May 27, 2024

Four Nights Of Undead Mayhem

Zombiefest X
Mahoning Drive-In Theater - Lehighton, PA
The first long weekend on the Mahoning calendar is Zombiefest.  It's an annual tradition that dates back to the year that the Mahoning Drive-In Theater rose out of the ashes to become a living museum of 35mm film after the movie industry transitioned over to digital filmmaking.
Poster artwork by Jason Cortez of Sons Of Thunder Studios

We discovered the Mahoning in 2021, but our first trip to this event came in 2022 with Zombiefest VIII.  That year, we went to the second and fourth night.  We went to nights one, two, and three of Zombiefest IX last season.  This year, although my wife is sticking with three nights, there was no way that I could miss running the table with all four nights of Zombiefest X.

Show banner designed by Andrew Kern

How could I not come to all four nights?  Look at that lineup!  This is an all-you-can-eat buffet of George A. Romero zombie classics, with two of his anthology horror films added in for good measure.  If I'm being completely honest, we only had tickets to the first three nights originally, but I decided to fly solo on Sunday to catch the latter-day Romero trilogy when it occurred to me that I still regret not coming out to see Re-Animator, Bride Of Re-Animator, and Necronomicon in 2022.

Poster and T-shirt artwork by Jason Cortez of Sons Of Thunder Studios

The poster and t-shirt for Zombiefest X was designed by Jason Cortez, who is the same talented artist who designed it for the previous two years that we were in attendance.  It features the great George A. Romero front and center with iconic actors and images from some of the films that were shown over the weekend.  The man with the gun to the bottom left of Romero was the special guest for the weekend.

Last year's special guest was actor Howard Sherman who played the iconic zombie Bub in Day Of The Dead.  This year's guest was even cooler... and he's looking damn good for a 76 year old dude, isn't he?

Mr. Ken Foree became a horror legend in 1978 when he played Offer Peter Washington in Dawn Of The Dead.  Since that time, he has worked in dozens of films, including From BeyondTerror SquadPhantom Of The Mall, Death Spa, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, The Devil's Rejects, Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween, and The Lords Of Salem.  His work in television spans five decades which include roles on Kojak, The Dukes Of Hazzard, Hill Street Blues, TJ Hooker, Remington Steele, The A-Team, Blue Thunder, Riptide, Knight Rider, Quantum Leap, Matlock, Renegade, Viper, Babylon 5, and The X-Files.  He was a very nice man who seemed to dig my t-shirt.

Speaking of that Romero/Ramones t-shirt, I was wearing it and my red sunglasses when I met Mr. Sherman last season, so I decided to try to replicate that look for a second photo with a cast member from the original holy trilogy of zombie films.  I'll have to keep this shirt handy this time next year... just in case.

The special food for the weekend at the concession stand was The Zomburger.  I's basically a Sloppy Joe in which the meat has been marinating in a sriracha tomato sauce.  This is the first year that I tried one and it's pretty tasty.  It isn't nearly as spicy as you might be thinking when you see that it's made with sriracha, but it's got a nice little kick.

And now... onto the movies!


The 2004 Zack Snyder remake of Dawn Of The Dead has a special place in my heart.  It premiered in theaters twenty years ago in March 2004.  My girlfriend at the time was not a fan of horror movies, and I really didn't have any friends back then who liked them either, so I decided to go to see it by myself.  I hadn't ever gone to a movie alone before so I thought it was going to feel kind of weird or off-putting, but it was just the opposite.  I loved it so much that I went right back up to the counter and bought a ticket to see a second movie to see by myself immediately after the credits rolled.  Since that time, I've gone out to see lots of movies by myself and I have never once regretted that decision.  I'd always prefer to go with other people if they're the right kind of people; in other words, someone whose company I enjoy and who will watch the movie without whipping out their cell phone or complaining every time they see something that they don't immediately understand.  However, in the absence of someone like that, seeing a movie by yourself is an extremely pleasant experience.

