Festival celebrates living dead film genre in all its gory

A scene from Harold's Going Stiff
A scene from Harold's Going Stiff
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Two years before the global phenomenon known as TV’s The Walking Dead a film festival emerged in Leeds championing the zombie movie genre.

Two fans began the Leeds Zombie Film Festival, now marking its sixth edition. They were Emmerdale actors Mark Charnock and Dominic Brunt, both confirmed devotees of movies about shambling dead cannibals.

Brunt’s all-consuming love of zombie movies can be traced back 30 years to a video shop in Accrington. What Brunt and his pals wanted was horror, and lots of it. “A long list of weak and tired terrors mixed in with the occasional highlight, each film promising special effects, explosions and thrills aplenty on their glossy cases and each film failing to live up to the inspired cover images lined up in rows in our favourite section: horror,” he recalls.

“Two genre pictures which managed to buck this repetitive trend were The Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead. We sat and cheered and screamed and laughed our heads off for nearly two hours.” Three decades later that schoolboy obsession has turned into a viable national film festival and an annual pilgrimage for aficionados.

It’s official: Leeds has become Zombie Central. And in amongst the 2013 line-up are two locally-made gems, one of which, Before Dawn, marks the directorial debut of Brunt. It was made in the hills above Hebden Bridge. The other is Harold’s Going Stiff, shot in Penistone by writer/director Keith Wright.

Other titles in the 12-hour marathon are Dellamorte Dellamore, starring Rupert Everett as a cemetery man whose job is to re-kill the dead that rise from the earth, the Cuban zom-com Juan of the Dead and Cockneys vs Zombies, which has Honor Blackman as an EastEnder doing her bit to rid the world of shuffling corpses.

Eighty years ago the zombie in movies was a voodoo slave. Things changed in the late ’60s when George A Romero came up with Night of the Living Dead which almost overnight unsettled horror mores and dragged movie buffs into an entirely new world.

So it’s entirely natural for Brunt and Charnock to be screening Romero’s follow-up, 1979’s Dawn of the Dead, as the centrepiece of this year’s festival. Not only that but they are presenting the European cut of the film, overseen by giallo master Dario Argento, which dispenses with some of the hellzapoppin’ humour in favour of more gore and a faster pace.

Widely considered to be the best living dead movie ever made, Dawn of the Dead is set in Pennsylvania and focuses on four survivors who hole up in a giant out-of-town shopping mall. Brunt calls it “an astonishingly bleak story about the end of society”.

He admits to hunting out alternative edits and cuts of the movie that has resonated with so many cinephiles. Adds Brunt: “The allegories for consumerism are clear for all to see in this gory, heavy-handed, blood-soaked satirical opera. It’s nihilistic and concentrates on the futility of our existence as an increasingly materialistic society. Cowed, de-fanged, and sleepwalking through our days inside the walls of the unnatural environment of the shopping centre devoid of nature. Enclosed, sky-less, turning us into…” We get the message.

The 6th Leeds Zombie Film Festival, Cottage Road Cinema, Leeds. Sunday April 21 from noon to midnight.