A Tribute to John Polonia

There’s a famous quote about The Velvet Underground’s first album: only 3000 people bought it, but all of those people went out and started their own band the next day. In an era where music was becoming increasingly slick and polished, the Velvets were defiantly raw, proudly flaunting their seams and helping thousands of people understand that art and creative expression was something that anyone could, and should, achieve.

Mark and John Polonia are the cinematic equivalents of the Velvet Underground. Two of the most passionate film fans on the planet, these twin brothers have spent the last twenty years churning out dozens of direct-to-video horror flicks, earning a rabid cult following for their endearing blend of impoverished budgets and stunning creativity… and inspiring hundreds of fans to pick up a camera themselves.

Movie critics have not always been kind to them, but to watch a Polonia Brothers film is to watch a film that’s in on the joke — witness the (intentionally) hilarious How to Slay a Vampire, in which the titular creature cheerfully drinks a cup of tea, but substitutes a bloody tampon for a teabag. Or Peter Rottentail, in which an evil spirit wearing a tattered rabbit suit opens up a can of whoopass on a small Pennsylvania town. (The movie’s tag line: “You’ll Have a Bad Hare Day!”). Or Razorteeth, a pirhana flick shot partially (and obviously) in Mark Polonia’s swimming pool. Or Saurians, a delightful dinosaur adventure made for the cost of a Burger King combo meal, but containing more excitement and entertainment value than either of the Jurassic Park sequels.

But even if they lacked big budgets, the Polonia Brothers’ films have always had an unmistakable handmade charm to them — a sweetness and eagerness to please, made by two brothers with a real “Let’s put on a show!” mentality. I can’t think of any other filmmakers whose work so often possesses this sense of unabashed fun and excitement. Even after two decades of moviemaking, Mark and John never lost that wide-eyed sense of wonder at actually being behind (and sometimes in front of) the camera, and it shows.

John Polonia’s sudden death this week at the devastatingly young age of 39 was a crushing blow. To many, John was nothing more than a name on the back of a video box, or that goofy guy who died so memorably in The House That Screamed. Those people will, at the very least, mourn a staunch advocate of no-budget filmmaking, and a man whose generosity and mentorship to other aspiring directors helped create the direct-to-video horror movement.

But those of us who were fortunate enough to know John Polonia as a person and not just as an indie film icon will mourn the man himself. When I think of John, I will remember not just his movies, but a great friend with the most infectious laugh I’ve ever heard. I will remember a cinema fan with a rabid love of Argento, Bava, and Romero, who forgot more about giallo films than I’ll ever know. I will remember the simultaneously excited and nervous father-to-be who picked my brain for parenting advice shortly before the birth of his beloved son. And I will remember the man who never stopped being a champion and advocate of my own work, even when I had long since given up on myself.

Friday’s memorial service for John, held in his hometown of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, was a beautiful affair. Not surprisingly, the event was packed with family and friends who wanted to say farewell to a man whose life touched so many people. Frequent Polonia Brothers actor Brice Kennedy and I were fortunate enough to share some personal anecdotes and warm memories of John as part of the service, an opportunity for which I’ll be forever grateful.

And although I’m sure they knew, I was very happy for the chance to remind John’s family, particularly Mark, how much John’s friendship meant to me over the years.

How sobering that I never thought to tell John himself.

John Polonia loved movies, and the people who made them. And although 39 years was far too little time to have him with us, we can at least take solace in the fact that his was a life well-lived, rich with cinematic success, and overflowing with family and friends who loved him. We should all be so lucky.

Thank you, John. Thank you, Mark.

With all my love and respect,
-Joe Barlow
Scranton, PA (formerly Wellsboro)

10 responses to “A Tribute to John Polonia

  1. Very moving and true now i need to collect myself before i go to my shoot

  2. Nicely said Joe.

    Saurians will always be one of my all time favorite films.

    For my 30th birthday, I gathered a group of friends over for a night of Feeders 1 and 2.

    This really makes me sad.

  3. Hunter Duesing

    Very sad…I’ve never seen anything by the Polonia Bros., but I’ve always been meaning too. It’s terrible when someone bright and talented dies suddenly like that…I’m sorry this had to happen. That was a very moving article Joe.

    Where can I find some of Mark and John’s work?

  4. Strangely enough, because of the (financially necessary, perhaps) intimacy of the Polonias’ films, and their wonderful ‘making of’ featurettes and directors’ commentary, even those of us who never met them know that John had an infectious laugh. It makes his death personal even for humble fans such as myself.

    Thanks for a lovely and moving tribute.

  5. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  6. I’m just now getting to the point where I can go through all of these tributes to John on the web without automatically falling apart.

    Well said, Joe. I’m better at speaking than writing and I can’t imagine saying this any better. Thanks for speaking at his service. It was nice to hear others’ stories of John. He was good friend to me and this was was far, far too soon.

  7. Well said Joe. I have been friends with Mark and John for a long time. John was a funny and caring man. One of the good guys that we really can’t afford to lose. Fortunately we can still live a bit with him, in his many movies. His take on the camera man in “Among Us” has and will always be a movie highlight for me. John we miss you.

  8. As an aspiring filmmaker myself (and someone who finally got to see “Splatter Farm” myself just last night), I find this to be a very moving article as well, and very poignant. R.I.P. to a fallen guerrilla.

  9. I am very saddened to hear this news. I was a fan of the Polonia brother’s work and I even exchanged e-mails with John on a couple of occasions. I realized that I drive by Wellsboro on my way home from college. I was wondering if you knew where his grave was so I could leave some flowers and pay my respect.

  10. This was a beautiful tribute. I’m sorry for your loss. I am only now discovering these films, and am very moved by this. He sounded amazing.

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