Monday, September 21, 2015

On Facing Fears, Creeps, and The Dead

I can't remember when I first became aware that "Night of the Living Dead" existed. I guess to me it's always been there, black and white and archaic, sporadically appearing on late-night TV channels past my bedtime -- its low-budget feel and library stock footage soundtrack making it seem just a little bit off, like an unnarrated documentary from some obscure public-access station from who knows where. It wasn't until the 1990 remake version similarly started popping up during late-night channel-surfing sessions in my teen years that the movie began to occupy a specific place in my mind.

It was, no doubt, the visual impact of the zombies that did it for me. Whereas the original is atmosphere first, appearance second, when you watch the remake you can't help but be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by what advances in makeup over the years have produced from a visual standpoint. Those zombies are pretty dang scary on their own, hideous and menacing in a way the original version isn't.

I always had a big imagination as a kid. Part of that imagination was that I was afraid of everything. Not in a whimpering, crying way, like a kid who runs from the vacuum cleaner, but more in an inward, psychologically tormented way. I was afraid of things I saw in books or on TV. Pictures in fairy tale books, episodes of "Fantasy Island", even a trademark symbol in a children's reading book used to scare me. Not always immediately, but often later, after I had already looked at them, when the image of whatever I had looked at hours or days before would suddenly reappear in my head, amplified and elaborated upon by unknown forces in my brain, haunting me. It was mainly at night when I suffered, when Mom and Dad were asleep, the lights were off, and I was lying in silence -- but not sleep -- in my bed. Oh the bleak, unspeakable things I imagined under the bed, in the closet, lurking nearby in the blackness. All I could do was lie there, perfectly motionless, my head covered, waiting for morning.

As I got older I started to develop the paradoxical human impulse of actively seeking out fear. Sure those ghost books at the library were scary, but darn it if they weren't fun to read. But the books that seemed pleasantly creepy during the daytime, when I sat on the couch reading them in the sunlight with Mom, turned sinister at night, when I was by myself in the darkness. I couldn't bear to even have them in the room with me, scared that I would look over and find them open to a certain picture and Mom and Dad and the daylight wouldn't be there to save me from whatever nameless horror would come next.

"Creepshow" was one of those movies that HBO played frequently in the early 80s. I considered myself fortunate to be flipping channels and come across it. That is, until I had to go to bed afterwards. I think that movie was designed in a laboratory to scare kids...the music, the tone, the dark humor. It's based on comic books for crying out loud. Within the first few minutes the framing story of the movie has established that the monsters you read about in books are real. It's also an anthology, meaning five separate episodes to give you nightmares forever. I loved it.

I can remember turning my head during the scary parts, waiting for the doom-laden piano chords and screaming to stop before I dared look at the screen again. Sometimes, when I felt brave, I snuck a peek. I always regretted it.

So you take an impressionable kid and the right kind of horror movie and you get something both beautiful and terrible, attractive and repulsive. Maybe it's the age I saw it. Maybe it's the movie itself. It's most likely both, and "Creepshow" remains to this day one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. I've only watched it in its entirety a couple of times since those days on HBO circa 1984, but the old magic is still there. The reason I haven't watched it more often is that it's on my informal list of what I consider to be "movies of significant personal historical importance". I prefer to keep such movies hermetically sealed in my mind, remembering them as they were, not as they may be interpreted when I watch them now. Those ghosts are best left alone.

But like always, when it comes to horror movies I can't leave well enough alone.  So when I heard that the main attraction at ScareFest 8 in Lexington was none other than George A. Romero, Father of the Modern Zombie Genre, I knew I had to be there.

We made it to the convention center, parked, and followed the signs once we got inside.  The "Night of the Living Dead Q & A" session was set to begin at 12:30, so we only had minutes to spare.  We moved quickly through the entrance ticket checkpoint and went into the convention hall proper.  There were people everywhere, naturally most of the nerdy / weird type, including not a few of them in various ghastly costume.  I looked at the signs on the meeting rooms, trying to see something about where we needed to be, but without success.  Finally I consulted the convention program booklet they had handed us when we entered.  A few pages flipped and I saw what I needed to know: Thoroughbred Ballroom (3rd Floor).  The parenthetical part was what would doom us, it appeared.  We were some distance from any apparent access to this third floor, and the wide expanse of a convention hall crowded with some thousand people stood between us from any beginning of finding it. 

