Special Edition: Spooky Empire 2009
It has now come an annual Halloween tradition to attend Orlando’s mega horror convention Spooky Empire. The full title of the event is Spooky Empire’s Ultimate Horror Weekend. For me the show always delivers, it is packed with tons of horror from movie stars, cult directors, cool panels, DVDs, books, toys, T-shirts, costumes, you name it. The event is also like a family reunion of sorts where I get to see some of my good friends from Orlando, Tampa, and beyond. This year was extra special for two reasons; my short film Spaventare was playing there and Herschell Gordon Lewis was attending, screening a rough cut of his newest film, The Uh-Oh Show, which I was the editor on.
I left early afternoon on Friday to head to Orlando. Fellow PCR columnist and Tampa Film Fan herself, Lisa Scherer Ciurro bummed a ride with me since she was attending the convention as well. Got to the place in good time, checked in, and started to plan out the weekend’s events. While driving around the Wyndham resort (where the event is held) I ran into (well, not literary) people from the zombie walk. Every year they kick off the show with hundreds of people dressed as zombies walking along International Drive and into the resort. It felt like I driven right into a zombie movie. It was cool as hell watching the undead group walk by. Some even banged on the windows of my car for affect.
When getting into Spooky Empire, this year there was no waiting in line for me. I got a pass because my film was showing in The Freak Show Horror Film Festival. My first stop was heading over to the dealers room to meet up with some friends. First I saw Joel and Cathy Wynkoop, who were at their table. They were pretty much in the same section as last year and years before. Cool thing is they put all the indie filmmakers in the same row. Years past they were all scattered, but for the past few years they’ve been keeping them all together. Along with seeing people I know from the Tampa Bay area I also get to see people that I only see once a year. I got to catch up with some good friends from Orlando and other parts of Florida and beyond.
One of my next stops was one of the celebrity rooms and this year there were three of them. When walking in a saw a table full of legendary wrestlers. I know that wrestling doesn’t really fit with horror, but for me I’m a big wrestling fan as I am a horror one so it was a win-win situation. First wrestler I talked to was one half of the Nasty Boys Jerry Sags. I met both Sags and his tag team partner Brian Knobbs a number of times before since they live in the Tampa Bay area. It was good seeing Jerry, we talked a bit and I asked him where Knobbs was? He told me he was on his way. Other wrestlers there were George “The Animal” Steele, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and women’s wrestler, Daffney.
Walking through the room, I saw some familiar faces from past conventions and new ones. Two of the people I wanted to met were John Russo and Russ Streiner of Night of the Living Dead fame. I decide to get most of my autographs on Friday night, since it was not that crowded and I knew Saturday was going to be a madhouse. I got both John and Russ’ autographs and got a picture with them. I talked a little with them about Night and what they thought of people remaking or reworking the film. All of us agreed that the original is the best and if it’s not broke don’t fix it. The two of them were very cool and it was great finally meeting some of the makers of my favorite horror film.
After that it was time for Wynkoop’s Q&A panel. I met up with Joel, Cathy, and Lisa and we walked on over. While walking through the halls I ran into Brian Knobbs, who was just getting in. We said our hellos and I told him I would be by their table later. During the Q&A for Wynkoop, a special guest popped in, it was Godfather of Gore himself, H.G. Lewis. Herschell said he had to stop in to see his favorite actor. Joel is also one of the stars of The Uh-Oh Show. The two talked a bit about the movie shoot and the fun they had making the film.
Once the panel was over, I grabbed Joel and we set off to tape some interviews. This was the third year that the team of Woods and Wynkoop invaded the event and got candid interviews with the celebs that I put together as a video and post it on line and also put it on local television. I also wanted to get most the interviews out of the way on Friday, because I knew the rest of the weekend was going to crazy and I also wanted to take in some of the panels and films that were happening.
