Three hours sleep each night during the Dead by Dawn Horror Festival hasn't stopped SGM's very own kilted horror freak Al Sex Gore delivering his own inane ramblings from the weekend fun…
Another year, another Dead By Dawn…sure that may sound somewhat throwaway, but the consensus of late amongst the horror community when it comes to the UK's biggest and best horror film festival has been somewhat complacent with some long running attendees allowing a comfort zone of increasing high expectations take control. Of course this inevitably leads to added pressure for festival director Adele Hartley with the programming so with the festival hitting its 14th year could those standards of horror expectation be maintained?
Thursday 26th April
As always when the Dead By Dawn Festival is upon us Edinburgh is soaking in the sunshine, and taking place in the Filmhouse Cinema in the heart of Edinburgh (under the shadow of the famous Edinburgh Castle itself), can be somewhat of an emotional bind - why lock yourself away in a darkened cinema hall for four long days and nights when you could be lazing in a beer garden wiling the hours away? This was the very question I asked festival director Adele as she prepared to hit ground zero of the festival proceedings that Thursday afternoon mere hours before the opening film began…the answer would be apparent later that weekend on Sunday evening as a packed hall of horror fans cheered and applauded the weekends proceedings.
But for the opening night, the horror fun begins with the hilarious uber violent comedy short film 'Les Morveux' (Little Brats, basically 7 minutes of wondrous child mutilation) before the first main feature of the weekend Jim Mickle's 'Mulberry Street'. Playing like a gung-ho rat infested spin on 28 Days Later, 'Mulberry Street' sees ex-boxer Clutch take on hordes of rabid zombie types in downtown Manhattan, NY and whilst the film is indeed quite exhilarating viewing it also suffers from being typically formulaic (everything from Romero's Night of the Living Dead to Bava's Demons is played here) and more annoyingly utilises the downfall of the aforementioned 28 Days Later, the 'shakycam'; sure we can all appreciate the tricks filmmakers use to disguise having little or no budget but the use of a shaking camera at a close up angle is a poor way to excuse the lack of ability to use strong stationery camera angles during action sequences. That aside, 'Mulberry Street' is a thrilling horror romp that deserves to do great business on the home video market and director Jim Mickle is a man to keep an eye out for with future productions.
Friday 27th April
Another bright and sunny day in Edinburgh as I head into the Filmhouse to set up SGM's first festival stall (to promote our labour of love magazine publication 'Living Dead: Glasgow) alongside Harvey and Tristan (heroes both) at the FAB Press stall (who have in tow the lovely Kier-La Janisse, author of new FAB tome Violent Professional) - both stalls proves to be s great source of entertainment over the weekend with many SGM readers (old and new) coming to say 'hi' with even the odd kind soul offering some money my way for a copy of our zombie opus (and 'thanks to you all'!) but on with the cinematic proceedings…
It's early afternoon when the fun kicks off with the first of three Masters of Horror screenings, this occasion being Tobe Hooper's 'The Damned Thing' (based on Ambrose Pearce's short story) but as most will be familiar with the Masters of Horror franchise we'll move swiftly on to the first real dose of Friday fun with the 'What You Make It' short film programme. The short film programme has become one of the highlights of the Dead By Dawn Festival over the years, not because of some sort of deranged MTV generation low attention span scenario but as the format of the short film offers the chance for new filmmakers with minimal budgets the opportunity to deliver their wares in the form of short concise calling cards of genre fun. With this first short film section of the weekend we are treated to 'Avatar' (a tragic tale of tensions boiling over between a quadriplegic and his carer wife), 'Les Petits Hommes Vieux' (Men From Older Space; a hilarious romp reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers…but with pensioners!) and 'Y Que Cumplas Muchos Mas' (Happy Birthday To You; a warped and violent look at domestic abuse with a twist). All three shorts provide very differing veins of intense entertainment and make for nice preparation for the second Masters of Horror delectation with John Landis' 'Family' which sees George (Norm) Wendt shake off his Cheers character by way of the role of a sleazy neighbour letching after a young wife who has moved in next door.
