Mondo Mystery Movie IX: Or, how I learned to stop living and attack a bus fullof movie fans
Not to try to influence your decision or anything, but this Mondo Mystery Screening is probably the biggest thing the Drafthouse has ever pulled off. If you miss this, you'll probably regret it for the rest of your life."
A good PR representative knows how to get your attention. Brandy Fons is a very, very good at her job. Those aren't her exact words—if you want to sue me for not recording casual conversations, this is your golden opportunity to lawyer up—but that was the basic gist of it. If I know what's good for me, as a movie fan, as a writer and as a connoisseur of all things Mondo, I'd better wipe whatever plans I have for Saturday night and make sure I attend.
Just a few years ago, Mondo Tees was an Alamo Drafthouse-sponsored t-shirt, art and collectibles boutique that catered directly to the biggest movie fans, creating posters and art for all kinds of films, from cult horror flicks to mainstream blockbusters. Then people started to catch on. Now, Mondo work (which is printed in extremely limited batches and never re-printed) is selling for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. Their online sales sell out regularly in less than two minutes. The company was featured in the New York Times. Their oeuvre is has been selected for preservation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The small, homegrown company has reached the point where it can set up special secret screenings, charge $75 for a ticket (which, of course, includes the poster for the movie in question) and fill every seat. This was going to be their ninth secret screening of 2011. About a week before the screening, the location of the screening was revealed: a church on the north side of Austin.
A Mondo screening, in a church, two days before Halloween? Everyone immediately jumped to one conclusion: we'll be watching The Exorcist. With the secret aspect of the evening essentially spoiled, everyone agreed that watching one of the greatest religious horror films of all time in a church would be an unforgettable experience.
This is on my mind when I get an email asking me if I want to "participate" in the screening. The email makes one thing clear: if I say yes, my schedule for the evening will change, I'll know a little more about what's going than most of the audience and will be actively involved in whatever the hell is about to transpire. Of course, I'll have to keep my mouth shut about it at all costs.
How can I resist? Of course I say yes.
I receive my marching orders: be at the Highland Mall at 8:00 p.m. sharp and be prepared to receive a "makeover."
The neurons fire through my grey matter. A Halloween screening at a shopping mall? Like any self-respecting horror fan, I know exactly what we'll be watching. The church is an amazing piece of misdirection, a meeting point that exists solely to throw everyone off the right trail and maintaining the total secrecy of what movie we'll be watching.
Well played, Mondo. Well played.
When I arrive at Highland Mall, the first thing I notice is the team of armed soldiers smoking cigarettes outside of a loading dock. At least they look like soldiers…real soldiers don't stand around chatting about SAG wages and modifying their IMDB pages. I venture into the mall and my jaw drops: I'm surrounded by at least 150 people—men, women, children, entire families—in zombie make-up. It's not every day you see an undead army congregating in a gutted department store, chatting and trying not to get fake blood on their pizza. Cross that one off my bucket list.
If I had any lingering doubt that we'd be watching George Romero's classic zombie movie Dawn of the Dead (which finds four survivors of the zombie apocalypse taking refuge in a shopping mall), they were killed the moment I saw someone made up to look exactly like the infamous Hare Krishna zombie from the film. As the evening wears on, I'll recognize many of the iconic zombies from the film amongst the horde.
Amongst the admirably controlled chaos, Brandy finds me and puts me in line to become one of the walking dead. The whole thing is one big assembly line: the first make-up artist applies wounds and gashes, the second gives my skin an unhealthy gray pallor, the third adds gaunt detail to my eyes and face and the fourth splatters my face, hands and clothing with blood. It's zombification as Henry Ford would have envisioned it.
My bloody hands mean my phone stays in my pocket (what a way to enforce that NO TWEETING rule!), so instead of isolating myself in a corner, I work the room. How did they organize this? How did they keep this a secret? It seems that the vast majority of the zombie crowd are under the impression that they're going to be zombie extras in a horror movie. I chat with one the make-up specialists and learn that he was hired a week ago for "the project." He doesn't know what movie we'll be watching. In fact, he seems a little confused by my questions: he was hired to help transform a crowd into zombies. Beyond that, he's as in the dark as anyone else…or so he tells me. He could be keeping his mouth shut under the threat of death for all I know.
I run into a few friends (including Culture Map's own Brian Kelley and Brian Salisbury), all of them fellow zombies. We swap undead strategy, practice zombie walks and make small talk. Just like on a movie set, we've been brought here early and we have a long time to wait until it's time to get rolling. All of this and we still don't know exactly what we'll be doing once the zombie army is fully assembled.
That's when someone shouts at me: "Hey! You! How tall are you?" He's carrying a clipboard, which means he surely knows more than I do. I'm 6' 4". I tell him so. He seems pleased to have found a zombie of my disgusting height.
"Can you fall down? Do you want to get killed by soldiers?" Cross that one off my bucket list, too. I didn't come all the way out here and become a walking corpse so I wouldn't get killed by the United States military. I say sure. He tells me that I'm part of the "first wave" and to listen for the call.
Time passes. We learn that all of the screening attendees, who had gone to the church, have been gathered into buses and are on their way. The first wave is called to attention.
About thirty of us gather outside. Police and security have blocked off the road. A corpse, head missing, lies in the middle of the road. Then, and only then, are we given our direction:
"A group of buses are going to make their way down the road. You need to attack them. Hit the windows. Splatter them with blood. Don't worry about getting them messy, we're paying to have them cleaned. If you get shot, fall down."
