Okay, where the heck is everybody? It’s Bank Holiday Monday, 9.20am: day five of FrightFest, London’s annual horror-movie festival. An undead apocalypse is supposed to kick off in Leicester Square in 40 minutes, but the only sign of its arrival is a couple of rather brave zombies in medical garb, sitting in the corner on a bench. Kudos to the doctor and his lovely assistant, but there’s no way I’m going to ‘zombie up’ in public unless more people show up.
Two years ago, FrightFest organised a gathering that attracted nearly 700 walking corpses. Leicester Square was awash with blood and entrails. Naturally, I donned some make-up and a ‘bloodied’ shirt and got stuck in. It was a glorious morning: a celebration of zombiedom in all its forms. You couldn’t move for the undead; there was literally nowhere to run. A sound system pumped out Fabio Frizzi and Goblin, while TV crews captured the hungry, and very vocal, hordes on videotape for the six o’clock bulletins.
Today, the place is dead (pun half intended). A lone council worker walks unhindered through the square. His leaf-blower might as well be tidying up tumbleweed. I walk over to the Empire, the venue for this year’s FrightFest. The cinema’s manager seems as confused as I am by the low turn-out. He lets me in to the foyer, where half a dozen wannabe zombies are being made up by professional make-up artists.
I keep looking at my watch, trying to convince myself that it’s early, and that things will pick up nearer the official start time of 10am. If they don’t, what do I do? Do I cut my losses and go shopping? By 9.45am, a dozen or so zombies have gathered, and a wave of solidarity washes over me. If I walk away from this thing now, I’ll be doing my undead brothers and sisters a disservice. We live as we die – as one! Besides, I’ve already spent the best part of 15 quid on my make-up and shirt.
I wander over to the square, sit down on a bench and start painting my face: a base layer of white, overlaid and blended with Romero green, then some black for shading/bruising and, finally, some blood red on my temple and mouth. On with the bloodied shirt (paint colour: claret), off with the smile, and – voila! – a passing policeman gives me a quizzical look and then shrugs, while a group of foreign tourists look confused. As I pose for photos outside the cinema, I decide to try out the bulging eyes that I made: two table-tennis ball halves with inked-on pupils (plus small holes in the middle so I can see). If eyes are the windows to the soul, then hopefully these cartoonish creations will draw the curtains. Just don’t stare at me for too long, as I turn into Homer Simpson.
At 10am, Myleene Klass magically appears in front of the Empire to record a piece to camera for CNN. I join the other zombies as we’re asked to shamble towards her from behind. Due to mistimings (on the part of the zombies) and one fluffed line, it takes about six takes to get right. And then we do one more for “safety”.
Attacking a TV presenter twice in the name of safety? George Romero’s probably kicking himself that he didn’t use this striking piece of wordplay in Diary Of The Dead. It would have made a neat companion piece to “shoot me”.
With TV stardom imminent, I decide that it’s time to catch a golf cart back to my gilt-edged trailer, remove my Oscar-worthy make-up and return to the land of the living. This afternoon, there’s another zombie event, Sports Day Of The Dead, happening in east London – in fact, a handful of participants are warming up right now outside the Empire – but I fancy heading home and catching up on some of the sleep I missed last night. Ironically, I now feel more like a zombie than ever.
The 10am start can’t have done this event any favours, but I think it’s just one of many reasons for its poor attendance. In 2007, there was an attempt to break the world record for the biggest ever zombie gathering. We didn’t manage it, but the task probably captured more people’s imagination. The 2007 event was also promotion for a FrightFest screening of The Zombie Diaries, a handheld horror that had a bit of a buzz around it. This year’s event is tied into Zombie Women Of Satan, a lower-profile, schlockier offering that doesn’t create as much interest.
Five years on from Shaun Of The Dead and the Dawn remake, and seven years since 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, it’s tempting to look at today’s poor turn-out and ponder whether horror fans have, for the moment, lost their appetite for the undead – at least when it comes to this kind of audience participation. But, most likely, this was a simple advertising failure. The promotion for FrightFest was superb, stretching as far as TV ads, but the zombie walk gained little mention. Even in the official programme, it’s tucked away rather than trumpeted.
Of course, none of this takes away from the fact that I enjoyed my brief stint as a reanimated corpse. As I shambled towards Myleene Klass for the fifth time, I felt a real kinship with my rotting comrades. We were doing this for FrightFest, for Fulci, Romero and Savini (I was possibly the only one doing it for Bob Clark but, y’know, that’s fine), for everyone who ever wished they’d been an extra in Day Of The Dead. We were bonded by blood (it was very sticky).
And, hey, every apocalypse has to start somewhere, right?