how did i, a lifelong fan of horror movies and comic books, grow up in atlanta without ever attending dragon*con, "america's largest, multi-media, popular arts convention"? simple. i thought it was something only mega-geeks went to. occasionally i'd see flyers for the con in bookstores, casually glancing at the celebrity guest list and wondering what it'd be like to see these folks in person, in the end feeling like i'd just be completely out of my element. but in the ten years since i left my hometown, what began as a curiosity into this other world of fantasy, sci-fi and subculture grew into a genuine desire to finally check it out for myself. this past weekend, thanks to my boss-lady heidi martinuzzi and dragon*con media relations director star roberts, i entered the dragon at long last, armed with a notebook, camera and a little ribbon that said "press" attached to my name tag.
immediately, i was intimidated by the absolute magnitude of this event. as a kid, i'd been to the atlanta comics expo and the georgia fantasy conventions once or twice, but in the years since those two shows combined to form the mighty dragon, this thing has become a monster, taking over three of atlanta's largest hotels (the hyatt, hilton & mariott) for five days of non-stop fandom. i parked a few blocks away from the main area and spotted several youths with dyed hair and black clothing, whom i followed and quickly found my destination: a sea of people of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities flooding the parking lots of the adjoining hotels and sidewalks, many decked out in what looked like bondage gear or variations thereof, and several dressed up as rrecognizable characters from TV, film and comics. the general atmosphere was part arena rock concert, part halloween party, and part first day of college freshman year. luckily, i'd checked out a map of the main hotel online and checked the day's program schedule, so i wasn't entirely lost, but that didn't stop me from making a few wrong turns trying to navigate through the massive crowds that permeated nearly every inch of floor space.
eventually, i arrived (late) at the learning center, where all the convention's film-related activities were taking place. onstage was cult film legend charles band, best known to horror audiences as the founder of full moon pictures, producers of the PUPPETMASTER series among many many others. while the crowd in attendance seemed to mostly consist of fans of the movies, asking fan-related questions ("when will there be a sequel to - ?", "what was it like working with - ?"), the focus of band's lecture was actually filmmaking and the future of his company. there were individuals in the room who were interested in breaking into the movie biz, who managed to engage band in some relevant discussion. when the subject of slasher films was brought up, band had this to say in regard to the so-called importance of T&A in horror movies:
"no woman in a tense, scary moment is going to just stop and take her top off. if [nudity] is in there for no reason, today's audiences pick up on that. in my new movie, no women die. i'm tired of seeing hot chicks get killed. let the dudes get killed!"
once the panel ended, band took time to give free movies to the audience and sign autographs. he then left with a woman who was dressed as "baby" from HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, complete with dry blood all over her skimpy outfit. very cool.
after that, i got a call from some friends who heard i was at the show, and wanted to meet up with me for dinner. they asked, "where are you?", and i really had no idea. by that time, i'd found the exhibition hall, where people were selling toys and movies and clothing and swords and who knows what else (i nerded out when i saw some "miskatonic university" shirts!), and could not remember which of the three hotels i was in. luckily, my pals were dragon*con verterans, and located me fairly easily. walking past the troma booth, i spotted fellow local filmmaker (& pretty-scary board member) stephen grainger, and stopped over to shoot the shit for a few minutes. along came lloyd kaufman, president of troma and creator of THE TOXIC AVENGER, and i extended my hand to greet him. before i could get my name out, lloyd said, "andrew shearer! how are you?" and i quickly looked at my shirt to make sure he wasn't just reading my name tag. nope, it wasn't visible. how awesome was that? i met him last year at another convention and he remembered me! lloyd invited me to talk about my movies during his "make your own damn movie" lecture that was taking place later that night, but i politely declined. i was more interested in sitting there watching the man do his thing, listening to and learning from one of the masters of the trade. i left the troma booth absolutely floating. lloyd is the shit.