Dawn Of The Dead (2004) is an excellent horror remake.  It incorporated the origins of the zombie apocalypse and the setting of a shopping mall from the 1978 film, but practically everything else was changed to keep things fresh and original.  It's set in a different city (Milwaukee, as opposed to the Philadelphia area), and the characters and their motivations are completely separate from one another, but the change that I noticed the most at the time that I first saw it was in the zombies themselves.  The original Dawn Of The Dead showed the undead as slow, shambling creatures.  You could easily avoid or outrun one or two of them, but they overcome their targets through sheer numbers and because even though they're slow, they move at a steady pace.  You will get tired from running from them.  You will have to rest and sleet.  They won't stop until you've put a bullet in their head or until they're eating your flesh.  The zombies in the Dawn Of The Dead remake are more along the lines of the infected in 28 Days Later.  They don't have superhuman speed or strength (aside from the fact that they don't get tired), but their slow stumbling will turn into a fast sprint toward you once they sense that there is human flesh nearby.

This is a movie that I strongly recommend picking up on DVD or Bluray if you're a horror fan.  I haven't kept up with all of the different editions, but the original DVD release included a ton of special features, including a 20 minute news broadcast of the zombie apocalypse that is unfolding during the movie, a video diary of Andy who is trapped by himself at the gun store across the street from the mall, and an excellent directors commentary track.

The first movie on Friday night was Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night Of The Living Dead.  This was a first time screening for me.  It could never replace the original, but it's a solid movie, and it gives a lot more character depth to Barbara, who spends most of the original film gibbering in fear.  From what I've been told, a lot of the ideas that Savini wanted to bring to his version of the classic zombie film were either cut to bring it down to an R rating or disallowed by the producers and the studio.

Next up was the 1982 Stephen King and George A. Romero anthology classic: Creepshow.  The movie is made up of five short stories, with a short wrap-around that ties them together as stories found inside of a young boy's horror comic book.

I have mixed feelings when it comes to the anthology sci-fi and horror format.  I'm a big fan of them when they're brought to television, such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales From The Darkside, Tales From The Crypt, Amazing Stories, Monsters, and Black Mirror just to name a few, but they tend to fall a little flat for me when it comes to the big screen, and Creepshow is no exception.

Two of the five stories in Creepshow are excellent.  The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill is equal parts campy, comical, and terrifying.  It stars Stephen King himself as a dopey bumpkin who discovers a meteor that causes an alien grass to take over his body.  The story after that is even better.  Something To Tide You Over stars Leslie Nielsen as an absolute bastard who discovers that his wife is having an affair with a man played by Ted Danson.  Nielsen's character doesn't love his wife at all, but he takes vengeance on her and her boyfriend because of "the principle of the matter", which is in my opinion the most slap-ass stupid reason to do anything.  It's the way that he takes his vengeance that makes this an iconic moment in the history of horror.  I don't want to spoil anything in case someone happens upon this who hasn't seen it, but it's pure nightmare fuel.

The other three stories in Creepshow aren't really my cup of tea.  It's not that I think they're bad or anything, but they're kind of forgettable to me... so much that I had to look them up while writing this just to remember what they were about.  Although some may disagree with this assessment, my recommendation to have the ultimate Creepshow experience is to watch the second and third stories from Creepshow followed by the entirety of Creepshow 2.  Nothing in Creepshow 2 rises to the level of The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill or Something To Tide You Over, but it's better than the rest of the first film by a mile.  I haven't watched Creepshow 3 yet, but from what I've been told, you can skip that one altogether.

Tales From The Darkside: The Movie is a movie that I had heard about for many years, but never got around to watching until Friday night at the Mahoning.  Like Creepshow, it's another anthology horror movie.  The screenplay was written by George A. Romero and Michael McDowell.  The fact that Romero had no involvement with Creepshow 3, as well as the tone of the 1990 Tales From The Darkside: The Movie have inspired the horror community to identify the latter as the "real" third Creepshow film.

This may be my new favorite horror anthology film.  It's made up of three short stories with a wrap-around that features Debbie Harry as a cannibalistic housewife.  The first tale, Lot 249, is based on a short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle.  It features one of my favorite actors of all time, Steve Buscemi, along with Christian Slater and Julianne Moore in a story about a poor college student getting his revenge on the wealthy classmates who cheated him.  The second story, Cat From Hell, stars two Christmas movie icons: William Hickey, who played Uncle Louis from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and David Johansen (aka: Buster Poindexter) who was The Ghost Of Christmas Past in Scrooged.  The final story stars James Remar (Ajax from The Warriors) and Rae Dawn Chong (Ika from Quest For Fire)

I'm no good at writing movie reviews, but I will say this:  I woke up at around 5:30 in the morning on Friday, worked a full 8 hour shift, then spent all afternoon and evening on the lot in a state that was less than sober.  In fairness, I may have dozed off for the last half hour of Creepshow, but I was wide awake and in rapt attention from start to finish of Tales From The Darkside despite the fact that it didn't start until after 1:30 am on Saturday morning and I was awake for nearly 24 hours by the time the credits rolled.  I don't mean to oversell it because it's not going to change your life, but if you're a fan of horror films, I'm pretty confident that you'll have a good time watching this.

