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'Let's Remake 'Raiders'': Cult Film Coming To Pensacon

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A group of school kids in Mississippi fell in love with a new movie and decided they were going to make their own version. That was 38 years ago, and their summer project has become a cult classic, and it’s coming to Pensacola this weekend.

That movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it was released in the spring of 1981 and for 11-year-old Eric Zala it was love at first sight. Then, he met another fan while riding the bus to school. "That kid was Chris Strompolos who had this wacky idea that he wanted to be Indiana Jones and wanted to reshoot Raiders (of the Lost Ark.) (He) called me up the following summer and said 'Hey, I'm remaking Raiders, do you want to help?' And I thought for all of five seconds. I imagined all the sets were built, I'd just kind of stroll on and help. Nope! Nothing had been done, but I found myself just getting wrapped up into it and we said 'Ok, let's do it. Let's remake Raiders.' And we had no idea how we were going to pull this off. And that's a good thing because kids don't know what kids can't do."

What are The Raiders Guys doing now?

So they got themselves a Betamax camcorder and set out to be as Spielberg-esque as possible. That first summer, they found out that’s not as easy as they thought. "We didn't shoot a darn thing (that first summer). Turns out it's kind of involved to remake a $22 million Hollywood blockbuster on your allowance. We kind of fumbled around in the dark at first. Sketched out (scenes), found locations, props, costumes. Tried to recruit neighborhood kids. But yeah, there was just too much to do. So we said 'well alright, well we'll finish next summer.'"

Spoiler alert: they didn’t. In fact, they worked on the project every summer all the way through high school. And since the movie was shot out of sequence, you never know what age the actors will be from scene to scene. Zala says a lot of the early footage never made it to the final product. "We started shooting that second summer but we weren't very good. There was only one shot that we kept from (that second summer) that we didn't want to reshoot. In that shot, I'm 12 (years old). It's the one where we set my back on fire."

That’s right, they set his back on fire. In fact, as they shot the film they came pretty close to burning down the house. "As it turns out, our parents didn't know Raiders very well because when I said "Mom, alright we're going to go downstairs and shoot the bar scene' (she said) 'Ok dear, go have fun.' And there was one shot where we used 36 bottles of isopropyl alcohol to douse the entire basement room, which doubles for a Nepalese saloon in this raging inferno. I look at the outtakes now and think 'oh my God we were so lucky.'"

They finally shot their last scene in 1988 and began the process of editing the final product together. About a year later, they were ready to show the world what they had. "We had a hometown premiere of about 200 friends and family to screen what we believed to be first and perhaps only public screening of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark - The Adaptation' back in August 1989."

And that should have been the end of it. It wasn’t. After high school, Zala graduated from NYU Film School and moved to Los Angeles. His roommate at the time, who he knew from NYU heard about the Raiders film and wanted to have a look. "So I pulled it out and dusted it off we watched it and he said 'Oh, that was great! Can I make a copy?' and I said 'sure'. He passed the tape around to his friends who loved it and made a copy, who made a copy for their friends and, through six degrees of separation, the tape falls into the hands of Eli Roth, who is a horror movie director." Roth ended up having a meeting at DreamWorks Productions, Steven Spielberg's company. He brings the tape with him and it ends up Spielberg himself, who wrote Zala a letter of appreciation.

Around that same time, in 2003, Tim League of the Alamo Draft House Theater in Austin, Texas also saw the film, tracked the filmmakers down and invited them down for what he called a "proper world premiere." They accepted.

"We showed up at the theater and the lines were wrapped around the block. And I was kind of scared. I was (thinking) 'do all those people know they are in line to see a movie that we shot in my mom's basement?' But, here's the thing, we were perfectionists and there was a reason that it took seven years (to finish). So by the time the boulder is barreling down on Indy in the cave scene, the audience was on their feet and screaming and applauding and cheering. I no longer eyed the exits for a quick escape. It was like 'Oh my God, they love it!'"

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Eric Zala directing the final scene of the film in 2014.

There’s one more chapter to this story. There was one scene they were never able to film, the one where Indy is fighting the German muscleman on a burning airplane that eventually blows up. Over 25 years and a $58,000  kick starter later, it’s done. You can see the story of how that was made in a documentary called Raiders! - The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. That’s showing now on Netflix. Eric Zala will be a guest at Pensacon this weekend, with a screening of his final film Friday evening.