John Cozzoli’s collection is frightening. Not because of its sheer size (though he does have over 500 film artifacts), but because Cozzoli’s ephemera all relates to lesser-known horror movies of the 20th century.
Primarily devoted to Mexican lobby cards, or small placards displayed in theater entrances to advertise upcoming films, and American pressbooks, which provided promotional guides for theater owners, Cozzoli has curated an extensive array of cult classics on his blog, Zombos’ Closet. Spanish-language lobby cards specifically piqued his interest because of their exaggerated details and wild graphics, unrestricted by more prudish American guidelines.
“Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi made it cool to be scared.”
Cozzoli’s dream is to preserve these campy bits of horror film history, particularly items made during the golden era, which lasted from the 1940s through the ’60s. In the process, he’s created a virtual haunted house of zany, lurid, and sometimes downright disgusting marketing materials. Recently, we spoke to Cozzoli, who explained his passion for the weird world of horror-film memorabilia.
Collectors Weekly: How did you first get into horror films?
John M. Cozzoli: Growing up in Brooklyn I was blessed with two movie theaters within walking distance: the Loews Oriental and the Benson, both on 86th Street. They played a lot of horror movies, and I have fond and frightening memories of the movies my mom took me to. She was a big horror fan, and I suppose that rubbed off on me, but I think deep down I was born a horror fan.
Add on the Shock! movies showing on local television, which were usually hosted by some wacky and creepy horror host, like Zacherley in New York, and I had a good upbringing on classic, and not-so-classic, cinematic horror every week.
The ephemera side must have come from my love of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and all the wonderful merchandise sold through Captain Company’s mail order catalog. Two blocks from my house was Joe’s Luncheonette, whose magazine rack was always full of comics and magazines distributed by Warren Publishing, like After Hours, Creepy, or Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I began collecting them. Unfortunately, I sold off my extensive collection just as the “investment” people (the ones dressed in suits) started showing up at Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Cons. But that’s another story. With the influences of the classic Universal monsters, Joe’s magazine rack, and my weekly allowance, it was a pretty sure bet I’d be a collector sooner than later.
Collectors Weekly: Do you consider yourself a B-movie expert?
Cozzoli: No, I’m just another fan with an opinion, only I try to back it up with experience and knowledge. When I tried to actually discuss movies with other fans on certain forum boards, I quickly realized there were many “experts” who had no sense of cinema history or composition, who were praising or cursing movies without being able to express why, using flaming to drown out anyone’s opinion that differed with theirs. Older “experts” knew nothing about modern horror cinema yet decried it as they cherished their decade or two’s worth of movie memories.
“The more fears, the better the box-office receipts.”
I gave up on the forums and started my blog, Zombos’ Closet, in 2005 to prove a horror fan can be articulate while embracing the broader styles of horror found in each decade. Zombos’ Closet is graphics heavy: I enjoy posting pressbooks, Mexican lobby cards, and pictures of classic horror actors. My goal is to become an online archive for them by uploading high-resolution scans to help others fully appreciate what cool objects of movie memorabilia they truly are.
I tend to be classic-centric, but I also love, and hate, modern horror movies. These days, the horror sub-genres are all over the place, so it’s hard to be an expert in everything. For me, the art of horror cinema officially starts with Universal’s “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” and begins its descent to solid B, but still classy, movies in the 1940s with films like “Son of Frankenstein,” “The Wolf Man,” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” eventually hitting close to rock bottom with C- or D-grade fare from the 1950s drive-in circuit. Which is still fun to watch, by the way, especially with a rum and Coke.
Collectors Weekly: Where did the name “Zombos’ Closet” come from?
Cozzoli: I’m a big fan of “The Munsters” television show, and I kept all my comics, magazines, and collectibles in my bedroom closet as a kid. It was also the place I could run to, for personal reasons, where I could be alone and felt safe. I’d often pull out the Famous Monsters magazines and a flashlight while sealed up in my closet.
There’s a great “Munsters” episode where little Eddy discovers his favorite TV horror host, Zombo, is not really very horrible. I felt bad ripping off the name as is, so I added an ‘s’ to the end of Zombo to create “Zombos.” I try not to say Zombos’s Closet because it sounds terrible—rhymes with thrombosis!—but maybe I should.
Collectors Weekly: How do you select films to review?
I find out about movies by reading reviews, reading books about movies, reading other blogs—especially those from members of The League of Tana Tea Drinkers—and seeing trailers while I’m at the theater. Many times I’ll watch a movie, like “Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks,” because, although I know I’ll hate it, I also know I’ll have a bang-up time writing the review. There are times I like to do a story framework around the review, using my characters that live in Zombos’ mansion [Cozzoli's blog features a cast of fictional characters based on horror film archetypes]. “Tokyo Gore Police“ is a perfect example: Insane movie equals wild fun to review. So if I feel I can have some gonzo fun while reviewing a movie, that’s a perk for me.
