Special Features

“Dawn of the Dead Changed My Life”: A Deep Dive with HorrorFest Promoter Leif Jonker

“Have you ever heard of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer?”

The booming voice on the other line belongs to Leif Jonker, director of 1993’s Darkness, which HorrorHound magazine recently dubbed “the goriest vampire film of all time” (which is saying a lot in a world in which From Dusk Till Dawn also exists). Shot as a low-budget, proof-of-concept piece to entice investors, Darkness marked the beginning of Jonker’s various flirtations with scoring his next big gig. A German company was once interested in his next project, he tells me. Later, he had an investor back out because all of their money got tied up in divorce proceedings. There have been so many meetings taken on projects which didn’t launch. But it’s damn hard to make a movie when you live in a place like Wichita, Kansas, squarely outside any kind of film industry hub. Hope springs eternal, though. Jonker might just have another movie in him.

Not that I called him to talk about any of this or, for that matter, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. We were meant to be talking about HorrorFest, the October-long, revival horror film festival he’s been running out of the Old Town Warren since 2011. Its centerpiece attraction for 2018, one of the first ever screenings of the new 3D conversation of George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, might just be Jonker’s proudest accomplishment.

To make this final year happen, Jonker had to turn to fan donations.

But he’s just as happy to talk to you about any other kind of film for however much time you have. For example, when he was recently invited to talk to a local school about movies and filmmaking the teacher knew him well enough to set aside 6 hours for him to talk. He could have gone 12.

So, in our conversation about HorrorFest we also end up touching on David Cronenberg’s recent “cinema is dissolving” proclamation (“He’s wrong,” Jonker quickly states in a “them’s fightin’ words” kind of way), why Rutger Hauer deserved an Oscar nomination for Blade Runner (“Not only is he brilliant in it but he also came up with the ‘tears in rain’ monologue on the set”), and Friedkin’s career-derailing flop Sorcerer, which had the misfortune of arriving two weeks after a little thing called Star Wars,

And, of course, thanks to Jonker both Sorcerer and Blade Runner have now played in Wichita (in 2014 and 2015 respectively) through his non-horror-related revival screening series called Wichita Big Screen. In fact, when Jonker finally tracked Friedkin down over the phone to request maybe a taped intro to play in front of Sorcerer the director countered by offering a live post-screening Q&A via Skype.

“So, William Friedkin, Academy Award-winning director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer did a 50-minute Q&A talking to people in Wichita, KS about his movie. That was the biggest film of the year in Wichita. We sold out two of the four screenings and were 10 tickets short of selling out the other two.”

Jonker shares this anecdote with a fair bit of pride in his voice, and why not? This all started when the Old Town Warren was showing old horror movies in October but not advertising them, leaving Jonker and his wife to enter a screening of The Howling attended by just 4 other people. Since he’s taken charge, those sparsely-attended days are over. Jonker wanted to bring a little bit of that Alamo Drafthouse retro-cool vibe to Wichita and save the city’s cinephiles from always having to drive hours away just to catch something as cool as a post-film Q&A with a director. Mission accomplished. Some people actually had to drive here to see Sorcerer.

Now many more will be doing the same to see Dawn of the Dead 3D. That’s because among hardcore horror fans the existence of this new 3D conversion of Romero’s masterpiece has almost passed into legend. The film’s original producer Richard Rubinstein commissioned a South Korean company, the same one which had done just done Titanic 3D, to handle the conversion. Then years went by with no news. Was it all just a tax dodge? Did Rubinstein change his mind? How much of it did Romero get to see before he died? Once the film finally screened at a festival in South Korea and at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles, why did it disappear just as quickly as it appeared?

Jonker watched all of this from afar and made Dawn of the Dead 3D his white whale. For almost as long as HorrorFest has existed, Jonker has hounded Rubinstein with offers to pay the film rental fee to add Dawn 3D to the festival lineup. Rubinstein finally gave in and even agreed to add a brief taped introduction. But in the interim HorrorFest grew bigger. It even went national last year. Regal Cinema bought the Warren Theater chain and liked Jonker’s organization and promotional materials so much they expanded the fest into 42 theaters, some as close as neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma, others as far as away as Hawaii.

Jonker outside the Old Town Warren last year.

This personal triumph was sadly short-lived. Regal was bought by the European movie exhibition giant Cineworld last December, eliminating most of Jonker’s contacts at the theater in the process. Now, HorrorFest is back to being Wichita-only, and with funding harder to come by and audiences suddenly more reluctant to attend this might be its last year. Jonker sounds sad, but resigned, and also a little hopeful about it all, “I’ve spent all these years showing old movies. Maybe it’s time I get back to making my own.”

There’s almost nothing else he’s ever wanted to do with this life than make movies. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a vet, but I quickly realized I could never put an animal down.” (This is why the proceeds from HorrorFest go to Wichita’s only no-kill animal shelter.) “Then I got into comic books and comic books led to an interest in superheroes and Evel Knievel was big. So, I figured maybe I’d be a daredevil stuntman, and I thought, ‘Well, I can be a stuntman in movies.’ But then I saw Star Wars.”

He was 7. In other words, he was putty in George Lucas’ hands.

But while Star Wars worked its magic on Jonker, there was an even bigger revelation right around the corner. “What really blew my mind was The Making of Star Wars, an hour-long TV show that ran on network, like NBC or something. They showed you the miniatures. They showed you the ships, the sets, and how they added in animation afterward to make the laser guns. It was all clicking, for me, not just how you do it but that this is really a job. People make movies, they don’t just exist. I decided I wanted to make a movie.”

He called it Fire Fury and shot it with a rather tricky Double 8 camera (a lesser-known cousin to Super 8 which used 16mm film) and on miniature sets he built in his basement. “Only a handful of shots actually came out where you could see anything. So, that was my first experiment in filmmaking.”

