In 1980, John Smihula sat with his friends and classmates as they watched him fight a radioactive weasel on a screen. Thirty years later he sits in front of his students to teach Wen-Tzu’s Buddhist philosophies of peace.
Smihula is a core humanities teacher at the University of Nevada, Reno who starred in a series of lo-budget B-horror movies in the 80s that went on to have a cult following on internet blog sites and in European countries. But once he joined the peace core and started to travel the world, Smihula went from making gross out gore movies to focus on his education and became a documentary filmmaker.
Weasels Rip My Flesh
In the Spring of 1980 Smihula had a promising baseball career ahead of him. At his high school in Long Island, NY talent scouts were starting to approach him with potential offers.
“At the age of 17 I had a 93 mph fastball,” says Smihula.
Tragically, Smihula blew out his arm. Just like that his baseball career was over.
The summer before Smihula’s friend Nathan Schiff started making a movie called Weasels Rip My Flesh. (a play on a Frank Zappa song)
The plot synopsis on the DVD reads:
“One dark night, a NASA probe returning from Venus crash-lands near the wilds of Long Island and unleashes a radioactive curse upon the nearest living creature, a rabid weasel.”
Schiff recruited Smihula to play a lead “Clint Eastwood-like” character for the second half of the film.
“John was integral in helping make these movies,” says Schiff, “if it weren’t for Johns zeal, they probably wouldn’t exist.”
With no budget, no script, and only enough film to have one shot scene Schiff and Smihula wrapped up the entire 45 minute film and premiered it at their Baldwin High School.
“I was very shy infront of the camera, but I found it to be very enjoyable because you were working on art,” says Smihula, “it was exciting we were creating something. I went from trying to craft a baseball game through the right pitches to helping to craft a film by motion words acting things like that.”
The day of the screening the whole school cut class to watch their fellow peers to be killed on the big screen. The film got attention from journalists and major newspapers who came around to interview Smihula and Shiff.
Peace Corps and Vermillion Eyes
Seeing the success of Weasels they started shooting their more ambitious project, The Long Island Cannibal Massacre later that fall. Due to a low budget, Smihula played the lead character as well as one of the cannibals.
While filming their third movie, They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore, they had to wrap up quickly because Smihula started to make his move into the Peace Corps.
“It began to be a comical thing when people would here that the guy who killed all those people and created all that mayhem on the screen was going off to the Peace Corps,” says Smihula.
In 1984, Smihula was an Agricultural Extension Agent during the height of the drought and famine in Somalia.
“It became a lot more difficult to make films as we got older,” says Smihula.
Once Smihula returned in 1988 they started to make another film called Vermillion Eyes. Critics have called this the most gruesome and psychologically damaging of the four films.
“This picture was a deeply personal venture and was formed completely from my id,” says Schiff.
The film itself was so tantalizing to make that it almost ended Smihula and Schiffs friendship.
Once again, the film had to be wrapped up quickly because Smihula was moving to California. After he had moved to San Francisco, the film got its premier at his brother’s house in Long Island. The audience included Smihula’s brother, the neighbors and Schiff himself.
“Once the film was over no one said anything to Nathan… he called me in the middle of it and I was 3,000 miles away and I felt his pain he was like ‘John it’s not going well. They hate it. I don’t want to be here’ I said ‘I can’t help you I’m 3000 miles away,’” says Smihula.
The film got some screenings in dives and local movie theaters in New York in L.A. And Schiff had plenty of magazine interviews and some European countries trying to get their hands on the films including England, Germany, Sweden and Australia.
“We sent the films out to several prominent folks in the film world hoping to pick up some positive feedback for quotes,” says Schiff, “Wes Craven loved the films and his quote was used on the press material.”
The quote from Craven is featured on all of the DVD boxes.
Nathan Schiff knows Long Island the way Dante knew Hell!” –Wes Craven
Eventually the films got picked up by Image Entertainment, an independent distribution company,who released all of the films except for Vermillion Eyes.
Vermillion Eyes is still trying to find a home. Both Smihula and Schiff refer to it as “the cursed film.”
Schiff has received several requests from online film enthusiasts and DVD companies to release the film, but as for now it is still up in the air.
Vermillion Eyes was the last horror movie Smihula was in.
Teaching and Hidden in Plain Sight
In California Smihula started to teach courses on environmental literature as a grad student at San Francisco State. Around this same time he started to work on with his friends on a few documentary films. In 1997 he began teaching and working on his PHD at UNR.
But in 2000 he took a break from his teaching career to begin working on his political documentary film Hidden in Plain Sight, a commentary on U.S. foreign affairs. After two years his documentary was complete and Smihula started to show the film at various college campuses.
When he reached Tulane University in New Orleans, the Pentagon had contacted the school and pressured them in to uninviting Smihula.
“The Pentagon wrote me some love letters,” says Smihula.
These letters were warnings not to show the film as well as tarnish the credibility of Smihula and his documentary. Despite these controversies, Smihula continued to show the film at different Universities.
In 2002 he returned to his teaching career and is currently working on his latest documentary film about the Castle Lake Research program at UNR.
“The research station provides and opportunity for limnology students to see first hand how scientific research is conducted and brings to life the topics that they study in class,” says Wendy Trowbridge, a research faculty at UNR, “It has also provided funding and opportunities for graduate students and post docs to begin their careers in limnology.”
However the program is in danger of being cut from the university.
“I think this is one good example of how important science is, getting students out into the field, having them gut fish, and take water samples, and find out how ecosystems work,” says Smihula.
When Smihula is not working on his documentary, the 50-year-old teacher is working on his memoir Cloud and Wave. (working title)
Schiff still lives in Long Island where he is writing and preparing his next film project.