David R. Ellis, the director of Snakes on a Plane, the 2006 movie starring Samuel L. Jackson that veered between humour and horror and became an Internet sensation even before its release, was once asked if he had any practical advice for someone stuck on a plane full of snakes.
"Get off," Ellis said.
The 60-year-old, a chameleon of the entertainment industry who worked as an actor and stuntman earlier in his career, was found dead in the bathroom of his hotel room in the upscale neighbourhood of Sandton in Johannesburg.
Police said Tuesday that the hotel manager discovered Ellis' body at around 1 pm Monday (local time). Ellis, 60, was last seen Saturday in a restaurant by a friend, reported the South African Press Association.
"Nothing was found to be missing from his room and no foul play is being suspected at this stage," said Lieutenant Colonel Lungelo Dlamini, a police spokesman, told the news agency.
"The US Embassy has been informed and are believed to be making necessary arrangements for the body to be taken to his own country," Dlamini said.
Sapa said an autopsy was conducted Tuesday morning, but the cause of death was still unknown.
Ellis was in Johannesburg working on Kite, a remake of the 1998 Japanese anime film that was to have starred Jackson, who tweeted his condolences after hearing of the director's death.
Ellis' directing credits include Shark Night 3D, The Final Destination, Cellular and Final Destination 2
He also worked on such films as Misery, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Waterworld. Ellis began his Hollywood career as an actor in the 1970s before moving into stunts and directing.
Snakes on a Plane was a raucous ride that alternately delighted or appalled critics. Jackson played a law enforcement agent whose job is to protect a murder witness, and the criminals who would rather he didn't testify try to take him out by releasing a batch of poisonous snakes on a long-haul flight over the ocean.
"This is a movie that is uniquely, ideally suited for the rowdy, crowded communal experience, the likes of which we haven't seen since The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire wrote in a review. She called the movie, "intense and suspenseful, scary and gory, darkly funny and sometimes giddily hysterical."
It helped that bloggers created an Internet buzz that heightened anticipation before the film's release in a case study of how social media could spotlight what many might have dismissed as campy, B-grade, forgettable movie fare.
In the years since its release, occasional discoveries of smuggled or concealed snakes in airports or aboard airplanes around the world invariably draw comparisons to Ellis' thriller. Fortunately for the frequent flyer, such occurrences are rare.
Jackson has had memorable roles in numerous movies, but not all of them contain dialogue with the same kind of (expletive-laden) punch as his standout line in Ellis' snake movie: "I have had it with these ... snakes on this ... plane."
In 2006, Ellis offered advice for nervous flyers while talking to Brian Finkelstein, whose Snakes on a Blog blog helped publicise the movie.
"First of all, you shouldn't even fly unless you go with Sam Jackson, anymore, anywhere," he said. "You never know what could happen. If you have Sam, you're going to be cool."
Ellis mused on whether the stuck-with-snakes theme would work in other movies.
"Titanic would be good with a ton of snakes, and at the same time, the boat's going down. That would be kind of cool," Ellis said. "Or Cannonball Run, with snakes in every car. Or, you know, there's a lot you could do. Top Gun with snakes in their planes."
He is survived by his wife and three children.