The Call of Coffin Joe
|Brazilian film auteur Jose Mojica Marins created the character Ze do
Caixao in the 1964 cult classic At Midnight I’ll Take Your
Soul. The evil undertaker became a cultural icon in Brazil,
spawning a series of films throughout the 60s and 70s. But Mojica
did not catch on with U.S. audiences until the 1990s, when Something
Weird released his Ze do Caixao films on video. With
Mojica’s approval, the company anglicized the character’s
name to “Coffin Joe.” Subsequent DVD releases ensured
the cult of Coffin Joe would continue to grow worldwide.
My first exposure to Coffin Joe came via Fantoma’s coffin-shaped boxed DVD set of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and Awakening of the Beast. Mojica’s gothic, brooding, phantasmagorical masterpieces captured my imagination. Where had these movies been all my life?
I also noticed that Coffin Joe bore more than a passing resemblance to me!
When I love something, I need to tell the world about it. In October 2004, I enlisted the help of my friend Max Cheney to shoot photos of me dressed as Ze do Caixao. I used the photos to create a fan page:
By linking it to my two other Web sites, The Gallery of Monster Toys and State of Horror, I hoped it would entice more people to sample the Coffin Joe films. I also hoped that Mojica would see it someday and know that his influence reached far beyond Brazil, even to the suburbs of Missouri. It was like a message in a bottle, tossed upon the sea.
The message was returned in April 2006, when I received an e-mail from someone named Dennison Ramalho who claimed he was working on Mojica’s new movie. Ramalho said Mojica saw my Web site and loved it. Mojica said the photos looked like pictures of him, taken in some forgotten past.
I looked up Ramalho online and discovered he was an up-and-coming Brazilian filmmaker who was indeed attached to Mojica’s new project. The e-mail seemed to be legit. I was extremely flattered and honored, of course, but I did not want to come off like a slobbering fanboy. I responded with a short, polite e-mail expressing my gratitude and warm regards.
That little e-mail from Dennison justified all the work and expense that went into creating the costume, taking the photos and building the Web site. I was extremely happy and thankful that Mojica gave my efforts a “thumbs up.” I assumed that would be the end of it. I never expected to hear from Mojica’s camp again.
During the summer of 2006, I followed entertainment press reports about Mojica’s new film. After a 40-year hiatus, he was finally completing the Coffin Joe trilogy that began with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and continued in 1967 with This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse.
The new film, Encarnacao do Demonio, was scheduled to shoot November and December 2006 in Sao Paulo. It would be a full-tilt, 35mm theatrical feature film. The budget would be, by far, the biggest of Mojica’s career.
Mojica would again play Coffin Joe/Ze do Caixao. A flashback scene would reveal how Ze survived the climax of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, in which he appeared to drown in a swamp. (Subsequent Coffin Joe films were set in an alternate universe continuity, detached from the original two installments.)
But at age 70, Marins no longer looked like he did in 1967. He could not play Ze in the flashback scene. So who would play the young Ze do Caixao?
The answer came in early October 2006, when Dennison sent me a second e-mail. I should have had a nurse standing by, because I needed resuscitation after reading it.
Mojica wanted ME to play Ze do Caixao in the flashback scene!
Was this a hoax? Were my friends playing a trick on me? I remember the dizzy feeling of numbness that enveloped me the first few days after I accepted Mojica’s invitation. It was a mixture of angst and euphoria, one canceling out the other. I still had doubts about the e-mail’s authenticity until Dennison sent me the script, then followed up with a phone conversation. Finally, Mojica himself sent me a video of him acting out the scene to help me practice my Portuguese dialogue. There was no longer any doubt. This was for real.
I booked a round-trip flight to Sao Paulo that departed Thanksgiving weekend and returned the following Sunday. While I waited for the Brazilian consulate to process my visa, I spent the next several weeks using Pimsleur language CDs to study Portuguese. I knew I could not learn a new language in one month, but I thought it would at least help me pronounce my lines naturally. I practiced my lines nonstop, all day, every moment I had the chance.
I am one of the moderators of the Universal Monster Army (UMA), an online club for classic horror fans. With more than 1,100 members, I thought some of them might be interested in hearing the details of my trip. A few of them encouraged me to keep a diary. I had never kept one before, but this seemed like a perfect time to start.
After visiting four stores and poring over shelves of notebooks and portfolios, I finally found just the right vessel for my thoughts – a black, fabric-bound journal that looked like something Ze do Caixao himself would pull from his satchel.
What you are about to read was derived from the notes I scribbled in my hotel room during my week in Sao Paulo. Some may find it tedious. Others will find it a treat. Either way, thank you for taking the time to browse these pages. And thank you, Mojica, for giving me this fantastic experience.