly, the car still ran after all that abuse.

This scene was just a part of the second episode of Helm's latest film. Since the first episode already featured scantily-clad female satanists and plenty of blood, Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway promises to fulfill his classic horror flick vision.

Keep reading for some insight into Helm's constantly shape-shifting head.

 

Helm behind the wheel of his hearse.Westword: Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway is your latest film endeavor delving more into horror and gore. Can you tell us a little about the plot? Zachary Helm: That's been one of my problems. I don't usually write the script down until maybe the day of. A lot of times I have the entire script in my head and I kind of know where I want everything to go, but I just haven't written it down in any solid form until maybe an hour before the shoot. I'm planning to have ten to twelve episodes that link together for a feature-length movie. There will be a lot of terrorizing the town, wrecks and boobs. That's the one thing horror movies don't have anymore. A lot of boobs, a lot of carnage -- those are the two things I think are missing in horror movies lately that were so great from the '80s. Now if a movie gets an R or NC-17 rating, the number of theaters that will show it drops significantly, so they are making PG-13 horror movies. It makes sense, but it sucks. I want to do all the things that would make my movie as horribly rated as possible. It sucks when you go to see movies when you don't see any of the things that excited you as a kid. Those things you bragged about to your friends. I've decided we're going to have the demon anally rape Fred Phelps. He's the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church that runs godhatesfags.com. They're basically one of the most hateful church groups and they picket everything, especially soldiers' funerals. They're just a horrific, substandard group of human beings. They're truly classless. There will probably be no love story. This is going to be a lot of grindhouse exploitation. I wouldn't count on seeing a lot of redeeming values and Academy Award-winning material. It's going to mostly be humor and shock factor. What we're trying to impress upon people is that a bunch of people from Englewood, Colorado, did this film. Our charm is the fact that we're not trained, we're not well-budgeted, we're just doing the best we can with what we've got, and we're fairly fearless about it.
Helm behind the wheel of his hearse.
Westword: Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway is your latest film endeavor delving more into horror and gore. Can you tell us a little about the plot? Zachary Helm: That's been one of my problems. I don't usually write the script down until maybe the day of. A lot of times I have the entire script in my head and I kind of know where I want everything to go, but I just haven't written it down in any solid form until maybe an hour before the shoot. I'm planning to have ten to twelve episodes that link together for a feature-length movie. There will be a lot of terrorizing the town, wrecks and boobs. That's the one thing horror movies don't have anymore. A lot of boobs, a lot of carnage -- those are the two things I think are missing in horror movies lately that were so great from the '80s. Now if a movie gets an R or NC-17 rating, the number of theaters that will show it drops significantly, so they are making PG-13 horror movies. It makes sense, but it sucks. I want to do all the things that would make my movie as horribly rated as possible. It sucks when you go to see movies when you don't see any of the things that excited you as a kid. Those things you bragged about to your friends. I've decided we're going to have the demon anally rape Fred Phelps. He's the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church that runs godhatesfags.com. They're basically one of the most hateful church groups and they picket everything, especially soldiers' funerals. They're just a horrific, substandard group of human beings. They're truly classless. There will probably be no love story. This is going to be a lot of grindhouse exploitation. I wouldn't count on seeing a lot of redeeming values and Academy Award-winning material. It's going to mostly be humor and shock factor. What we're trying to impress upon people is that a bunch of people from Englewood, Colorado, did this film. Our charm is the fact that we're not trained, we're not well-budgeted, we're just doing the best we can with what we've got, and we're fairly fearless about it.
crash4.jpg

Westword: Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway is your latest film endeavor delving more into horror and gore. Can you tell us a little about the plot?

Zachary Helm: That's been one of my problems. I don't usually write the script down until maybe the day of. A lot of times I have the entire script in my head and I kind of know where I want everything to go, but I just haven't written it down in any solid form until maybe an hour before the shoot. I'm planning to have ten to twelve episodes that link together for a feature-length movie. There will be a lot of terrorizing the town, wrecks and boobs. That's the one thing horror movies don't have anymore. A lot of boobs, a lot of carnage -- those are the two things I think are missing in horror movies lately that were so great from the '80s. Now if a movie gets an R or NC-17 rating, the number of theaters that will show it drops significantly, so they are making PG-13 horror movies. It makes sense, but it sucks. I want to do all the things that would make my movie as horribly rated as possible. It sucks when you go to see movies when you don't see any of the things that excited you as a kid. Those things you bragged about to your friends.

I've decided we're going to have the demon anally rape Fred Phelps. He's the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church that runs godhatesfags.com. They're basically one of the most hateful church groups and they picket everything, especially soldiers' funerals. They're just a horrific, substandard group of human beings. They're truly classless.

