From Fake Trailer To Real Film

Filmmaker Eli Roth’s ode to 80s slasher-horror Thanksgiving began in 2006 when he created a fake trailer that would appeal to the grindhouse crowd. 17 years later horror fans were still begging for the best horror movie never made.

Roth’s inspiration for Thanksgiving began in when his friends Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were working on their double feature Grindhouse. To add to the double-feature experience, Tarantino asked his friends – including Roth – to create fake trailers that would appeal to the grindhouse crowd. And Roth knew exactly what he wanted to do.

It was conceived as a phony, all-killer-no-filler trailer to be sandwiched between “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 exploitation tribute double feature. 

In his youth and teenage years, Roth and his friend Jeff Rendell took in a steady diet of horror films, consuming VHS after VHS of carnage, chaos, and gore. And one special subgenre kept them busy. “We came of age in the early 80s, the golden era of the holiday slasher movie,” he recalls. “Black Christmas, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, New Year’s Evil… When we saw Silent Night, Deadly Night, we cheered the mayhem while the Santa Claus killer yelled, ‘PUNISH!’”

“This, to us, was cinema at its peak,” Roth continues.

But for the native of Newton, Massachusetts, one holiday eluded him: Hollywood never made the Thanksgiving slasher pic. “It’s hard to oversell the importance of Thanksgiving in Massachusetts,” he says. “Every school group goes to Plimoth Patuxet to see what life was like back in 1620. But where others saw a butter churner, we saw opportunities for amazing kills.”

With his fake trailer, Roth saw the opportunity to create Thanksgiving – the 1980s holiday slasher that somehow Hollywood had forgotten to make. Rendell and Roth wrote it, and as Roth was completing filming on Hostel Part II, he had access to locations, actors, even fake heads from that film to immortalize it. When Grindhouse promised Thanksgiving as a preview of coming attractions, audiences loved it. And that was that.

After a Black Friday riot ends in tragedy, a mysterious Thanksgiving-inspired killer terrorizes Plymouth, Massachusetts – the birthplace of the holiday. Picking off residents one by one, what begins as random revenge killings are soon revealed to be part of a larger, sinister holiday plan. Will the town uncover the killer and survive the holidays…or become guests at his twisted holiday dinner table?

For 17 years, Roth would hear from fans wondering if he would ever make the movie for real

Roth was game, but there was just one problem: “We didn’t have a plot,” he says, noting that the fake trailer is simply a stringing together of stabbings, beheadings, and mayhem, themed to the holiday. But a trailer does not a movie make, and Roth and Rendell kept looking for ways to make it real.

“We were so thrilled with how the trailer turned out, we continually found ourselves reverse engineering the story to fit in the gags. How would we decapitate a turkey at the parade? How can we roast a human turkey?” he notes. “We knew we had to make Thanksgiving a real slasher film, one that could exist whether you had seen the trailer or not.” It was clear that there was no way to make these iconic sequences work as an actual movie – which meant that if Thanksgiving was going to become real, they would need another approach.

With that in mind, they focused on the gestalt of the fake trailer, rather than the individual sequences themselves.

“We began with the working premise that Thanksgiving 1980 was the film the Grindhouse trailer was made from, and it was so shocking that every print was destroyed, and the only element that survived was the one trailer,” he says. “The new film we were making would be the reboot of that movie, starting again from scratch, but cherry picking elements we knew would work in the story we were telling today.”

During the many years of writing, rewriting, and getting it right, Roth says it is the fan sites who kept the Thanksgiving dream alive.

“Each year the horror sites would trot it out and lament that we never made it,” says Roth. “I must thank them for this – it kept us going when we were burned out on the idea or couldn’t figure out how to make it great. Finally, after a few story breakthroughs, the idea really began to click, and we worked it out.”

Having finally cracked the code, Roth took his pitch to Spyglass.

It was fortuitous: when Gary Barber, Chairman and CEO of Spyglass and executive producer of Thanksgiving, launched Spyglass, he set out to ramp up the new venture’s production pipeline and recognized the value in horror franchises.

“Spyglass has successfully relaunched long-running horror franchises, including Scream and Hellraiser, and we saw Thanksgiving as a film that could break new ground in the slasher genre as it combines signature throwback elements with fresh humor that makes audiences want to come back for seconds,” says Barber.

Having received his greenlight, Roth turned to casting and production while Spyglass partnered with TriStar Pictures to release the film worldwide, with Spyglass handling select international territories.

The heart of any slasher movie is the kills, and Eli Roth – the genre’s maestro – would make sure that Thanksgiving reflected his best work

“Every kill had to meet our standards of scare and gore; if the movie didn’t deliver on its promise, we’d be dead,” says Roth. And Roth had the added pressure of having done it already. “I found myself not just trying to match what I did in the trailer, but trying to top it in every way possible,” he continues.

Which is why early on, Roth began discussing the project with prosthetics genius Adrien Morot. “His craftsmanship is second to none. Adrien and his wife Kathy made the most incredibly realistic and beautiful heads and body parts I have ever seen. They were so beautiful! But of course, no matter how beautiful the fake head, it must be smashed in with a meat tenderizer.”