How he envisioned Fire Fury‘s opening credits looking, with a steal assist from Concorde: Airport ’79:

He had the filmmaking bug, but it hadn’t yet expanded to the horror genre. “By 1979, The Exorcist had played on TV, and I’d seen a few things. I was curious about [horror]. I’d seen Omega Man. I was more fascinated than passionate.”

Then he saw this commercial on TV:

20th Century Fox believed in Alien so much they didn’t see the need to show any footage from the actual movie in the commercial. Just an egg, a title, scary music, and a classic tagline. His parents put up a good fight, but Jonker just had to see this thing, especially once another kid in his class got to go. “It blew my mind. As a kid, there were times in movies where the experience was so intense I literally felt my head heating up like my brain was on fire. And when Ash’s head came off I was so shocked I did feel like my head was on fire. Beyond that, in the theater around me grown me were jumping and teen boys were struggling to console their wide-eyed, petrified dates. I had never seen a movie affect people in that way.”

Jonker: “The very first thing I’d ever written was a rip-off of Star Wars; the very next thing I wrote was a rip-off of Aliens.”

As with Star Wars, Jonker’s impulse was to make his own version of what he’d just seen. In this case, he started the process on the actual drive home from the movie, writing what would become his own script for Alien 2. Remember, he was only 8 or 9 at the time. He still thinks it’s not a bad script. “Probably better than most of Alien: Resurrection,” he jokes.

After Alien, all bets were off for him and horror. He had to see everything he possibly could, and that finally led him to Dawn of the Dead.

“When I was 12, I first saw Dawn of the Dead. It was the first time I ever cut school. I had read about it in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and it was on a re-release as part of a double feature with Mother’s Day. I wasn’t interested in Mother’s Day, but I’d heard enough of about Dawn of the Dead – how shocking it was – to want to see it. So, me and my friends decided we were going to cut school and take the speed train from our town of Cherry Hill, New Jersey into downtown Philadelphia for the double feature. I got to the speed train and I waited and I waited and I waited as long as I could and nobody showed up. All my friends chickened out.”

Not that that was going to stop him.

This double feature took place at the Duke & Duchess Theater, a rundown grindhouse which closed in 1987.

The theater was only half full and he was the only white kid there, meaning he “stood out like a sore thumb.” The big, bald dude behind him kept giggling like a schoolgirl anytime a head was blown off or anything gory or horrible happened in the movie. “It was creepy as hell. On top of that, the movie itself was frying my mind. Ash’s head coming off in Alien fried my mind; everything in Dawn of the Dead did. In the end, when they actually start ripping the intestines out I freaked. I stood up and walked out of the theater, but only for 5 seconds. I’m standing there hyperventilating and staring at the one-sheet on the wall, telling myself, ‘You’ve got to finish this, you’ve got to finish this.’ So, I did. I just made sure to sit far away from the giggling madman when I went back in.”

“It just changed everything. I went back to school the next day, and I’m telling my friends the whole movie from end to end. They can’t believe what they’re hearing. It had a major, major impact on me. Halloween, Phantasm, Alien, and Dawn of the Dead, horror-wise, are the movies that changed my life.”

Among those four, Dawn is the most obvious influence on Jonker’s own horror movie, Darkness, which he made for no money with friends. Note the similarity of the tagline he went with to Dawn‘s iconic “When there’s no more room left in hell, the dead will walk the earth”

Darkness has screened in the Wichita area multiple times now, and it will be available on Blu-Ray from a major genre label to be announced soon.

He’s already brought Halloween, Phantasm, and Alien to Wichita at some point since 2011. In a couple of days, he’ll complete the set with Dawn of the Dead. Based on the scenes he’s been able to screen so far the 3D is so stellar it should silence any naysayers wanting to write this off as a tasteless gimmick since Romero didn’t originally film this in 3D meaning it wasn’t meant to be shown this way. “The print itself is super clean with fantastic depth and a number of ‘WOW’ moments,” he raves. When I try to pull a Shock Waves and close the interview by asking him what’s the latest horror film to truly blow him away, he doesn’t hesitate: “The brand new 3D conversion of Dawn of the Dead.”

This has all been hard work. He throws a movie party each October, and each time that party has meant fights with management, uncertain dances with fickle film bookers, endless meetings with potential sponsors, and hours upon hours in front of a computer upgrading the vintage trailers he likes to pair with each screening. At the end of each year, he doesn’t know if the festival will be able to continue, and this time he means it. The new Cineworld-version of Regal just doesn’t seem as interested in it as prior management groups he’s dealt with. The universe might be trying to tell him something.

The morning after our conversation, Jonker posted the following to Facebook:

Our very first year, 2011, the first movie I programmed, was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD IN 3D out at the Augusta Theatre. Later we programmed the first OCTOBER AT THE OLDTOWN at the Warren Oldtown. This year we’re showing DAWN OF THE DEAD IN 3D at the Warren Oldtown and helping co-present YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN at the Augusta. We’re back in both theaters were we began, showing a 3D conversion of the sequel to the 3D conversion of the very first movie I programmed. Gotta mean something right?

If this is it, what an appropriate note to go out on.

Oh, and for the record, I haven’t seen Sorcerer yet. After hearing Jonker describe it, I clearly need to rectify that. But not until after I see Dawn of the Dead 3D.

If you happen to live in the Wichita area, Dawn of the Dead 3D is screening Monday (10/29) and Tuesday (10/30) at 7 and 10 PM. It will be preceded by a brief taped introduction from Richard Rubinstein. There are, according to Jonker, only two other theaters in the country screening it this Halloween and there’s no guarantee any more will do so next year. 

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