Asbury Brains: the JerZombies are BACK!

Festerin’ Festivals! The biggest and best-organized lurch of the undead in the WORLD returns to the boards and boulevards of Asbury Park this weekend — and this time the horrorcultural contagion has spread to an entire three-day Undead Fest of Guignol and guest stars; cosplay and cake; murderous merch and musical theater.

The undead hordes lurched and lumbered by the thousands onto the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury boardwalk; summoned to this place at the edge of an autumn-angry sea by forces they could scarcely comprehend.

The sexy ones in the miniskirts were the first to filter away; driven from the seasonally chilly late-October oceanfront by the mercilessly bracing Atlantic breezes. Still, scores more stuck it out, howling occasionally for BRRAAIINNS and huddling toward some communal purpose…while from the rooftops and o’er the ramparts of the storm-battered landmarks, a team of steely professionals surveyed the scene, and waited, and counted…

When it was all over, the 2010 New Jersey Zombie Walk had set a new record — a clicker-confirmed, independently audited and certified, Guinness World Records record for the largest such gathering of costumed zombies anywhere on the planet — 4093, to be precise; a number that could easily have swelled past an estimated 5000 had the 40-degree temperature not spooked many in the already cold-blooded collective.

When the fourth annual New Jersey Zombie Walk returns to Asburied Park this Saturday, October 22, it’ll be the gruesome centerpiece of an Undead Festival that’s grown into a weekend-long celebration of Guignol goreplay and costumed chaos, in and around the Convention Hall complex that so recently hosted everything from the ATP fest to Beerfest to Tattoofest. It’s a “contagion” that infects the entire town; a Halloween hullabaloo that dares challenge the mighty Chiller Theatre convention itself — and if you’re wondering what they’re planning to do to top last year’s Zombie census, the answer is “So Who’s Counting?”. With the World Record apparently in no danger of being seriously challenged here in 2011, Zombie King and festival founder Jason Meehan has made the decision to put down the click-counter, amp up the excitement and present a “high energy event” designed to make a reanimated body feel very much at home, all over town and for all three days.

Occupy Pall Street: a vulture’s-eye view of the undead throngs who helped last year’s NJ Zombie Walk shamble into the record books. (Photo by Tom Gilmour)

“This is an event that was born here in Asbury, and belongs in Asbury,” says Meehan, taking a few precious moments while upperWETside picked his brain at America’s Cup in the midst of a beyond-busy week. “There’s really nowhere else where it would feel as right, or where we could get away with everything that we do.”

“This is a grass roots, completely local project that was created out of nothing, just for fun,” says the lifelong horrorphile and professional photographer. “For our fourth year, we want to return to that spirit of fun, and to keep the fun going for all three days.”

Having staked his place in the record book, the Zombie King reckoned that one way to up the fun factor was, curiously enough, to lose the entire painstaking process of counting heads (“the hurry-up-and-wait aspect really killed everybody’s buzz; by the time we started our walk most of the people didn’t want to do it”).

“The decision, after we made the record attempt, was that we were either going to go for a bigger record — or we’d put everything we had into doing this festival.”

The decision turned out to be a no-brainer for Meehan, who by the end of January 2011 had begun meeting with representatives of boardwalk managers Madison Marquette to plan a festival that combined “the Chiller Theater model with a similar feel to the Greenwich Village Halloween parade — we wanted people to check out the city, and to get everyone involved, from the local businesses to the Mayor.”

Although by Meehan’s estimation the entire three-day gorefest probably costs about 1.5 times what the producers of All Tomorrow’s Parties spent just on their sound system alone, the Undead Festival presents an astonishingly jam-packed schedule of movies, merch vendors, music, stage shows, “zombie elite” celebs, contests, and those all-important afterparties. It’s a schedule that manages to fold in such cornerstones of local life as the weekly beach bonfire and Doggy Yappy Hour at the Wonder Bar — and there’s even a fully costumed, legally binding Zombie Wedding ceremony officiated by Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson (legend has it that Meehan, sporting facial prosthesis and bloody tux, approached Hizzoner with the idea at last month’s swanky Mayor’s Ball).

Not bad at all for a hyperlocal event that was founded in 2008 by Jason and (now ex-) wife Christina with little more than a MySpace page and a stack of office-printed flyers. As he explains, the inspiration for an Asbury Park Zombie Walk sprang from a bit of jealousy over the success of a similar walk in Atlanta.

“We just thought that Asbury Park had the architecture and the ambience that lent itself well to this sort of thing,” explains Meehan, who attended art school amid the “arty atmosphere” of Savannah, GA. “Half the buildings looked like the apocalypse had already hit!”