It’s a responsibility Roth takes very seriously. Getting to make a horror movie is, for him, standing on the shoulders of giants. “We look at the kills and say, okay, how can we outdo ourselves? And not just ourselves, but every other movie? It’s a badge of honor for us to get the best kill. Every time you make a horror movie, you have a chance to enter into the pantheon of horror greats. The opportunity is there if you take it. So with every death, we try to truly make it a classic.”

And Roth knows when it has that special something. “I have to have that ‘ugh’ feeling… I have a very, very, very high tolerance for movie gore, so if a scene is upsetting me, then I know it’s gonna work for a general audience.”

Another reason why Roth works so well and closely with Morot is they have a shared love for practical effects. “When I think of all of my favorite kills from all of my favorite movies, none of them are digital,” says Roth. “They’re all practical makeup effects. It’s a different emotional response.”

For Roth, a complicated kill is always nerve-wracking until the last drop of blood has been spilled. “I’m always most excited on a day when we’re filming a kill scene, I have this nervous pit in my stomach and I can’t relax until I know we have the kill on camera,” he says. “The timing of the head falling off, the swing of the axe, the way the blood pumps – a million things can go wrong. But when they go right there’s nothing like it.”

As for his own goals, Roth says it’s simple. “Now, hopefully, every year, at every dinner, for the rest of time, when someone reveals the turkey, they will say in a sister voice, ‘Dinner…is served!’ And everyone will scream.” 

ELI ROTH (Director / Story by / Producer) burst onto the film scene at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival with his directorial debut Cabin Fever. Made independently for $1.5 million dollars, the film sparked a frenzied seven-studio bidding war and went on to be Lionsgate’s highest grossing film that year. Roth’s follow-up film, Hostel, which he wrote, produced, and directed, and was presented and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino, earned him critical praise and was a massive worldwide hit, spawning a successful sequel, Hostel Part II, also written and directed by Roth. 

In 2015, Lionsgate released Roth’s Sundance hit thriller Knock Knock, which stars Keanu Reeves as a happily married man whose life is quickly turned upside down by Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas in her English language screen debut. Additionally, Roth co-wrote, produced, and directed The Green Inferno, which was shot on location in the Amazon, filming deeper into the jungle than any previous film. From 2015-2017, Roth hosted Discovery Channel’s hugely popular Shark Week and its late-night talk show “Shark After Dark,” both of which hit new network high ratings with Roth hosting. 

Roth also directed the critically acclaimed #1 family film The House with a Clock in Its Walls,starring Cate Blanchett and Jack Black for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and the gritty hit action film Death Wish starring Bruce Willis for MGM and Annapurna. 

As an actor, Roth has appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof segment of Grindhouse (in which he also wrote and directed the popular faux trailer Thanksgiving, which played between the features in the film) and Inglourious Basterds, in which he portrayed Sgt. Donnie Donowitz; he also directed the propaganda film-within-the-film, Nation’s Pride. Roth and his cast members received the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble, as well as the Broadcast Film Critic’s Choice Award and the People’s Choice Award. Most recently Roth appeared as the scene-stealing Live Nation head Andrew Finkelstein in Sam Levinson’s The Idol for HBO

As a producer, Roth has produced the hit films The Last Exorcism, The Man with the Iron Fists,Jon Watts’ directing debut Clown, and the hit Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Hemlock Grove,” which ran for three seasons. Roth hired an unknown Damien Chazelle to write the sequel to The Last Exorcism, starring Julia Garner and Ashley Bell. Roth’s critically acclaimed docuseries “Eli Roth’s History of Horror” ran for three seasons on AMC; his other series include “A Ghost Ruined My Life,” “My Possessed Pet,” “The Haunted Museum” starring Zak Bagans, and “Urban Legend,” all for Discovery Plus and HBO Max.

Roth’s critically acclaimed documentary Fin, a harrowing documentary detailing the destructive practices of the shark fin trade, premiered to rave reviews in July 2021 as part of Discovery’s Shark Wee. It went on to win Best Documentary at the Ischia Global Film Festival. 

Roth recently finished directing and co-writing the film adaptation of the hit videogame Borderlands for Lionsgate; the film reunites Roth with stars Cate Blanchett and Jack Black alongside an all-star cast including Kevin Hart, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Gina Gershon. 

Roth co-created the DreamWorks Animation kids’ series “Fright Krewe” with James Frey, which premiered in October 2023 on Hulu and Peacock and features an all-star cast including Melanie Laurent, Vanessa Hudgens, and Roth. The series was just renewed for a second season.

An avid shark lover, Roth spends his time promoting shark conservation, working as a board member of the Environmental Media Group. He is currently in post-production on another environmental documentary.

JEFF RENDELL (Story by / Screenplay by / Producer), a native of Newton, Massachusetts, became friends with Eli Roth in kindergarten. Their shared love of film as kids resulted in the creation of countless movies made in their basements. Every weekend they were shooting wacky comedy skits or something horror related.

Although Rendell’s continued interest in film had him attend Emerson College film school, he ended up working most of his adult life in the rare autograph business and then for his father’s World War II museum. The museum provided a connection to the film business in 2009 when Rendell brought several authentic World War II items to be used for Inglourious Basterds.