Just a few weeks after shooting had wrapped on Night of the Living Jews, Oliver Noble, the film’s 20-year-old writer and director got the kind of publicity many young filmmakers wait half their careers for: a mention in the New York Times, albeit in the Home and Garden section. The September 2006 article centered on a small barn, built by hand just outside Woodstock, NY, by high-wire performance artist Philippe Pettit, but it quoted heavily from the outspoken woman who had sold him the wood: sawmill owner, mixed-media artist, and film producer Valerie Fanarjian. In passing, the profile mentioned her latest venture, describing it as “not just another Hasidic zombie movie.”
The premise: On the first night of Passover, poison matzo transforms a Catskills colony of Hasidic Jews into flesh-hungry, blood-thirsty killers. The only way to stop them: striking them with non-kosher food.
Since the Times article, 10 hours of footage have been edited down to a 17-minute short, and the film’s been slated to have its world premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival this Friday night. A rather impressive two-minute trailer—complete with gory slapstick, gratuitous nudity, catchy music, and an ominous narrator promising “the most violent and sexually explicit experience since your bris”—has been viewed more than 11,000 times on YouTube and has generated enthusiasm among horror bloggers. Johnny Butane of Dread Central gushed, “Sometimes when doing this job something comes to my attention that makes me remember why I love this genre. It’s just so fucking out there.” The film also caught the attention of Heeb editor Joshua Neuman, who signed the magazine on as producers in June; in the latest issue, they name Noble one of their Heeb 100. “They really captured the look of a 70s horror film,” says Neuman, a self-professed horror fan. The level of anticipation may be low by Hollywood standards, but it’s pretty remarkable for a short film, let alone one by a 20-year-old director no one’s ever heard of.
“My kind of motto as a filmmaker is, I want to make movies that don’t make a difference,” says Noble, a short, thin young man with a gentle demeanor. He originally had the idea for Night of the Living Jews two years ago, on a cross-country road trip along old Route 66, while assisting one of his mentors, photographer Roy Gumpel. “You’re stuck in a car for hours and hours and hours, and you just come up with crazy ideas.” Noble met Gumpel through his son, a former classmate at Mount Laurel in New Paltz, the progressive “hippie-dippie type private school” he attended until eighth grade. The next fall, he transferred to public high school in Accord, the small Hudson Valley town where he still lives with his parents. After a year, he decided to drop out and pursue filmmaking. His parents were understandably nervous at first, despite their own unorthodox career paths: Noble’s father dropped out of Yale and now owns an organic beef farm; his mother taught at Mount Laurel for 10 years and currently works as a real estate agent. But they quickly came around as Noble made began finding work as an assistant on photo shoots and film sets. (A surprising number of film professionals, including Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, and Robert DeNiro, either live or spend their weekends in Hudson Valley.)
Noble says he got interested in film around age five or six, just before his family moved from New Jersey to Accord, but his parents then allowed him to see only one movie a month. Later they relaxed the limit, but still forbade R-rated films, so, Noble says, “I’d pretend to be sick, and then I’d ride my bike all the way down to the video store, which was like 4 miles off, get all the movies I wasn’t supposed to see like There’s Something About Mary, and Pulp Fiction, ride back, watch them all, then ride back the four miles to the video store before my parents got home.”
Not that Noble necessarily needed inspiration. By third grade, he’d started making movies with a school friend, Sam Falconi. Their first, shot using a friend’s father’s VHS camera, was about a king pursued by a sword-wielding assassin; since then they’ve made eight films together, including What Goes Around, about the karmic downfall of a “would-be hotshot” who moves to New York, which was featured in the 2006 Hamptons International Film Festival. That same year the two began work on Night of the Living Jews, their most ambitious project to date. In some ways, their basic sensibility hasn’t changed much since their first film. “Everyone gets killed, that how most of our movies ended for a while,” Noble said.
The two had planned to move out to Los Angeles that June, as soon as Falconi graduated high school, but on a senior trip to Disney World, Falconi says, “I had much more fun than everyone else did.” Suffice it to say, he was sent home, banned from the theme park, and forced to work until he could pay his parents back for the trip. With their L.A. plans postponed, Noble and Falconi began to brainstorm films Noble could direct and Falconi could shoot. Noble, who says he is “not an adamant fan of zombie movies, but I’ve definitely seen my fair share,” suggested Night of the Living Jews, and within a few weeks had written a draft of the script.
They kept the budget to $3,000 by using an abandoned mink coop on the Noble family’s property for the main set, buying costumes from secondhand stores in Monsey, and enlisting local film producers including Fanarjian, Gumpel, and Sam’s uncle Enrico Falconi. As zombies, they cast friends, family, and other locals, including Larry Fessenden, the indie horror director behind Wendigo, and Melissa Leo, an actress best known for her role in 21 Grams. Laurent Rejto, head of the Hudson Valley Film Commision and a cofounder of the Woodstock Film Festival, plays the zombie rabbi. “He controls the kind of group soul,” Noble explains. Annie Nocenti of the Woodstock Times visited the set on the night of Rejto’s big scene, when the rabbi (outfitted with antlers and twirling payes) gets shot with a crossbow, loaded with a bacon cheeseburger.
But most of the cast and crew members Nocenti spoke with seemed to have few reservations about dressing up as Hasidic Jews, let alone Hasidic zombies. As Charles Noble, Oliver’s father, told Nocenti, “We’re making a funny movie with no deep meaning, and we hope it’s funny enough that it isn’t hijacked by someone looking to find something offensive in it. The thought crossed my mind that this is potentially incendiary, but as long as it’s funny, it’ll be fine.”
