It was a sweaty afternoon in the Mohawk. Onstage, there're three burlesque dancers doing the bump and grind for a pit full of metal heads. John Doe from X is working the bar. Out in the corridor, eyes on the monitor, is local roots rocker-turned-film director Jesse Dayton. "That was a good day," he recalls. "It was hectic, but it was fun."
Flash forward, and Dayton's debut directorial effort Zombex gets its world premiere tonight at the Housecore Horror Film Festival. Not that Dayton sees much of a leap from the spit-and-sawdust stage to the silver screen. "I've always been a closeted film geek, and I say that because it's not a real popular thing with musicians."
While most Austinites know Dayton as a Broken Spoke institution, he's also a novelist who's written and sold scripts, directed music videos, and appeared in the Southern Fried indie revenge flick The Sinner. "People like to paint you in a box. They want to say you're this or that, but it's basically just a different model for a different creative process."
With Zombex, Dayton tells a Jim Thompson-via-Bubba Nosferatu tale of Southern zombies: In post-Katrina New Orleans, a drug company is handing out an anti-depressant with the unfortunate side effect of turning people who take it into flesh-rending mindless cannibals. The inspiration came from Austin's own conspiracy maven Alex Jones. But don't get the wrong idea. Dayton said, "I think Alex is completely out his mind and I agree with him about 5 percent of the time, so I listen to it for pure laughs and entertainment." But one Jones show stuck in his skull. "He was saying, 'Don't you understand? Big Pharma is turning you into zombies.' I pulled my car to the side of the road and wrote a treatment in five minutes."
He had the idea, but it was the demonoid phenomenon Rob Zombie who arguably gave him the push to put his nightmares on nitrate. "Rob and Sheri [Moon Zombie] are such a big inspiration to me and my wife," said Dayton. "I wouldn't be in this film thing if it wasn't for Rob." Under the nom de guerre Banjo & Sullivan, Dayton provided an X-rated hillbilly soundtrack to Zombie's slithering desert massacre The Devil's Rejects, before creating psychobilly-tinged darkness dwellers Captain Clegg & the Night Creatures for Halloween II. "I actually wrote the script for Zombex when I was on tour with Rob," said Dayton.
It turned out Dayton and Zombie aren't the only rockers with a real love of sleazy, blood-drenched film. Aside from Doe, Tom Araya stops in for a cameo. Dayton said, "He got my number from one of the guys on the crew and said: 'Hey, this is the singer for Slayer. I'm a big horror movie fan, I hear you guys are shooting right by my ranch. Can I come down?' I said, 'Well, if you're coming down, you've got to be in the movie."
Dayton quickly attracted many of Zombie's regulars as his own cast. He met future The Walking Dead star Lew Temple on the set of Rejects, and had met Malcolm McDowell on the set of Halloween II. "Once Malcolm knew it was me and Lew from Rob's camp, then he read the script and said, 'I'll do it if I can do a scene with Sid Haig. I was like, 'Twist my arm, I'll write that right now.'"
So enter Haig, another Zombie institution, but he was also a connection to one of Dayton's true cinematic heroes. "I'm not afraid to bring up Roger Corman's name in a big Hollywood meeting," he said. "I did that a few months ago and everybody looked at me like I was crazy, I said, 'What are you talking about? He lost money on one film in his whole life.'" What Dayton's aiming for is exactly the kind of smart-dumb exploitation that made Corman an icon. "This is a crazy, 82-minute, entertaining romp," he said, "We're not going deep into the machinations of big pharm. All that political stuff is there, but if you just want to see a bunch of people get brutally killed and see some boobs, it's awesome."
He'll be keeping the Corman spirit alive next year when the film gets a cinematic, VOD, and Redbox release. "We're going to drive-in theatres," he said, "I'm taking the Captain Clegg band, because we've got new songs in Zombex, and we're going to do some really cool outside the box marketing." Aside from burning up the highways and byways, he's already working on his next film. "It's a much more serious possession thriller. The budget's way bigger. I'm going to have trailers and bigger stars. It's exciting times, man."
Zombex screens at the Housecore Horror Film Festival, Sat. Oct. 26, 7pm, at Antone's.
Dayton will also be performing with Captain Clegg & the Night Creatures at the Fifth Annual Zombie Ball with Black Joe Lewis, Thursday Oct. 31, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, 310 Willie Nelson Blvd., www.zombieball.com.
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