Rob Harmon decked out for Valentine's Day. Lucy Gellman Photo.
The zombies were closing in on the young lovers. Lionel lifted a lawnmower, revved the engine, and blazed a path forward until the motor was pink and the tile floor was wet, slick and bright red. Paquita shrieked and prepared to take out another undead creature. Something evil stirred from the basement, and they braced for the worst. Soaked in blood and bits of entrails, they did the only thing that made sense: they made out.
In the small audience, rapt viewers slipped bites of fresh popcorn beneath their masks. It was the perfect way to ring out Valentine’s Day.
Peter Jackson’s 1992 Dead Alive arrived at Best Video Film and Cultural Center Monday night, as film geek Rob Harmon raised his “Secret Cinema” series from the dead for the first event of the new year. The series focuses on wacky, strange, humorous, campy, sometimes little-known films and trailers that Harmon thinks should be seen in group settings, instead of watched at home alone. Just over a dozen masked attendees braved the cold for the event.
“Secret cinema is sort of my obsessions thrown out there, and I'm not shy to share those with people,” Harmon said before the show, decked out in Boston Red Socks gear and framed by pink heart decals at the cafe counter. “I've always had a love of the weird and wonderful in film. It can be classic movies, it can be obscure, cult, slasher, thriller films, forgotten oddities ... there's so many things about films that are so wonderful.”
Harmon launched the series in December 2017, shortly after Best Video bought an old-school popcorn machine and started looking for ways to use it. Over four and a half years, it developed a small but loyal following, with films that ranged from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Twitch of the Death Nerve to a celebration of Margot Kidder’s life and work.
On the weekend before pandemic closures rippled through the state—March 7, Harmon remembers clearly—a small audience gathered for a double feature of They Live and The Hidden, part of Harmon’s inaugural “Paranoiathon.” He now thinks of the subject as timely and ironic.
By the following week, Best Video was facing an unintended intermission. Harmon, who was furloughed from mid-March through June of 2020, described the loss of Secret Cinema as "brutal." While the space figured out how to host live events in a pandemic, he went back to his day-to-day work at the nonprofit and dreamed about bringing back the event.
"I knew once I was able, I wanted to throw my hat back in the ring," he said. "[I thought] whatever I do when I come back to Secret Cinema, it has to be something where we go just absolutely fucking crazy. I'm still sort of figuring this out as I go. It still feels sort of fresh and new."
Tyler Bisson and Ariana Stover host the raffle. Stover is holding a horror-themed edition of the game Trivial Pursuit. Lucy Gellman Photo.
His idea for a triumphant and Covid-cautious return came to him in the shower last July. When the series came back last December, he started with Albert Magnoli's 1984 Purple Rain, a musical film that stars Prince, the High Priest of Pop himself, alongside his band The Revolution. As he planned ahead for 2022, Dead Alive, which Roger Ebert once called “one of the most disgusting horror films ever made,” seemed like a perfect fit for Valentine’s Day. Previous picks for the date have included Fatal Attraction, The Honeymoon Killers and Strictly Ballroom.
As the temperature plummeted outside, attendees trickled into the Whitney Avenue storefront, wandering among the neat shelves of DVDs. Some caught up with each other after months away; others returned DVDs, chatted with employees and nursed bottles of water and beer, fitting in quick sips before remasking. The smell of popcorn drifted through the air, kernels rustling in their paper bags. Weaving through the audience, real- life partners Ariana Stover and Tyler Bisson handed out raffle tickets, smiling mysteriously.
Stover grew up in Hamden, but didn’t discover Best Video until 2019, when she started coming to Secret Cinema through her friendship with Harmon. As a lover of horror films, she’s been hooked ever since. Bisson, who wrote much of his master’s thesis at Best Video’s cafe tables, has too. Monday, Harmon tasked the two with providing running commentary during trailers, which are part of the series. Before they rolled, Harmon explained that he sees them as self-contained short films.
“It was very sad not to have that common space [during pandemic closures],” Stover said. “It’s a special place. I’ve really found a sense of community here. It’s kind of a unique and, like, sacred space.”
Another attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, said that it’s the hard-to-find old film and “weird stuff that I haven’t seen” that keeps him coming back to Best Video, and especially to Secret Cinema. Raised in New York, he started coming to the space in 2013, around the time that he moved to New Haven. It was still a storefront then, and he stayed with it through the official transition to a not-for-profit. Like many in the crowd, he’s a Secret Cinema regular, excited to have the series back after several months away.
In front of the audience, the lights dimmed. Harmon beamed. The first time he saw Dead Alive with an audience, he was living in New York City and “people absolutely lost their minds,” he remembered. “It was such a fun movie to watch with a group.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day!” he said to cheers and a smattering of applause. “Good choice on your part to spend your night in beautiful Hamden.”
Stover and Bisson called out raffle numbers, clapping as movie-goers picked out limited-run Secret Cinema pins, a gore-centered edition of Trivial Pursuit, and a set of Hellraiser fridge magnets with at least one exposed brain.The trailers rolled, mixing ads for 1990s dating hotlines and romantic slasher movies. Every few minutes, an advertisement for pre-Tinder dating services came up in technicolor, with spandex-clad women lifting large phones to their ears and smiling wide into the video camera.
Then it was the witching hour. Directed by Jackson in 1992—a decade before he did Lord of the Rings—Dead Alive tells the story of not-quite-star-crossed lovers Lionel (Tim Balme) and Paquita (Diana Peñalver), whose budding New Zealand romance is put to the test when Lionel’s domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is bitten by a monkey and becomes a zombie. There is a pivotal tarot reading, a priest who does Kung Fu, at least one giant puppet, and riffs on the Three Stooges, Howard Hawks, Child’s Play, The Evil Dead II and Psycho.
It is uncomfortably racist, wacky, camp, and intolerably gory—think ears falling into vanilla pudding, limbs splitting, torsos cracking, glistening entrails coming alive gory—in a way that has made it a cult classic that would have given Sigmund Freud an aneurysm.
And in the final hours of the most romantic day of the year, it became a way to gather community. As the film opened on the Indonesian island of Sumatra—or rather, a caricature of Sumatra—a few giggles and groans filled the room. The audience laughed at Vera as Moody burst onto the screen in a wig and housedress, a kitchen knife in hand. A collective gasp rippled through the space as a stop-motion animal sunk its teeth into Vera’s arm with an audible crunch. When she died in her son's arms, it was as if viewers were collectively holding their breath, aware of the horror that was to come. And when it inevitably did, excitement crackled through the room.
Even with masks dotting the audience, the isolation of almost two years dissolved. Viewers smiled at their dates as technicolor streetcars barreled by. They moved to the edges of their seats and gripped their drinks as the zombies multiplied in cemeteries, the quaint streets of Wellington, at a Dickensian house party. By the end, applause went up for the blood-soaked lovers, who were somehow very much alive. Harmon flipped on the lights, and watched as the crowd lingered. For him, that’s what it’s all about.
“I feel like films really should be enjoyed with a group in a spontaneous [way], just playing out,” he said. “You could watch the same movie with the same group three times, and it could be slightly different each time. You take one person out and insert another one in, or you change the movie, all the variables have been altered.”
“It’s very adorable,” he said. “You throw in some zombies, and you got a great time.”
The next iteration of Rob Harmon’s Secret Cinema is scheduled for Monday Feb. 28 at 8 p.m.. Learn more at Best Video’s website.