Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dawn Of The Dead On The Big Screen

This happened five years ago. I guess I'm ready to talk about it now.

Before I start badmouthing Tampa Pitcher Show, let me just say that I do think it’s a cool place. Any old theater that still does The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a regular basis has something good going for it. My experience at their Dawn of the Dead screening was embarrassing and mostly terrible. You can probably write all of the following off as a weird old guy who should just the shut the hell up.

I read somewhere that there was going to be a screening of the original Dawn of the Dead (oh, there was a remake?) accompanied by zombie video games, zombie strippers (I didn’t expect this part to be true), and Mike Christopher AKA the Hare Krishna zombie from the 1978 film. I was really, really excited about this event. Seeing Dawn of the Dead -a movie that was hugely important to my development as a horror movie fan- on the big screen was paramount. Of course, I was headed for disaster.

Before we get to the screening, let me share this little story. My first encounter with this classic film was due to this stuttering kid at our school. Seemed like a nice enough chap so I would stand up for him when my loser classmates would make fun of his speech impediment. This kid was way into horror movies or so he professed and I was impressed as hell by his Dawn of the Dead t-shirt. It featured a person's exploding head.

When I asked this kid about what was going on with his t-shirt, he told me that in Dawn of the Dead there were all these zombies. Check! He then told me that the figure on his t-shirt was the king zombie. Um... wait a second. He related to me how bullets wouldn't stop this creature and that the heroes had to use a rocket launcher to destroy it. That's how its head exploded. Holy shit! I wish Dawn of the Dead had that in it! A couple of years later, when I finally watched Dawn of the Dead, I remembered that kid and just felt kind of stupid. In order to make up for his stuttering, he was just a bold faced liar who’d probably never even seen the dang film.

Okay, back to 2010. It was a Saturday night in early January and it was a friggin’ cold night in Tampa. I know what you’re saying, Florida gets cold? It does and when it does, us thin-blooded Floridians are screwed. Lows in the 30s might be nothing to a lot of people but it feels like the end of the world to us keepin’ it real in the dong-shaped state. But more about that later.

I showed up too early to Tampa Pitcher Show due to my unbearable excitement. The ticket window was closed so I went inside. Sherlock Holmes (the one with Harry Connick Jr. and Rufus Sewell) was still playing on their only screen so I had to wait in the lobby for a while. I got something to eat and a soda. There were some teens playing zombie themed video games on televisions around. I didn’t know anybody so I just kind of watched people playing for a while. At some point, the ticket window was open so I went outside and got in line to pay admission.

Right in front of me in line were these two odd dudes. I’m pretty sure they were a couple and it was a May-December thing. The younger guy was skittish as shit and I swear he looked at me about 90 times before he urged his partner to look at me. His request was so urgent that when the older dude turned to look at me, he was immediately confused. He gave his boyfriend a glare as if to say, ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?’ Maybe the younger guy thought I was cute or especially ugly or I had piss stains on my pants, who knows?

When I got back inside, Sherlock Holmes was still playing. The time for the event to start had already passed and one of the employees told me that the previous film had started late. For the next half hour, I sat and watched people playing video games some more. People started showing up dressed as zombie hunters with Nerf guns and plastic swords. I attempted to talk to some folks but I got the cold shoulder. Something was just wrong.

Finally, the auditorium emptied out and I got to go inside. A wave of nostalgia hit me like a ton of bricks. The cheap furniture and the garbage carpeting brought me back to every dollar theater I’d ever set foot in. I felt like I was right at home. Don’t worry, it didn’t last long. I marched right up front to a table, took off my jacket, and flopped down in a chair, giddy with excitement.

Someone rolled out a laptop and a projector and my heart sunk. No fucking way were they going to show Dawn of the Dead with a tiny little projector when they had this huge screen. The urge to bolt was immediately quelled when a bunch of unfunny zombie memes started showing up on the screen. Whew, I thought, that was a close call.

So while these terrible zero cultural farts are just rolling along through a Windows slide show of doom and my intelligence is being zapped from my brain, I notice that I’m sitting alone. Everyone at the theater except for me is sitting in the back. I’m the only person who appears to have arrived alone and the only one who doesn’t know everyone else. That’s when it hit me, I had stumbled into a clique-hole. The Rocky Horror kids wanted nothing to do with me! I was just some uncool dude who was crashing their party. Suddenly, I was very depressed and embarrassed for myself. My body felt as heavy as a stone while a steamroller of social anxiety crushed me down into the filthy carpet.

Then the show started. Some ghoulish rock music kicked in and the zombie strippers came out to strut their stuff. Wow, there really is truth in advertising! Girls in zombie makeup, fishnets, frilly panties, strategically placed electrical tape, and very little else started doing their act. It wasn’t just burlesque bouncing either, they actually had a victim whose guts they tore out. I had to applaud. This was good.

Once the strippers had done their bit, it was time for Mike Christopher to give a little speech. He seemed like a nice guy. He complained about how cold it was in Florida and that got a laugh. It would probably be 80 degrees in a few days. That’s what makes all of us psychotic around here. When he was done, I should have left. I’m telling you, my friends, I should have walked out the fucking door.

So the film starts. They were indeed using the laptop and the tiny projector. This resulted in Dawn of the Dead taking up less than 20% of the available screen. The debate in my mind went like this: Is this an actual print of the film? Hell no. How important is that to me? Moderately. Is this bigger than my TV at home? Yes. Then fine, I’ll stay.

Around this time, I noticed that I needed to put my jacket back on. Tampa Pitcher Show was probably trying to save money by not turning the heat on. The temperature inside the place was starting to plummet. I had a wool cap in the pocket of my jacket. I took that out and put it on. Then I zipped up my jacket. Then I had to put my hands in my pockets. Holy shit, I was cold. Really, really cold.

Then the ‘your virus detection software is out of date’ window popped up over George Romero’s classic with a loud ding that echoed through the theater. My jaw dropped. That’s right, whoever owned the laptop in question was a complete asshole who didn’t know his/her ass from a hole in the ground. I felt so stupid for sticking through this shit show that my urge to weep or start screeching at the top of my lungs in venomous rage was deflated. I just sat there and took it like a grownup, a thoroughly disappointed grownup.

When the film ended, I got up to leave with nothing in my heart but a feeling of profound foolishness and a love for Dawn of the Dead that no crappy night out (and no shite remake) can shake. It was freezing outside. I ran to the car and hopped in. As the heat failed and only cold air was blowing out, I started laughing. It was after 2 in the morning, I was cold as balls, and I’d just wasted 4 hours of my life. I drove home shivering and making a pact with myself to never return to Tampa Pitcher Show ever again.

So in the end, Dawn of the Dead still haunts me. The film is urgently important in my heart. Seeing it when I was 13 and seeing it at that abominable screening were the same. The setting didn't matter. I was creeped out and depressed by the film. Even when I was a kid, it made me morose and I loved it. I had never felt that way from a movie before. It made me listless and thoroughly freaked me out the more I thought about it. The world looked bent, distorted and yet somehow even more real afterward. This is what good horror movies do. Tampa Pitcher Show, leave me alone. I don't want to talk to you right now.

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