A unique event – a convention centered solely on the undead and “zombie culture” – took place here in the Emerald City. Organized by promoter Ryan Reiter (of “Red, White, and Dead” fame), this was an undertaking the size of which would have been bold for even an already established convention. For a first-time con, the scope of it was impressive, to say the least.
The guest list alone was one that would cause most promoters to lay awake at night fitfully worrying over logistics: George Romero, Bruce Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, Chuck Palahniuk (author, FIGHT CLUB), Max Brooks (author, WORLD WAR Z), John Amplas (MARTIN, DAY OF THE DEAD), Terry Alexander (DAY OF THE DEAD), Scott Reiniger (DAWN OF THE DEAD) Ted Raimi (SPIDER-MAN), The Ladies of THE EVIL DEAD (Theresa Tilly, Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss), Danny Hicks (EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN), Timothy Patrick Quill (ARMY OF DARKNESS), the Zombie Research Society, and many, many others. All had come to Seattle to be a part of something very special: ZomBCon.
Added to that was the staging of a “Zombie Wedding” (officiated by Bruce Campbell where real couples in zombie drag would be legally married while others would be simply renewing their vows), a “Prom of the Dead” (imagine your high school prom after the zombie uprising), multiple screenings of seminal zombie horror films and, of course, the seemingly ever-present zombie walk and you had one very eventful convention.
I had been invited to participate in the goings-on and to moderate a few of the panels since my novel, NO FLESH SHALL BE SPARED (review here), was being premiered at the convention. After several meetings with Reiter and learning a bit about the extent of his vision, I whole-heartedly agreed to not only attend and participate, but to document the goings-on for Dread Central in the ensuing journal. What follows then are my impressions of the events I was a part of as the days went by.
Be reminded, this is a detailing of my ZomBCon experience.
Other people’s mileage may vary.
I arrive at the Seattle Center and get my badge and booth assignment. After some initial hiccups about getting signed in, we load our stuff into the booth and get things set up. Inside the Exhibition Hall is a kind of organized chaos as vendors haul product in and finalize their presentations. After about an hour, an announcement comes over the public address system that the doors are being opened. Almost immediately, the zombie hordes – in other words, normal folk dressed in tattered clothing, splattered with fake blood, many with vicious latex-sculpted wounds – stream into the auditorium. They are a motley bunch who shuffle their way down the aisles moaning and groaning, but they’re also friendly and eager for fun.
Before long, it’s 10:00 AM and I’m whisked off to the Seattle Center’s Northwest Rooms (or NWR) for my first panel. The Zombie Research Society is hosting a discussion which focuses on the likely outcome of a real life zombie outbreak. The ZRS is a group of academics and enthusiasts who investigate the idea of a zombie uprising from every conceivable angle through the eyes of hard science and logic. They are, in my opinion, most interesting entity attending the convention. These are renowned scientists, medical people, and sociologists who are all experts in their respective fields. This particular panel is being moderated by Max Brooks and is made up of Daniel W. Drezner (author, THEORIES OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICS AND ZOMBIES), Steven C. Schlozman, M.D. (THE ZOMBIE AUTOPSIES: SECRET NOTEBOOKS FROM THE APOCALYPSE), and myself (I have an extensive background in Mortuary Science and work in the medical field). The discussion ranges from the socio-political blowback of the dead rising to the logistics of how the plague would spread and which countries would be most likely to survive (the US was named due to the availability of guns and the pervasiveness of its communication infrastructure) and which one was probably screwed (consensus: Pakistan whose density of its population, religious leanings, and lack of widespread health care pretty much seal its fate). The conversation is a fascinating look at the premise and the audience really seems to enjoy it.