With the afternoon's filmic family dysfunctions in mind it is perhaps appropriate that Friday night sees the theme go into overload with the screening of Alex de la Iglesia's 'The Baby's Room'. As poor festival director Adele Hartley will contest, I have been a thorn in her side for many years when it comes to the works of Alex de la Iglesia, a massive fan of his work for many years I have in the build up to programming each years event like clockwork (no in fact like an irritating broken scratched record) politely pleaded for a screening of 'La Communidad' (de la Iglesia's stunning and hilarious Hitchcockesque black comedy which criminally still has not been released properly outside of Spain) so with the decision this year to not only screen 'The Baby's Room' but also to invite de la Iglesia along as 'guest of honour' I was a happy man indeed…a feeling though that would be of sorts somewhat short lived.
Filmed as part of the Spanish TV film series 'Películas para no dormir' (Films to Keep You Awake) 'The Baby's Room' (La habitación del niño) follows young couple Juan and Sonia as they settle into their new home with their new born baby. Being an old property in need of extensive upgrading the house comes with more than some old creaky plumbing as Juan discovers late one night as he watches in fear at the chilling images that appear on the baby monitor. 'The Baby's Room' is everything the classic horror movie should be - chilling, exhilarating and downright scary; the film delivers all in droves with de la Iglesia proving he is as ever is one of the industry's most talented genre filmmakers bringing a solid and scary experience to the screen with even a small TV production budget. The screening itself though was an odd experience as before the film screened de la Iglesia took to the stage to ramble on inanely asking why we existed in this moment (expanding as to ask why we were there and to try question our belief in this existence in the first place) which whilst amusing to long running fans of his work (I personally thought it was a hysterical insight into the mans own unstable psyche) for many unaware of his style seemingly found this to be somewhat offensive (a feeling unfortunately enhanced when de la Iglesia swiftly exited the event with the Spanish Ambassador not to be seen for the remainder of the weekends proceedings, for some attendees a slight on the significance of events such as these taking place and the role of 'guest of honour') - that said, for every great talent there is a great ego (and take from that what you will!)
And so to the Friday late night zombie fun which kicked off with the bizarre Danish zombie western 'It Came From The West' which basically comprised of 17 minutes of gory zombie action as some yee-ha cowboys take on the undead in their local saloon in the style of Peter Jackson's similarly twisted Meet the Feebles. A nice slice of animated fun ahead of the evenings closing film 'Flight of the Living Dead'. One of the most anticipated films of the weekend 'Flight of the Living Dead' (for this viewer anyway) was also one of the most disappointing and all the signs should have been there with the build up to its screening. Known to many under its original title 'Plane Dead' Scott Thomas' grade z 'zombies on a plane' shlocker was recently picked up by New Line Cinema who ahead of its UK premiere here swiftly retitled and tagged on new opening/closing credits. Whether or not somewhere along the line the film lost all sense of worth remains to be seen when it inevitably gets saturated for one week only into multiplexes across the land. As is always the case in airplane disaster movies (eh?), 'Flight of the Living Dead' sees a plane full of the usual suspects (flirty teens, flighty stewardesses, the token nun, sports jock and erm, mad scientist escorting genetic virus in corpse) hit a violent thunderstorm which unleashes the zombie virus out of the hold and into screaming action throughout the plane. Now on paper this should be a no-brainer winner but on delivery ends up being one of the most appalling squirm inducing bad movie experiences. The problem being that you really cant tell whether the film is deliberately trying to be awful (the acting and dialogue delivery is so fuck off bad you'll want to scream) or its simply the end product of a quick turn over exploitation cash in on the recent 'Snakes on a Plane' venture that's been done with so little care that it should be damned straight to the cheapie ex-rental bin in your local DVD store. Sure in the latter part of the film there is the odd gory moment and the less demanding drunk out there may find its trashiness somewhat endearing but in the main 'Flight of the Living Dead (Outbreak on a Plane)' is a torturously bad film experience which should be damned for its dreadfulness. Where's the bar? Time for some serious drinking methinks!