There will probably be no love story. This is going to be a lot of grindhouse exploitation. I wouldn't count on seeing a lot of redeeming values and Academy Award-winning material. It's going to mostly be humor and shock factor. What we're trying to impress upon people is that a bunch of people from Englewood, Colorado, did this film. Our charm is the fact that we're not trained, we're not well-budgeted, we're just doing the best we can with what we've got, and we're fairly fearless about it.

 
In this nose-to-nose tug-of-war, the hearse seems to be winning.
In this nose-to-nose tug-of-war, the hearse seems to be winning.

What are some of the special effects you've experimented with for this film?

In the first episode we had the wall of the hearse crushing the women satanists. To do that we put the wall on wheels and had people pushing from behind. In that same scene there's a lot of spurting blood. We used a pool water cannon like kids have to shoot about half a gallon of blood and completely cover the people in three seconds.

Another scene in that episode crushes this annoying Tupperware saleswoman's head under the hearse. For the head we used a bag of blood, but for the flying legs we used a duct-tape doppleganger. You have the actor put on clothing they don't care about and completely wrap them in duct tape, then use surgical tape to cut off the pants. Tape the pants back together and stuff them with newspaper and it makes a twelve-dollar replica of a human body.

We also used a sawdust cannon for an explosion in the cop car. The air allows the sawdust to expand, so when you ignite it, it pushes further out creating a particulate that looks really impressive. One guy on YouTube makes it look like a nuclear explosion. It didn't work when we first tried it and we figured out a refined method, but by that time the car was in the trees and we were running out of ways to put out a fire, so I called it off.

A broken tie rod poses a problem for the rest of filming.
A broken tie rod poses a problem for the rest of filming.

This film uses a lot of intense crashes and driving scenes. How have you been able to shoot those?

My girlfriend wanted to be a stunt driver for this film because she accidentally wrecks her own cars all the time. She says, "It's what I was born to do." Then one guy, Paul, contacted me saying that he wanted to help. He acted as a stunt man during the car flip, but that's pretty much it.

Nobody's trained and nobody's done this anytime before, so it's all kind of a steep learning curve. We experiment to see how does a car react when you ram it? How does it react when you do this or that? I always think to myself, "Is this going to be the one where we end up maimed?"

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

 

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

What's your history in this business? How did you dive into horror filmmaking?

I did comedy writing for a really long time, and a lot of the things I wrote ended up getting pretty widely circulated on the Internet. I'd always wanted to do film stuff, but I'd never really had the wherewithal to do it.

The name SORP came from a fake secret society that we started as a joke. It stands for Sacred Order of the Ring Pop, and we were making fun of all the Free Masons and groups like that that are supposedly secret societies that everybody knows about because they're a household name. So that's where I did the majority of my writings. We had a website and everything.

I got into film because the digital revolution for film made it possible. A digital videotape costs $13 while to develop one minute of film was about $100, so now a six-minute short film costs $13 instead of $600. It put it into the realm of people like me.

We made a film called Emo Assault Squadron, which is probably what people like the most to this day. I was so inexperienced when I made that there was lots of stuff I didn't even know about making films. I didn't even know how to separate audio tracks at that point. I think I made the entire film in Windows Movie Maker. I was hoping for 200 people to watch it, and within the first week we had like 6,000 people watch it. We ended up on Fox News in L.A. because the people thought that we were advocating violence against emos -- which, I mean, the video does. But I thought it was so over the top that people wouldn't take it seriously.

I don't know who I was more disturbed by: the people who thought we were sick motherfuckers or the people who were like, "Let's go beat up some emos!" We didn't know anything about emos when we wrote it. We didn't have a script or anything -- we just went out and shot it.

Then we did another called Legend of Zelda a Pain in my Ass, which was a parody of the old-school Nintendo Zelda game. That one did really well and ended up all over the Internet. So those are the two that we keep hearing about no matter what else we do.

 
Cops doing what they do best: Waiting around for action.
Cops doing what they do best: Waiting around for action.

How do you generally assemble your fearless team?

The team is basically anybody who will acquiesce to doing the horrible things that I want them to do for film. One thing that people don't realize about film is that for every sixty seconds of film you see, it's usually about an hour to two hours' worth of work. When people want to work with us on film, the number one thing that they have to understand is that film takes a long time. The number one way to irritate any director is to show up on set and ask them how long it's going to take -- because it's going to take a long-ass time.

We don't pay anybody. I usually only work with friends because I want to be around people I like. And that also makes it easy when we have long filming days. The people you're generally gonna see in my films a lot are my girlfriend, my roommate, my roommate's girlfriend -- because they're people who are very close to me who I always know I can rely on for help.

The back of the hearse holds all the gear.
The back of the hearse holds all the gear.

