9th UK Festival Of Zombie Culture, Phoenix Square, Leicester: Saturday 14 November 2015 by Patrick Mahon (convention review)
Every year for the last nine years, a guy called Ed Thurlow with a passion for everything to do with zombies has organised a festival in his home town of Leicester to celebrate the coming apocalypse. On Saturday 14 November, the 2015 festival took place at Phoenix, an independent cinema in the heart of Leicester’s cultural quarter and, thanks to Ed’s generosity I was able to attend and find out what all the fuss was about.
This is primarily a film festival and over the day they screened six feature films and one short film. Given that tickets were £25 each, this represents extraordinary value for money, even if you were to ignore everything else at the festival. Not only that but these weren’t just any old zombie films. The festival formally started at noon with the UK festival premiere of the 2015 film ‘Maggie’, directed by Henry Hobson and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, you read that right. Arnie stars in this highbrow zombie movie as Wade Vogel, a distraught father in the American Midwest whose teen-age daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has recently been bitten and contracted the slow-acting necroambulist virus. He takes her home from hospital rather than sending her to Quarantine, a polite name for the euthanasia clinics that have been set up to deal with victims once the virus turns them violent. Over the rest of the film, we watch the breakdown of the family as Maggie and her father struggle to come to terms with her inevitable death sentence. ‘Maggie’ has received mixed reviews in the press and, if you’re expecting a traditional Arnie action flick, you’ll be sorely disappointed. However, I thought it was an excellent cinematic exploration of the impact of a terminal disease upon a close family relationship with Schwarzenegger turning in what I’d say is the most accomplished acting performance of his career, ably supported by Breslin.
After this extremely atypical first film, things got back to normal with ‘Nightmare City’, Umberto Lenzi’s oddball 1980 zombie shocker which I reviewed for SFC in August. It was great to see the newly re-mastered version again on the big screen and in company. Some of the zanier scenes are a lot more fun when a hundred other people are laughing at them alongside you, even when you’re watching the Italian version of the film with English sub-titles.
The third film of the day was an ultra-low budget new British movie called ‘Darkest Day’. Filmed for less than a thousand pounds over a period of seven years by actor/director Dan Rickard and friends, the story is based in the English seaside town of Brighton in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. Dan Rickard’s character, cunningly named Dan, wakes up on Brighton beach, with no knowledge of how he got there. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of ‘28 Days Later’, he walks through the town centre, past crashed and abandoned cars wondering where everyone has gone. When he sees a couple of survivors who have just raided a shop for food, he shouts to them, inadvertently alerting a nearby gang of zombies to their presence and ultimately getting one of them killed. The other one helps him escape and takes him back to her place, a house she shares with several other students. While some of them welcome Dan into the fold, others are suspicious of his memory loss or blame him for the death of their friend. However, unbeknownst to them, the army have been sent into the area looking for Dan and so starts a cat-and-mouse game as Dan and his new friends try to elude both the zombies and the army while Dan tries to recover his memory and work out who he is. ‘Darkest Day’ is an impressive achievement for a young director with camera work and special effects that massively outperform what should have been possible on their micro-budget. I was less happy with the meandering script but found out why at a question and answer session with director Dan Rickard and producer Simon Drake immediately after the film finished. When I asked them how the script had developed over the many years of filming, they replied that a script, as such, did not really exist, with most of the dialogue being improvised by the actors!
At this point in the day there was an hour’s break to allow everyone to get some zombie-themed dinner from the Phoenix’s excellent café and to check out the other aspects of the festival. I took the opportunity to chat to two authors who had taken stands to advertise their books. Adam Millard is the author of twenty-two novels, ten novellas and over two hundred short stories ranging across several horror sub-genres, while Duncan P. Bradshaw is the author of two zom-com novels and is currently working on a third. It was a pleasure to meet both authors and I’m looking forward to reading the books I bought from them. Alongside them was Sandra Danborg, a Danish artist currently living in the UK. Sandra produces her own webcomic, ‘Memory Lane’, and was selling prints of her fantasy and horror-themed art. I also had time for a quick word with Rick Jones, who runs the ‘Horrify Me’ portrait photography service and the lovely people at the ‘Zombie Shop’ stand, too. Everyone was extremely generous with their time and it was a pleasure to meet them all.
