Twenty years ago, I made my big screen debut, starring alongside Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis.
Okay, maybe not “starring.” You can glimpse 16-year-old me, for about half-a-second, in the corner of the screen, standing amongst a dozen-plus other extras, in one scene of Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho Tep. But given that the film, which turns 20 this September, is a legitimate cult classic, I could have done worse in my short career as a teenage extra.
Cool as it was to be in the film, what was cooler was that I got to spend two days on set, watching the movie get made, and even shooting some behind-the-scenes footage on my trusty video camcorder. My dad goes back aways with Phantasm visual consultant Roberto Quezada, who invited us to visit the production on location in Downey, California.
Bubba Ho-Tep is the platonic ideal of a cult classic, a low-budget, high-concept horror-comedy anchored by Campbell, the uber-charismatic king of post-80’s B (and Z)-grade cinema and directed by Don Coscarelli, a stalwart of American independent and genre cinema, whose fan-favorite ‘70’s horror classic Phantasm and ‘80’s adventure fantasy Beastmaster both went on to spawn franchises.
In Bubba, Campbell plays none other than The King himself, Elvis Presley. This Elvis, burnt out by fame and his excessive lifestyle, swaps places with a doppelganger impersonator for what he assumes will be only a brief respite. However, after falling off stage during a small-town concert, the real Elvis slips into a years-long coma. By the time he comes out of it, the world thinks he’s dead. With no way to prove he’s the genuine article, Elvis—or Sebastian Haff, as he’s now known to the world—wastes away his days bedridden inside Shady Rest, an equally decrepit and depressed nursing home in East Texas, lamenting his lost life and family, as well as the giant boil growing on the top of his pecker.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, his fellow residents start dying off at an alarming rate under suspicious circumstances. Something sinister is clearly afoot, so Elvis teams up with fellow resident Jack, an elderly Black man who claims he’s actually the former President John F. Kennedy, his death having also been faked (when reminded by Elvis that Kennedy was a white man, he responds “They dyed me this color!”), to investigate. They quickly discover the culprit is an ancient Egyptian Mummy—”some kind of Bubba Ho-Tep”—whose corpse was stolen from a U.S. museum tour decades back and lost in a nearby river. The mummy is awake now and hungry for souls, and a nursing home turns out to be the perfect hunting ground, given how few eyebrows get raised over the death of geriatrics.
Coscarelli, working from the 1994 novella of the same name from genre icon Joe R. Landsdale, keeps his canvas small, confining the vast majority of the action to one section of his nursing home setting. But this works in the film’s favor—like the original Phantasm, this is a low-key character piece with cosmic implications. Like that earlier film, Bubba Ho-Tep often plays like a hangout film, its greatest pleasures coming during the scenes between the odd-couple duo of Campbell and Davis shooting the shit.
The unforgettable cameo of our own Zach Vasquez (circled).
Campbell, to whom Coscarelli was introduced by—who else?—Sam Raimi, is perfect as Elvis, bringing all of his swagger, bluster, and over-the-top machismo to the role. But he’s also able to locate a deep well of sadness that makes the performance more than just a simple gimmick. He’s able to really sell how exhausted he is, so that by the time he finds his inner-Ash and gets his groove(y) back, we’re totally invested in his arc.
Meanwhile, Davis—an legendary actor and director, as well as a major figure in the Civil Rights movement—serves as the film’s beating heart, his innate warmth and dignified bearing making you wonder if, like Campbell’s Elvis, his crazy claims about being Jack Kennedy might be true (Coscarelli gives one hint that they may be). Initially, Davis’s agents didn’t want him to take the role, but Coscarelli was able to get in touch with him through director Mick Garris, with whom Davis had made the ‘90s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. It’s only too bad that he passed away before he was able to see it with an audience.
Like Davis, the majority of the cast passed away in the years following its initial release. Sad as this is, it also lends the film its surprising gravitas. Outrageous—and at times lowbrow, what with its boner jokes and anal soul extractions—as Bubba is, it can be very emotionally affecting, especially in its depiction of how quick our society is to cast away the elderly. And, like the Phantasm series, its examination of loss, regret, and the ravages of time give it a real sense of melancholy that distinguishes it from forgettable genre fluff (like, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which doesn’t have a remastered collectors edition Blu-Ray or a comic book spin-off).
It’s a testament to Bubba’s legacy that twenty years after its original roadshow release—only 32 prints were initially made and distributed—its popularity has endured, to the point where it’s arguably Campbell’s most recognizable role outside of the Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies.
Unfortunately, the proposed sequel, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires, which would have seen Ron Perlman step into the Elvis role (Campbell having left over creative differences) and Paul Giamatti (who appeared in Coscarelli’s follow-up John Dies at the End) playing Colonel Tom Parker, fell apart in development. However, Coscarelli says that he’s an optimist, and holds out hope that that film could still happen. If Bubba Ho-Tep teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t keep an old king down forever.