Afterward, I return to the Exhibition Hall and that find even more con-goers have arrived. The majority of them are gathered around signing tables patiently waiting for the cast of the EVIL DEAD films and Malcolm McDowell to sign their photos, posters, and DVD covers. There is a more moaning and spontaneous outbursts of “Braaaaains!” heard. Some of the costumes are both inventive and absolutely hilarious: a zombified Bob Ross (“happy little trees!”), an undead Gumby, some shuffling STAR WARS Stormtroopers, a dead Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, to name but a few. Suddenly, word spreads like wildfire: George Romero is in the house.
George is seated at a set of tables on the other side of the Hall. To one side of him are more signing tables manned by Romero compatriots John Amplas, Terry Alexander, and Scott Reiniger. The hall is buzzing with excitement now and, despite the crowd… well, they are after all zombies… so they’re eating it up.
3:00PM I go to a stage setup in the main Exhibition Hall for my Ultimate Zombie Fighting panel. Since my book deals with a world where modern day gladiators fight in an organized sport against the undead, the con organizers have paired me and UFC competitor Nate Quarry together to talk zombie pugilism. The panel is moderated by Geekscape’s Jonathan London (who adds a much needed degree of levity to the proceedings) and offers for consideration another dimension to the living dead paradigm. The ensuing discussion is lively and well received.
The day progresses and I take an hour or so to walk around the Dealer’s Room where a multitude of zombie related books, movies, tee shirts, games and trinkets are available for purchase. While the crowds are still somewhat sparse (it is, after all, still midday on a Friday afternoon), the shuffling dead in attendance are not only hungry for flesh… they’re in the mood to shop. More interviews take place on the stage at the far end of the hall and panels continue non-stop in the nearby NWR. The mood in the hall continues to be light and the spirit of fun is pervasive. I go back to my booth and literally bump into Chuck Palahniuk who is here both as a guest and because he is writing an article for ROLLING STONE. His subject – what else? – the zombie sub-culture. We take a quick picture together and it’s not until later that I see what’s he’s up to behind my back. “The first rule of Zombie Club is you do not talk about Zombie Club”
Finally, the hour arrives when the vendor space is to be closed for the day and the zombie masses disperse to nearby eating and drinking establishments. The inherent humor in the sight of normal people waiting for their tables while rubbing elbows with the blood and gore covered con attendees is not lost on me. Soon, even the most stoic Seattleite is being included in the fun. I see an elderly lady on the street getting her picture taken while surrounded by a group of zombies. As the undead snarl and grimace for the camera, the smile on her face tells the story perfectly.
Abruptly, I run into organizer Reiter (who, for as busy as he is, looks like he’s having the time of his life). He asks if I have time to run over to the SIFF Theater to introduce Romero before a screening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Laughing, I say, “‘Do I have time?’ Dude, I will MAKE the time… are you kidding?” I run off and make it to the theater in time to stand before a packed house and introduce George to an adoring audience. Romero steps out onto the stage and the audience goes nuts. Once the film starts, I hurry out of the theater and rush off down the rain-covered street to the nearby Maxwell Hotel where I’m escorted through the lobby and downstairs to The Zombie Research Society’s VIP lounge. Fellow Fangoria and Dread Central writer, Sean “The Butcher” Smithson and I are to do an in-depth interview with Romero at a sort of fireside chat which has been dubbed “An Evening at the Apocalypse.” I walk into the room and notice that the place is PACKED. An uncountable number of people are pressed into the space and gathered around three chairs set against a far wall. The lighting is suitably low and drinks are already being served in abundance. The mood in the room is electric and I catch con-attendee and celebrity alike continually glancing expectantly toward the door. Finally, Romero arrives and he’s escorted through the crowd to his chair where Sean and I stand waiting.