Collectors Weekly: Is your collection limited to a specific era?
Cozzoli: Horror and exploitation themes have always been money-makers, no matter which era we’re talking about. Their cinema is malleable—its subgenres, themes, moods, and political or social insinuations, like any timeless drama, fit the period the movie is situated in. Most of the time. Then, of course, you have your schlock productions, which are always cheeky fun and surprisingly buoyant in the marketplace.
The field of horror has long recognized the one truth of commercial and artistic cinema: There’s an audience out there for everything and anything, you just need to reach them. Now, of course, with YouTube, Facebook, etc., it’s a lot easier to reach that audience. Back then, you needed pressbooks and lobby cards to sell the merits of the movie.
You could successfully argue that Universal’s brand of horror provided the golden ticket to what followed, and Lon Chaney provided the template for horror actors to come. While you can’t dismiss or neglect the foreign horror silents and talkies, I’d put the mainstreaming of horror cinema squarely on the shoulders of Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi. They made horror accessible and approachable; they made it thrilling and cool to be scared.
Once the studios discovered that production runs could be trimmed, they budgeted more films. Eventually, formulaic movies took over, and by the 1950s, the youth audience became a viable target for generating revenue. More teenagers were going to the movies, a fact not lost on producers like Roger Corman. Drive-in theaters created a new milieu for horror films, and producers like William Castle noticed that younger kids were perfect audiences for “horror-light” movies like “House on Haunted Hill.”
Horror movies are closely tied to exploitation movies. By the 1960s and into the 1970s, more daring storylines evolved on theater screens, designed for audiences that had lived through two World Wars, Vietnam, social unrest, and enough political scandals to create a growing sense that authority figures weren’t as upstanding as previously believed. It was understood that people could be damn nasty when given the opportunity.
All of this fed easily into the subject matter for horror: Our fears were shown to us. And the more fears, the better the box-office receipts.
Collectors Weekly: What do you love about these low-budget films?
Cozzoli: There’s a mistaken belief that having a big budget guarantees a good movie: It doesn’t. Many movies with modest budgets have outdone movies with bigger pockets to draw from. I love seeing how creative a director and set designer can be when faced with limited resources to work from. Horror movies were originally A-listers, drawing notable actors and production teams. Over time they switched to B and C status as the studios realized they could still make a profit on a cheap movie. Even the bad movies sometimes show a sparkle of wit or style or dramatic directness that makes them enjoyable to watch.
Now the really, really, really bad movies that look cheap and play cheap can also be fun because they don’t pretend to be anything but what they are. Look at how much zany and awkward cinema Ed Wood foisted on us, and how well regarded he is today by genre fans. “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is so inane and intentionally clumsy it’s sublime.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the lamest monsters you’ve come across in vintage horror films?
Cozzoli: The least frightening monsters would include the Venusian in “It Conquered the World,” Tobonga in “From Hell It Came,” and Ro-Man in “Robot Monster.” Classic monsters that lacked bite would include the Mummy, played by Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney, Jr. The stiff moved so slowly, and his victims just stood in place, screaming, waiting for him to attack. Go figure. Other non-frightening monsters include the giant bunnies in “Night of the Lepus” and the giant turkey or vulture-looking bird in “The Claw.” And you can find all of these wonderfully innocuous monsters on Mexican lobby cards.
Collectors Weekly: Were these Mexican lobby cards made to advertise films from other countries?
Cozzoli: While many Mexican lobby cards promote American movies, they also made cards for Spanish-language movies, often illustrated with vampires, witches, and mummies; Japanese movies, like those made by Toho Studios; and other non-Spanish-language movies. Really, just about any movie that could be shown in a local theater, foreign or domestic, had cards done for it. If the lobby cards were done for American or other non-Spanish-language movies, the compositions usually derive to some degree from the movie’s poster campaign, so these cards tend to be more, let’s say, sedate, and tone down the sex and mayhem. Spanish-language lobby cards are usually more vibrant and suggestive.
Monster kid and movie historian Professor Kinema (Jim Knusch) was the person who turned me on to these wonderful examples of movie promotion for theaters. It was while perusing his collection of lobby cards and pressbooks that I fell in love with both. One reason I focus on Mexican lobby cards is because at $5 to $10 a pop, they’re a lot cheaper than American cards, making them easier to collect. Additionally, Mexican cards for native Spanish movies are usually more colorful and dynamic, and the Mexican cards come in larger sizes, which make them more interesting and displayable.