From 500 participating zombies in the first year’s walk, to 1500 in the 2009 event (“we just expected maybe 50 people at first, and as it grew, we knew it was something special…a genuine viral outbreak”), the Meehans went for Guinness gold in the 2010 edition of what by then had already been rebranded the NJ Zombie Walk.

Also by then, the flagship freakout of the Zombie Walk was being bolstered by a slate of ancillary events — such as undead dance-team salutes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that have become a yearly staple of the weekend. As Meehan observes, “we noticed that people were showing up really early for the zombie walk, wanting to be first in line to get their makeup done, and we thought that maybe we should be getting together some other activities for them to take part in before the start of the walk.”

Scheduled to commence from the Grand Arcade area of the Convention Hall complex at 5pm Saturday, the Zombie Walk remains fabulously free as ever, with participants invited to create their own look or, for a Makeover Ticket fee (check the fest website for details), enjoy a Basic, Gross or Total makeover from a battery of professional makeup artists. Following a brief lecture on “rules and etiquette,” the JerZombies lurch down the boardwalk, past the screaming gorgon faces of the Carousel (staging area in years past) and west along Cookman Avenue, where an outdoor Uptown Stage hosts a 7pm “Thriller” performance, a costume contest, and the return of the ever-popular Jell-O Brain Eating Contest.

Jason and company, who have moved the event from the beginning of October (to coincide with the city’s First Saturday activities), to Halloweekend last year, to the weekend of the 21st through 23rd (so’s not to conflict with Chiller) will be taking over Convention Hall with “over 50 vendors, zombie costume and cosplay contests, a horrific fashion show, haunting music, zombified cake, after parties and theatrical performances.” There’s also “special screenings and sneak peeks at some of the hottest new zombie films,” and basic admission charges are a pretty damn reasonable $15 (for single day attendance) and $30 (for a full weekend pass), with kids age 10 and under admitted for free. A detailed breakdown of the three-day schedule can be seen right here; meantime here’s a few highlights…

Michale Graves of The Misfits (and Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg) occupies the live music sweet-spot at Friday night’s edition of the Undead Fest.

SPLATTERIFIC SCREENINGS:  The documentary short Playing Dead (on the burgeoning zombie-walk movement) shows inside Convention Hall at 5:30pm Friday and 12:30pm Saturday…then on Friday night the Grand Arcade’s the scene for special sneak previews of the new filmed-in-Africa The Dead (10pm) — and, at midnight, the talked-about grindhouse pastiche Chillerama, an anthology that features gotta-see-’em-to-believe-’em segments as The Diary of Anne Frankenstein and Wadzilla.

MURDEROUS MUSICALS:  New this year are live stage revues featuring samplers of the latest shows by the city’s two resident theatrical troupes: ReVision Theatre (whose Little Shop of Horrors runs four performances this weekend at the historic Carousel), and  Premier Theatre, whose staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street  goes up inside the Paramount Theatre on Halloweekend. The show’s casts will present their mini musical medleys at 6pm Friday, and again at 11:45pm Sunday.

FAMOUS FIENDS:  Legendary cartoon producer Arlene Klasky (Rugrats, Aaahh! Real Monsters) unveils her new character, Asbury Park’s own skateboarding zombie teen Ollie Mongo at 11am Saturday…a reunion of actors and zombies from the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead (including a rare appearance by Judith Ridley) takes place at 11:30am Saturday… cast members from AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead (including young Addie Miller) judge an Apcalypse Survivor costume contest, 1pm Saturday…several of the zombie actors from George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead host a Q&A at 3:30pm Saturday…many of the featured guests will be taking part in the Zombie Walk as well; all guest celebs (including “King of the Marvel Zombies” Arthur Suydam) will be signing autographs for the duration of the weekend, and at 9pm Friday there’s a chance to break bread with the horror folk during a Dining with the Dead celebrity meet ‘n greet prix fixe dinner at the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel.

THERE’S MORE IN GORE:  A live set by Michale Graves of The Misfits at 9:15pm Friday…a zombie-themed wedding at 2:30pm Saturday…a special Saturday afternoon performance by Broadway Bound Dance Centre of Toms River…a Zombie Kids Costume Contest, a Mr. & Mrs. Undead Zombie Beauty Pageant, and a Zombie Cake Challenge that’s one of the returning highlights of the annual event. All this plus those afterparties, at venues like the Wonder Bar, Watermark, Trinity And The Pope and the everlovin’ Asbury Lanes.

Once again, check the event’s very cool and comprehensive website for updated info on scheduling, admission options, merch and more — including info on discounted wristbands for those donating to a Saturday blood drive by Central Jersey Blood Center, or an ongoing food drive coordinated with the Foodbank of Monmouth & Ocean.

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