Suyuan (to June Woo): You have a style no one else can teach…I see you. – The Joy Luck Club
Its 21 years later and I still haven’t forgiven Jeff Stryker. Just to be clear, he didn’t break my heart or leave me hanging with the check after a 5-Star dinner. He didn’t take photos and expose my toothpaste scarred, stubble strewn bathroom sink to a mixed bag of friends and family. But as a lifelong horror fan, what he did may have even been worse. He never let me know that in 1989, under his birth name of Chuck Peyton, he starred in Zombie 4: After Death, a Euro terror epic directed by none other than Troll 2‘s insanely energetic Claudio Fragasso.
But, perhaps, all should finally be washed under that wispy bridge of time and firmly forgotten. He did give me my The Joy Luck Club moment, after all.
To backtrack, in the spring of 2001 some mutual acquaintances contacted me about helping him place his play Jeff Stryker Does Hard Time in Chicago. After some minor false starts, a venue was secured, and I was hired to production manage-direct the project. It seemed like kismet. What could be cooler for an exploitation flick junkie than doing a male version of a Women in Prison flick featuring the very person whose picture will be placed next to the sticky pronouncement of Gay Porn God once the sands of oblivion have finally blown their last streak against the fading skies?!? Granted, there were some missteps along the way. Attuned to simpler camera techniques, he vetoed 90% of the blocking I came up with — and when he left the final dress rehearsal, mid-run, to attend to some minor business, I saw my 10 hard won years of theatrical career climbing blown to smithereens, and I had a loudly frantic meltdown in front of him and the entire cast and crew. (My own apology is firmly placed here, fellas. Read it and please don’t weep!)
But, overall, it was a fun adventure and, as most creative projects, seemingly over and done within the blink of an eye. Still reeling a bit from my miserably unreturned crush on the cute, wavy-haired actor who played the production’s bad boy protagonist, I met up with Stryker a few days after we struck set to say our goodbyes. There, next to the dryer in the laundry room area of the B and B that he was staying in, he turned to me, mid-conversation, looked me straight in the eyes and earnestly proclaimed, “You are just so sweet!” After taking a step back, I casually thanked him. Or, at least, I hoped that was how I appeared. For beneath that calm response, lurked a valley of stunned surprise. For just like that mother and daughter scene in the above-mentioned chick flick, I had always longed for someone to see me for who I really was – to recognize the lovely soul that beat beneath all the swirling insecurity and falsely projected bravado that propelled me, haphazardly yet hopefully, through my days. And here, mystically rising from the sheets of budget fabric softener, it was. This man who starred, with torso thrusting glory, in projects such as Powertool, Strykin’ It Deep and Bigger Than Life actually got me. He saw that beneath the yearning struggle and the occasional flare-ups of spite and frustration, lurked a good soul. He somehow saw what made me special…and while, decades later, I still haven’t quite distilled just what that might be, I know it is there thanks to him.
So, maybe I can actually let go of the disappointment of not having had a conversation about his undead adventures filming with a gonzo Italian maverick in the steamy Philippines. After all, the gift he gave me was actually so much greater.
Note: Severin Films has released a deluxe version of Zombie 4 with a CD soundtrack and fun interview with Jeff.
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!