In 1984, Ghostbusters became a global sensation. Its catchy theme song was inescapable, and audiences were chattering excitedly about the movie’s perfect balance of fear and comedy, from the effective jolts of its ghouls and demons to the patented world-weary sarcasm of Bill Murray, one of the most prominent faces among its ensemble cast.
Ghostbusters must have been a proud moment for Ivan Reitman, a filmmaker whose early life was filled with uncertainty and upheaval, and whose love of cinema would one day lead to controversy, intrigue, and ultimately, global success.
Reitman was born in 1946 in Komarmo, Czechoslovakia. Reitman’s Jewish parents, Leslie and Clara Reitman, had lived through the unimaginable horrors of World War II and briefly thrived in its aftermath. By the time little Ivan was born, Leslie Reitman had established a successful business – what one newspaper article described as “the country’s biggest vinegar factory.” But then the communist party came to power, and when Leslie was threatened with imprisonment if the factory failed to meet its quota, the Reitman family began to look for an escape route.
When Ivan was just four years old, the Reitmans stowed away in the bottom of a coal barge, where they hid for five days as the vessel carried them down the Danube to Vienna. From there, they fled to Toronto, Canada. Initially working in factories, Ivan’s parents saved up enough money to start a dry cleaning business, then a car wash, before investing the profits in real estate.
Ivan Reitman’s initial plan was to pursue a career as a musician, but as a youth growing up in Toronto, the movies also had a magnetic power. He’d spent many happy hours in his local cinema, drinking in such movies as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Bride Of Frankenstein, and the unapologetically horrific, gimmicky films of William Castle.
While still in college studying music, he wrote, produced and directed a short comedy called Orientation, which was so successful that it essentially launched his career as a filmmaker; aired on Canadian TV, Orientation was picked up by 20th Century Fox and screened in front of the 1969 romantic drama John And Mary, starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.
Reitman then produced The Columbus Of Sex (1969), an X-rated movie that earned the unlikely distinction of being the first Canadian film to be prosecuted for obscenity - Reitman was reportedly put on probation and fined $300 for his saucy transgression.
Undeterred, Reitman produced and directed the comedy Foxy Lady (1971), one of his few early financial disappointments, before turning his attention to a project that spoke to his childhood affection for schlocky horror and fantasy. Cannibal Girls was shot in the space of just nine days, starred a young Eugene Levy (who’d previously made his debut in Foxy Lady), and was distinguished by its gleeful approach to nudity and gore. It also boasted a theatrical gimmick straight out of a William Castle flick: it was, the poster boasted, “The picture with the warning bell. When it rings, close your eyes if you’re squeamish…”
But as The Columbus Of Sex proved, Canada wasn’t the best place to make something zany or risque in the1970s, and when Reitman struggled to find a distributor, Cannibal Girls’ investors took the alarming step of holding the movie hostage.
Reitman’s response was even more surprising: he stole the film and took a trip over to the Cannes Film Festival, where he managed to sell it to producer Samuel Z Arkoff, the famous B-movie producer and vice president of American International Pictures. Reitman also took Cannibal Girls over to the International Horror Festival, where Eugene Levy and co-star Andrea Martin won early accolades for their semi-improvised performances.
Thanks to his cunning, even risky tactics, Reitman managed to turn Cannibal Girls from what could have been a can of film gathering dust on a shelf into a profit-making success. Unlike America, where filmmakers had the likes of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to finance and distribute their low-budget genre films, Canada of the 1970s had little in the way of support for budding producers and directors.
Canada did, however, have Cinepix.
Cinepix and Cronenberg
Cinepix was a tiny indie film company based in Montreal. Founded by John Dunning and Andre Link in 1962, it specialised in the distribution of low-budget erotic pictures with titles like Sex Isn’t Sin, Virgin Lovers, and The Importance Of Being Sexy, as well as horror films like The Blood Beast Terror and The Astro-Zombies.
Cinepix was also the production company behind Reitman’s Foxy Lady, and co-distributed Cannibal Girls alongside American International Pictures in 1973. Following the modest success of the latter, Reitman continued to collaborate with Cinepix over the next few years, during which time he produced the debut feature of a certain David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg, 32 years old and with two well-received and exceedingly unusual short films called Stereo and Crimes Of The Future under his belt, had decided to make a full-length horror movie. Recognising that there was little future, at least financially, in short art projects, he decided to go mainstream - albeit with a screenplay with the decidedly antisocial title of Orgy Of The Blood Parasites (and later retitled, among other things, Shivers and They Came From Within).
Reitman immediately responded to the script’s extreme nature, which, even in its first draft, displayed many of the unique body horror hallmarks for which Cronenberg would later become infamous. About a blandly upscale apartment block infected by a parasite which also happens to turn its victims into sex-obsessed zombies, Shivers contained all the sex and violence a producer like Corman or Arkoff would have liked, but alsocarried with it a transgressive, boundary-pushing air of the forbidden.
The taboo nature of the script made it a hard sell in Canada, whose government-sponsored film development entity, the CFDC (or Canadian Film Development Corporation), was more used to providing funds to black-and-white dramas and documentaries about the Inuit. After more than two years of negotiations, the CFDC finally relented, and agreed to provide the film with its tiny $179,000 budget.
Like Cannibal Girls, Shivers was shot in a matter of days, the inexperienced Cronenberg capturing scenes in a take or two and bedding down at night in an apartment full of fake blood and prosthetics. The low-budget film did, however, have an additional touch of class thanks to the presence of Barbara Steele among the cast - a horror movie actress famous for her roles in horror classics like Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.