And so we began to slice and dice through the crowd, fighting back toward the entrance.  At one point I found myself face-to-face with one of the gruesomely made-up undead dancers, fresh off an absolutely riveting performance of "Thriller" on a stage setup nearby as we walked in.  I dodged her and her bloody Victorian ensemble and continued on.  At another, my path was frustratingly blocked by someone having his picture taken posing with one of the countless "evil clowns" that seemed to be everywhere.  Eventually I saw daylight and switched on the afterburners, turning to make sure Emily was still trailing diligently behind in her three-inch heel boots I had tried to discourage her from wearing. 

When I re-set my gaze forward, the sudden realization of what I saw has to rank with one of the most surreal experiences of my life: there, walking just a few feet in front of me, was the Godfather of the Dead himself.  George Andrew Romero.  The man from whose mind sprang the source of countless hours of lost sleep over my lifetime, at later ages than I care to admit.

All I could see was his back, of course; he was walking in the same direction we were.  But his long, thick silver hair (pulled back into a ponytail), his trademark vest, and his height made him instantly recognizable.  He was flanked by a younger, bald guy, trendily dressed, whom I assumed to be his agent (and who may be the same guy who represents Malcolm McDowell, if I remember correctly), and two guys with "security" t-shirts on.  This fortuitous, dream-like scenario not only told me that we weren't late, it also presented a direct line to this mysterious Thoroughbred Ballroom. 

So we tailed Mr. Romero and his small entourage, making sure to keep a tasteful distance so as not to arouse any sort of "obsessive fan" suspicions.  The people who passed by from the other direction seemed to pay him no mind, save for a smattering of sudden "is that really him?" stares.  As the group walked into the food court area, the crowd began to thin and it became more difficult for us to maintain our cover.  As soon as it became apparent that they were taking the elevator up to the third floor, we broke off our pursuit and darted quickly up the stairs.

There were the "Thoroughbred Ballroom" signs.  The hallways were pretty much deserted but I soon spotted a large room.  I could see through the open doorway that it was full of people sitting in chairs.  A group of seven or eight people were standing outside the door, each of them clad in yellow "staph" (har har) t-shirts.  I approached, somewhat apprehensive about our being admitted.  "Are you here for Mr. Romero?" one of them asked.  "Yes," I said, nodding hopefully.  "Come on in," he told us.  "Have a seat anywhere except the first five rows in the middle section, and no photography of any kind". 

We sat on the outside of the left-hand section, about four rows back.  The seats were mostly filled...maybe a hundred people.  The first five rows of the middle section were reserved for "platinum" ticket holders.  A minute or two later, Romero's arrival was announced, and he entered to a standing ovation from the same rear door as we had.  He took a seat at the table on the stage, next to a rotund bearded guy who was apparently some sort of MC.  The first few minutes of the discussion was the MC asking questions about -- despite the title of the event -- things that weren't "Night of the Living Dead".  Other movies and projects and such.  Actually "Night of the Living Dead" came up little if at all.  After that they opened the floor up to questions from the audience.  This breathed new energy into the proceedings, mostly via the whole "trainwreck" angle of worrying that somebody was going to be overly obsequious or otherwise embarrassing in their open mike time.  Mercifully everybody did fine, even drawing out a few insightful moments.  Some of the stuff I already knew about -- Romero's early inspiration from his favorite movie, "The Tales of Hoffmann", for example -- and some I didn't, like a surprisingly dark unfinished early 80s-era Disney project with Martin ("Marty", he called him) Scorsese about the recently dead being given one last chance at redemption (provided they can resist the temptations of a "demonic imp" sent up from Hades) set against the backdrop of a phantom hotel.  There were several such wistful "what might have been" anecdotes dealing with projects that were given to other directors or never produced at all (Pet Sematary, The Stand, Salem's Lot, The Mummy), each mention met with a collective "ooh!" from the audience that was equal parts excited and remorseful.  Somebody asked him which superhero movie he would like to make if he had a chance.  "It's already been done," he said.  "But it would be Batman.  I would make that thing dark!".  This brought applause and giddy laughter from the crowd at just the thought of it. 

