May 28, 2023

ZombieFest IX

ZombieFest IX

Mahoning Drive-In Theater - Lehighton, PA
There have already been a lot of excellent nights at the Mahoning in the 2023 season, but the first big themed weekend on the calendar is ZombieFest.  This is an event that has taken place on Memorial Day Weekend every year since 2015, and the ninth one did not disappoint.

ZombieFest IX is a four day event that began on Thursday, May 25th and continues through tonight.  This year, we had tickets to Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.  As much as I would have loved to have gone to all four nights, there are a few things that I've got to take care of today.  For one thing, the weeds in my yard are quickly approaching Triffid status, so that's where I'm headed after I post this.

I already wrote about the screening of Army Of Darkness on Thursday night, so this is a digital scrapbook for Night Two and Night Three of the greatest drive-in celebration of the undead in the world. 

The special guest on Friday night was ventriloquist Nick Pawlow, who did a show with three of his characters: Chip Stone (the statue on the left), Yuk (the caveman in the center), and Happy (the zombie on the right).  It was a bit more Rated R than I was expecting, but it was a lot of fun.  Mr. Pawlow was also set up in the concession building before and after the show to meet fans and to sell copies of his DVDs, Mad Ron's Prevues From Hell and Celluloid Bloodbath: More Prevues From Hell.

Saturday night's special guest was actor Howard Sherman, who played the iconic zombie, Bub, in Day Of The Dead.  He was a very nice man, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to meet him.

If you haven't watched Day Of The Dead, you would recognize Mr. Sherman's character if you've just looked at the box at the video store.  Bub is front and center on just about everything piece of marketing or memorabilia that exists for this film.  Throughout the movie, Dr. Logan is working with the zombie in an effort to unlock his humanity and learn how they might train the horde away from their impulse to behave as flesh-eating monsters.  It looks like it actually might be working, but the conflict between the scientists and the military cause it to all go to hell.

Mr. Sherman has over a hundred acting credits to his name (as both Howard Sherman and Sherman Howard), including roles in Lethal Weapon 2, Tales From The Darkside, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Quantum Leap, Star Trek: Voyager, and he was the voice of Blight in Batman Beyond.  Aside from his role as Bub, the three roles that I know him best from all occurred on television in the 90's.

Mr. Sherman appears in the third episode (although it was the fifth episode that aired) of one of my favorite science fiction shows of all time, Sliders.  The episode is called Prince Of Wails which takes place in an alternate dimension in which Britain won the Revolutionary War and San Francisco is a city in the British States Of America.  Mr. Sherman plays a character named Hendrick, who serves as the television producer and assistant to this world's version of Professor Arturo who is the villainous Sheriff of San Francisco.

He also played Dr. Dietz in the 1994 ABC miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand.  It's my favorite book of all time, and the '94 miniseries is something that I've watched countless times since I first saw it as a teenager.

Dr. Dietz is the main doctor in the CDC center in Stovington, Vermont where Stu Redman is being held against his will as the government tries to learn why he is immune to the Captain Trips virus.  There are two scenes where this character is front and center.  The first takes place before the world has completely succumbed to the superflu and the staff are still working diligently to find a cure.  Dr. Dietz brings a guinea pig named Geraldo into Stu's room and shares with him the fact that the guinea pig has been breathing the same air as Stu and has not contracted the virus, which they all see as a promising sign.  The second scene is in the final days of the world's collapse.  Dr. Dietz is one of the last non-immune survivors who is still alive, but it's clear that he has the virus and only a short time to live.  He enters Stu's room to execute him because he believes Stu doesn't deserve to survive, but Stu overcomes the sick doctor and makes his escape from the facility.

As much as I love Sliders and The Stand, the television role that I know Mr. Sherman best for is an episode of Seinfeld that first aired in 1993.  The episode is called The Junior Mint.