We had a shoot over the wintertime where we were spraying everybody in the back of the hearse with fake blood. It was freezing cold outside, and it lasted from about seven at night to about six in the morning. For about half of that the girls were covered in really cheap fake blood. The general consensus was, "You're lucky we like you," because they would never do that for anyone else.

Every girl that appears in this film has modeled for me, actually. I do a pin-up series for my website, so they're all girls that have modeled for me....

It's just kind of whoever wants to help and whoever can put up with it. That's part of the reasons we started doing action and horror -- I've noticed if people can fire or hold a gun or they get to witness or be part of some destruction, they are way more excited to be a part of it. People are kind of bored of dialogue, so if you can get some action in there I'm not sure how much more it does for the audience, but actors want to be a part of it more.

We work with a couple of guys, Richard Taylor and Zac Beins, that do a lot of work with Troma, which did the classic cult movie Toxic Avenger. I was in one of their films and we ended up exchanging a lot of time and a lot of equipment because we generally both have something the other person needs at any given point.

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

 

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

This movie wrecks at least one car, which isn't cheap even if the car is a POS. How do you fund your films?

The Internet is kind of like a Continental Dollar. Things can get incredibly popular but have no real value. You're not really famous on the Internet. Even if you're a big name you cannot be making money off of it whatsoever. You have to figure out how to parlay that into some success for yourself. We've never made any real money off of YouTube, but we've made passable money other ways -- like asking our fans for money on Facebook.

For the shoot of the crash scene for the second episode we needed tires, digital videotape and a steel cable, so I posted on Facebook telling fans we needed $200 dollars. By the end of the day we had $500 in contributions. So we don't make money directly, but we have a lot of people who believe in what we do who give us money to make that happen.

Some people think if you're a filmmaker you've got a lot of money. No. Generally assume if somebody says they're a "filmmaker," they have no money. Assume they live in poverty.

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

Where do you hope to go in the future?

There's the make art for art's sake consensus. I like that and all and I agree with it as a concept, but I'd like to make enough money to be able to make my films how I want to make them and be able to help other people make films.

Right now we're at a point where we're neither making hand-over-fist money, nor are we very famous. Our success really tapered off after those first two films, which sucks 'cause we've been getting better at film but getting noticed less. Part of our problem is if it's not under two minutes and it's not a parody or a musical number, people don't watch it. A lot of times people don't want to watch a comedy thing that takes eight minutes out of their life, which is really sad. So I'd really just like to make enough money to be able to make my films how I want and be able to help others do the same.  

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway the next stop on Zachary Helm's wild ride

Are you involved in film festivals?

The problem with film festivals is it costs somewhere between $25 and $75 to submit, and that's not usually an amount of money that we have.

I went to one here in Colorado and they were advertising that they were independent films. Everybody says "independent film," and to me that always evoked an image of somebody like me. It's not the case. I'm not an independent filmmaker. It's not that I'm using this as a tag to sound more elite -- I'm an underground filmmaker, I'm not independent. Meaning that I don't have anybody backing me that's one major source of money. We were watching these uninspired films and at the end their credits are these amazing lists. They've got transportation coordinators, caterers, gaffers and all the things you would have in a Hollywood production. I'm thinking how in the name of god are you affording all this shit?

Our cameraman is usually some guy in the film. There's a reason I act in all my films and it's not because I necessarily want to be in all of them: It's because I'm just one more person who can do it. I hold the camera, I steer the car, I edit the film, I edit the audio even though I suck at it.

I realize that independent films can have budgets in the millions of dollars. We usually spend about $200 on any given film. The new one we've spent more on, but that's usually about it.  

Helm's most swagged-out personal hearse.
Helm's most swagged-out personal hearse.

My last question is more about you than the film. You're also in a hearse club. How did that become a part of your life?

The hearse club usually has about forty people in it. We have an international convention here in town that I started doing in the mid-'90s. A lot of people are fascinated that there's somebody driving a hearse when they see my car, let alone a whole club of people. There's clubs in almost every state at this point.

I initially liked hearses because of the fact that they carried dead people in 'em, and there was a certain shock value. I liked the sinister nature of the cars. Then I started appreciating the styling, that collector-car thing, and I started working on 'em. I taught myself to be mechanic.

The median price range is about $500 to $2,000. You can pay more depending on the styling and whether it's a classic, etc.

They still make them, but they're not as popular because of cremations. Religion is on a slow but steady decline, so people are treating bodies with less reverence than they used to. People are doing cremations that are cheaper rather than messing with the whole concept of a big $7,000 or $10,000 funeral.

Death Hearse on Satan's Titty Highway should start airing on YouTube in the near future. Visit sorpfilms.net to see more of Helm's work or donate to the cause.

SORP Films used a tie rod and hearse to flip over this cop car.
SORP Films used a tie rod and hearse to flip over this cop car.
Photos by Natalie Gonzalez


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