Other questions included his favorite non-Romero zombie project ("Shaun of the Dead"), his advice for aspiring filmmakers ("don't pitch ideas, shoot film"), his take on the current state of horror movies ("Brad Pitt ruined it", i.e. CGI-filled big-budget blockbusters like "World War Z" take precedence over the more nuanced social commentary / satire Romero himself is known for), the requisite obscure film reference ("where did you get the idea for Knightriders?") , what contemporary social issue would he satirize were he to make a movie today ("could I do a zombie Trump?"), and would he ever make another anthology project (too expensive these days, but there is an unreleased pilot for a new "Tales from the Darkside" written by Joe Hill, Stephen King's son and the kid in "Creepshow").  He made several mentions of "my former partner" (John Russo) never saying his name directly in the manner of He Who Must Not be Named.  The crowd was apparently well aware of Romero's distaste for the current zombie elephant in the room, "The Walking Dead" (he's famously called it "a soap opera with a zombie occasionally" and turned down offers to direct an episode) so it was scarcely brought up, and then only obliquely by Romero himself ("the Walking Dead will eventually stop walking," he said, to laughter, when discussing his potential re-entry into zombie movies).  He also mentioned two recent remakes of his work, "Dawn of the Dead" ("the first 15 minutes were good, but after that it was kind of pointless") and "The Crazies" ("they just liked the title," he said, repeating the theme of flash and bombast over substance).  Despite his criticism of the current state of the zombie genre and horror movies in general, not once did he seem bitter or mean-spirited.  He was actually quite jovial and warm, giving the impression of being an extremely down-to-earth, unpretentious person in a field (directing) known for being quite the opposite.  One of my favorite moments came when a well-meaning but slightly fawning guy in the audience stood up and prefaced his question with "because of you, I'm the man I am today".  Romero replied with a faux-incredulous "what kind of man are you?".

The "Exclusive George Romero Photo Op!" that I had paid $60 for was set to begin at 14:30.  The website had advised to be in line no later than 15 minutes beforehand, however, so I went down to get in line as soon as we finished eating, just after 14:00.  There were only about six or seven people ahead of me.  The line behind me eventually spilled out past the entranceway, resulting in several attempts by the "staph" members to get us to "tighten up this line" by moving closer together.  Eventually it became a choice between single-file and tight line.  They chose tight line.  I passed the time by people-watching...easy to do given all the costumes, and that's not including the people just dressed weird.  It was like Halloween.  There were two guys just in front of me in line whom I eventually gathered from overhearing bits and pieces of their conversation were from Alabama.  I watched as they flipped through the pictures on their phone and wondered why one of them had a uniform scowl on his face in all the shots, no matter whom or what he was posing with.  The other guy had a hockey mask hanging from his backpack.  "Brian, Jason is watching!" said an autograph on its forehead, signed "Ari Lehman, Jason 1".  I paused to consider the vagaries of how he would have addressed such an autograph to me, as well as the incongruity of ***SPOILER ALERT*** how in the original Friday the 13th Jason didn't wear a hockey mask nor was he even the killer.  In such ways I passed the time.

Here and there a short middle-aged woman on staff would come by check to make sure we were in the correct line and that we had our tickets.  She told people to remove their VIP lanyards since green would interfere with the green screen photograph.  She came through another time holding up an 8 x 10 print, showing it carefully to us and announcing that "this will be your background" (it was a shot from "Night of the Living Dead" of zombies walking across an open field, toward the camera).  Eventually she was satisfied with all that and just came back occasionally to assure us that "Mr. Romero is on his way".  Emily had been walking through the convention hall to pass the time and had come back a couple of times to tell me what she had seen.  She said Romero's booth had "a line a mile long".  Eventually, though, there was a rustle of activity near the front of the line, and it started moving. 