Saturday 28th April
Saturday does not get off to a good start when (after three hours sleep) the hotel fire alarm goes off prompting a 7am building evacuation out on the street whilst waiting half an hour for Edinburgh's finest fire services switch the system off and allow me to twitch my way back into my bedroom only to have sleep fail to return. One power shower and slow Scottish breakfast feed later and it's a shuffle back to the Filmhouse Cinema for the afternoon horror fun.
If anyone was tired before opening short film 'L'instant Avant' screened they were soon sitting upright as they watched in jaw dropping shock as the poor onscreen victim quite literally sees his jaw dropped (with the aid of a coat hanger and some brute strength!). The first main feature of the day though is Thai shocker 'Shutter' which follows the J-Horror misadventures of keen photographer Tun and his girlfriend Jane after they run over a the atypical lass with long dark hair in white frock in a drunken moment of foolishness. As is the case with such movies they speed off with nary a care for their poor assailants condition but soon after all sorts of photographic and deadly hi-jinks begin to take place. Although already unleashed on DVD (see the SGM review) 'Shutter' is one of those occasion were you're happy to experience some Asian (or should that be Thai) horror fun up on the big screen with most attendees more than happy with some moments of truly memorable horror fun.
Mid afternoon and the highlight for many each year kicks in with the annual 'Cutting Edge' short film competition with 12 films in contest this year there is plenty for genre fans to get excited about. Amongst the highlights this year were Ryan Levin's 'The Fifth' (a laugh out loud sick as fuck jet black comedy about a poker game gone horribly wrong), 'The Eyes of Edwards James' (Rod Gudino's entertainingly thought provoking psychological short), 'Mime Massacre' (dumb ass plotless fun with a title that says it all) and special mention should be made of 'Blind Man's Alley' and 'Nose Hair' (two rare refreshing examples of upcoming British talent) as well as medical shorts 'Anaesthesia' and 'Lump' which even had this splatter fan squirming in his seat feeling downright queasy and traumatised!
Early evening and indie filmmaker Mark Young takes to the stage to present the world premiere of his own brand of deep south vampire noir 'Southern Gothic'. In the hick town of Redemption, down and out alcoholic strip club bouncer Hazel Fortune (played in show stealing form by veteran TV actor Yul Vázquez) ends up not only befriending but also defending youngster Hope from drawling bad ass vampire preacher Enoch Pitt and his growing legion of the damned. 'Southern Gothic' is a curious movie which whilst entertaining plays outside the conventions of mainstream cinema and will appeal solely (and hence perhaps for many welcomingly) to the genre fan. Like a slow burn deep south take on 'Fear X' with a hefty gothic noir vampire twist, 'Southern Gothic' is an entertaining low budget indie effort that should garner deserved attention when it gets wider exposure and filmmaker Mark Young is another talent worth keeping a close eye on.
After a brief evening break for the bleary eyed amongst attendees to get some deserved sustenance inside them (which for this mutant meant a big old festival team Chinese pig out which in itself had its moments) ahead of the legendary all-night proceedings, the fun kicks off at midnight with the Tim Burtonesque short 'Monster' before things really kick into gear with what is perhaps the film of the weekend with Maurice Devereaux's stunning 'End of the Line'. The premise for the movie is very simple…underground train comes to a halt in-between stations…amongst travellers onboard are pockets of happy clappy Christians returning from a religious gathering, uniformly they all receive a text message which triggers them all into an instantaneous bloodily violent religious cleansing…let the carnage begin! Playing like a deranged psychotic religious spin on Lamberto Bava's classic Demons movies (albeit initially set on an underground train rather than a cinema or apartment block as featured in those aforementioned flicks) 'End of the Line' takes a predictable genre formula and charges it with a blackly hilarious edge with the wild religious angle but by enhancing the horror impact with a cracking suckerpunch downbeat finale that makes the movie one of the most refreshingly exciting genre films produced in years. A smash hit with all attending and a film that was being talked about right through the remainder of the weekends proceedings, essential viewing.
