“Horror Business” is a sporadic column where I ask influential/invaluable writers and people of interest the following question: What scene from a movie has scared/troubled/shaken you the most?
The first time I saw Zack Wentz, it was in the basement of a Santa Cruz community center over ten years ago. I was there to see Blood Brothers, who were touring their Burn, Piano Island, Burn album (which, in terms of hardcore/punk music, was as influential as Refused’s Shape of Punk to Come, and probably still the scariest album you can dance to). Wentz’s band Kill Me Tomorrow was the opening band.
I remember being disappointed in the Blood Brothers’ performance. They sped through their already-fast songs to the point of incomprehension, and they weren’t very tight. But Kill Me Tomorrow was a different story—one of those rare occasions were the opener upstaged the headliner. Wentz sang while pounding away at his stand-up drums like a madman, backlit by a hellish red light. It was a little scary, entirely captivating and seemed ahead of its time.
And that’s pretty much how you could classify everything Wentz does. Aside from his musical projects (currently, he plays drums in the very rad, very haunting Dabbers), he’s a fantastic writer and editor. He’s currently the editor for New Dead Families, a journal that’s as admirable for its dedication to showcasing the newest in weird as it is to its editorial integrity.
(Side note/disclosure: I had a story published in New Dead Families and Wentz really put it through the ringer. It was one of those invaluable instances where he made me know the story better than I imagined I could.)
Also, he wrote The Garbageman and the Prostitute (a companion book to the Kill Me Tomorrow album of the same name). There’s more grotesque lyricism and seediness packed into that less-than-200-page book than most sprawling novels I’ve read, and it seems to influence a lot of transgressive literature I’ve read recently. It’s challenging and creepy, yet deceptively accessible. If any publisher was smart, they’d snatch up the rights to this and put it back into print.
What scene from a movie has scared/troubled/shaken you the most?
ZW: Return of Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)
I still have a surprisingly weak stomach and peculiarly vulnerable inner-eye for horror, considering how much horror media I consumed at a fairly young age.
My father had a tremendous collection of old books stored on tall dark wood shelves alongside the stairs that led up to the bedrooms on the second floor of our house. Bookshelves also lined the slim hallway leading to the upstairs bathroom—looming all the way up to the ceiling. Nights, I crept past these.
The most recent books were well-worn paperbacks from the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, at the very latest. Some of those paperbacks were my first exposure to horror: Poe, Bierce, A. Merritt, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Leiber, Bradbury; those Weird Tales “best of” anthologies Leo Margulies did for Pyramid, as well as other anthologies, such as my childhood favorite: Book of the Werewolf.
There was no shortage of visual imagery. In addition to the vivid covers of those paperbacks, there were a decent number of large-format volumes dedicated to vintage pulp-art. Virgil Finlay was chillingly addictive to flip through, in particular, and tucked between some taller hardcovers were several issues of a copiously illustrated magazine titled Coven 13 that I could never summon up the guts to take to my bedroom and read because I actually believed those magazines might possess genuine “diabolical powers” (and I was an already-skeptical rural Northwest boy, used to the damp and dreary dark, raised Orthodox-Atheist).
None of that early, almost anachronistic, horror exposure really prepared me for “modern” horror movies, which became plentiful at the few video rental places we had in our small Oregon town by the late eighties. The covers of those chunky VHS tapes were even more troubling—often stretched stills from the films, or realistic paintings, almost always of something unspeakably gruesome about to happen to a conventionally attractive, partially-clothed female.
I generally did not experience these films at my house. These things I usually viewed at Carey Voeller’s in his garage, which had been converted into a family room. Over many a weekend we’d set up our sleeping bags in there, supplied with a reasonably ambitious quantity of junk-food provisions, and commence with our horror movie marathons.
We saw a lot of awful things. Some of those movies I still can’t believe we were legally allowed to rent (I’m still not certain if I Spit on Your Grave should even exist). But we also saw a lot of wonderful stuff that was truly mind-expanding and, occasionally, delightful (such as Eraserhead, and a number of the early Troma films).
The most unforgettable scene I ever saw, we weren’t at all ready for, in spite of the fact that we’d watched the previous movie in the series. The film was Return of the Living Dead Part II, the second of these then-recent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek “punk rock” zombie movies, inspired by Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead. It was a virtual remake of the first Return of the Living Dead, which we had enjoyed, but the creators did something very sneaky.
I haven’t kept up, but I’m sure it’s now a thoroughly tired and typical zombie-movie cliché to have the zombified boyfriend stalk his still-human girlfriend, and beg her to allow him to zombify her. Being young and relatively innocent, the subtext was pretty much lost on us, but in the first film, when this same scenario took place, the girlfriend had managed to avoid this fate. In the second film, however, the girlfriend was cornered in a church, and the zombie boyfriend pled more convincingly, describing the scent of her brains as irresistibly “spicy.”
We should have turned it off right there, but I still believe, even from decades of distance, that we both thought something would happen at the idiomatic last second, and the girlfriend would be saved. No.
By scrunching her eyes closed and hunching into a semi-fetal seated position, the girlfriend apparently “consented” to the zombie. He went up to her, and gently leaned down over the top of her head with his rotten mouth gaping.
The screen then showed only the expression on the girlfriend’s face: lips parted, her eyes surprised, confused, and just possibly excited. The sound was like having your ear next to a walnut being crushed slowly beneath a boot on rain-wet pavement.
It was terrible. Both of us yelled at the TV, and turned the movie off. We were absolutely furious, and I’m positive mutually overwhelmed with the desire to edit this out of our fresh memories, or rewind and watch it over, but somehow have the scene magically turn out a different way: someone to burst into the church with a shotgun and blast the zombie boyfriend’s head off; the girlfriend to suddenly fall through a trap door into some subterranean tunnel and run away; white winged angels to arrive and carry her off. Something. Anything.
The two of us were miserable. We didn’t know what to do about it. We kept talking. Ranting. We hated the people who made this movie. We hated the people at the store who let us rent it. We hated the world where this sort of imaginary scene could be imagined, and then developed into a part of some awful product people could use for a while to for some fucking reason pretend this sort of horrible totally imaginary bullshit scene that some bunch of sick shithead assholes just thought up together because they are fucking dicks could be real. Our night was ruined. Our weekend was ruined. Our lives were ruined. My life is still ruined. Look at me. Listen. Shit.
We went ahead and finished the movie. I don’t remember any of the rest. I think everybody died at the end, pretty much like in the first one.