I couldn't see what was up ahead since the front of the line was out of sight through a doorway that veered off to the left.  Since I was so close to the front however it didn't take long for me to get up there.  The woman who had been giving us status updates was standing just inside the doorway to take our tickets and have us to "wait right here".  The whole process of stopping and starting reminded me of boarding a ride at an amusement park.  Inside the doorway I looked to the left and could see, about 30 feet away, George Romero.  He was sitting there by himself, cross-legged in a metal chair in the middle of a large room, smiling broadly, surrounded on all four corners by bright white umbrella lights.  The room had been cut roughly in half by a series of side-by-side square frames on rollers, each frame holding curtains that parted in the middle.  We were to pass through the left-side curtains when called.  Before I knew it, it was my turn.

I moved quickly, feeling a sense of nervous anticipation as if I were walking up on stage and people were waiting on me.  As I passed through the curtains I was suddenly bathed in bright white light.  It was as if I had crossed over from our mundane world of material things into the Magical World of Cinema.  Mr. Romero smiled at me warmly and extended his long, thin-fingered hand as I approached, a surreal moment that I imagine, to some of the more avid attendees, summoned up feelings of meeting an angel in Heaven.  "Good afternoon sir," I said to him, also smiling broadly to offset the formality of my greeting with the right amount of familiarity.  He greeted me as I took my spot on his right, in the same motion putting his arm firmly around me like we were old buds.  Emboldened, I returned the gesture.  A couple of seconds to pose.  Poof went the flash.  He offered his hand to me again, still smiling, and thanked me.  He skipped a beat as if to invite more conversation, but with the speed of the line movement I felt too self-conscious to hang around and tactfully went on my way.  The camera guys likewise were quite cordial to me as I left.  I guess making that much money that quickly helps.

So out I went to search for Emily.  Of course she was now nowhere to be found.  I walked through the convention hall looking for her and for the first time had an opportunity to actually look at the exhibits.  Most of the celebrities had stepped out for one reason or another, but I did see some wrestler guy who looked like Jim Morrison and a bit player from the original Ghostbusters -- the guy who got shocked during the ESP test scene, leading me to an "oh yeah, THAT guy" moment.  Most of the other people I had no idea about since they were known for their appearances on various "paranormal" shows, ghost hunters and mediums and the like.  Emily said something about recognizing one of the clairvoyants and walking hopefully behind her for a minute or so, thinking that any minute she would suddenly receive a message from the beyond about one of her relatives and relay it to her.  She sounded quite disappointed when she recounted this to me.

Unsuccessful in finding her, I went back out to the entrance, thinking maybe she was there.  Still no luck.  I turned on my iPod in hopes of connecting to wi-fi and texting her, but the convention center's wi-fi wanted a username and password.  The lady in the photo-op line had told us our pictures would be ready at the ticket window within 30 minutes, so I still had time.  Eventually I did find Emily.  I had her hold my stuff (programs, tickets, iPod) while I went back out to the parking lot to get my Creepshow Blu-Ray.  Next stop: autograph time. 

When I got back I showed the ticket people the black "SF" stamp on the back of my left hand to regain entry.  I had passed a couple of people I'm sure were celebrity guests, famous in some way unknown to me.  Something about the way they were dressed -- all black, plenty of leather, in the manner of Ed Hardy and latter-day Mötley Crüe -- and their carefully made-up faces.  Even though I didn't know who they were, it was kind of odd to see them walking to and from the food court and the restrooms, often by themselves, just like anybody else, breaking the Fourth Wall just by existing.

The pictures were ready.  The woman at the counter flipped through them, eventually finding mine toward the bottom.  Actually I found it, having her stop and go back after she passed it up.  It was inside a plastic sleeve.  Turned out well.

So we made our way back to the back of the convention hall, to Mr. Romero's table at the far end.  I was expecting a long wait, probably the longest of the day.  I had to cajole Emily to come with me since her feet were hurting and she had just found a chair to rest in.  I needed something to occupy me in case there was a long wait. 

