The roaches are regaining consciousness. Still groggy from the carbon dioxide, they begin to stir on the kitchen floor.
"C'mon, wake up," Dave Brody says to his charges. "When they wake up, they're all going to wake up at once."
"Action!" says director Tom Savini.
In an instant, the roaches are mobilized. They're crawling up Brody's arms, invading the cuffs of his pants, heading for the Vaseline-smeared walls of the roach corral.
"Get out! Get out!" a techie yells. "They're all over your legs!"
"C'mon guys, this is a sound take!" Savini moans.
The camera zooms in for a close-up, waiting for the last roach to escape from the eggshell at Brody's feet.
"Great! Great!" Savini says.
It's a wrap. And a massacre. Soon the entire crew is doing the urban two-step. "You guys are much better than the guys on 'Creepshow,' " Brody says. "They were all running away."
"We're New Yorkers," says grip John Cassidy.
Brody, a native, understands.
"I won't torture a roach," he says, "but I will not hesitate to step on them, and I frequently do. Do I have any moral qualms about killing them? Sometimes I feel that, yes. But I put down boric acid all the time. As my wife puts it, they're rude."
Thus begins another day in the life of Dave Brody, Bug Wrangler.
It's tough work, but somebody has to do it.
As long as there is a need for tarantulas to crawl across James Bond's chest, as long as centipedes are summoned to haunt Indiana Jones' best girl, as long as cockroaches are called upon to spew out of E.G. Marshall's mouth, there will be a place in the world for bug wranglers.
"There would be no film industry without them," says Tom Savini.
They are a rare but hardy breed. Oh, there are animal handlers, union guys, who will take on a bug job if the right person calls with the right offer. But real bug wranglers are specialists, devotees and often trained entomologists. Insects are their passion, their cause, their calling.
Dave Brody, 45, is a senior technician in the entomology department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "Disgusting is in the eye of the beholder," he says.
Steve Kutcher, a biology teacher in Pasadena, Calif., carries a business card that reads, "Bugs Are My Business." He likes to say, "If it's over four legs, it's me." He collected 40,000 ants for an episode of "Wonder Woman" and 10,000 grasshoppers for "Exorcist II: The Heretic," several of which he was asked to affix to Richard Burton's face. "I probably shouldn't say this," he says. "But, as you know, his face was very pockmarked. So it was easy to put the grasshoppers on."
Andy Miller is Hollywood's No. 1 bug broker. His credits include scorpions for "General Hospital," pythons (living and dead) for "Uncommon Valor" and $5,000 worth of insects -- 50,000 crickets, 5,000 cockroaches, six harlequin long-horned beetles and six giant Asian centipedes -- for postproduction work on "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." "I'm a supplier," he says. "I don't usually work the set."
Mike Culling, the proprietor of Animal Actors Inc. in London, does. "We like to say rats and insects are our bread and butter," he says.
In 1962 he was hired to provide a tarantula for "Dr. No." "A lot of us were asked to bring tarantulas along," he says. "Whether it was my tarantula on screen, I'll never know."
Two years ago he scavenged the jungles of Sri Lanka for Steven Spielberg's "Temple of Doom." "Steven normally talks in vast quantities of anything," Culling says. "We had 200,000 to 300,000 Hercules and Dynastes beetles, centipedes, locusts -- millions of locusts -- crickets, which people breed for food for reptiles, and 300 spiders."
The bug scenes were filmed over two weeks at the EMI studios in London, where parts of "Star Wars" were also shot. "There's still bugs coming out of the walls," Culling says. "They phoned us up 18 months later and said, 'There are bugs coming out of the soundproofing.' They were getting great quantities of bugs crawling around. There were dancers on the next set and they were keeping their leotards in the closets. You had all these scantily clad girls running around with creepy crawly things all over them."
Dave Brody sits on the floor of the prop room of the Laurel TV studios, deep in the heart of Queens. The room is crammed with cultural artifacts: mayonnaise jars, fake shrubs, stuffed animals, a sign reading "No Salesmen, Census Takers or Religious Fanatics" and a green garbage pail with a mesh top marked "ROACHES." Five hundred of them, Periplaneta americana, euphemistically known as water bugs.
"I had them bred for me at a lab," he says. "They're clean roaches."