The “potentially incendiary” nature of the concept has led some viewers of the trailer to wonder about Noble’s roots (“Man, I hope the creators of this are Jewish,” writes one blogger) and whether he has a right, of sorts, to play with Jewish stereotypes. Noble is indeed Jewish, if not religious. His familiarity with Hasidic Jews stems in part from a high school friend who used to be Hasidic, but more from a general awareness of the Hasidic communities in and around Accord, as well as nearby summer colonies.
It’s no surprise then the trouble in the film begins at a Borscht Belt bungalow colony called Moisheville, “A Kosher Community.” On the first night of Passover, a group of Hasidic Jews are “turned into flesh-eating zombies by matzo with a dark history,” then descend on “an unsuspecting gentile family,” the trailer’s deep-voiced narrator explains. The only one who can stop them is a half-Jewish, tractor-riding hero named John Leibowitz, whose own family was transformed into zombies years ago by a similar batch of evil matzo. He finds time along the way to steal the heart of the besieged family’s daughter.
The parody is gleefully over-the-top (“There are Jews on the lawn,” the father says breathlessly, “zombie Jews.”), but what’s most impressive are the production values. The movie was filmed in black and white on MiniDV, and looks remarkably professional, even if you don’t consider the age of the director. That’s judging by the trailer: Noble only finished mixing and editing the film late last week. (One catch in getting professionals to work for free is waiting for them to make time in their schedule.)
It’s the film’s provocative concept, daring and silly to some, offensive to others, that best accounts for the attention it has gotten so far and seems destined to get in the future. The film’s mix of ethnic, sexual, and physical humor echoes Roman Polanski’s hilarious 1967 occult comedy Fearless Vampire Killers. A more direct inspiration, Noble says, was William Crain’s Blacula (1972), now a camp classic, about a cursed 18th century African prince reawakened in 1970s Los Angeles. Oddly enough, Noble’s never actually seen the film. “Just seeing the trailer was enough for me,” says Noble. He has, however, partaken of countless viewings of Vampire in Brooklyn, Wes Craven’s 1995 remake, with Eddie Murphy as the undead prince.
This is not, of course, the first time that a blaxploitation film has inspired Jewish filmmakers—that would have to be The Hebrew Hammer (2003), Jonathan Kesselman’s overhyped but often clever take on Shaft, starring Adam Goldberg (a sequel is in the works). That film’s jokes are generally benign: overbearing mothers, references to the “Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy” and a preemptive knock at the Anti-Defamation League. Night of the Living Jews riffs on a far older, far more inflammatory, and far more persistent allegation—that Jews used the blood of Christian infants to make matzo.
The first allegation of ritual murder—known as blood libel—is generally traced to Passover, 1144, when a 12-year-old boy was found dead in Norwich, England. Since then, similar accusations have followed—in Hungary, Damascus, Kiev, and so on—resulting in pogroms, forced confessions, and executions. In 2003 Hezbollah’s satellite network Al-Manar aired a Syrian-produced series, “Al Shahat” (The Diaspora), depicting rabbis kidnapping and killing Muslim children. And early this year Ariel Toaff, a professor at Bar Ilan University, published Pasque di Sangue (Bloody Passovers) in Italy, suggesting in the book that a ritual murder alleged to have taken place in Trent in 1475 may have a historical basis; critics countered that his “proof” was based on confessions made under torture, and while Toaff initially swore to stand by his work “even if crucified,” he soon halted publication.
Noble knows some viewers will make that leap to the blood libel from the trailer, but the film itself is careful to dodge the issue. The matzo in the movie, Noble says, is created by a Nazi scientist, not baked with baby’s blood. Still, that might not satisfy viewers anxious—or eager—to find fault. Last March, someone posted the trailer on HudsonValleyParents.com, a local discussion forum, and an offended viewer forwarded it to the Jewish Federation of Duchess County. The executive director wrote back, “Although I have no doubt [this] was created in jest (probably by some very silly Jews and others) and not meant to be anti-Semitic, it is certainly in very bad taste. What its creators…are probably not aware of or thinking of, is that it comes sickeningly close to real debasement of Jews and accusations of ‘Blood Libel’.” After that message was posted on the forum, further debate ensued, with one parent writing, “Thanks for posting this…. I know it took a lot of guts to do so.” Another responded, “As a zombie, I find this trailer deeply offensive. Please remove it or I will eat your brain. Mmmm…brains.”
MyFoxNY.com, the website of a local Fox affiliate, asked a rabbi to weigh in, from a conservative synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey. “It’s disturbing and highly offensive… Some of the most virulent anti-Semites are sometimes Jewish. It’s a self-hating phenomenon.”
Noble seems concerned about the negative responses, but he knows they are far from universal. (A rabbi from Texas has already written him, hoping to set up a screening for his synagogue.) “Does anyone seriously think that someone’s going to NOT be an anti-Semite, watch this, and then be like, ‘Oh my God, the Jews!’?” Noble asks. He’s hesitant to say the movie has any specific message, but he hopes people will be savvy enough to see the short for what it is, more a parody of anti-Semitism than a perpetuation. “If anything this is going to make people see how silly it is.”
After the premiere this Friday, Noble plans to shop the film around to other festivals. He’s also planning, once again, to drive out to Los Angeles with Falconi. Finding work shouldn’t be a problem at first—Heeb has already commissioned Noble to make three short films for their website—but Noble doesn’t intend to make Jewish-themed comedies forever. He is already at work on the script for a feature-length spoof of competition films like Bring It On, and has completed a plot outline for a horror film, though he’s hesitant to reveal too many details. Whether Night of the Living Jews becomes the calling card he hopes for is yet to be seen, but it’s worth remembering that other directors have had similarly unlikely starts. After all, who would have ever guessed in 1971 that the 24-year-old director of Duel, a made-for-TV movie about a California commuter chased by an 18-wheeler, would go on to create Schindler’s List?