Chiller Theatre: Then and Now

Chiller Theatre: Then and Now

By Nick Cato

Although I’ve been going to horror film conventions since 1985, it wasn’t until 1991 when I attended my first Chiller Theatre expo, which at the time was called Son of Horrorthon.  I’m guessing Horrorthon had been the name of an earlier version?  Either way, back then the convention was held in Cherry Hill, NJ, at a small but accommodating campus.  Then they began to grow, and eventually moved to a couple of hotels in Secaucus, right across the highway from Giants Stadium, where they held court until about five years ago, when they wound up in the Hilton Parsippany in Parsippany, NJ, where I’ve just returned from their “2012 Spring Spooktacular.”  Chiller runs two conventions a year, in April and again the weekend closest to Halloween.  While the conventions run one evening and two days, I usually attend on Saturday, meet the couple of guests I’d like to meet, cruise the huge dealer’s room, and then leave.

And here’s why Chiller Theatre—at one time my favorite convention—has come to me doing an in-and-out appearance:

At the aforementioned Son of Horrorthon, while crowded, it was still under control.  I was able to meet a couple of my horror heroes (a particular fan-geek moment goes to my discussion with director Herschell Gordon Lewis and his lovely wife) and get some photos and items autographed FREE of charge.  In the early days of Chiller, guests gladly signed anything for free and happily took pictures.  The talk of the day at the 1991 convention was guest star Butch Patrick, the actor who had played Eddie Munster on the 60s sitcom, The Munsters.  People were openly complaining that he was charging $30.00 for an autograph.  I remember countless people bad-mouthing him for his audacity … and yet 21 years later, this practice has become the norm at both Chiller and Fangoria conventions.

A few years later (mid 90s) you saw guests starting to charge $5.00, then $10.00 for an autographed picture, or to sign your own item.  Most of them usually still had no problem taking pictures with their fans for free.  I didn’t have a problem shelling out the five or ten bucks to meet some of my favorite actors, directors, and FX people, but by the late 1990s, EVERYONE seemed to be charging $20.00 for an autograph … and today the norm is between $20.00 and $30.00.

Suffice it to say, what was once a great, fun time has become a way over-priced event that STILL somehow manages to draw some of the largest crowds this side of Comic Con.

But what’s more questionable than the prices are the majority of the guests: Chiller Theatre is named after an old TV show, where classic horror and sci-fi movies were played late on Saturday nights.  Chiller has since become an anything goes convention: over the past ten years there’s been more former wrestlers and non-genre TV stars than there’s been horror and sci-fi people.  There was even an F-Troop reunion a few years ago!

I’ve been saying for years that Chiller seriously needs to change their name.  While the dealer’s room is still mainly horror oriented (and as far as I’m concerned, the main reason to attend this convention), Chiller’s guest list reads like a who’s who of has-been’s and have never been’s.  “Actors” and “directors” sit at booths selling their cheap, shot-on-video productions, attempting to lure people in with scantily-clad women dressed like Vampirella ; Former wrestlers justify Mickey Rourke’s depressing convention sequence in his film The Wrestler; Former TV stars attempt to show interest in their fans (thankfully most seem interested, but there are many gems, including a certain cast member from Star Trek—charging $30.00 an autograph—who once sat there reading a book as he signed some poor schmuck’s photo); and possibly the saddest of all, self-published writers who have NO CLUE how the business is run, hocking their horribly-edited novels and wondering why no one is stopping by their table.  In fact, aside from Doug Winter and Jack Ketchum (who stopped attending Chiller a few years back), Chiller is simply NOT for horror writers.  It’s a film expo full of people looking to find horror film T-shirts, rare DVDs and theater posters.

I’m often asked, “Why do you still attend?”  There are two reasons: the dealer’s room and the one or two guests they usually have on hand who I find interesting.  As mentioned, Chiller’s dealer room is one of the largest and best of any film convention I know of.  There’s an endless array of horror-related merchandise that anyone can spend an entire weekend browsing through.

Nick Cato with actress Luciana Paluzzi from the 007 classic Thunderball and the the scifi classic The Green Slime.

At the latest Spring Spooktacular, I found a couple or films I had been hunting down for some time now, and there were two guests I was interested in meeting.  One was Luciana Paluzzi, the beautiful actress who starred in the 007 classic Thunderball as well as the sci-fi classic The Green Slime.  She was every bit as classy as her on-screen personas suggested. And when she found out I was a fellow Italian, she graciously signed a picture of herself for me in Italian.  It’s personal little things like this that separate the thankful guests from the couldn’t-be-bothered types.  Also on hand was actor Laurence Harvey, star of the controversial The Human Centipede 2.  Not only was he a soft-spoken English gent, he had no problem signing anything you wanted, and even hammed it up by donning the bloody lab coat he had worn in the film.  You’d never believe a man this nice could star in such a depraved film!  It’s rare meetings like this that still make Chiller worth fighting your way through the over-priced crowds.

Nick Cato with actor Laurence Harvey from The Human Centipede 2.