Then it was time to get back to the movies. Before the fourth feature film of the day came on, we were treated to a short comedy instruction film from Leicester-based Merlin Archery, directed by Grizzly Jim, and starring Howard Wilkins as a man who has to learn how to master various different types of bow to avoid being eaten by an advancing horde of zombies. This is one of the funniest short films I’ve ever seen and had me and the rest of the audience in stitches. It’s available on Merlin’s website www.merlinarchery.co.uk/ and is well worth looking up and can also be seen on www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyGZnz1YJKE&feature=iv&src_vid=Ikj8IM13Dpk&annotation_id=annotation_2886185129 .
‘Me And My Mates Vs. The Zombie Apocalypse’ is a 2015 Australian zom-com which received its UK premiere at the festival. Directed by Declan Shrubb, it stars three well-known Australian comedians, Jim Jefferies, Alex Williamson and Greg Fleet. They play Joel, Darryl and Roy, blue-collar telecoms workers who get stuck in their local telephone exchange during the zombie apocalypse. Ignoring for a moment that the end of the world has arrived, Darryl is having a nightmare of a day. They’ve got no beer on the premises, he’s having no luck persuading his boss Roy to let him be part of the indoor cricket team and he somehow needs to confess that he killed Roy’s wife on the way over, after she turned into a zombie, and he’s also just had sex with Roy’s daughter Emma, whom Roy still thinks of as an innocent princess. What follows is ninety minutes of lewd, crude Aussie humour, some great zombie fight scenes and a load of gore. I loved every minute of this insanely funny film and look forward to getting hold of it on DVD so I can see it again and again. Can’t say fairer than that.
I had to leave at this point in the proceedings as I had a two hour drive home so I, unfortunately, had to miss the last two films of the day. These were the UK festival premiere of ‘Cooties’, a 2014 American zom-com starring Elijah Wood as a nerdy elementary school teacher who has to band together with his colleagues to escape when something in the school meals turns their tiny charges into bloodthirsty zombies, and ‘Fallen Soldiers’, which won the public vote on the Festival’s Facebook page. ‘Fallen Soldiers’ is a 2015 low budget UK historical zombie horror, directed by Bill Thomas and set during the Napoleonic wars. Think ‘Sharpe’ with zombies. Both are available on DVD, so I’m going to catch up with them that way.
The festival audience included quite a few people who had come as zombies and many of them had taken real trouble with their make-up, perhaps because there was a best-dressed zombie competition to enter. At times, I almost felt like I was in the middle of a zombie outbreak although, thankfully, nobody tried to eat my brains. I was impressed by the number of different things you could do between films, including being made-up as a zombie by professional make-up artists, playing zombie-themed computer games, browsing through the books, games and DVDs for sale or just chilling out with fellow zombie fans. The café and bar at the Phoenix were both well stocked and very reasonably priced too.
If any of the above has got you intrigued and you want to find out more, you should head over to the Terror4fun Facebook page www.facebook.com/globaldivisionZSA/posts/421824437880877 or website www.terror4fun.com/, where you’ll also be able to pick up the festival issue of ‘The Zombie Times’, which includes much more detail on the films and other festival features than I’ve been able to include here.
I had a hugely enjoyable day at the ‘9th UK Festival Of Zombie Culture’ and I’d like to thank Ed Thurlow and the Terror4fun team for allowing me to attend and making me feel so welcome. If you’re interested in zombies and you’d like to spend time in the company of fellow fans, watching great films and chatting about the genre, then I can’t think of a better way to do it in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere than by coming to next year’s festival. I hope to see you there.
(c) Patrick Mahon 2015