In this episode, Mr. Sherman plays the role of an artist and ex-boyfriend of Elaine named Roy.  He's in the hospital to have his spleen removed, and the surgery is scheduled to take place in an operating theater with medical students observing from above.  When Kramer shows an interest in how the surgery will be conducted, the doctor invites he and Jerry to join the med students in their observation.  Kramer brings a pack of Junior Mints to snack on while he's watching, and he accidentally drops a piece of the chocolate candy into Roy's open surgical cavity.

It's one of the all-time classic episodes of Seinfeld that I remember my grandfather and I both laughing like crazy when we watched it together when it when I was a teenager.  If I still had that Seinfeld-branded Junior Mints box, I would have brought it with me to the drive-in and asked Mr. Sherman to autograph it, but I'm pretty sure that I tossed it out.

Mr. Sherman did sign a mini-poster of Day Of The Dead, which is going straight into a frame to hang on the wall above my VHS/DVD shelves, where it will go alongside the Children Of The Corn mini-poster that fellow horror movie icon and Seinfeld cast member Courtney Gains autographed for me at Camp Blood last season.

Before I get into the six movies that we got to see over the weekend (all projected from original 35mm prints), I want to take a moment to acknowledge Dave at the front gate for his work on the banners that are shown during the pre-show.  He must have put a hell of a lot of work into them, because I've seen different ones every weekend that we've been to the drive-in this season, and most of them are customized for the event that's taking place that night.

The first movie on Friday night was the 1981 Lucio Fulci Italian horror classic, The Beyond.  It's a story about a Louisiana hotel that was built on top of one of the seven gates to hell that exist in the world, and the woman who inherits the property.  It's creepy as hell and the exact kind of movie that has an amplified effect on the audience in the cool late May air at a drive-in theater.

If there is a down side to this film, it's the fact that they give far too much of it away in the trailer.  The Mahoning shows vintage trailers before all of their movies, and they often choose ones for upcoming shows.  This is an aspect of the Mahoning that I usually love, but it really did a disservice to the experience this time.

One of the trailers that we got to see at least three or four times in the weeks leading up to ZombieFest was for a movie called 7 Doors Of Death.  This was what the film was called when it was first released in the United States in 1983.  This version of the film used an entirely different musical score and had several minutes of footage cut from its runtime.  I'm very glad that the print that we got to see was from the 1981 European release with the original music and all of the scenes intact, but the trailer showed most of the death scenes in the movie.  So, even though I had never seen this movie before and didn't know what the story was going to be about, I knew which characters were going to die as soon as they were introduced, and I knew exactly how they were going to die.  It would have been a much better experience if that wasn't the case.

The first intermission included the Mahoning favorite Rico's Nachos commercial, which reminded me that I have to get started on my Uncle Rico's Nachos costume if I'm going to have it ready for the Napoleon Dynamite screening this July.

The second movie of the night was the iconic 1980 film, The Fog.  This was John Carpenter's next film after Halloween and the fourth movie that he directed overall.  It's the story of a ghost ship called the Elizabeth Dane that has come for vengeance on a coastal California town whose founders deliberately wrecked the ship and plundered its remains for gold 100 years earlier.

I've watched this movie once before, but I'm pretty sure that Friday night was my first time seeing it in over twenty years.  Again, this is an experience that was heightened by the cold night air.  We sat outside in our camping chairs under big thick blankets to watch the first two films on Friday and Saturday night, and holding the blankets up to keep that bite in the air away really adds to the atmosphere of a movie like this.

They showed a Bugs Bunny cartoon called Broom-Stick Bunny from 1956 during the second intermission.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to pay too close of attention to it because we were in the process of packing our chairs, blankets, and the rest of our stuff in the trunk so that we could watch the third movie in our car.  It was about 45 degrees by the time the closing credits rolled on The Fog, so for as much as the cold air can create a chilling atmosphere for a horror flick, I have my limits.

The third and final film on Friday night was the most disappointing movie of the weekend.  It was the 1962 Herk Harvey psychological horror film Carnival Of Souls.