“La Sangre de Nostradamus“ uses a sophisticated display of horror elements that shows dramatic intensity through the tight arrangement of torch, hand with blood, and the vampire’s reflection in a frightened eye—presumably the eye of the person holding the torch. A little less sophisticated, but still classy, is the one for “El Latigo en Las Momias Asesinas.” Notice how the menacing mummies hint at the rider’s gallantry and heroism with their ominous presence, while a more sensational illustration of a female victim in distress hints at the action to come, and maybe some romance, too.
Moving from sophisticated to blatant exploitation, “La Bestia de La Noche Amarilla” is a great example of how bold a Mexican lobby card can be. The common element here, of domination over a scantily dressed female victim, is highlighted by each illustration: the monster’s blood-dripping, bone-chewing mouth looming over her; the monster’s beastly hand reaching for yet another screaming female victim; the monster standing over a victim. The illustrations don’t connect visually except for that theme.
Collectors Weekly: Why did they usually feature scantily clad females?
Cozzoli: It sold tickets, meaning more butts in those theater seats. There’s the mistake that many male-centric cultures make in thinking women are the weaker sex, so they make great victims for monsters and evil men. Lots of terrified screaming, fainting, and all those behaviors fictional female victims are expected to do. You also come across the alluring witch, young and with an ample bosom, enticing to you buy a ticket in order to see more.
Sex sells whatever product you hawk with it—just look at all those Chippendale Calendars, or next time you’re in an auto shop, see who’s holding that oil can on a poster or dressed in a bikini and smiling by an engine on a calendar. But darker insinuations can also be found in the cards: Female victims are repeatedly stalked or tortured by these male monsters, and all done with their clothes in tatters, or dressed in some flimsy nightgown.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite lobby card?
Cozzoli: I have a lot of favorites, but, right now, my absolute favorite would have to be “El Charro de Las Calaveras.” The composition is beautiful. You have this masked gunman staring you down, and a mysterious man in a top hat and cape in the background, and to the left of both is this large skull-like mummy head with cobwebs in its right eye and its mouth opened in a menacing way. After you take all that in, there’s a small graphic of a werewolf biting the neck of a beautiful woman in the top corner. In the middle of the card you have this dramatic font for the title. It’s a neat package that hints at mystery, danger, and the supernatural, without being lurid.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the deal with the masked wrestler lobby cards?
The Lucha Libre or masked wrestling tradition of Mexico is very similar to our own except for one important difference: the luchador is a hero, a strong man to look up to, who fights for justice and defends against evil. I thought it was a great idea in the current “Spider-Man” movie to have Peter Parker pick up the idea for his mask from seeing a wrestler’s poster.
It’s a natural to have the luchadores come up against monsters like mummies, vampires, and zombies. Why not? The luchador is the Spanish version of our superhero. If you can accept guys flying around in capes and wearing masks, well, it’s the same thing. Just look at “Neutron: El Enmascarado Negro.” The Italian equivalent would be peplum movies.
Collectors Weekly: What sorts of other common themes do these lobby cards use?
Cozzoli: The main themes are violence, sexuality, and deprivation (of liberty, life, sanity, humanity, etc.), although it depends on the movie as to their intensity, or even if all three are used on one card. The Spanish-speaking movie lobbies lean toward exploiting these themes more often, so I’ll use them as examples.
“La Mente y el Crimen” is a good example of all three themes being present. We see what’s on the man’s mind, and it hints at sexuality and deviance, while violence and deprivation are shown through the hand wielding a bloody knife. In this particular case, the photo inset, of the voodoo doll with pins stuck into it, adds to the overall tone of the card. And note the doll is feminine.
“La Sombra del Murcielago“ also shows all three, but here the illustration is more elementary in execution, which heightens its lurid appeal. Violence, and the threat of it, is shown through the monster woman being choked in the left corner, the screaming monstrous face in the right corner, and the flaming cauldron where the masked wrestler, Blue Demon, is holding his head in physical or spiritual pain. The look of tranquility on the woman’s face near the cauldron, in the midst of all this terror, hints at a lost love or someone the wrestler cares about or simply an actress who will bring in an audience just to see her.
Finally, look at “El Satanico.” The artwork may be primitive, but it screams at you to see this movie. The subtle cues are how the knife-wielding guy in the upper corner is staring down, over the cityscape, at the other guy holding a gun. The jagged white backdrop for the title font is very aggressive and counterpoints the tip of the knife while bringing attention to it. Assuming you can stop looking at the bikini-clad babe on the left, that is.