How I Went to Fantastic Fest and Got in a Boxing Match Over '28 Days Later'

How I Went to Fantastic Fest and Got in a Boxing Match Over '28 Days Later'

Sep 24, 2013

I'm about to get in the first fight of my life for the stupidest reason imaginable.

Some people fight for honor. Some people fight to protect themselves and their family. Some people fight because they enjoy the rush. Me? I'm about to get in a fight because I think 28 Days Later is a zombie movie and my nemesis/friend Brad McHargue thinks it isn't. It's an argument horror buffs have been having for years, and thanks to Fantastic Fest and its annual Fantastic Debates, we're about to go in front of a drunk and rowdy crowd and argue to the best of our abilities.

And then we're going to punch the living crap out of each other.

***

The Fantastic Debates are one of the most popular events at Fantastic Fest, the Austin, Texas-based genre film festival (which just so happens to be the best week of any year for film fans who manage to snag a badge). The format is tried, true and stupidly simple: two opponents enter a boxing ring, stand at podiums and engage in a traditional back-and-forth debate on a subject, generally film related. Then the podiums are removed and the competitors decide who's really right with two rounds of fisticuffs. If this sounds insane and dumb and ludicrous, it's because it is all of those things. But it's also completely and totally amazing.

Well, at least it's amazing for the audience. In the ring, it hurts. A lot. And the wounds are both literal and metaphorical. 

***

Brad and I are the second bout out of four. First, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Greg MacLennan will fight SlashFilm writer Russ Fischer over whether or not Sylvester Stallone is the greatest action star in film history. Later, actor Noah Segan will fight filmmaker Andrew Todd over whether or not good-looking and well-adjusted people have infiltrated and destroyed nerd culture. Finally, in the evening's big event, Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League will debate Keanu Reeves (whose Man of Tai Chi had just premiered at the festival) and then fight martial artist Tiger Chen over whether or not Tae Kwon Doe is superior to Tae Chi.

As one of the gym's attendants wraps my hands in gauze and tape, I wonder if I've just made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Brad takes his seat next to me just in time for a gaggle of cameras to arrive. My opponent proceeds to trash talk me. I have playground flashbacks and clam up. I'm not as mean on my feet as Brad.

***

I feel reasonably prepared for the debate portion of the event, so as I pace back and forth in the staging area I solicit the assistance of my Movies.com compatriots. Jeff Bayer offers me some useful tips about using me weight to throw additional power into ever punch. Erik Davis (himself a boxer), gives me an incredible tutorial on defending my face and maintaining my stamina. Brian Salisbury, my cornerman, gives me a motivational speech worthy of an '80s movie.

I have four inches in height and five inches of reach on Brad. Everyone tells me the same thing: don't let him get close and I should be fine. I don't believe them.

***

And then it starts. Brian and I watch as Greg puts on an incredible show, decimating Russ with sheer charisma in the debate portion and pummeling him into submission. Quoting liberally from Rocky IV, Greg gets the crowd wrapped around his finger and their thunderous cheers make him the obvious victor. I feel awful for Russ, a talented writer, true gentleman and supersmart guy.

I don't have any of Greg's stage presence, so if I'm going to pull this off I need to push my limited abilities to the max. If I'm going to take Brad down, I actually need to debate well and then fight well. I don't feel good about any of this and begin second-guessing everything I've prepared in my head.

Keanu Reeves walks by, so I shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoy watching him. He's gracious and asks me if I'm fighting. I say yes. He wishes me luck before vanishing off to wherever Keanu Reeves goes. My confidence takes a little boost.

***

I strut toward the ring the to the intermission music from Holy Motors, a choice that pleases the people in the audience with good taste. When I reach the ring, I realize that I have no idea how to enter a boxing ring. So I stumble between the ropes like a moron, only furthering the accurate impression that I genuinely have no idea what the hell I'm doing. After all, I left my shorts at home -- I'm the schmuck who's going to box in jeans.

We take our places at the podium and I'm already giving Brad the best death stare that I can muster. We've already promised each other that we're going to instantly be friends again when this is all over, so I take advantage of this temporary reprieve from friendship to hate his guts and his stupid beard (it's actually a lovely beard, but whatever). 

Brad begins and, as I expected, his argument for why Danny Boyle's horror masterpiece 28 Days Later isn't a zombie movie is filled with all kinds of pedantic nonsense. He's a reasonably eloquent guy (more eloquent than me), but his argument ultimately can be summed up as "the infected humans in the movie aren't undead, so they can't be zombies." If you're reading this, Brad, feel free to chime in with your full argument in the comments… but you're still sooo wrong.

And then it's my turn. I talk about how the zombie genre means countless different things. I talk about how zombies vary so wildly from film to film that any attempt to define them is impossible and ludicrous. I say that if Brad insists on being a zombie purist, he's only allowed to watch Voodoo movies, since those are the only "true" zombie movies. 

We both do okay in the first round, but Brad pulls out a smoking gun in the rebuttal. He quotes an article I wrote only several weeks ago, where I describe zombies as the "shambling undead." The crowd screams. It all feels like the end. The article was about zombie board games, written for a nonmovie site, but taken in this context, it's pretty damning.

I finish strong, saying that the attempt to remove a film as good as this from the larger conversation of zombie films makes Brad a bad horror fan, but I know deep down in my heart that he's won the debate. So I only have one option left: I need to kick his ass.

***

Boxing is hard.

I realize this about five seconds into the first round, when the two of us lunge at each other like the amateurs that we are. I remember what Erik told me: block at all times, protect myself, let him come to me, etc. About 10 seconds into the fight, I'm already panting… but he looks like he is, too. I use my reach to my advantage, landing blows to his head before he gets in close enough to get to me.

Less than a minute later, we're in our corners. This minute felt like a lifetime.

To his credit, Brad manages a few decent blows, but it turns out that I'm not awful at this whole fighting thing. Well, at least I'm not awful at fighting film critics who are significantly smaller than me. At the risk of sounding boastful here, I crush Brad beneath my mighty fists. He may have edged me out in the debate, but I slaughter him in the ring. Much to my surprise and delight, I find redemption through violence.

As with the others, the crowd decides the victor. The cheers for Brad are thunderous, but the cheers for me are louder. I give Brad a big hug and admit that he won the verbal portion, but the crowd (and Fantastic Fest) have deemed me the champion.

***

I then watch Andrew Todd destroy Noah Segan in the debate and Noah destroy Andrew in the fight. The crowd declares Andrew the winner. I then watch Tim League win the debate against an awesomely chill Keanu Reeves, only to get his ass thoroughly beaten to the ground by Tiger Chen. Despite this his astonishing and violent physical defeat, the crowd awards Tim the victory.

***

The next day, my arms hurt. The day after that, my legs. As I write this, I feel generally sore all over, but I take pleasure in knowing that Brad probably feels worse than me.

Still, I can't help but smile through the pain. It's one thing to talk about movies, but it's another thing altogether to literally battle it out over movies. I'm a walking wreck and I still can't box to save my life, but now I get to be that guy who literally fought for the honor of 28 Days Later and succeeded. If the Fantastic Debates proved anything, it's that movies really are worth getting worked up over. If you can't take a punch for you passion, then you need to find your real passion. My passion is movies and I have the aches and pains to prove it.

 

Watch a NSFW highlight reel here:

 

 

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