How ‘From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’ Went From ‘Unsellable’ to Cult Classic
Two burgeoning filmmakers, a rising star and vampires converged in From Dusk Till Dawn, which hit theaters on Jan. 17, 1996.
The original idea for the movie came from Robert Kurtzman, cofounder of the famous Hollywood makeup and special-effects company KNB EFX, who was trying to create a vehicle to showcase his company’s skills. After writing an outline of the general story, Kurtzman searched for a screenwriter to fully develop the concept.
“Longtime friend and producer David Goodman had told me about a young writer who he thought would be perfect to write Dusk,” Kurtzman later recalled in an interview with Backwoods Horror. “He hooked us up, and Quentin Tarantino and I soon got together to discuss collaborating.”
At this point, Tarantino was just a video-store clerk dreaming of Hollywood stardom. Still, the aspiring auteur had a couple of writing samples, including early drafts of the films Natural Born Killers and True Romance. Kurtzman was impressed and hired him for the job, paying Tarantino $1,500. It marked the first paid screenwriting gig of the filmmaker’s career.
Watch the Trailer for 'Form Dusk Till Dawn'
“We didn’t have much money to pay him, but it was enough for Quentin to leave his job as a video clerk to write our project,” Kurtzman noted, adding one other important fact. “We made a deal. QT would write our script and I would do the FX for Reservoir Dogs.”
Soon, Tarantino was a rising star, as Reservoir Dogs became a hugely successful independent film. Even as the filmmaker sold his scripts to True Romance and Natural Born Killers - and further broke into the mainstream with his groundbreaking Pulp Fiction - From Dusk Till Dawn remained on the back burner.
“It was initially rejected everywhere,” Kurtzman explained. “No one wanted to do it. They thought it was too vulgar and violent.”
From Dusk Till Dawn’s story followed a pair of criminal brothers as they take a family hostage and flee to Mexico. Once across the border, the group finds itself stranded at a seedy strip club, whose inhabitants turn out to be vampires.
Watch George Clooney Battle Vampire Salma Hayek in 'From Dusk Till Dawn'
Though Tarantino’s fingerprints were all over the project, he wanted to focus on acting in the movie rather than directing it. Enter Robert Rodriguez, a close friend of Tarantino’s, who had also found recent success thanks to the films El Mariachi and Desperado.
“It was unsellable,” Rodriguez recalled of From Dusk Till Dawn during a interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Nobody could understand it. Nobody wanted it. Then Pulp Fiction hit and everybody wanted to make Quentin’s script, it didn’t matter. Originally they thought it was weird, you turn the page and there’s vampires! It makes no sense. Suddenly it became avant-garde, it’s two movies in one! We said, ‘Let’s go make it now while things are hot because they’ll never let us do it again.’"
Rodriguez was excited to meld his vision alongside Tarantino’s, while also delving into the horror genre.
“Horror wasn’t so big at that time,” Rodriguez admitted to Yahoo! “The studio didn’t even want to call it a horror film. Today, you make a horror film, and they go, ‘It’s a horror film!’ and they underline it. Back then, they were like, ‘Eh, we’re trying to bring in more audience. You’ll already get the horror base, so don’t call it a horror movie.’” The star power of both filmmakers on the same project finally pushed things into motion. George Clooney, then a TV star thanks to ER, would take the role of Seth Gecko while Tarantino played his younger brother, Richie.
Watch George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in 'From Dusk Till Dawn'
“I had just started watching George on ER and really liked him. I thought he was like this kind of cool Robert Mitchum character on ER. I thought he was really neat,” Tarantino noted in the making of From Dusk Till Dawn short. “Since he plays an ER doctor on television,” added Rodriguez, “I wanted him to come and portray someone who sends people to the ER.”
Much of the cast would be made up of familiar faces from the filmmakers' previous projects, including Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs), Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers), Salma Hayek (Desperado), Cheech Marin (Desperado) and Danny Trejo (Desperado). Tom Savini and Fred Williamson, known for their appearances in classic horror and blaxploitation films, respectively, rounded out the ensemble cast.
One of the polarizing aspects of From Dusk Till Dawn was its structure. The first half of the film was more of a crime thriller, reflecting Tarantino’s distinctive filmmaking style with acerbic dialogue, character monologues and sudden violence.
However, once the characters arrived in Mexico, it turned into a bloody horror flick, with the grindhouse gore and specialized weaponry seen in Rodriguez’s work. “It was like two movies in one. You didn’t mention vampires the whole first half of the movie, and then it switches,” Rodriguez explained. “It was our early attempt at doing a double feature within the same feature — two genres for the price of one. It was just a very cool, bold time, when everybody was just trying different things.”
Watch a Bloody Battle Scene from 'From Dusk Till Dawn'
Some of the movie’s most memorable moments came from inside the Mexican strip club, the Titty Twister. It’s there Clooney battles a giant rat, Lewis fires a pump-action crossbow and Hayek’s character, Santanico Pandemonium, delivers her sensuous dance with a python.
Though it was met with mixed reviews, From Dusk Till Dawn won its opening weekend, hauling in more than $10 million at the box office. It would go on to make more than $60 million in total, far exceeding its production budget.
Still, the film was not without controversy. Its scenes of excessive violence, blood and carnage didn't sit well with conservative viewers. Ireland banned From Dusk Till Dawn for being "irresponsible and totally gratuitous," an embargo that would not be lifted until 2004.
Since its release, the film has enjoyed its status as a cult classic among horror fans, spawning two sequels, a video game and television series. Decades later, the gory, hyperactive vampire flick still holds a special place with Rodriguez. “We’ve always loved this movie,” the director admitted. “We loved making it, and we loved the fan base it had.”