We all sit down and proceed to talk… just talk… about Romero’s early years, about him growing up a film fan, and some of his ideas about genre filmmaking. We quickly go “off notes” and just ask him questions as they come to us. We talk about growing up in the Bronx, whether he played Stickball as a kid, his love of such films as TALES OF HOFFMAN, THE QUIET MAN, ON THE WATERFRONT, THE THING and many others. The interaction is congenial and Romero seems to be having a good time. Midway through, I look over at the crowd (who are gathered mere feet from us) and they are all held rapt as Romero talks. They are like children sitting at a beloved family member’s knee, drinking in his wisdom as if it were mother’s milk. Everyone gathered here tonight senses how special the night is and we are all on the edges of our seats as Romero regales us with one story after story. All too soon, we get the high sign that our time draws to a close. It’s late and there are still two full days ahead of us. We get some last minute details on upcoming projects like the DEEP RED remake (he’s not involved), the rumor he is producing a version of Bob Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (he’s not – but Fangoria is), and he gives us an idea of his plans for a couple more DEAD films (all are to be based on the characters introduced in DIARY). A standing ovation resonates through the room and the feeling of love these people have for this man is obvious. I look over at Sean and we are both grinning like kids at Christmas. The import of this night is not lost on either of us.
I get to the con early and, after a quick check in at my publisher’s booth, I race off to the NWR where the day’s panels are once again taking place. First up, local genre film connoisseur Justin Giallo and I are to interview John Amplas and discuss his involvement in some of Romero’s films – specifically MARTIN. While this is a zombie-biased convention, having Amplas there is too good of an opportunity to not sit down with him and talk about the influential vampire film. Amplas is a slight guy with an easy smile and an open and friendly demeanor. I introduce myself to him and we get to talking. His manor is self-deprecating and you can’t help but like the guy. He openly wonders if anyone will show up for the talk since Bruce Campbell has been scheduled to cut the opening ribbon for the con elsewhere. As the crowd arrives, it is a little less than anticipated, but it’s plain to see that these people love – and I mean love – MARTIN. John, Justin, and I take our seats and quickly get down to business. The discussion ranges from the making of the film to whether he and Romero ever talked about if Martin was indeed a vampire or merely a deeply trouble kid who was suffering from some kind of mental illness rather than anything supernatural. Dr. Steven C. Schlozman (who’d previously mentioned to me that he was a big fan of the film) is in the audience and his background in the mental health field is a deeply appreciated addition to the proceedings.
Back to the Exhibition Hall… Bruce Campbell is on stage, holding court. Bruce is a con favorite and he effortlessly has the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. I do more signings and take another break to move about the hall. Once again, I’m struck by the diversity of goods being sold: Tshirtbordello offers a wide variety of shirts & beer glasses emblazoned with sayings and logos of things that are both hilarious and VERY inside (some of the references even I didn’t get), Combat Sport Supply is selling some very nasty looking machetes, blades, and tactical gear the like of which any zombie hunter would be proud to put in his “go bag,” there’s a Zombie Blast 6 hour energy drink which comes in little shotgun shell containers, even something called Zombie Flesh Jerky (beef jerky, really with a few “eyeballs” thrown in for spice). The items are inventive, fun, and delightfully ghoulish.
I head back to the NSW and meet back up with Sean “The Butcher” Smithson. We’re here to interview Prologue Films’ Henry Hobson for a panel called THE WALKING DEAD: SETTING THE STORY which will focus on the creation of opening credits for the AMC television series. As Henry shows his reel, it becomes apparent that he and Prologue Films are the real deal. These guys make some very slick and effective sequences and have created a phenomenal body of work for entertainment and advertising. Their resume reads like a hit list of the biggest films of the day: ROBIN HOOD, IRON MAN, SHERLOCK HOLMES, NINJA ASSASSIN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, BLADES OF GLORY, ROCKNROLLA, ORPHAN, KARATE KID, SUPERMAN RETURNS… the list goes on and on. Henry takes the audience through WALKING DEAD’s evocative opening credit sequence from initial concept to finished product. He talks about how the concept changed and mutated into the arresting sequence we see today. Once again (and this is becoming a recurring theme of the con), the talk is well received and a lot of people stick around afterward to ask a ton of follow-up questions.
