Smoldering Embers: On the Set of Director Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion

By Stan Giesea

Smoldering Embers is a unique, day-to-day account of life on the set of a motion picture, chronicling the making of the notorious “Spontaneous Combustion,” from the late, great director Tobe Hooper’s (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Lifeforce).

Here is an opportunity for the reader to meet the cast and crew of talented craftsmen, technicians and artisans and to follow their progress as they work together to realize Hooper’s vision.  Summarily dismissed or ignored in its initial release in 1990, Spontaneous Combustion has since enjoyed something of a resurgence in interest and appreciation. Starring Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Hooper’s dark tale of nuclear conspiracy and betrayal resonates now more than ever and Smoldering Embers provides a fascinating glimpse behind-the-scenes for anyone with an interest in the horror genre, Hooper’s career in particular, or just filmmaking in general.Derived from a contemporaneous account composed during production on the film, the book not only serves as an invaluable research tool for academics and film students alike, but also provides a window into Hooper’s working methods and an entertaining glimpse into the fascinating craft of moviemaking.


On the first day that I was scheduled to shoot, I arrived on the set early and, along with several dozen other young men, was issued a marine uniform. When a production assistant asked for volunteers who would be willing to have their heads shaved in military fashion, I eagerly raised my hand, supposing that it might provide me an advantage over the other extras. It was only after I had received my buzz cut that it was announced that we would be wearing helmets on camera at all times. Mildly deflated, I was on the receiving end of more than a few mean-spirited snickers from the others.

We received instruction on accurate comportment and proper handling of weapons by Dale Dye, a retired marine captain acting as military advisor on the film. Dye would eventually go on to gain great notoriety in the film industry by drilling the casts of Platoon and Saving Private Ryan with rigorous boot camp training in preparation for their roles as soldiers. Invariably playing a military officer, he would also appear as an actor in several films, most notably Platoon and JFK. Our paths would cross again.

My comrades and I spent the better part of the day inside a small soundstage on Gower Street in Hollywood, kicking up dirt and dust, getting filthy while running up and down a hillside mock-up as flashing lights and wind machines stirred up a storm around us. It was here, between takes, that Hooper gave me the nod. It was also here that I first met James Karen, the wonderful character actor and possibly the most charming man on the planet. He was cast in Invaders from Mars as General Wilson and would soon have the privilege of uttering the memorable lines, “Don’t look so worried, boy! We’re not out of options yet! Marines have no qualms about killing Martians!”

- Stan Giesea