Dead Geek Walking: Becoming a Zombie for Mondo’s Dawn of the Dead Celebration

By  · Published on November 2nd, 2011

It’s rare that uttering the phrase, “we’re watching The Exorcist” would be laden with arrogance. Prior to the inception of Mondo News, the indescribably cool Alamo Drafthouse offshoot and purveyor of unbelievable movie posters and tee-shirts, few situations would have arisen for those words to have adopted their arrogant new subtext. But that was before Mondo’s Mystery Screenings turned everyone into detectives. The basic idea behind the Mondo Mystery Screening is that you buy a ticket for the screening of an undisclosed film; your admission also securing you an extremely limited-edition Mondo poster of said film. It’s a bit of a gamble because you are paying top dollar for a poster sight-unseen not knowing A.) whether you’ll like the poster or B.) whether you even like the film its celebrating. Mondo goes to impressive lengths to keep the showcased films and the corresponding posters hidden from the public until they’ve gathered at the Drafthouse.

But this time around, Mondo Mystery Screening IX was taking place at an off-site location which, just days before the event, was revealed to be a church. Prior to that announcement, all we had to go on was that the screening was touted as the biggest event Mondo had ever conceived. Ravenously, we purchased our tickets and, upon hearing that the screening would be taking place at a church, found the words “we’re watching The Exorcist” escaping our lips with misplaced self-satisfaction. So certain were we that we had decrypted the Mondo cipher that we completely ignored the fact that we were so clearly being duped.

Mysterious emails, vague descriptions of the evening’s proceedings, and secret locations would seem overly clandestine in any other situation, but these elements are part and parcel for a Mondo Mystery Screening. So when I received just such an email harboring just such a description and instructing me to go to just such a secondary location before the screening, it wasn’t totally out of left field. When I read further and realized this was not an email sent to all screening attendees and that I was warned to tell no one of these instructions, my interest was exponentially more piqued. I was told to go to a shopping mall for a “makeover.” Now at this point, the Dawn of the Dead bells should have been sounding in my brain given this second location. But the fact is that one of Austin’s largest and most involved haunted houses, The House of Torment, was situated in the parking lot of that mall so I figured we were just bogarting the House of Torment makeup crew so a few press people could then return to the church and participate in one of Tim League’s wacky movie intros.

Entering the loading dock, and into what clearly used to be an anchoring department store, it immediately became clear that Mondo’s claims about this particular screening were entirely genuine. I found an assembly line of Hollywood-caliber makeup artists hard at work and nearly 100 zombies staring back at me. Their distinctive blue tinge, the fact that we were in fact gathering in a mall, and the presence of a very distinctive Hare Krishna zombie solidified that indeed the movie would be Dawn of the Dead. It was then explained to me that the attendees would be bused from the church into the parking lot of the mall where their buses would be attacked by a horde of shambling zombies. I was about to be zombified.

First, a prosthetic wound was attached to my neck. Then my arms and legs were sprayed with the familiar blue paint for that just-risen-from-the-dead freshness. My face was similarly covered, with fine detailed added around the eyes and cheeks. Finally, a highly specialized makeup artist carefully and strategically added synthetic blood to my face, neck, arms, and hands. Here careful arrangement of blood splotches achieved the perfect representation of utter chaos. By the end, I was transformed and looked very much the part of a Romero-style walking dead. Then, with some of my blogger compatriots, I waited for the buses to arrive. Listening to the murmurs around me, I learned that several of the other zombies were professional extras who had been sitting in makeup for hours. That fact, paired with the specifics of their disguises, gave the entire room a weary, morose malaise. Suddenly, a woman came up to me and told me to go outside. It was there I was informed of my specific assignment.

Just before the buses began to arrive, all the lights were extinguished in the most deserted section of the mall parking lot. Into our hands were placed healthy dollops of fake blood and, as the buses began to roll in, we meandered up to them and began to claw at the windows; leaving our bloody signatures on the windows. Fake bodies were stationed along the route and some of us were happily feasting. Mustering all the knowledge instilled in me by years of horrorphile indoctrination, I conjured my best zombie shamble and eerie groaning. Then, the buses pulled to a stop, and the riders were told to disembark and run for the mall…right through a gauntlet of zombies. But they were not alone, actors in military attire began to fire at we the undead. Their blanks were ear-shatteringly loud so falling stunned to the ground proved to be a natural reaction. Some of us, clearly only wounded and having avoided a headshot, began to crawl and grab at fleeing patrons. By the time all was said and done, my hands were caked with grass and mud and my throat was raw from growling and moaning. It was amazing.

Inside, row upon row of folding chairs were set before an enormous screen right in the middle of one of the more unloved wings of the mall. As I found my way to my seat, many of the other zombo extras eagerly leaned on the railings of the second floor to watch what was announced, without any great shock at this point, to be Dawn of the Dead. Edible body parts, including those torn from an edible baby, were thrown to the crowd to roars of devilish delight. Then, Justin Ishmael, head of Mondo News, announced the very special guest: Dawn of the Dead director, and horror legend, George Romero. His ascent to the stage was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation. In the middle of his insights into the film, a lone zombie slowly approached the stage. At Justin’s suggestion, George “took care of the problem;” firing a gun hidden in his signature vest and hitting the squib-equipped zombie square in his exploding head. What followed was a transcendent screening of one of the most seminal films in all of zombie cinema as we watched Romero’s horrific subversion of mass consumerism while sitting in a failing shopping mall.

We left that night with a beautiful Dawn of the Dead poster by Jeff Proctor (seen below). For years, the rights holders of the film would not commission any new poster designs of the film. But Mondo, in testament to its growing influence and reputation as a distributor of legitimate cinematic artwork, was finally able to convince them otherwise. The inclusion of nearly every recognizable character and flesh-eater from the film in brilliant detail and vibrant, yet reserved color, without the overall effect being too busy is remarkable. I arrived home and scanned the walls for a place of prominence for this poster before realizing I was still covered in makeup; wondering at the reactions of passing motorists as I had driven home.

This night exemplifies everything I love about Mondo, the Drafthouse, and the cinephile community here in Austin and further justifies my decision to move out here nearly four years ago. Getting to see a great horror film in an interesting location is one thing, actually having the chance to participate in recreating the elements that inform that film’s greatness makes the film a living, breathing entity…even as I, in this case, portrayed an entity that does neither.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.