BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE! Director Tom DeSimone on the Trials and Tribulations of Making the Cult-Classic Disasterpiece ‘Terror in the Jungle’!

Photo © Tom DeSimone.

Terror in the Jungle (1968) was a Crown International Pictures release that promised adventure and thrills, but it’s not so much an action film as a confusing hodgepodge of jumbled scenes with amateur actors. Tom DeSimone was hired as a first-time director to bring Terror in the Jungle to the big screen, but a series of questionable decisions by the producer led to his leaving the production long before it wrapped. Years after it had been forgotten by theater-goers, Mill Creek Entertainment released the film on DVD in 2010 as part of its Pure Terror 50 pack of movies, helping to ensure its status as a bona fide cult classic. In May 2022, Mr. DeSimone recounted his memories of making Terror in the Jungle with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: Please tell us some details of your early life. Where were you born?

Tom DeSimone: I was born in MA to Italian-American parents and lived in Newton, a suburb of Boston. My father was a chef who owned two restaurants, and my mom was a beautician who eventually owned and operated two salons. I had a younger brother, Bob, and an older sister, Carlene. I attended parochial school, and eventually we moved from Newton when my parents decided to move us out into the country where we built our own home in Weston, MA.

BH: Could you tell us about your childhood? What were your hobbies?

TS: Growing up, I was a quiet and somewhat shy boy who mostly spent time dabbling in art projects. I enjoyed painting, charcoals, pastels, and water-coloring. As I got slightly older, I began to become interested in photography. This eventually led me to movies.

When I was 10, I came down with rheumatic fever and had to be bed-ridden for a couple of months. I was heartsick that I would not be able to attend the local movie house where I spent all my Saturdays and Sundays watching films. My dad felt sorry for me and bought me an 8mm film projector and screen and a whole box of 8mm films and cartoons and set it up next to my bed so that I could run films all day — this was way before television — whenever I wanted.

BH: How did you become interested in filmmaking?

TS: This fascination with movies convinced me that, when I grew up, I wanted to be involved in the making of films. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was I wanted to do, but I knew I had to somehow be involved.

As my fascination grew, my parents encouraged me by giving me other film accessories on birthdays and Christmas as gifts. Lenses, title-making kits, a darkroom enlarger, film splicers, and rewinds [the handles that one turns to unspool rolls of film from left to right as it feeds through a viewer], etc. As a teenager, I began making my own home movies using my brother and other friends as actors.

I always thought I would want to be a camera operator, but eventually my interest was directing when I realized the director called the shots. My education after high school was at Emerson College where I studied directing, writing, acting, and other theater arts, and earned my BA. I then moved to California and attended UCLA Film School where I did my graduate work in film.

BH: I understand that your short films won awards at film festivals. Could you tell us about these short films?

TS: While at UCLA, I did three short films — The Sketch, Wooden Lullaby, and The Game. Wooden Lullaby won a special director’s award at the Cine Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and The Game earned me a student scholarship in my final year.

First one [short film] was in what was called the Saturday Workshop. We went out with a camera and 400 feet of film and shot something and then cut it together. Second film was in my junior year where we shot a film on the soundstage with a crew and sound. That was my film, Wooden Lullaby, which won the award. Last film was one that was awarded to the top student, and that person, me, got to make a fully-scripted screenplay, utilizing an entire crew and sound recording, etc. That film was screened for the public in a special student film program.

BH: How did you get involved with Terror in the Jungle (1968)?

TS: After graduation, I managed to get a job as an assistant editor on a small independent film. I don’t recall the name, but I got the job through UCLA’s placement center for graduated students. My work mostly consisted of cataloguing film cuts and keeping notes for the editor. I never really got to actually make any cuts.

The film was being produced by a man named Ricky Torres. He would come around the cutting room daily, hang around, make comments on the cutting, and mostly annoyed the editor with his lame suggestions and lack of general knowledge about filmmaking. There was always friction between them, but I managed to keep my distance and just do my work.