At this particular Chiller, the largest line was to meet actor Norman Reedus, who was there as part of a Boondock Saints reunion, and of course to represent The Walking Dead.  I can’t remember the last time I saw girls walking around with autographs so taken aback by someone … you’d think the Beatles were doing a reunion show.

Being a fan of the low-budget stuff, you get to meet the smaller stars a lot quicker as they rarely have long waits to see them.  Of course there are exceptions: the first time Ken Foree from the original Dawn of the Dead appeared, I think I waited close to 40 minutes to meet him. But the wait was well worth it and I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting him several more times and have even exchanged several emails.

The glory days of Chiller Theater are long gone.  It has become an over-crowded, over-priced convention that is more of a nostalgia-fest than a horror con.  But as long as they keep their amazing dealer room, and the one or two genre guests who grab my interest, I’ll probably continue to attend, even if it’s only to pop-in for a few hours during one of the three days. That is, until every guest jumps on the current trend of “photo ops,” where you have to pre-pay $50.00 to meet with a particular guest in a private room to have your picture taken with them by a pro photographer.  Thankfully only a few of the bigger guests have been doing this, but if it becomes widespread there’s a good chance it will mean the end of Chiller.

Then again, everyone said the same thing in 1991 when Eddie Munster started asking money for his signature …

A Very Literary Guy Channels His Inner Zombie

This article originally appeared on the Miami Herald website.

A very literary guy channels his inner  zombie

By Connie Ogle

Colson Whitehead (photo courtesy of Whitehead's website)

Colson Whitehead comes by his affection for zombies honestly.  Sure, he’s considered a literary guy, one of those Writers with a capital W,  winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, author of the  critically praised novels  Sag Harbor, John Henry DaysApex Hides the Hurt and a book of essays titled  The  Colossus of New York. But his recent foray into horror fiction didn’t  happen merely because he watched one too many episodes of  The Walking Dead.

“Other kids liked to do sports. I liked to hang around the house reading  horror comics and Marvel comics and Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft,” says  Whitehead, who appears Saturday at Miami Book Fair International to discuss his  latest novel,  Zone One (Doubleday, $25.95), about  the survivors stumbling through the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. “My  orientation to zombies goes back to the first [George] Romero trilogy. I saw  Dawn of the Dead in the theater. When I was in  junior high and early high school, it was the heyday of Betamax, and we’d rent  horror movies instead of being sociable teenagers. Kids today have grown up on  28 Days Later and  Resident  Evil and videogames, but my zombie is from the ’70s.”

Zone One takes place after the initial plague,  following the adventures of civilian-turned-soldier Mark Spitz — not his real  name; the moniker was given to him after a particularly close encounter of the  zombie kind — whose unit is tasked by the interim government with clearing out  Manhattan and making it ready for habitation again. There are still zombies  staggering around, but most are “stragglers,” a less aggressive monster  transfixed by the habits and places of their old lives.

The rabid zombies of  Zone One are tougher  to exterminate; early on, Mark stumbles into a nest of them in a long-forgotten  Human Resources department: “He was the first live human being the dead had seen  since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. … [T]hey were a thin  membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor,  having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their  sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial  splashes and kernels of gore.”

So yes, there is gore, and there is flesh-eating and all those other horror  requirements in  Zone One. Whitehead does not skimp  on blood or bodies, and his lumbering zombies are Romero-style monsters, not the  speedy track stars of  28 Days Later. “The run and  tackle zombies are scary,” he says, “but for me zombies are about the terror of  the mob, of your community trying to devour you. That’s more horrifying to  me.”

And monsters, of course, can always be more than ravenous creatures trying to  eat your brain.

“With any kind of rhetorical device, whether it’s magic realism or a guy with  wings or vampires and demons, you’re using a construct to talk about people. My  first book,  The Intuitionist, was about elevators,  but it’s not really about elevators, it’s about transcendence and rationality.  … Mark’s travails are about survival. He and the other survivors are really  just trying to cope with a devastating event in their lives. It just happens to  be the apocalypse. But it could be a minor apocalypse.”

Whitehead never loses his sharp sense of humor at human foibles; after all,  apocalypse? We’ve all been there. One of the darkly funny elements of  Zone One is the reconstructed government’s insistence that  the units not destroy any property in their sweeps of Manhattan. After all,  people are going to want to come back, so don’t smash any windows if you have to  blow away the undead.

“My initial take on the psychology of survival is after the end of the world,  things will be a little more bombed out, but everything we hate about  contemporary society will come back, all the insane rules and the marketing and  the bureaucracy,” Whitehead says. “Someone will decide the reboot of society  needs a marketing slogan.”

Zombies are still big in pop culture these days, of course, what with AMC’s  hit  The Walking Dead, horror videogames, the  upcoming  World War Z movie starring Brad Pitt, even  Jane Austen interpreted through an undead prism in Quirk Books’  Pride  and Prejudice and Zombies. But Whitehead has his own take on why he’s  fascinated with this particular creature.

“My paranoid orientation toward zombies is really a fear of people,” he  admits. “I guess my interpretation goes back to when I was a kid, any moment  your friends and family stop to reveal themselves to be the monsters they’ve  always been.”