Brody was hired to provide the bugs for an episode of Laurel's syndicated horror show "Tales From the Darkside" titled "Halloween Candy." It's a small job -- two days of shooting, four bug scenes, $775. Still, it required six months of planning -- and breeding. In addition to the 500 water bugs, Brody brought a Chock Full O' Nuts can full of 150 South American roaches for the eggshell scenes. "The reason I picked them is they love to be overcrowded," he says. "It's the way they live normally."
As he works, loading the South American beauties into eggshells, crew members wander by to ooh and ahh. Mostly ooh. "Me and my hordes," Brody says, smiling. "If I didn't see the humor in this, I wouldn't be here. This is a riot. I mean, 'Is it art?' "
He dons a pair of surgical gloves. "We handle big roaches with rubber gloves," he says. "It takes that last edge of hesitation away from you, from handling large insects. I don't have that hesitation with any other bug, incidentally, only American roaches. It's the way they move their legs, their speed, not knowing where they are."
Brody lives in a 4 1/2-room apartment in Queens with his wife, his son, two dogs (mutts), two cats, two parrots, two turtles (Mata Mata and alligator-snapping), five snakes, a horned frog and a tortoise from Argentina, a pair of broad-headed skinks from North Carolina, a Russian tortoise and a Gila monster.
"I live animals," he says. "I breathe animals."
In his spare time he walks the Long Island railroad tracks near his home, "looking at insects going about their business" in victory gardens planted more than 40 years ago. His favorite bug is the dung beetle, any dung beetle. "They roll dung for specific animals -- there's a giraffe dung beetle and an elephant dung beetle," he says. "Centipedes are the one living thing I can't warm up to."
He became an official bug wrangler when his friend Ray Mendez asked him to help out on an army-ant expedition in Panama. "The rest is history," he says.
Mendez, an entomologist and special effects expert who used to work at the Museum of Natural History, had been hired by a New York artist who "was doing a living ant colony," Mendez says. "He literally took white sand and built a giant theater and wanted an ant colony running through it. He got all the permits together and I went to Panama. We took a generator and a vacuum cleaner. You crank up the generator and suck up the ants."
He came back to New York with the ant colony and delivered it to the gallery. "But they didn't seal it right," he says. "So after 1 1/2 days, they start to explore. They normally travel every night the length of a football field. The ants escaped. There was a night watchman at the gallery. He was asleep at the desk. He was surrounded by ants. I can imagine this guy waking up. The man levitates. He takes a can of Raid and sprays. What we have is no show."
The artist calls him the next day and says, "Can you go back?"
"So Mendez flies back," Mendez says, "and this time I take Dave with me."
In 1982 they collaborated on the bugs for George Romero's "Creepshow." They had to fly to Trinidad to get them. They knew about some caves in the upper regions of the country where giant three-inch roaches could be found. The first cave was damp and wet -- with bat droppings. "I wanted to burn my hand," Brody says.
The second cave was more promising. They spent four hours picking roaches off the walls. "You sit on the floor and it undulates under you because that's how many roaches there are," Brody says.
"You shine a flashlight and you think the ground is rippling," Mendez says. "It's actually roaches running away from you."
They collected 2,000 roaches and flew them back to New York in cardboard crates filled with egg cartons, a makeshift roach playground. "The customs agents looked at them and they looked at us and they let us through pretty quickly," Brody says.
The script called for all sorts of insects. They used 20,000 laboratory-bred roaches -- adults and nymphs -- to create the illusion of many different breeds. They were all housed in a special trailer, called the "Roach Motel," where they dined on Monkey Chow and lettuce until their big scene.
"E.G. Marshall plays this Howard Hughes type," Brody says. "He's a cleanliness nut, a hermit living in a sealed apartment. He's got roaches on his mind. He glances down at his bed and the covers are undulating. He flips back the blanket -- we had gassed them -- and they are starting to come to life. Then he has a heart attack and falls back on the bed."
Tom Savini, who did the special effects for the movie, had built a fake head and chest for the occasion. "Ray and I are on either side underneath the set," Brody says. "We're pumping up roaches through plastic syringes. They poured out of his mouth and burst through his chest wall -- it had fake blood in it, too. It was a real gruesome ending."
When the shooting stopped, Brody zapped the survivors. "I bombed the set," he says. "Five insecticide bombs. According to what the can said, it should have been one. We flew out that night and no one wanted to touch them."