i followed my friends, local stand-up comic david meadows and actress melisa cardona (both of whom were performing in the giant rocky horror show at 2am), across to the food court to get some grub. melisa was dressed as "pris" from BLADE RUNNER, and we were stopped at least five times by people who wanted to take a picture of her. at this point, i feel i should mention that picture-taking is a huge part of what was going on at this convention. the costumes and get-ups most people had on were totally amazing, everything from your standard stormtrooper gear to women who looked like they walked out of a frazetta painting, to giant robots that definitely were not fitting in the elevators. as a pre-teen, had i known there were so many half-naked women running around at this show, i would have gone every single year, so i could see the appeal to people holding cameras. however, part of me thought melisa's costume was genuinely being appreciated, and part of me thought maybe some of the dudes were just pervs snapping pics of all the ladies with revealing attire for their "personal collections". i hope it's that first thing and not that last thing.
for the first-timer, navigating the hotels just to get from one place to another is a pretty nerve-racking ordeal. as organized as this event is, there's no avoiding the fact that you're constantly surrounded by people who are either rushing by or stopping to take a picture, or have a picture taken of them, or just staring in awe of all the cool costumes. by the time i'd made my way to and from dinner, i decided to retreat to the "press room", an area designated for the media to go and quietly dcompress, collect their data and relax. i was greeted by the very together and impossibly high-energy star roberts, who seemed happy and at ease despite wearing one of those headset things and constantly being asked questions. the fourth day into this thing, and she still seems to be having a blast. that's a professional for you. after taking some notes and reviewing my failed attempts at getting worthwhile photos for this article, i chose to sit and breathe before heading back to catch lloyd's hour of troma power. listening to the other journalists in the room was a complete crack-up, a lot of these guys had been around a long time and had some hilarious stories to tell. i was torn between hoping one day i'd have enough experience with this kind of thing to be able to exchange such tales with them, and hoping i never ended up going through all the shit they have.
i thanked miss roberts for her hospitality and hoofed it back to the film area, this time arriving early enough to get a front row seat. unlike the group attending charles band's panel, the packed audience at troma's "make your own damn movie" presentation were there because they sincerely were interested in making their own damn movies. lloyd took the stage, along with his daughter lilly hayes, and spent the next hour entertaining and educating the crowd with his trademark tromatic excellence. he fielded questions about everything from getting your film financed to how NOT to secure a shooting location, and ended up involving me in a discussion about doing special FX on the cheap. when i noted that troma's recipe for a nice, gory head-crushing really does work, lloyd held the microphone in my face and asked me to detail exactly how we pulled it off (in our movie 2003 flick ANGEL SPIT). i left with the sense that a lot of people out there really want to make movies, but are daunted by the idea that it takes heaps of money and skill. hopefully they realized that if troma can do it, 30 years and running, they can get out there as well. it's getting easier and easier all the time, and i should know!
deciding to take things slowly as a dragon*con virgin, i opted to head home, forgoing the gigantic costume contest and other festivities that carried on into the night. only upon walking back to my car did i realize that i never checked out the "walk of fame", dragon*con's celebrity guest area, or the comic artists gallery. there's always next year, right? i thought back to when i entered the exhibition hall earlier in the day, i saw actor sid haig at a table signing autographs, and i was so overcome by everything i'd seen in the few short hours at the con, it didn't faze me. and i'm a huge fan of sid haig! my friend santiago asked me, "don't you want to meet sid haig?", and i can't even remember what i said in response. there, a few feet away from me sat the star of THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, one of the best movies of the year. it was all part of the fun.
during my teen years, one of my biggest escapes was THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and its "come as you are" policy of accepting anyone and everyone no matter who you were. so often in life, we feel as though we're on the outside looking in, that we don't fit, and that we have to put on an act or repress ourselves in order to smoothly blend into the general world around us. we fear rejection, we crave acceptance, and yet we value happiness, love and freedom above all else. ROCKY HORROR provided an outlet for me and countless other "outsiders" with an environment that encouraged us to let our freak flags fly, to express ourselves any way we liked, to take comfort in something that could bring such a diverse group together. atlanta's dragon*con is that same environment on a gargantuan level, where no one is left out and everyone gets to be themselves. if you want to dress up like a 9 foot tall robot, or princess leia, or even a giant red TETRIS game piece, you're welcome to. in three of the city's largest hotels, in front of everybody who passes through those doors, for 5 straight days.