Ricky was always talking about a new film he was planning on making after this one was finished. I began to work on suggesting to him that I would be very interested in directing his next project. I made sure I kept friendly with him and showed keen interest in his upcoming project. I showed him my short film, and he felt that I could possibly do his next film.

Eventually, when his film was ready to start production, we made a deal for me to direct. It was a lousy deal, with a particularly small salary, but I was more interested in making the film than making much money at that point. I think he offered me $2,000 dollars, if my memory is correct. But it also was to include location shooting in Peru, and that interested me, as well.

BH: When you were hired, what were your initial thoughts of the project?

TS: I knew the script was somewhat low-budget and not very original or well written, but I was anxious to get the job and get my first legit film under my belt. Besides, from what I saw on the pages, I knew I could pull it off. What I didn’t know at the time was that the production would be so cheap and with no real actors or professional film crew.

BH: Did you make any contributions to the script?

TS: Ricky was someone who lived in the fantasy that he was a film genius and knew everything about making movies. I knew this from the weeks of torture he was putting the film editor through during the weeks on completing the film we were wrapping up. No suggestions on script or location or anything else were to his liking. The script was his idea and his pet project and my job was simply to get it all on film.

Ricky had also made some deal with two special effects guys who claimed to have developed this new technique which would allow us to film horrific bloody effects during the plane crash. I don’t recall what it was called, but I believe there’s some reference to it in the main titles. I mostly recall that on the days we were getting that stuff it was slow, time-consuming, and laborious. I can’t recall ever seeing this “special effect” ever again in any other film.

BH: Where were the airplane scenes shot?

TS: We shot all the plane interiors at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. At the time, it was the only film lot where non-union films could shoot. The stages were old, not very sound-proofed, and leaked both light and rain if that happened.

I think we spent one week in the plane mock-up. We did one day shooting the airport exteriors at Burbank Airport, which at the time was a small airport far from LAX, and we were given an area away from all the activity where we could grab shots going to the plane and boarding. That was all done in one morning, as I recall.

BH: What are some of your memories of shooting inside the plane set?

TS: The worst part of it all was the fact that there were no real professional actors hired. Many of them had only worked as extras on other films. Some had never done any acting at all or very little. One woman, Dawn Adams, I think her name was, was the wife of one of the financial bakers, and the deal was he would put money into the project if she was given a classy role. She played the rich women and actually used her own clothing, including the mink coat she dragged around with her all day. Because of the basic lack of talent, the days were long and difficult getting decent performances, if at all possible.

The woman playing the stewardess was a friend of mine and the only one with any real credits or experience. I recall, when we shot the crash scene, and she was at the plane door screaming and trying to get the wounded passengers to jump out of the smoking wreck, Ricky was standing behind me. As she was finishing up the take, screaming and emoting like hell, he whispered to me that he was certain that she would get an Academy Award for her performance.

The plane mock-up interior was cramped and difficult to light. Plus, there were many actors and many scenes that had to be covered. Moving around inside with all the lighting and camera/sound equipment was a challenge, but they were all troupers and willing to put up with the inconveniences.

BH: Would you happen to remember which actors paid to be in the movie?

TS: Most all the rest of them were desperate actor wannabe players. So desperate for work they all agreed to work for $25 a day. It was later revealed that, when Ricky paid them their check each week, they endorsed it back to him, and he pocketed the money for himself, unknown to the financial backers.

Photo courtesy of Tom DeSimone. Terror in the Jungle © 1968, Crown International Pictures.

BH: Do you have any idea why the Beatles-style band and their song “Soft Lips” were included in the film?

TS: Again, this was all Ricky’s idea. I guess he had seen one too many airplane movies and decided this could somehow become a hit song. The actors in those awful bad wigs and the awful song — what can I tell you. He was the producer, and he called all the shots when it came to script and talent hired for the jobs. I barely slept at night knowing what we were getting on film. My only hope was that it would all come together in the editing, which I was well experienced at.

BH: Do you remember any details about the argument you had with the producer that caused you to quit?