Brody was designated to fly back to Pittsburgh to clean up. "We vacuumed them all up and burned them because we had an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture," he says.
He managed to preserve a few in a clear plastic box, which rests on the floor beside him. "These I brought for Tom Savini," he says, opening the container. "I want to give him a couple of these because they are from 'Creepshow.' "
The aroma is distinctive.
"They're dead," Brody says. "That's why they smell."
Sometimes filmmakers ask the impossible. Sometimes they ask worse. There are things bug wranglers can't do and things they won't. They have a unique code of ethics. To a man, they say they won't subject an insect to cruel and unusual punishment, although allowances are made for roaches.
"Sometimes they say, 'Can we kill it?' " Andy Miller says. "I say, 'No, we can't. I'll supply you one already dead or make one from rubber that you can step on.' Ninety percent of the industry is the same way. They don't kill them."
"We were doing a film way back where there was a tarantula spider named Gertie that gets squashed," Mike Culling says. "We wouldn't allow it. People think they haven't got any life. Anything cruel we don't have anything to do with."
It's more than a job. It's a labor of love, nurtured since youth, through thick and thin and, for city people like Brody and Ray Mendez, often concrete. "Science has lost the ability of wonder," Brody sighs. "Scientists have lost the ability to transmit the wonder."
"One of the reasons I do this, as much as for the money, is because I really feel the animals shouldn't be mistreated," Mendez says. "There seems to be a borderline about the animals people have a conscience about. Bugs are not brothers. They have six legs. We have to train people to have a conscience about the animals."
Assignments range from the bizarre to the inane. Brody once made a bee fly out of Teri Garr's beehive hairdo. For a Police video he had to find 100 butterflies in December. "Here in the dead of winter, they wanted Sting in a room with butterflies flying around," he says. "It was all thrown out the window because he didn't like the way he looked in the photographs."
"I collected and released 1,000 butterflies at a woman's wedding, which is probably close to a record," Steve Kutcher says.
The logistics aren't easy. Often they require a jungle safari and months of planning. When Kutcher was hired for "Exorcist II," the contract called for 10,000 locusts, males only. "We had to make sure they were male so if they got loose we wouldn't have a plague," he says. "There were only six that were female. But we had to check the rear end of every single grasshopper."
The successful bug wrangler must possess knowledge of the species. He disdains animal handlers who consider bug work a chore.
"My responsibility is to train the crew so they know how to work with the animals and set up the shot," Mendez says. "Make sure the set is built in such a way that the photography can happen within the limits of what the animals can do."
"You learn how to make bugs do what you want them to do," Miller says. "They have no brains. No minds. Everything is instinctive. You are relying on that being to do what it naturally does. They say, 'Can you make that spider walk down that lady's leg?' and you say, 'No, but I can make it go up because spiders naturally go up.' "
Dave Brody is summoned to the set for the last take of the afternoon, a living room shot in which the roaches escape from a sack that is supposed to be full of Halloween candy. He gathers his equipment -- a plastic bag filled with 100 American roaches, a jar of Vaseline and a seltzer bottle filled with carbon dioxide.
The crew sets up the shot, adjusting the lighting and covering the walls of the roach corral with Vaseline to block the escape route. Savini lingers in the shadows, keeping an eye on things but not getting too close. "During 'Creepshow,' " his wife Nancy says, "he went to his trailer and drew a line and said, 'If they cross it, they're dead.' "
"Scared of bugs?" Savini says. "Uh, yeah. Is there pizza in New York?"
The assistant director gives Brody the signal. The plastic bag rustles in anticipation. "Remember," Brody says, "this shot has to be a good shot because it's impossible to round up all these roaches."
Everyone nods. Brody grabs the seltzer bottle and hits the bugs with the gas. In an instant the roaches are out cold. Gently, he pours them into a specially constructed roach chute, which is also smeared with Vaseline, so that the only way out is onto the set and into the shot.
The cameras begin to roll. Soon there are roaches scurrying all over the living room, under the lamp and into the darkness, just as written.
"Cut!" a voice yells.
The stampede is on. Someone begins to whistle the theme from "Rawhide." The roaches have no chance against guys in work boots.
Savini shrugs. He is unmoved.
"These roaches wanted to be in show biz," he says.