First people we interviewed were wrestlers The Nasty Boys, Greg “The Hammer” and George “The Animal”, lots of great sound bits from them as always and very high energy. Went over to the Night of the Living Dead crew and did interviews with Russ, John, and got the sheriff of the film, George Kosana, who says the famous line “They’re dead, they’re all messed up.” Speaking of great lines, we got Russ to do a rendition of his “They’re coming to get you Barbara” line. Another guest we interviewed was the legendary Tippi Hedren from Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie. She was just great, Joel did a good interview with her talking to her about her experiences working with Hitch. I also got her to autograph my DVD copy of The Birds and she was very gracious.
Next when went into the second celebrity room where we grabbed interviews with the Hare Kirshna zombie himself, from Dawn of the Dead, Mike Christopher and we also talked to Herschell for a bit. After leaving that room we were looking for the third room, which we were told, was down the hall. Once we got there the place was dead (well it was about after 9 now), but this was good for us, because standing right in front of us was John Landis talking to Tom Savini and Sara Karloff. I figured we wouldn’t get near Landis because I thought the line was going to be so long and also some of the top names there can’t or won’t do an interview, but Landis was great enough to give us a quick interview. He was really cool and very funny and it was nice meeting him. Savini popped in during the interview and did a funny bit with Landis. We also got an interview with Adrienne Barbeau, she was another class act and was a delight to talk to. She even said some of her line from Creepshow where she said, “Get out of my way Henry or I swear to God…”, something along the lines of that.
I was very happy that we got the entire guests that we wanted and didn’t have to worry about getting any the next day. I shot some quick b-roll of the dealer’s room. While taping it I was thinking this is the same stuff from last year I taped, I can just almost use that in my video and no one would know the difference. I did see some new booths there and got some cool scary stuff on tape. To me the dealer’s room is like Disney World, tons of things to buy, but not enough cash on me. The room has a variety of DVDs, toys, paintings, posters, art, masks, T-shirts, and so much more. Once it was closing time I went out to dinner, hung out at a pool party for a bit, and went to bed to get ready for day two.
Saturday was going to be a big day. This year I wanted to catch some of the panels they had. Spooky Empire has something for everyone, from guests, movies, panels, concerts, and even video games. Only thing that sucked is they were some panels or movies that were scheduled at the same time, so I had to pick from one or the other. The place was all ready packed as I squeezed my way through the crowd. First panel I caught for the day was the H.G. Lewis one. On my way there I ran into PCR columnist, ED Tucker. I had planned on going to lunch with ED and his friend Byron sometime that day. The H.G. Lewis panel was awesome. He talked about how he got started in the business and what was next for him. He was also very moved with the appreciation shown towards him by everyone at the event. After I got out of Herschell’s panel, I went to look for ED. I later found him by Herschell’s table and ED invited him to lunch with us, but he couldn’t leave his table at the time. After that, I talked to Herschell for a few minutes then went to catch up with ED to join him for lunch. ED, Byron, and myself went across the street to TGI Fridays for a good meal and talk. Topics we discussed included the event, collectibles, movies, and other fandom items. I had a great time with them and after lunch we parted ways and I headed back to the convention.
My next stop was the Night of the Living Dead panel. I just made it in when it got started. It was a real treat hearing all the stories from cast and crew. The panel consisted of Russo, Streiner, Kosana, and Bill Hinzman, the graveyard zombie and a Spooky Empire staple guest. The group talked about their experience making the film and spending a number of nights at the old house in Night that didn’t have any running water. Many fans talked about how much an impact the film has had on their lives and thanked them for giving us such a great film. One thing I was disappointed was that George Romero canceled, I was looking forward to meeting him. Nonetheless, it was a great panel discussion. Marilyn Eastman, who played Helen Cooper in Night also canceled as well.