Joshua and Jeffrey Crook's violent indie shocker 'Gruesome' is up next in which student Claire Parker plummets into Groundhog Day hell as she brutally killed over and over again. 'Gruesome' goes down well with the late night crowd but for this weary festival goer the previous mornings fire alarm experience triggers a deserved few hours welcome sleep (with the promise that I will check out 'Gruesome' at some point properly with its US DVD presentation under the title 'Salvage'). As we approach the wilderness hour of 4am it's time for the ever popular 'horror classic' screening which this year is a presentation of Robert Harman's seminal 'The Hitcher' - for those that don't know star Rutger Hauer has long hoped to visit to the festival (maybe next year Rutger?) but as still unable to make it along the next big thing is his breakthrough 'horror' movie - damn, who gives two hoots about that Bladerunner movie when the real money is on 'The Hitcher' as one of the genres classic greats. Surprisingly, there were a few youngsters in attendance who had never seen the film before so for the knowing amongst attendees the screening had a new lease of life ahead of its very unwelcome remake heading to a multiplex near you very soon.
Following a much needed breakfast break the final two films of the all-night extravaganza unfold and for those that make it through the night it has to be said that the 7am to 11am screening slot on the Sunday morning is often one of the most rewarding sessions of the weekend. Last year we were treated to the simply wonderful Neighbourhood Watch (which seems sadly to have vanished from our horror loving radars, tragic for such a damn good movie) and this year the early hours fun kicks off with a special screening (complete with a hilarious specially filmed for Dead By Dawn cast introduction) of The Butcher Brothers opus 'The Hamiltons' which starts as a simple tale of a group of parentless kids trying to maintain a sense of 'family' but as the story progresses we realise that these kids are no Waltons by any means but whilst some may be distracted by the occasional onscreen brutality of the family's victims there is an interesting background story flow that at times is reminiscent of films such as Romero's Martin (albeit in a more no budget slap dash way). 'The Hamiltons' has picked up a few awards along the way at various festival screenings and on viewing agreeably so making the Butcher Brothers team another crew to keep a keen eye on.
Wrapping up the all-night/early morning festivities is Koldo Serra's retro revenge opus 'The Backwoods'. Starring Gary Oldman (in what looks to be one of his finest performances to date) 'The Backwoods is set in 1970's where two squabbling English couples attempt to set up home in the idyllic backwoods of rural Spain. After an initial frosty welcome by the locals, the men of the house happen across a deformed young girl chained in an abandoned shack, but after rescuing here the less than welcoming locals come on the hunt for the girl and along the way decide to rape one of the wives in their frenzy of inbred idiocy. Revenge and counter revenge are the order of the day in this stylish mix of Straw Dogs and classic spaghetti western as 'The Backwoods' proves to be one of the strongest films of the weekend and a rewarding treat for all who made it through the all-night proceedings to catch this little known treat. And so with such an enthralling finale we can all head to bed for a few hours well earned sleep (well its either that or head to the nearest church to assault the local religious maniacs in case they turn rabid per End Of The Line!!) ahead of the final days festival fun.
Sunday 29th April
It's mid afternoon again and the final day of the festival, for many there is a sense of downbeat as we all begin to wind down and look ahead to heading home…but not before we have one last run of horror eye candy of course!
Kicking off the afternoon's fun we are cosseted by another fine selection of genre shorts including 'The Love Craft' (think The Love Boat and the great author H P and you'll have an idea where this is heading!), 'Le Jour Du Festin' (Day of the Feast, a hilarious and visually stunning gallic romp) and 'Zombie Movie' (another fun romp that sees three metalheads ponder their survival whilst trapped in a fuelless car surrounded by zombies!) before we are treated to the last of the weekends Masters of Horror screenings with the infamously gruelling Takashi Miike episode 'Imprint'; a tale of love lost, incest and sheer nastiness 'Imprint' is essential viewing for any genre fan and reason enough to invest in Anchor Bay's sumptuous Masters of Horror DVD box sets.