Released in October 1975, Shivers was a hit with audiences. The reaction from some critics and politicians was, however, toxic; one writer tore the film to pieces in an article carrying the infamous headline, “You Should Know How Bad The Movie Is, You Paid For it.” The news that such a violent film had been made with taxpayers’ money was controversial, to say the least. That controversy soon abated, however, when it became clear that Shivers was one of the few CFDC-backed films to actually turn a profit.
Reitman, it seemed, couldn’t help but get involved in censor-baiting or button-pushing films. He collaborated with Cinepix and Cronenberg again for the latter’s second film, the equally sordid Rabid (1977). This time, Reitman suggested that Cronenberg cast former porn star Marilyn Chambers as the leading lady with a blood-sucking skin graft, having seen her on television while in New York.
Rabid was, again, a low-budget hit, and paved the way for an almost unbroken run of deeply personal yet successful horror movies for David Cronenberg, which stretched from the mid-70s to the mainstream hit, The Fly, in 1986. Thereafter, Cronenberg moved into a new period of more diverse dramas, tragedies and thrillers, such as Dead Ringers (1988), the controversial Crash (1996), A History Of Violence (2005) and Maps To The Stars (2014).
National Lampoons and Meatballs
By the time he was 30 years old, Reitman had already established himself as one of Canada’s most successful producers. He’d helped launch David Cronenberg’s career, produced lucrative genre films like Black Out and Death Weekend (also known as The House By The Lake) and been behind several stage, radio and TV projects. The major turning point for Reitman was arguably The National Lampoon Show, a radio series based on a popular American humour magazine.The show brought such performers as John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray to public attention, as did a 1973 off-Broadway show, National Lampoon’s Lemmings.
While many of those performers would soon go on to even greater popularity on American TV’s Saturday Night Live, the success of the National Lampoon radio show led to Animal House, the hit frat comedy co-produced by Ivan Reitman and directed by John Landis. By the standards of Reitman’s earlier projects, Animal House was a big deal, with a $3.2m budget courtesy of Universal Pictures. But few were prepared for how popular it would soon become: all told, Animal House grossed around $200m worldwide.
“I didn’t know it was going to be quite so big, Reitman told Starlog in 1984, “but I did believe it was very good. We all knew there had never been a movie like Animal House before and that we were onto something big. That it happened was a thrill.”
The success of Animal House was a further boost to Reitman, who’d been briefly considered to direct before the more experienced Landis took the helm. Reitman did, however, get to direct Meatballs, the 1979 comedy that marked the first starring role for Bill Murray. Although not quite the phenomenon that Animal House was, it was hugely popular for a Canadian production: grossing $43m, it was in an entirely different league from Reitman’s earlier films as director.
Reitman and Murray repeated the same success with Stripes in 1981, an army comedy which, like Meatballs, was co-written by Harold Ramis, who’d co-written Animal House and Meatballs. Once again, it was a hit, earning more than $85m on a $10m budget.
Not everything Reitman touched turned to gold, however. A movie adaptation of the comic Heavy Metal was an unusual, risky project that didn’t take off as expected. Nor did a stage production called Merlin, or the sci-fi Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone. All told, 1983 wasn’t the happiest in Reitman’s career so far. Reitman did, however, have Ghostbusters.
Who you gonna call?
Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd had found success as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live while he was still in his 20s, and made his film debut in Steven Spielberg’s box-office disappointment, 1941, released in 1979, before co-writing and starring in The Blues Brothers, which was a big hit.It was in the early 80s that Aykroyd had the idea for a comedy about ghost exterminators who could travel through time and space. Aykroyd’s family had a longstanding interest in the paranormal; his great-grandfather was a spiritualist, while his grandfather attempted to communicate with the dead via a radio. Those family stories clearly rubbed off on Aykroyd, and as he thought about the old ghost movies of the 1930s (“Virtually every comedy team did a ghost movie - Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope,” he told Vanity Fair), an early draft of Ghostbusters gradually began to take shape.
The script was, even in its revised form, co-written by Harold Ramis, “impossible to make but one that had brilliant ideas in it,” according to Reitman. Nevertheless, Reitman, who seemed to have risk-taking coded into his DNA, decided to push ahead with Ghostbusters, even though the visual effects it required would send it into far more expensive territory than Meatballs or Stripes. Reitman threw himself into the project, serving as both producer and director when Ghostbusters found a home at Columbia Pictures: remarkably, the studio agreed to Reitman’s projected $25m budget - an extraordinary sum for a comedy at the time.
The gamble, as we now know, paid off, and Ghostbusters became a worldwide smash when it appeared in 1984. But while it was arguably a success thanks to its stars - Bill Murray, Akroyd, Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, and Sigourney Weaver - it’s notable that Ghostbusters contained many of the elements of Reitman’s earlier work as both director and producer. Full of wry comedy as well as horror, it’s arguably as much a tribute to the movies Reitman loved as a youth as, say, Cannibal Girls was.
Ghostbusters led to further American success for Reitman in America, with such films as Legal Eagles, Twins, and Kindergarten Cop all hits through the ’80s and early ’90s. But aside from the hit movies, Reitman also helped to launch the careers of actors and filmmakers who might otherwise have struggled in Canada’s comparatively tiny film industry in the 1970s - not least Cronenberg, who went on to forge his own unusual path through cinema history.
Reitman himself never forgot his roots in Canadian cinema. In Ghostbusters II, released in 1989, patrons are shown fleeing a cinema in terror. The film briefly shownon the marquee above their heads? Cannibal Girls, one of the stepping stones that paved the way to Reitman’s Hollywood success.