Surprisingly, there weren't many people at his table, and he had already returned (officially, the photo-op session wasn't over until 15:15 and it wasn't quite that late yet).  Just five or six people in front of us.  You could tell his line was built to accommodate many more people...yellow ropes outlined it snaking out into a nearby stairwell and up one wall before it passed by the merchandise table.  The table had dozens of promotional pictures on it you could buy, covering pretty much all of his movies, even obscure ones like "Martin" and "Two Evil Eyes".  I recognized many of them from my years of perusing Romeroana on eBay, in books, and on the internet.  There was the one of him posing with Dario Argento ("he doesn't like anything he didn't write," Romero quipped during the Q & A session).  There was another of him standing face-to-face with the hideously fanged Fluffy from Creepshow's "The Crate".  A little further down was a smattering of DVDs and Blu-Rays, including the very "Creepshow" I had in my hand and had bought last week from Amazon just for this purpose.  They also had screenplay booklets for "Night of the Living Dead" and "Day of the Dead" ("Dawn" was sold out) and and ties emblazoned with pictures of zombies.  The most expensive item was a $75 "Limited Edition George Romero Plush" doll.  No keychains, surprisingly.

Sitting at the next table was a woman we for some reason assumed to be his wife.  I decided she functioned as a sort of gatekeeper, taking money for the merchandise and perhaps offering approval or denial of your stated request before you actually reached Mr. Romero at the end of the table.  When I reached her I submitted my photo and Blu-Ray on the table and said I would like a couple of autographs.  "Oh, you got this here," she said with an ambiguous inflection that I wasn't sure was a question or not.  "Yes," I said, not sure what she was referring to but figuring it best to go along.  "It'll be fifty dollars," she said softly.  I gave her three $20s, which she placed inside a blue bank envelope, her hand returning with a $10 in change.  I had lucked out.  Autographs were $50 apiece.  I'm not sure which item she didn't charge me for, but in essence I got one free. 

We waited patiently for a guy in front of us to finish up.  "It's been an honor to meet you sir," he was saying as he walked away.  The guy directly in front of us in line asked me if I would snap his picture when he got up there.  I told him I would, but a moment later the gatekeeper lady offered to do it for him so he let her.  We'd overheard people talking to her earlier...apparently you had to buy something to get a picture.  She was telling them what the cheapest item they had was.

So my turn came.  As I approached, I could see that what I thought was a button of some kind on his vest was actually a little plastic face of Dr. Tongue from "Day of the Dead".  Emily, heretofore having shown no interest of any kind in the proceedings, was sure to get a hello and a handshake from him first.  I said hello, expressed my gratitude at getting to meet him, and asked him if he would sign my stuff.  The chair was there, inviting, and I had seen at least one other person in front of us doing it, so as he was looking at my stuff I saw my chance and slipped around the table to sit down.  So there I was, sitting next to the man who pretty much single-handedly created the zombie as we know it.  I pulled the photo out of its sleeve.  "Oh yeah, we met earlier," he said, recognizing me from the photo.  "I like the way they did the background, the zombies in the field".  He asked me where I wanted him to sign it...I told him wherever, however you usually do it.  He was more indecisive on the Creepshow Blu-Ray, taking the artwork paper out of the plastic sleeve before saying out loud that he couldn't really find a good place to sign it.  I suggested signing the disc itself, which he did, managing to just fit his signature on it before running out of space on the right.  "Oh, this is the Blu-Ray," he said, "this is the one with the special features on it".  I had just opened it the night before and watched the intro with Emily as a sort of appetite-whetting ritual.  I had turned it off just before things got interesting in "Father's Day" since I needed to get some sleep.  Turns out it doesn't have any special features other than the trailer.  "That's one of the scariest movies I've ever seen," I told him.  "Still is".  "It's supposed to be funny!" he mock-chided me, and chuckled.  "I saw it when I was little, and it wasn't very funny to me," I told him.  He seemed to be putting a fair amount of concentration into his signing, saying something about the markers being dull (there was a pile of dozens of Sharpies nearby in dozens of colors), so I kept mostly quiet while he was working on them.  That done, I bade him farewell with another handshake, thanked him for being there, and took my leave.

I had told Emily to be ready with her phone to take some pictures of us.  I hadn't really expected to be able to, since I had read something on the ScareFest website about how candid shots at booths were not allowed contractually, presumably so as not to undermine the $60 photo op business.  But we had seen plenty of people in front of us doing it.  She managed to get several of us as he was signing and immediately posted them on Facebook.  I monitored the likes and comments and time went by. 

So my mission was accomplished.  I had hoped for a similar experience with Malcolm McDowell at my first ScareFest three years ago, but his detached retina prevented that, as did our Disney trip the year after that.  But this go-round had worked out just fine. 

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