Then, it’s back to the Main Hall for more signings and some quick interaction with more of the guests. Ted Raimi sits signing autographs and making people smile with a well-honed ease. The Ladies of the EVIL DEAD do the same, although they are a bit more reserved. Rather than looking like the evil demons from their film, they come off more like your best friend’s sister. I’m told Bruce Campbell is off heading up a HOW TO KILL A ZOMBIE panel and it seems like a perfect match-up of host and subject matter. Just to the side of all of this, Malcolm McDowell sits smiling, shaking the hand of each person lined up to meet him, and graciously having his picture taken again and again. As I watch him work, I think how grueling it all must be. All of them have been at this for several hours now and there’s still half an afternoon to go. Their availability is obviously much appreciated by those who’ve come here today.
Suddenly, it’s 3:00 PM and I mount the stage here in the Exhibition Hall for my Q&A for the book. I talk a bit about the book’s plot, what inspired it, and how important I feel it is for fans to support the genre they love. Admittedly, it’s all something I’m pretty passionate about and I fear it begins to sound like an evangelical rant. A quick reading of the book’s first chapter later and I’m done for the day.
Is there a better way to spend Halloween than at a zombie convention? Yeah, I don’t think so. My crew and I arrive at the booth and do our initial setup. We’re all tired, but still stoked as hell to be here. The convention has been slightly under attended, but those who have come are exuberant and respectful and are showing their support in the best way possible: by buying stuff from the vendors. I keep reminding myself that this is the con’s first year. Its organization and scope is so ambitious that one can’t help but be impressed by it. I’ve been a guest at a lot of cons and I’ve seen ones with a good deal more experience (and half the vision) fail and fail miserably. Whatever minor things have gone wrong at this con, they are far outweighed by what’s gone right. It is truly a testament to Reiter and his group to have been able to pull something this large off with as few hitches as have occurred.
10:00 AM I run over to SIFF and meet up with screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick and Smithson. Jeffrey wrote the much maligned DAY OF THE DEAD remake script and it’s interesting to hear him speak about the film, what its initial vision was, and how that vision was changed during production. Reddick is an affable guy and a good speaker. He offers a lot of solid insight into the oftentimes trying screenwriting process.
I leave SIFF and head back through the Exhibition Hall and on to the NSW. I am scheduled for two final panels with the Zombie Research society: Zombie Anatomy and How to Survive the Zombie Uprising. The panels together end up running almost three hours, but remain absolutely fascinating. Gathered for the Anatomy panel are myself, Zombie Research Society founder, Matt Mogk, and Timothy Verstynen who works as a neuroscientist at the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition in Pittsburgh and is someone who specializes in human brain imaging and neural network modeling. What follows is an examination of death, decomposition, the neural anatomy of the living dead. We cover everything from post mortem lividity to the potential effects of rigor mortis on zombie motility to the relative effectiveness (and ineffectiveness) of “shooting them in the head.” The conclusions reached are mind-bending. The audience (many of whom are medical professionals who have come to the con seeking a good time) are highly informed and their contribution is every bit as interesting and relevant as those on the dais.
All too soon, time runs out for this panel and we slide straight over for a look at survivability odds for such an outbreak. First up, a group of statisticians show a computer model of how the plague might spread across the city of Seattle as well as its surrounding areas. As they run their computer model, several things are made pretty clear, most important of which is that the sooner we were to get a jump on the outbreak, the better we’d all be. The second is… the more guns that are available, the quicker containment would happen. One reassuring thing though is that the model offers the hope that we would – eventually – get a handle on things and containment would eventually be achieved. A lot of lives would be lost, but normality would be returned.