TS: There wasn’t one particular argument but more like constant disagreements day after day. The editor and I would work on the film — cutting scenes to make them work, laying in cuts, FX, and other cues — and then Ricky would come in and start demanding all sorts of changes. He would insist we put back stuff we edited out — stuff we left out to make a scene play better or move the film along, but he had no concept of what we were doing and would insist that we put it all in, everything we shot — regardless if it worked or not. He was relentless in insisting that everything be saved.

We kept trying to convince him that some of the stuff was better off [left] out or [trimmed] shorter, but he was in love with every frame and wanted everything included. The sure sign of an amateur. This continued on week after week, and eventually, when we finally had a first cut that he was happy with, the piece ran about 88 minutes, as I seem to recall. Eighty-eight minutes of just the plane sequence. We hadn’t even gotten to the jungle stuff, which was supposed to be the major part of the film. We kept trying to tell him that, if we didn’t trim now, the film would run for three hours if we shot everything that was scripted in the jungle sequences. Plus, the 88 minutes were really slow, amateurish, and just plain bad.

Eventually, he and I had it out. When I began insisting, as the director, that [a] certain scene simply had to be cut, he used the old, “I’m the producer, and what I say goes” routine. By then, I had had it. I told him that either we reach some compromise, or I was off the film. He wouldn’t budge and thought he could call my bluff. But I wasn’t bluffing, either.

I could see that the film was going to be a real turkey and decided it wasn’t worth it. It wouldn’t have been a film I would want to show anyone, anyway, so what was the use in trying to stay onboard. So I quit, never thinking he would keep my name on the project. Little did I know, unfortunately.

BH: Overall, how long did you work on the film?

TS: I really can’t say for sure. I think we spent about three weeks in the plane plus airport scenes and also went to a pier somewhere near a marina to shot the actors hitting the water and splashing around with fake crocodiles.

BH: There were some interesting characters in the airplane sequence, and I read one review that compared them to something out of a John Waters movie. Do you think the film could have had potential with a different producer?

TS: It might have worked with a real producer who understood drama, pacing, cuts, and all the rest. But he was a rank amateur who knew nothing at all about making films. He wrote this thing, and because of that he was in love with every line of dialogue, every character bit, and every scene. It didn’t matter to him that he was killing his own investment by being so narrow-minded about it all. It was his ego that got in the way.

BH: After you left the project, how did the production proceed without you?

TS: Ricky went down to South America and convinced the cinematographer that he and Ricky together could shoot the rest of the stuff. Neither one of them had ever directed or worked with actors or edited a film, but they went, anyway, and shot the rest of the pages down there.

When they returned to the States and started putting it all together, the same thing happened with that second director. Arguments over shots, cuts, scenes, etc., and after several weeks of that the director quit, also.

Now there were two ex-directors. Ricky then hired some other guy, and together they put the thing together, bought some cheap, totally inappropriate stock footage of a temple dance, and stuck that in, as well, and the whole mess was released as a total disaster. I wasn’t aware that he would leave my name on it. But, when the film came to L.A. and showed downtown in some tawdry grindhouse for a week’s run, I went to see it and wanted to die.

BH: Since you were no longer involved, how did you find out these details?

TS: I stayed in touch with the original editor, and he filled me in from time to time as to what was happening.

BH: Could you share anything else about the film that we haven’t already covered?

TS: I think I pretty much covered everything that I can recall.

BH: When you saw the finished film, what were your thoughts?

TS: I wanted to crawl under my seat and sneak out of the theater.

BH: Around 2010, Mill Creek released Terror in the Jungle on its Pure Terror 50 pack of movies, exposing it to a brand-new audience. Are you amused by that, or do you think the movie should just be forgotten?

TS: I have no interest or any good feelings about that piece. I wish there was some way to get my name disassociated with it, but I guess it’s too late now. Luckily, I am known for many other films which are far, far better than this could ever be.

BH: Of course, you went on to enjoy a long filmmaking career with a variety of different films. Which film are you most proud of?

TS: Reform School Girls (1986) and Hell Night (1981) have both become very popular cult films, and I have many fans associated with both films. Among the many films and TV series I have directed, those two stand out as my favorites.

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