Someone from the crowd, hand raised: "How do we know if we get shot?"
"If a soldier points a gun at you and pulls the trigger. Oh, and don't get hit be a bus."
We scatter along the bus route. Cups filled with blood are stashed behind rocks alongside the road, giving us a place to "refill" on the red stuff. One extra is recruited to lie in the grass and scream and squirm while a few zombies devour her flesh. A security guard gets on the radio and gives a signal. All of the lights in the parking lot go out, plunging our surroundings into total darkness. A few car engines rumble to life and their headlights turn on, washing the road is sparse, creepy light. We're ready.
And then the buses arrive, all thirteen of them, moving at about five miles an hour. The zombies move in. We shuffle alongside the buses, moaning, clawing at the windows, splattering blood anywhere we can. No bus escapes our undead hunger and no bus leaves free of red handprints and gory smears. From within the bus, I notice people laughing and camera flashes. I specifically look for faces int the windows displaying legitimate fright (and there are more than a few). I can't hear them when they yelp in shock, but I sure can see it.
As the final bus passes us, we're given new instructions: slowly move in on the parked buses. We comply, shuffling along the pavement toward the parking lot, toward our hundreds of victims. The buses begin to empty, but our victims aren't alone…the military has arrived! Five army commandos, armed with shotguns and rifles lead the civilians toward us, weapons raised. They open fire.
The muzzle flashes are blinding and the blanks are deafening. The horde collapses to the ground. A few of us begin to crawl, reaching for the crowd, but we're put down quickly.
But it's not over. The second wave, well over one hundred zombies, burst out of the mall itself, surrounding the crowd. With everyone's attention elsewhere, those of us on the pavement rise and join the chaos. There are zombies everywhere. Some of the attendees break into a run at the sight of us.
My training from the summer I spent working in a haunted house (that's a story for another day) kicks back in and I search the crowd, picking appropriate victims, sneaking up on people who have their back turned and even slowing my attack to a crawl so a victim with a camera can snap a picture. The soldiers are quickly overtaken and fall to the ground, subtly directing us zombies to the blood packs hidden in their costumes so we can rip their guts out while the scream in agony.
To call this one of the coolest things I've ever took part in would be the understatement of the year. Well, at least the month.
Too soon, the prologue of the evening is over. The buses are empty and everyone is taking their seats inside the mall, where a screen and 800 folding chairs have been set up for our viewing pleasure. While the bulk of the zombie horde roams the mall, ominously staring at the audience like a meal, I take my seat for the screening. A few people want to take a picture with me, since I'm a zombie and all. I happily oblige them.
Eventually, Justin Ishmael, the mad genius behind Mondo and all of tonight's shenanigans, takes the stage…er, the microphone in front of the fountain. Appropriately, half of his face is missing. He states the obvious for us: we're here to watch Dawn of the Dead. A big cheer from the crowd. Justin cuts right to the point: we have a special guest.
"Come out here, George." George Romero, the director of tonight's film and the creator of the zombie horror movie as we know it today (and therefore, easily one of the most important genre filmmakers of all time), emerges from the darkness of the mall.
The cheers are deafening.
Romero takes a mic and thanks us all for being here. He tells us he loves Austin. He gives a shout-out to local filmmaker Emily Haggins. He talks about how much he loved making Dawn of the Dead.
Then a zombie lumbers out of nowhere, arms outstretched, heading straight for him. Justin hands Romero a pistol: "Do you mind?" Without missing a beat, Romero aims and fires. The zombie crumples to the ground. The room erupts. I consider my bucket list shattered.
Before we get started, Justin decides we must be hungry and tosses realistically rendered edible candy eyeballs into the crowd. Apparently, eating eyeballs isn't enough, because he then produces an edible baby, tears it limb for limb and chucks it at the audience.
It's impossible to be more pumped when the movie gets rolling.
More than thirty years after its release, Dawn of the Dead remains a fascinating, if flawed film. Romero isn't afraid to aim for high melodrama, so some of the film's histrionics feel a little hokey and silly by modern standards. Still, if you're willing to meet the film halfway, it's a total blast, filled with incredible make-up effects from prosthetic wiz Tom Savini, plenty of zombie killing action and tons of intentionally silly humor (which makes the film feel fresh considering how deadly serious so many modern zombie films tend to be). It's a razor sharp film that finds time for obvious but smart social commentary—those zombies are aimlessly wandering through the ultimate symbol of extreme capitalism, after all—between all of the horror.
Seeing the film in a mall after participating in a simulated zombie apocalypse is an experience I'll never forget. The only question now is how Mondo will top this for future secret screenings. As far as building unique and unforgettable events for film fans, this is an impossibly high bar. Even though I got a glimpse behind the curtain, I still have no clue how they pulled all of this off. Trying to top this may result in Justin and his team at Mondo having a heart attack…or at least needing a psychiatrist to talk them through their stress-induced panic attacks.
Collecting my poster at the end of the evening feels like an afterthought (although it's an absolutely badass print from Jeff Proctor that manages to squeeze just about every recognizable zombie from the film into its 24" x 36" frame). When I see that poster on my wall, I won't just remember how I like Dawn of the Dead. I'll remember this evening. Bravo, guys. Bravo.
I remember that I need milk and cat litter and make a pit-stop on the way home. The few people in the CVS at two o'clock in the morning stare at me like I'm a crazy person. I almost ask the employee at the counter if she knows how to get blood out of clothes, but decide that won't help my situation. Happy Halloween, indeed.