The rest of the days movies have a definite Spanish flavour as Elio Quiroga's 'La Hora Fria' (The Dark Hour) takes to the screen. Described as a horror/sci-fi crossover, 'La Hora Fria' is set in a post apocalyptic future where a small group of people struggle to survive living in fear underground surrounded by sick people, 'strangers' and the ominously titled 'invisibles'. Admittedly I have a problem watching films set mostly underground (especially so in a hot cinema) as to be brutally honest the mix of darkness and heat puts me swiftly to sleep so 'La Hora Fria' was a non starter but I'm told by those that did survive the screening that the film entertained and had a cracker of a finale that I've avoided hearing in case I ever do get the chance to revisit this indie effort.
Before our next Spanish treat we are introduced to the work of French animator Nieto by way of two very clever short films titled Carlitopolis and Far West which involved the amusing dissection of a mouse and a musical finger (both well worth a wee Google/YouTube search for some lighthearted diversion) but with the screening of Jaume Balaguero's 'To Let' (Para entrar a vivir) we see the second of the weekends 'Películas para no dormir' (Films to Keep You Awake) series. Another property based shocker 'To Let' sees young expectant couple Clara and Mario head to a flat viewing in a secluded run down industrial estate. Whilst the allure of affordable spacious accommodation is too much to ignore the couple soon regret their temptation when they find themselves in the company of the most psychotic landlady in the history of the genre film (and one that is reminiscent of the sort of ageing psycho we would see in a classic Argento movie). With 'To Let' Balaguero (like de la Iglesia before him) proves that even with the concept of the TV movie you can deliver a truly exciting and shocking genre film experience. With this in mind it has to be noted my own personal frustration at the shocking ignorance of the industry outside of Spain for not recognising and licensing such gloriously (and horribly) entertaining genre movies for release (subtitled) in the English speaking market.
And it is with this in mind that we roll round to the final movie of the weekend…but not before festival director Adele winds down with some fine words of thanks and the annual feeding frenzy that is the massive horror goodie give away (with the assist of everyone's favourite Geordie boys, another fine job done lads!) then its time to settle down with Nacho Cerda's hotly anticipated 'The Abandoned'. Co-written by the genre super team of Cerda, Richard (Dust Devil) Stanley and Karim (Subconscious Cruelty) Hussain 'The Abandoned' sees Marie Jones on the path of tracing her birth parents and roots with mixed success in Russia when she finds she has inherited an old family home, an isolated farmhouse on an island in the wilderness. No sooner has she arrived when comes across not only her gaunt ghostly doppelganger but also a man claiming to be her long lost twin brother. If all this wasn't enough the fright factor swiftly raises its bar as Marie realises that something disturbing happened in this family home and something even more disturbing is waiting to be unleashed. With 'The Abandoned' Nacho Cerda shows he is not a one trick pony (following his earlier short film successes with the likes of the brutal Aftermath) and can deliver a stylish and genuinely creepy genre experience. But it perhaps should be noted to casual readers that 'The Abandoned' is not like his earlier work, with this full length feature it's more a case of Pans Labyrinth horror fantasy cross over than stomach churning graphic terror - we're talking atmosphere and chills here so if you go into the film with that in mind I'm sure you'll find it a very gratifying experience. For myself, I have to admit I found the experience a slight mixed bag as following four days and nights of wall to wall horror movies this felt like a (albeit entertaining) lacklustre wind down from a frenzy of genre fun so would have preferred a more upbeat stronger paced finale. Solid film nonetheless!
So following some fond adieu's to as many faces as I could squeeze in it was off to crash in the hotel bed for one last time before heading home to catch up on all the lost sleep from an exhilarating but wholly worthwhile weekend of genre fun. The great news being that everyone I spoke to as the festival drew to a close (including the many first time attendees) all agreed that through all the good, bad and truly bizarre Dead By Dawn experiences that weekend each and every one would be returning next year - fitting tribute in itself to the hard work that festival director Adele puts into the event each year…Adele, we salute you! Roll on Dead By Dawn 2008!