The Academy Awards are presented this Sunday and feature an eclectic lineup of offbeat studio fare and daring independent productions that will vie for the gold. But none of them has a scene where a hot dog is used as a cell phone to the spirit world, and that's why you're better off spending your weekend at the Nevermore Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
The highlight of this year's lineup of horror flicks is the sole vintage film being screened, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead from 1978, a tale of survivors of a zombie apocalypse holed up in a shopping mall. Zack Snyder's 2004 remake has its merits, but the original Dawn is still remarkable for how it takes a larger view of the decay of society through the zombification of the populace, whose undead forms still ride the mall's escalators as mindlessly as they did while alive.
Though Romero's Night of the Living Dead kick-started the zombie genre back in 1968, Dawn showed that satire could thrive amid the slaughter; you wouldn't see TV shows like The Walking Dead or screen parodies such as Shaun of the Dead without the original. This is a rare chance to see it on the big screen, and with many of the Carolina Theatre's recent Retrofantasma features selling out, you'd best get your tickets early.
The specter of Dead and its brethren of late-1970s/early-1980s low-budget horror cinema looms large over the new films at this year's Nevermore, with several paying homage with synthesizer-heavy scores and copious amounts of fake blood. John Dies at the End (also available On Demand) is the new film from Don Coscarelli, who has a cult reputation similar to Romero's for such offbeat yet atmospheric flicks as Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series (also, lest we forget, the sword-and-sorcery camp classic The Beastmaster). This one ratchets the absurdity up to new heights: One of the first lines we hear after the titles is "My name is David Wong. I once saw a man's kidney grow tentacles, tear itself out of a ragged hole in his back, and go slapping across my kitchen floor." By the time the film is over, you'll see far weirder things than that.
Based on a cult novel by Jason Pargin, writing under the pseudonym David Wong—which is also the name of its (non-Asian) protagonist—John is about a couple of slackers who investigate supernatural occurrences under the influence of a drug called "Soy Sauce," which either gives you incredible extrasensory perception or leaves you tripping balls, as recounted non-chronologically to a reporter (Paul Giamatti) who may or may not be real himself.
It takes less than 15 minutes to get to a demonic creature assembled from the contents of a meat locker, and by the end of its 99-minute run time, you'll also encounter parallel universes, a demon called "Shitload" and a flying mustache. By now, you already know whether or not this is the movie for you; it is almost pre-assembled as a cult favorite, but it hits many of the crazed heights it tries to achieve, including the sausage-phones.
Unavailable for advance screening but generating considerable festival buzz is The ABCs of Death (also available On Demand), an anthology of 26 shorts by some of the most promising and controversial up-and-coming filmmakers, including Yûdai Yamaguchi (co-writer of Versus), Ti West (The House of the Devil), Simon Rumley (Red, White and Blue), Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film), comic book artist Kaare Andrews, Jon Schnepp (co-producer of the cult animated TV series Metalocalypse), Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) and Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police). We're told the results include everything from live-action to stop-motion animation, but one thing is for certain: There will be blood.
On a more oddball note is Headsome by Apex filmmakers Nova Automatics Productions. The premise is reminiscent of Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite The Brain That Wouldn't Die, and it's every bit as goofy as it sounds (the filmmakers' website indicates that the final version will be in 3-D, but the version shown this weekend will be 2-D). I'm just happy that extremely weird, offbeat horror flicks can now be produced locally, disembodied heads and all.
Like John Dies at the End, Scott Schirmer's Found has a great opening line: "My brother keeps a human head in his closet. Every few days it's a new head." Other than that and some 1980s homages, the two films couldn't be more different. Found. is a deliberately paced, suspenseful tale of a bullied, horror-movie-loving kid (Gavin Brown) who discovers that his older brother (Ethan Philbeck) has a habit of imitating horror movies himself. Shot on a shoestring budget, it evokes Let the Right One In in its depiction of a middle-schooler finding solace from bullying and a dysfunctional family through a violent protector, though it's not as assured as that masterpiece. The internal references to 1980s slasher flicks, including a nasty number called Headless, are dead-on, but the heart of the film is the cruelty inflicted on kids each day (homophobic slurs are thrown about regularly) and the choice those kids have as to whether they want to respond to that cruelty with violence.
Unlike many horror films, Found. recognizes that violence is horrific in and of itself—and that makes it a standout not just at Nevermore but among horror films in general. It's nice to be reminded of the silliness and satire with such revivals as Dawn of the Dead, but it's also important that a large part of the horror genre is, well, actual horror.
Correction: Dawn of the Dead will be screened from a Blu-Ray (not a 35-mm print).
This article appeared in print with the headline "Horror camp."