Then I took in a movie at the Freak Show Film Fest. This was a short film called 2:22 by Steven Shea. A very entertaining film about a woman who wakes up sick as hell and then we are shown flashbacks of what happened the night before and then the terror unfolds. The short had no or little dialogue and told the story perfectly through visuals or body language from the actors. This is a running theme of sorts in many of the films played there with using just strong images to tell the story. Next, Joel and myself interviewed several independent filmmakers in the dealer’s room. We talked to Jason Liquori from Hocus Focus Productions, Joe Davison, who was showing his film Experiment 7 at the fest, Terry Cronin of Students of the Unusual comics, and from Fear Films, Robert Massetti and the Fear Girls, Robert also runs the Freak Show Film Fest. This concluded all my taping for the weekend. I then put the camera down and ventured off into the dealer’s room and met up with friend and filmmaker, Shelby McIntyre. I walked around to see what they had good to buy. For those of you out there wondering, “What did I buy?”, here’s a list:
DVD of Midnight directed by John Russo (got it autographed)
DVD of Combat Shock that I bought at the Troma table
T-shirt of the two twin girls from the Shining that read Redrum
DVD of Fall of an Actor starring Joel Wynkoop
DVDs from indie film director Terence Muncy; The Shack, Hell Walks the Earth, X
As day two started to wrap up, the highlight of the whole weekend and one of the highlights of my life happened. I was about to get some dinner at the hotel restaurant with Lisa and as we were waiting for a table and in walks Herschell Gordon Lewis. He said hi to me and I asked if he was coming in to have dinner, he said yes, and then I asked if he wanted to join us, which he did. This was awesome because earlier in the day I thought I would be having lunch with Herschell, which didn’t pan out, but as luck would have it I had dinner with one of my heroes. Even after working with the man and gone out to lunch a few times with him in a group, I still get a little star struck. It’s also a great feeling when you meet one of your heroes and they’re just as cool as you imagine them. Mr. Lewis is one of the most gracious and smartest people I ever met. We all had a ball talking about things from his films to his direct market/copywriting career to the convention itself. Herschell was having a blast this whole weekend and was excited about screening his new film. I brought up some key moments from his films like Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs that I enjoyed. I even told him after I watched those films I bought the novels to the films that I enjoyed very much throughout the years. Again, this was a great moment in my life and I’ll never forget it. It was an honor and I’m also very fortunate to get the opportunity to work with one of my idols as well.
After dinner, the night was still young and I took in my final panel for the night, which was Scared Hot: The Sex and Horror Panel. Interesting discussion that kind of got off track at the end when some crazy old guy in the audience started to talk about the Spider-man films and other non-horror films, but over all, the panel was okay and good for a laugh. Headed to the pool area after that to chat a little with some friends then headed off to bed and tired to get a good night sleep for the third and final day.
Usually on the third day of Spooky Empire, I only stay a short time and try to hit the road about 2pm to go back home, but this year there were lots to do on Sunday. First, there was my film Spaventare playing at the film fest. It got a good reaction from the crowd and was very pleased. Also, actor Rod Grant, who starred in Spaventare and Experiment 7 was in attendance. Then, I got some lunch and did my final rounds in the guests and dealer’s rooms. Later on, I met up with everyone for the screening of the rough cut of The Uh-Oh Show. Before the feature played, a very good short film was screened called The Sleuth Incident, which had excellent photography in it. The short was about Teddy Bears that prey on humans, but it starts off with one Teddy Bear roaming through a city then a few minutes toward the end it starts killing people. This was another film that used no dialogue and told a story through visuals, kind of like 2:22 and Spaventare did.
Now, on to our feature presentation of H.G. Lewis’ latest film. This was the first time The Uh-Oh Show was played in front of an audience and it got a good reaction. The crowd laughed and cheered in the right parts. Herschell was also very pleased with the reaction. Then it was on to the award ceremony for the Freak Show Film Fest. Herschell was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award and I was happy to be there for it. H.G. thanked the crowed and everyone at Spooky Empire. We even did a sing along with him and sang The South’s Gonna Rise Again, the opening song to 2000 Maniacs, it was another treasured moment.
As Sunday started to wind down, I bid my farewells and gathered up Lisa and we headed back to Tampa. I have to say this was the best Spooky Empire I been to because I had tons of fun and brought home some great memories. For me personally, it’s not just about who’s on the guest list or what activities are going on, it’s about meeting up with good people, sharing stories, the atmosphere, and just having a good time all around. These are my kind of people at this event and we all share a unique bond, our love of the horror genre and fandom. See everyone next year for Spooky Empire 2010 and have a Happy Halloween.