After spending two days meeting fans, taking pictures, and signing autographed, Mr. Ken Foree introduced the first film of Saturday night by sharing stories about his friend, Duane Jones, who starred in one of the most iconic and influential horror films of all time, Night Of The Living Dead.

There's something about the atmosphere at the Mahoning that makes black and white films pop, and that was absolutely true for the 1968 horror classic that single handedly created the modern zombie sub-genre, Night Of The Living Dead.

Mother nature gave us an immersive experience for this one.  It's raining very early in the film when the first zombie attacks Barbara and Johnny in the cemetery, and it started to rain on the lot at the same time.  We saw lightning in the sky around the screen to accompany the sound of thunder in the movie.  The rain that followed meant that we had to sit in our car for most of the first movie, but it gave us an immersive experience that you can't plan for.  The rain cleared up toward the end of the film, and we were able to set up our chairs outside again during the first intermission and enjoy the rest of the night outside.

Ken Foree came out again after the first intermission to introduce his most iconic film and to have a brief Q&A with the fans in attendance.  He's one of my favorite guests that the Mahoning has ever brought out in the time since we've been coming here... just a very cool, laid back, friendly man who seems to genuinely enjoy meeting fans and telling stories about his experiences working in movies and television.

If Night Of The Living Dead laid the groundwork for modern zombie horror, the 1978 film Dawn Of The Dead set the standard that everything that followed strived to live up to.  It's a perfect harmony of gore, comedy, and social commentary, and it's a movie that I notice something new every time I watch it.  For some reason, I focused on Fran this time around, and I never noticed how irritating of a character she is for most of the movie.  All she seems to do is lay around the mall smoking cigarettes and complaining while contributing as little as possible to the group's efforts until Flyboy teaches her how to fly the helicopter.  In a modern zombie flick, she's the kind of character that would probably have been chucked down the escalator into a pack of hungry zombies when the rest of the group got tired of listening to her whining.

Ken Foree in Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

Up to this point in Zombiefest X, we saw a total of six movies, four of which were an original and its remake: Night Of The Living Dead from 1968 and 1990, and Dawn Of The Dead from 1978 and 2004.  If you're a horror fan, each of these movies are worth watching and enjoyable for what they bring to the table, but you should probably know going in that the remakes take a very different approach from one another.

The Tom Savini version of Night Of The Living Dead tells the same exact story, but in a slightly different way.  It's not quite a shot-for-shot remake because there are differences.  The newer version lacks the unspoken commentary on race relations, and it presents Barbara as a much more well-rounded character, but if you've seen the original film and someone put on the remake without telling you what it was called, you would immediately recognize it as a remake.  That cannot be said for Zack Snyder version of Dawn Of The Dead.  It's an excellent movie in its own right, but the only thing that the remake has in common with the original is that it's a zombie film in which a group of survivors take shelter in a shopping mall.  If the remake had any other title, there's a good chance that you wouldn't link it to the 1978 original any more than you would to Night Of The Comet or any other apocalyptic movie that includes an abandoned mall.

The fog rolled in during the second intermission, which led to a very cool and eerie atmosphere for the last movie of Night Three.

The final movie of Saturday night into Sunday morning was the conclusion to George A. Romero's original zombie trilogy; the 1985 classic Day Of The Dead.  I'm not going to go into too much detail about the movie itself, partly because I wrote about it last year when it screened during Zombiefest IX, but mostly because I want to talk about the fog.

The photo you're seeing here is from our regular spot in the front row to the right of the digital booth.  It was very foggy, so seeing any details in the picture for the first half hour or so was out of the question, but you definitely could see well enough to enjoy the movie.  However, the picture was much less clear the further back you went on the lot.  If anyone reading this ever finds themselves in this predicament at the Mahoning, the best advice I can give you is to just walk up and find a spot to settle in on the grass in front of the screen.  It's a pretty large area so you'll have plenty of room to spread out and get comfortable, and the atmosphere of seeing a horror movie under these conditions is definitely worth going out of your way for.

One of the things I've always found amusing about foggy nights on the lot is how it makes light appear as if it's coming off of the screen and into the world outside.

