Santa Ana's Artists Village frequently hosts gatherings of folks geared up to participate in an interactive theater experience, such as a shadowcast screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Repo! The Genetic Opera at the Frida Cinema. But the city didn't always have an artistic community to inspire creativity through immersive theatrical experiences. Terrance Zdunich recalls prostitutes walking the pregentrified area when he was a kid, while artists such as him sat in their rooms and drew pictures. The SanTana native wishes there had been places in his hometown at that time that screened film such as The Devil's Carnival series, but then, perhaps he would never have gotten around to making those films.
On Oct. 6, Zdunich sets out on a 30-stop tour to bring his latest macabre musical project, American Murder Song, to cities throughout the U.S. Artists and folks interested in a different kind of theatrical experience are already anticipating the show's arrival in their towns.
Zdunich's journey from isolated Santa Ana artist to creator of cult films and musical projects began with his attending Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. After honing his skills there, he worked on illustrations and storyboards for film. However, while working in corporate offices such as Sony's animation department—his artistry relegated to a cubicle, Post-It notes and a time clock—he became frustrated with the reality of his dream job and began developing the concept of Repo! The Genetic Opera.
Co-written by Newport Beach resident Darren Smith, this highly stylized, futuristic story features a character who repossesses donor organs. Inspired by rock operas such as The Who's Tommy, film scores and theatrical metal bands, Repo started very small. "It was just the two of us playing these weird, little, operatic, short-form stories put to music at coffee houses and such," Zdunich recalls. "[I also] created sketch books full of doodles of what this world could look like if it were to be imagined in a bigger way—what the characters would look like, the fashion, even the bizarre kind of surgical garb and instruments we were imagining."
The project bloomed into a full-length black-box theater production in LA. Darren Bousman directed the full-length Repo play as well as the subsequent short film, which caught the interest of Lionsgate Films. Bousman moved on to direct several films in the Saw franchise before reteaming with Zdunich and Smith for the full-length, multimillion-dollar Repo film, which was released in 2008 and stars Paul Sorvino, Sarah Brightman, Alexa PenaVega, Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley and Kevin "ohGr" Ogilvie.
Pianist/vocalist Saar Hendelman performed on many of Repo's tracks, and when Zdunich and Bousman came together for two independently produced Devil's Carnival films, Hendelman became Zdunich's music writing partner. The two musicians are currently working together for American Murder Song, through which—in addition to their upcoming tour—they have recently released a third EP of murder ballads.
Originating in Europe, these narrative songs relate historical and legendary tales of carnage. Zdunich's research revealed such a vast wealth of material and inspiration that he and Hendelman limited their murder ballads to 1816 America. "[We wanted to] mine the lurid and hopefully poetic subject matter of murder and also make it kind of a metaphor for the birth of our country," Zdunich says. Among the songs on the album are "Edward," inpired by a Cain and Abel type story, and one that tells of Lavinia Fisher, America's first serial killer.
Through the upcoming American Murder Song tour, Zdunich hopes his immersive theater/film/rock band hybrid will inspire folks to either experience something new or put on their best 1816 attire and join the "wake."
For information on the American Murder Song project and touring schedule, visit Americanmurdersong.com.