I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED (1998) – Directed by Aris Iliopulos, this is the film that was made based on that notorious unproduced script written by THE Ed Wood, the master of badfilm behind Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 From Outer Space and more.
The identity of the screenwriter is the main draw for this cultiest of cult movies. A secondary draw is the way even the smallest roles are performed by famous, infamous or fashionably esoteric figures. Think of I Woke Up Early The Day I Died as an arthouse companion to 1994’s Ed Wood from Tim Burton.
There’s no dialogue, Easter Eggs regarding Wood’s various Golden Turkeys abound and excerpts from the actual screenplay appear on screen at times in case viewers are skeptical that the weirdness they’re witnessing really was in the original script.
Billy Zane is in the lead role as a violent mental patient who overpowers his nurse, dresses in her uniform and escapes from confinement. He pulls off an armed robbery but has the proceeds stolen from him in turn at a bizarre funeral held by a deranged cult. Zane then commits multiple murders as he works his way through the list of people who may have the money from his heist.
Billy is very watchable but his bizarre facial expressions are distractingly similar to the ones Johnny Depp used to bring Ed Wood to life in the Tim Burton film from just a few years earlier. Even if that’s how Wood really composed his features in his everyday life it can’t help but come across as thespian thievery that close to Depp’s turn and you’d think a savvy performer like Zane would have realized that.
The original soundtrack to this movie is loaded with rare versions of some of the most out of the way songs and music pieces imaginable. To this day there are people scrambling to track down the soundtrack or, barring that, to track down recordings of their favorite pieces from throughout the film. I hate to keep reusing words like “cult” and “esoteric” but there’s really no better way to describe the bizarre hit parade from I Woke Up Early The Day I Died.
No other character is on screen long enough to really count as a co-star to Billy Zane. Instead, viewers get a long series of unlikely celebrity cameos, like this is an insane David Lynch production of such long-ago “spot the star” extravaganzas as Michael Todd’s Around The World In Eighty Days and Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
Here’s just a partial list of this movie’s fleeting moments of transcendent trivia:
*** Ed Wood’s real-life widow Kathy shows up as a woman attending a carnival
*** Maila “Vampira” Nurmi makes her final appearance on film as a very Tura Satana-ish looking Woman In Hotel Lobby
*** Carel Struycken portrays one of the undertakers
*** Tippi Hedren, long before her James Nguyen performances, plays a former starlet killed by the escaped mental patient
*** Eartha Kitt is on stage singing an original song at a suitably strange nightclub
*** John Ritter, in a bizarre nod to his late father’s cowboy star fame, portrays Robert Forrest, a cowboy performer at the aforementioned carnival
*** Karen Black drops by as a whip-wielding cross between a dominatrix and a ringmaster
I could go on and on with this parade of faces, with the likes of Ann Magnuson, Taylor Negron, Nicollette Sheridan, Max Perlich, Tara Reid, Will Patton, Christina Ricci, and that’s just scratching the surface. Hell, the cop cameos ALONE present Leif Garrett (really), Steven Weber, Andrew McCarthy and Ricky Schroder as well as THE Conrad Brooks, one of Ed Wood’s cast of regulars. Breaking the meta-meter, one of the policemen is played by Brent Hinkley, who portrayed Conrad Brooks in the 1994 movie Ed Wood.
Obviously, I Woke Up Early The Day I Died has a niche audience. Either you’re like me and you enjoy Ed Wood, bad movies and fringe film cult figures or you’re not and you don’t. If the scene with a real-life tombstone lying knocked over in a real-life cemetery doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would bring a Plan 9 smile to your face, then the odds are that this flick’s offbeat humor isn’t for you. +++
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