|The Vermithrax Pejorative Story
Behind the Scenes at the Making of Dragonslayer
Weird Worlds, 1981
|Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a UFO? No, it's Vermithrax Pejorative, the high-flying, fire-breathing
villainess of Dragonslayer.
In case you're wondering, Vermithrax Pejorative is sort of Latin for "The Worm of Thrace Who Makes
Things Worse" (rough translation). But Vermithrax is no worm. She's a bat-winged, razor-toothed,
full-scale dragon. She looks her best when flying, but on the ground she's no slouch, either. One look at
the fire-breathing face, and it's not too hard to understand why the folks in the movie serve up their
prettiest girls for the dragon's dinner.
Since interviewing a dragon could be hazardous to our health, we tried the special-effects men instead.
Vermithrax was designed by David Bunnett and Phil Tippett.
"Designing a dragon isn't just a matter of sticking wings on a dinosaur," they told WEIRD WORLDS.
"Vermithrax is 40 feet long, with a wingspan of 90 feet. But she had to look light enough to fly. So most of
her weight is at the head, neck, and shoulders. The rest of her is pretty streamlined."
Vermithrax was built at the Walt Disney Studios, then crated in sections and shipped to a movie studio in
London. There she was assembled and housed in a vaulted, misty lair that took up most of the world's
biggest sound-stage. As befits a Hollywood star, she had her own swimming pool -- the terrifying Lake of
Fire -- right in her front yard.
Some actresses rely on personality alone to get by. Not Vermithrax. She not only put her hydraulic
muscles into the act, but her whole 10-foot-face as well. Her eyebrows rose and fell, her nose wrinkled,
her nostrils flared, her eyes blinked and rolled, her temples bulged, and her tongue and throat swelled
with rage. You hardly ever see performances like that anymore!
If Vermithrax wins an Academy Award, one of the guys she ought to thank is Brian Johnson. Brian is the
special-effects wizard who created the monster that scared us under our seats in Alien. He used his skills
to animate Vermithrax. Without the help of Brian and his team, Vermithrax would never have been able to
(1) get off the ground; (2) grab people with its claws; (3) shoot 30-foot bursts of flame from its jaws; (4)
cause earthquakes; (5) tenderly caress its young.
There were 15 Vermithraxes besides the big 40-foot model. Most of these were miniatures weighing only
a few ounces. They had rubber muscles, latex skin, and were operated by stop-motion animation. Each
little dragon had a speciality. There were dragons that fly, dragons that walk, dragons that breathe fire,
and dragons for riding and stabbing.
"One of the models was 18-feet high," says actor Peter MacNicol. "As Galen, I was supposed to jump on
its back and drive a lance into its neck. to get the dragon moving, they started up the hydraulics -- and
the machinery went crazy. Vermithrax acted like a dog attacking a shoe, with me playing the shoe. I fell
off and landed on my own lance. It was supposed to be an unbendable alloy -- but I bent it!"
Since Peter plays the movie's hero, you'd expect a double to do most of the dangerous scenes. "I had a
double at first," Peter admits. "but the scenes he was in were no good. They had to be reshot because
he was too cautious. So from then on, I did most of the stunts. Luckily, I had some training before the
movie started. I was sent to a school in England that teaches actors to ride.
"Now I know how to ride, because I grew up in Texas. But the movie takes place in 6th-century England --
before modern saddles. So first they took away my saddle, then the bridle, then they gave the horse a
whack so that he broke into a gallop. I had to hold on with my knees. I never realized before how round
and slippery a horse can be! But I learned fast how to grip and steer with my legs.
"Two weeks later, they told me I'd have to do calisthenics on horseback -- headstands, and jumping onto
him while he was running. It was easier to fall off the dragon!"
Since Peter plays a magician's apprentice, he also had to learn magic for the role. "I studied with Harold
Taylor, who is the royal magician at Buckingham Palace. He taught me how to produce an egg from my
hair and how to change a rock into a coin. Then they told me I'd also have to learn to juggle. Instead of
seeing London after work, I'd be in my hotel room, practicing keeping three balls in the air."
In front of the camera, Peter's practice paid off in one take. But if you wonder where the sequence was in
the movie, the answer is -- on the cutting room floor! It's decisions like that that give homework a bad
Peter sees similarities between Dragonslayer and Star Wars. "Galen is a lot like Luke Skywalker. They're
both young men with a longing for adventure. They both have mentors who die and then come back. Luke
has Obi Wan, and Galen has the old magician. They both take on a dangerous enemy to rescue a girl in
Since the making of every movie has its weird moments, we asked Peter about strange occurrences while
"Something strange did happen on the last day of shooting," he told us. "I was supposed to look into a
pond and see the reflection of a huge dragonfly. But by that time we were too far over budget to build a
dragonfly. 'Forget the dragonfly,' I was told. 'Just look down at the pond.' I did, and in it I saw reflected
a perfect dragonfly! Would you believe it had suddenly appeared in the studio at just the right place and
the right time? It hovered there just long enough for the take, then it flew away. We all hoped it was a
What's the hardest part of making a special-effects spectacular? According to Peter, it's acting with the
blue screen on which the special effects will later be matted in. "In the scenes where I watch the dragon
flying, the dragon wasn't even built yet. I just reacted to a blank blue screen. There was no clue as to
how big the dragon would be or how fast it would be flying. Would it look menacing or wondrous? Would I
be reacting too tamely, or with too much terror? Would my head be turning too fast for its flight time, or
too slow? I finally decided anything that big would flap at about 20 miles an hour. Then I picked out a
couple of scratches at each side of the screen, and plotted the trajectory."
Will there be a sequel to Dragonslayer? "Oh, no! Much as I enjoyed playing Galen, I wouldn't want to play
the role for the rest of my life. I want to prove I can play a lot of different parts."
It was no good asking Vermithrax her opinion. After all, how many good parts are written for dragons