Please forgive me for ranting, but I've got to get this off my chest.  First of all, I am not a "film buff".  I'm just a guy who likes movies.  I like stories in any form that they take, whether it be on the screen, on an audio recording, or in the pages of a book.  I don't know very much about cinematography or lighting effects. but for me, these are all just things have the power to enhance the effect of a good story.  However, while they can make a good story great, I don't think that they have the ability to make a poor story into a worthwhile experience.  I think of it in much the same way that I think of the way that food presentation at a restaurant.  If the meal doesn't taste very good, the fact that it looks pretty on the plate doesn't mean too much to me.

That restaurant analogy sums up my experience with Carnival Of Souls.  I looked it up as I started writing this and found that it has a cult following due in large part to its cinematography and "foreboding atmosphere".  Frankly, I didn't notice anything that was particularly impressive in either of those things, but even if I concede the point... even if it were the greatest example of cinematography or atmosphere ever put on film, it's almost meaningless to me because the story is a poorly plagiarized version of the 1960 Twilight Zone episode The Hitchhiker, and the radio play of the same name that the episode was based.

The Hitchhiker is an all-time classic episode of The Twilight Zone that is beautifully shot and really does have a foreboding atmosphere.  Part of the reason is that its 25 minute runtime gives us a sense of panic as the protagonist's internal dialogue and her interactions with the sailor that she picks up become increasingly frantic as the story plays out, until they reach a peaceful but eerie calm at the end of the story after she realized what has happened.

Carnival Of Souls is a beat-for-beat copy of the story told in The Hitchhiker, with a lot of filler stuffed in the middle to pad out a 25 minute story into a feature length film.  Whereas the Twilight Zone episode starts off in the aftermath of the car accident that takes the protagonists life, the accident starts off the film.  We see a car full of young men racing a car full of young women, and in the process, the boys accidentally bump into the girls car which sends it off of the side of a bridge and into a river.  At this point, I thought that the story would involve retribution against the boys who lied about the cause of the accident, but... nope.  You never see them again.

The protagonist then decides she's going to leave Kansas and go work as an organist for a church in Salt Lake City... because why the hell not?  Once she's there, she's drawn to an old abandoned pavilion at the Great Salt Lake, but the minister who she works for tell her that it's against the law to visit.  She sees repeated visions of a ghoulish man (this movie's stand in for the hitchhiker), and she pretends to have interest in a man because she's afraid to be alone, but he comes to believe that she's crazy and he runs away (this movie's stand-in for the sailor).  This all wraps up when the hitchhiker... sorry, "the ghoulish man" catches up with her at the abandoned pavilion at the Great Salt Lake where he, and other random ghouls, overcome her.  She has seemingly disappeared from Salt Lake City, but back in Kansas, they finally manage to pull the car from the accident that the protagonist was in at the start of the movie out of the river and, lo and behold, the protagonist was in the car because she was dead the whole time.

If the plagiarism wasn't as blatant or if there was at least some acknowledged the original works, I might have been able to enjoy this.  I kept watching and hoping for something to happen that took the story down a different road, but it never did.  The plot twist at the end was the one that you see coming a mile away.  The movie bombed at the box office, likely because audiences in 1962 also saw the plot twist coming from a mile away, as many of them had just seen a better version of this story on television just two years earlier.  I expect that the only thing that did manage to shock them is that Rod Serling didn't have a voice over before the credits rolled.

There is one interesting side note to this film.  In a bit of poetic justice, they forgot to include a copyright notice on the 35mm prints of Carnival Of Souls when it was released in the United States, which meant that the movie was automatically considered to be public domain.  This resulted in the film being hacked to pieces and aired on television stations at various lengths across the country, presumably without a dime going to Herk Harvey

The first movie of Saturday night was one of the greatest zombie movies of all time, the 1985 George A. Romero horror classic Day Of The Dead.  Its the third movie of the Living Dead saga, coming seventeen years after the original Night Of The Living Dead and seven years after Dawn Of The Dead.  By this point in the story, zombies have completely taken over the world.  It follows a small group of survivors, made up of scientists, military personnel, a radio operator and a helicopter pilot who are living in an underground bunker in Florida.  