The rest of the panel focuses on more specific aspects of survival – how would climate affect the dead, how readily available would food, water, ammunition be to the average person, would (as is detailed in Max Brook’s WORLD WAR Z) heading north to the frozen wilds of Canada or Alaska really be the best idea or would hypothermia claim just as many of the living as it would the dead? Again, fascinating stuff and not what one would expect from your typical genre convention. We close out with some debate about weaponry. As the discussion progresses, there is a lot of talk about guns… guns and knives. What’s interesting is how wide and varied the rationales are for each person’s choice of weapons. The crowd – as expected – asks some very insightful and informed questions and all too soon our allotted time is over. As I sit there ruminating and watching people file out of the room, I’m struck by how different this convention is from other genre affairs. Yes, there are the standard fanboy events and “get your picture taken with the celebrity” photo-ops, but it is panels such as the ones I’ve just participated in that makes this gathering utterly unique.
My last scheduled obligation for the day is a welcomed one – Sean and I are to do a final Q&A with Romero, John Amplas, and Terry Alexander before a screening of Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD. Ryan Reiter meets up with us at the SIFF Theater and we enter an already packed auditorium. Reiter presents Romero with an engraved – and very deadly looking – machete which Romero graciously accepts. The Q&A begins and we are treated to anecdotes about the making of the film, how cold it was in the mine where the film was shot, and generally about the challenges of truly independent filmmaking. As Romero speaks, once again I notice the rapt faces of the crowd. These people LOVE this man and there are genuine smiles that can be seen breaking through all the latex, fake blood, and green and grey pancake makeup. Once more, I feel honored to be a part of all of this and to be given the chance to work alongside these people.
I walk back through the rain – it is, after all, Seattle – to the Main Hall where vendors are already beginning to pack up. Abruptly, one of the promoters comes over and explains how there is one last thing needed: the video game Scene It is putting on a “Trekkies vs. Zombies” trivia battle. “Are you in?” she asks. “Hell yes, I’m in!” we go to the main stage where The Trekkies have already gathered. They are a formidable group. I look over at The Zombies and immediately smile. There are five spots for players. Two people I don’t recognize. Two I do: Sean “The Butcher” Smithson and Justin Giallo. Both are people I know have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. Yeah… We got this thing knocked. Sean is chosen as our captain. The Trekkies surprise everyone by pulling out a captain of their own, one who is an obvious ringer. I look over and see Malcolm McDowell (who played Dr. Tolian Soran in STAR TREK GENERATIONS) mount the stage. What follows is a heated and chaotic battle of wits between the geeks and the ghouls, the nerds and the necrotic. In the end though, it is the undead that are victorious.
I go back and finish packing my merch with my crew and it’s with no small amount of melancholy that I realize that ZomBCon 2010 is officially over. Sitting down on a pile of boxes, I pick up one of the programs that were handed out and leaf through it one last time. I am amazed at how many things I missed out on – the dialogue between Max Brooks and Chuck Palahniuk, Malcolm introducing a showing of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Chuck introducing FIGHT CLUB, THE EVIL DEAD Wedding, the Prom of the Dead, THE WALKING DEAD premiere… demonstrations of how to fight off a zombie with THE ZOMBIE COMBAT MANUAL’s author, Roger Ma, multiple readings by authors like S.G. Browne (BREATHERS), Max Brooks, Steve Hockensmith (DAWN OF THE DREADFULS), and Stacey Graham (HUNGRY FOR YOUR LOVE)… and so much more. In the end, there was just too much to see and do, not enough time in a day to take everything in.
Looking forward, no word has been issued from Ryan Reiter’s camp as to whether ZomBCon will return next year. I’m pretty sure it will though. In the days after the convention, posts on Facebook were universally positive and people are already offering up ideas for next year.
As I write this, I decide to check Reiter’s Facebook page. Having gotten to know Ryan a bit during the run up to ZomBCon, what I find doesn’t surprise me:
November 2 @ 7:47 PM
Ryan Reiter: … so Werewolves anyone? They don’t have their own con… yet.
Then, a few days later…
November 6 @ 3:30PM
Ryan Reiter: is ready for his next project…
I, for one, am looking forward to whatever that is.
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