A few weeks ago Mondo announced Mystery Movie IX, their last mystery movie of the year. For those who aren't up on the idea behind these, it's simple: Mondo, the movie art arm of the Alamo Drafthouse, picks a movie they've been dying to do a poster for. They don't tell anyone what it is, they just announce a date and time of the event and the tickets sell out almost instantaneously. In the past these events have been fairly contained. You see a good movie, maybe there's a special guest for it (poster artist Tyler Stout at Akira, effects artists Phil Tippett at Jurassic Park), and you get a great poster. It's simple, really.
There was nothing simple about Mondo Mystery Movie IX, though. This was not only the biggest event Mondo has ever put on, it was one of, if not the, biggest events the Alamo Drafthouse has ever staged-- and that's saying something considering the Drafthouse specializes in putting on a helluva show. And I was lucky enough to be a small, bus-attacking, blood-soaked undead part of it. Here's how it all went down.
I plunked down my own $75 for a ticket to MMMIX as soon as they went on sale. I had every intention of showing up at the designated church, which is where the screening was supposed to take place (no huge surprise there, as the Drafthouse regularly does Rolling Roadshow screenings thanks to the movie-theater-in-a-truck they had custom built). But then, one day before the screening, I received an email from a friend at the Drafthouse asking if I wanted to be made over for the event. I wasn't told exactly what a make-over would entail, just that I need to give them my answer as soon as possible and that if I did say yes, it would mean missing out on part of the special event.
I hesitated. I've seen the kind of shenanigans that go on at Drafthouse events. I've seen all kinds of movie-themed eating and drinking contests that I've always been glad to watch and not participate in, but I rolled the dice and said yes. The day of the screening I got an email telling me to go to Dock Door 2 of the Highland Mall at 8:00pm (the screening at the church was supposed to start at 8:30) and to tell no one of the make-over, which was now described as "infected," or the location lest I ruin the surprise. I of course now guessed what the movie would end up being, but for some reason my brain never fully connected the dots.
In my mind I imagined that I would arrive at the mall and probably find a dozen or so other bloggers and Drafthouse regulars getting turned into zombies and that we'd then drive over to the church and surprise everyone as they were watching the movie. Imagine my own surprise, then, when I got to the mall. First off, I had no idea where "Dock Door 2" was, so I called my contact and she said coyly, "It's on the west side,. Just look for the soldiers." I eventually found it and, sure enough, there were about a dozen soldiers standing in the crisp Austin night being handed shotguns and assault rifles. Next to them was a handwritten sign that said "Extras" with an arrow pointing toward a door.
I followed it. My mind was blown.
The door led to what must have been an old department store, but instead of clothing racks and cashier stands, there were hundreds of dead people. Walking around. This wasn't just a handful of people getting made-over, this was an entire operation. Frankly, I couldn't believe it. Oh, I never doubted the Drafthouse's commitment to putting on a spectacle, but I just never imagined it would be of this scale. I also didn't understand how they managed to get hundreds upon hundreds of people to keep a secret, though I would later learn how.
I found my contact. A camera crew was following her around as she told me about getting killed and attacking buses. I had no idea what she was talking about, and nodded along as she walked me through the stations. First I had my prosthetic applied, which in my case was a gunshot right to the forehead (I guess the bullet didn't destroy my undead brain). Then I went to the body spray portion, where I was pleasantly surprised to find Doug Field, a local make-up effects artist I knew. The happiness on Doug's face was infectious. He and someone else began to spray my arms and neck with grey paint until it looked like the molted flesh color all horror fans know too well from George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. From there I moved over to another station headed by Doug's partner-in-crime Susan Benson, where my face got its own coating of undead flesh, as well as special make-up to give that great sunken-eye look. After that it was just a few steps over to the blood station, where my gunshot wound and mouth were given an unhealthy amount of blood. The artist signed me by smearing a violent hand print across my stomach.
Still dripping, I was led over to a photography area where someone snapped my picture a few times. After that, I was free to roam the space with the other 200 zombies. Yes, 200 zombies. The Drafthouse was not f**king around.