The movie begins after the death of the military commander, Major Cooper, and its centered on the conflict between the rest of the soldiers, who are far less sympathetic to the scientific research than Major Cooper was, and the civilians who believe that their work is the key to humanity's survival in the future.  The lead scientist is Dr. Logan (aka: Dr. Frankenstein), who has been conducting some pretty bizarre experiments and seems increasingly detached from reality.  However, his work with a zombie that he has named Bub has led to an interesting discovery - the zombies have retained at least some of their memories before death, and they are capable of not only learning new behaviors, but of experiencing emotion.  The conflict between the soldier and civilian survivors reaches a boiling point before the research could be applied in a way that could help the group survive, and all hell breaks loose between the two sides.

This is an incredible movie that gets better every time I watch it.  Like all great zombie works, it explores the fact that the human survivors are more dangerous than the zombies themselves, and it gives you the sense of feeling trapped and hopeless right up until the end.  If you've never watched it before, you don't have to see Night Of The Living Dead or Dawn Of The Dead before watching Day Of The Dead.  The movies share no characters or settings in common.  All you have to know is that the world has been overrun by zombies, and they're out to rip apart and consume any living humans that they can get their hands on.

Phantasm II was the second feature that was shown on Saturday night.  I've never been able to get too invested in the Phantasm movies as horror flicks, but as unintentional comedy, these movies are solid gold.  Take this quote from Reggie that is said in the first ten minutes of the film:

"That story about me blowing up my own house because it was infested with midgets?  Mike, that wasn't real. Your doctor said that it was your own paranoid delusions caused by your brother's death."

When a movie starts off with a line like that, you know you're in for an interesting ride.  The real selling point is that this line was said with the utmost of sincerity.  There's nothing that's less funny to me than a movie that is trying too hard to be an absurd comedy.  The best example of this is the Scary Movie franchise, but there are plenty of other examples, particularly in indie horror films from the 2000's.  However, when you're watching a movie that is trying like hell to be a scary only to go completely off the rails, it can be a lot of fun.

If a dueling chainsaw fight is your idea of a good time (and I can't imagine why it wouldn't be), this is a movie you need to see at least once in your life.  As long as you don't go into this expecting to be scared by a serious horror flick, there's a lot of fun to be had here.

I took Harvey for a short walk under the screen so that he could do his business while the credits rolled, and I noticed that their copyright warning includes a warning that you would face the wrath of The Tall Man if you bootlegged their film.  Imagine opening your front door only to see the scowling face of Angus Scrimm looking down and shouting "I hear you've copied our movie, boy!"  The movie might not be scary, but that's a hell of a lot more frightening than any FBI warning I've ever seen.

They played trailers for the upcoming Haunted House Party weekend at the Mahoning between the second and third features on Saturday night.  I'm really looking forward to this!  I never got to see Poltergeist or its sequel on the big screen, and some of the trailers that I've seen for the movies that I've never watched before look pretty damn interesting - especially The Legend Of Hell House and Burnt Offerings.

The movie that closed out Saturday night is one of my all-time favorite.  Dead Heat was released in 1988.  It stars Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo as partners in an 80's buddy cop action movie in which one of them happens to become a zombie about a quarter of the way into the film.  If that isn't enough to get you to check this movie out, they're trying to take down a crime ring run by Vincent Price who is bringing dead criminals back to life to commit armed robbery.

This movie is the epitome of balls-to-the-wall 80's action comedy.  It had me smiling from ear to ear the first time I saw it, and it had the same effect on me last night on the big screen.  It's absolutely ridiculous in all the right ways, and an absolute must-see if you haven't already.  It's available to stream for free on Tubi, and if you have no plans for the next hour and twenty-four minutes, I implore you to grab a soda and a bag of popcorn, kick back, and click here to have your mind blown.

And that's a wrap for my experience of ZombieFest IX.  As I'm writing this, I kind of regret not getting tickets for tonight too, but I think my wife might strangle me if I drag her to three straight nights of zombie triple features.  We'll be back in just a few days for Stand By Me and on Friday for the start of Werewolf Weekend.