Rob could explain this is a much more accurate and succinct way than I ever could, but what you're seeing here is a strip of fog being lit by the projector beam.  When a character has a flashlight or a candle, it usually means that they're in a dark environment, so the light source (such as the helmet light in this picture) is the brightest thing on the screen.  It's also the lightest part of the beam from the projector, so it gives off an optical illusion that makes it seem like the character is shining the light off of the movie screen and into the real world.  As neat as it might look in a still photo like this, it looks a hundred times cooler when you're watching the movie on the lot.

This is one of my favorite photos that I've ever taken.  I was walking back to my car from the concession building when I saw what looked like a ghostly spirit of Bub being pulled toward the screen.  Naturally a warm and clear night is ideal, but there's something about seeing the projector fighting through the fog is immensely cool to me.


Sunday night was dedicated to what has become known as the modern Romero zombie trilogy.  The attendance for tonight fell off significantly.  I get it... it's hard for anything to compare to the original trilogy.  Hell, I almost skipped out on this night myself, but I'm glad that I didn't.  The weather was absolutely beautiful, and I had the opportunity to see two movies for the first time. 

The movie that I had already seen before from the final night of Zombiefest X was the first film, Land Of The Dead.  I didn't catch this in theaters during its original run in 2005, but I rented it soon after it was released on home video.  My first reaction wasn't overwhelmingly positive.  I thought it was pretty good and that it had a lot of interesting concepts, but it came out not too long after 28 Days Later and the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn Of The Dead, and I think I may have judged Land Of The Dead a bit too harshly in comparison.  It's a damn good movie that's dripping with commentary on how modern Americans would very likely react to the zombie apocalypse after it became part of everyday life.  It also stars Dennis Hopper as an absolute son-of-a-bitch who steals every scene that he's a part of.

The second movie of Sunday night was Diary Of The Dead.  This 2007 film is kind of a hybrid of a found footage and road trip movie that takes place during the early days of a zombie apocalypse.  A group of film students and their professor travel from Pittsburgh to Scranton, and one of the students decides that he's going to document everything that's going on so that survivors can learn from the footage.

This was my first time seeing this movie.  I think the idea here definitely has potential, but it wasn't executed well.  The characters spend FAR too much time on characters bickering about the fact that one of them is filming.  I swear, it felt like those conversations made up about 50% of the dialogue and I don't think I'm exaggerating much.  It didn't add the sense of realism that I'm sure they were going for.  It was just repetitive and irritating, and I found myself rooting for everybody but the professor to get eaten by zombies just so that I could stop hearing their voices.

The final movie of Zombiefest X was the final movie that was directed by George A. Romero before his death: Survival Of The Dead.

I was kind of excited to see this movie for a few reasons.  First of all, I had never seen it before.  Secondly, it was only screened in 20 theaters during it's original theatrical run in 2009, and the Mahoning Drive-In Theater makes #21.  It was a financial flop that earned less than $400k on a $4 million dollar budget, so the number of people who have watched a 35mm print of this film over the past 15 years may very well be fewer than the paid attendance at regular season Phillies game this year.  I was also interested because of how bad everybody I talked to said that it was.  The general consensus from the folks that I spoke to and overheard about Sunday night's triple feature seemed to be that Land Of The Dead is pretty good, Diary Of The Dead is ok, and Survival Of The Dead is terrible.

In fairness, the special effects in Survival Of The Dead are not great, and the whole production comes across like an original production made for the Sci-Fi Channel, but I thought it was a hell of a lot better than Diary Of The Dead.  It follows a group of AWOL soldiers who you briefly see in Diary Of The Dead.  They travel to an island off the coast of Delaware that has been inhabited by two old, unhinged Irish-American men who have been feuding throughout their lives.  One of these men has chained up the undead members of his community to circumstances that they would have been found themselves during their life.  For example, the mailman is chained to a mailbox, and he walks back and forth delivering and collecting the same piece of mail.  His ultimate goal is to domesticate the zombies by teaching them to eat something other than human flesh.

I'm not going to tell you that Survival Of The Dead is a stone cold classic, but I've seen a lot of horror movies that are much worse.  It doesn't stand up to Romero's work in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, but it's a solid flick that tells a good story that is easy to enjoy for what it is.

And that's a wrap on Zombiefest X... four fun nights of old friends, new friends, old favorite films, and first time screenings.  I'm already looking forward to coming back later this week.