I quickly found three friends (and fellow writers) who had been made over as well and we began sharing what we each knew until we had pieced together a decent idea of what was going on. It was now clear the church was just a ruse. Those 700+ ticket holders would all be getting bused over to the mall, where we would have the joy of attacking them. At that point, however, we were still about 2 hours away from go time. So we stood around like zombies, nibbling on pizza, chatting amongst ourselves and with our friends at the Drafthouse. That's when we learned that all of the other zombies had been recruited as extras were told they were going to be in a zombie movie. Even they had no idea what was really going, being surrounded by several camera crews kept the illusion strong.
We began scouring what people were saying on Twitter, but miraculously, despite a room full of 200 zombies all sitting around on their smartphones, the secret remained intact. The church people were now on their buses, still without a clue as to where they were going or what horrors would greet them when they got there. Funnily enough, we had no idea what we would be doing, either. It wasn't until about 15 minutes before the buses were set to arrive that we were clued into the full plan.
Thirty of us were selected to be in the first wave of zombies. The buses, led by a police escort, were going to enter the mall parking lot, where we, the first wave, would be milling around. Mutilated bodies lay in the road, drenched in blood. Cups of warm, fresh blood were hidden behind rocks in the parking lot. As the buses approached the first body, we slowly swarmed them, dragging our arms across the sides, swatting at the windows trying to get the juicy humans inside.
The buses made a few laps around the parking lot, giving us first wavers plenty of opportunity to leave our bloody hand prints all over the windows. It was surprisingly hard work. Not only is assaulting moving buses while trying to act like a dead person while also trying to not get run over a tricky thing to do, but it was slow going to realistically replenish our blood from the hidden cups. Eventually I took the cue of some of the other zombies and started to recoup handfuls from the corpse in the road, instead. I don't think one of the drivers, who I later learned didn't even know what was going to happen, appreciated it when I swung my arm in a slow arch, splashing a warm handful of crimson gore across his windshield.
After a few laps, the buses all parked. Right before the fresh meat departed, a squad of soldiers began patrolling a line. That's when the gunshots started.
Us first wavers began to fall onto the hard payment as the soldiers cleared us out with a hail of realistic gunfire (it probably scared the crap out of everyone in line at the haunted house nearby). Once enough of us were re-killed, the bus folks were told to make a run for the entrance. That's when the 170 other zombies inside the mall began to slowly swarm the parking lot. It was bedlam. Two friends from the buses bolted past at a full sprint, they didn't notice me, but I noticed the demented smiles on their faces. Soon select soldiers were overrun by the horde and the busers watched in joyful horror as the chests of their valiant protectors exploded in rivers of red from pre-rigged blood packs-- we were told that if we saw a soldier motioning toward a spot on his vest, to attack it.
After a few minutes, most of the MMMIX attendees had fought their way inside and many of the zombies had given up acting like the undead. As we were shambling in after them I spotted several of the EMT workers that were on hand in case anything went wrong posing with the dead bodies. Every single person had a smile on their face.
Now as for the actual screening, that took place inside the mall proper, where the Drafthouse had set up a movie theater. The ticket holders sat on chairs on the first floor while the zombies lined the balcony area on the second. Mondo's Justin Ishmael took the stage to introduce the event by tossing edible body parts into the crowd. I managed to catch an eyeball, which was a red gummy optic nerve dangling from an eye/gumball. It was delicious.
After the edible dead baby was ripped to pieces and thrown in the hungry crowd, George A. Romero took the stage. As the surprise guest was sharing his love for the film and how much the continued support for it means to him, a zombie tried to take the stage, but Justin alerted him and Romero pulled out a handgun and shot the abomination in the head. The crowd below cheered, the zombies above groaned, and shortly thereafter Romero's personal cut of Dawn of the Dead began playing. In a mall. Filled with zombies and humans alike.
Thank you Mondo and the Alamo Drafthouse. It was a helluva night. And to think, it was all done for this poster, created by Jeff Proctor: