“If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts.”—Adam Duritz
Skin flakes fell. Blood baked on the hot asphalt. The salty, metallic stench of sweat wafted in the summer air as the zombie shambled, chasing the frazzled sheriff down the street jammed with abandoned cars.
Another episode of The Walking Dead—standard viewing for me and my dad on Sunday nights. We indulged in the morbid series religiously, as if we needed another reminder of mortality.
In front of our TV, medical monitor cords spread across the carpet like vines on a forest floor. The monitor’s beeping competed with the volume of the zombie action on screen. I reached for the remote resting next to the pill bottles on Dad’s TV tray. He was sitting on the edge of his home hospital bed in this sick bay that had been our living room before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Dad watched giddily as the sheriff fled into the forest away from the zombie. He bounced up with delight on the squeaky bed when the end credits rolled.
“Man, that was a good one. Cathartic,” he said.
“It’s nice to see someone get away in a bad situation. That doesn’t happen very often in horror,” Dad said. A sly grin lifted the bags under his eyes.
I reveled for a moment in the warmth and relief of his smile. It was always soothing to see him without pain.
Now felt like as good a time as any to invite Dad to the fall horror convention I was eagerly awaiting—Days of the Dead in nearby Noblesville, Indiana. It’s the kind of unassuming little place with a quiet town square that a horror director would love to flood with zombies.
“I was actually reading about that in the paper,” Dad said. “There’s a film showing there that I want you to see.”
“Cool, what movie?”
“You’ll see,” he said. Another mischievous smile made my 58-year-old father seem like a little boy.
Movies energized my dad the same way they invigorate me. His eyes lit up when the chance of going to the theater came around, even more so after he was diagnosed with cancer. He wasn’t completely confined to his bed, but he certainly needed rest—and the depression from his sickness and inability to work undoubtedly played a part in grounding him in that room. But moviegoing was something he always looked forward to—and an escape he definitely needed at this time. Fortunately, during this difficult period, my work involved reviewing movies for the local weekly newspaper, NUVO, which the editors told me meant “new voice.” Dad would offer to help me find that voice when I sat on his hospital bed after work with my computer and a small stack of film screeners in my lap.
I was curious about the film he wanted me to see that weekend. He never steered me wrong when it came to movie recommendations. As we left the house for the horror convention, my mother lovingly shook her head, bemused by her two boys’ thirst for thrills and chills.
On the way to the convention center hotel, Dad’s pale face grew flush with joy as he shared his love of horror films.
“I’ll never forget seeing The Exorcist with your mom. I stayed up that whole night talking about it—not because I was scared, of course,” he said, his dry lips cracking into a wry smile. “I was just struck by how it mirrored the mood of the time. It really captured the loss of innocence, the vulnerability of youth. I know it sounds silly, but if you think about it, the little girl possessed by the demon in that movie wasn’t terribly different from the kids sent to Vietnam. She was helpless like them. Dark forces were just thrust upon her.”
This connection between the film’s otherworldly story and real-world issues enchanted me like magic. Dad added a dimension to the character, brought her into his world and made this horror icon a vulnerable Vietnam-era youth like him. She wasn’t a mere invention anymore, but a funhouse mirror of reality.
“It’s therapeutic when you deal with your fears through fantasy. Like Mary Poppins said, ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,'” Dad said with a bashful chuckle. “Horror movies kind of…exorcise the fears that are hurting us.”
Hell, I wished the priest in The Exorcist would come drive out the fear and sickness hurting my dad.
That kind of collision between reality and fantasy soon appeared before our eyes. As Dad and I pulled up to the hotel, we saw a line of creatures down the block—zombies, vampires, werewolves, razor-fingered dream stalkers, you name it, all of them out to celebrate the cathartic power of horror. When I took my eyes off the crowd, I saw Dad smiling from ear to ear. I wished he always felt this good, this comfortable.
Walking up to the hotel felt like being in a horror movie, with the soft, purple light of dusk behind us in the small town bustling with grisly creatures. We waded through the grim sea, our noses tingled by the smell of fur, rubber and corn syrup, which stained several attendees’ gory get-ups.
Dad led us through the hotel lobby, walking quickly in front of me, which felt a bit strange. I was growing used to him getting winded and falling behind when we would go anywhere, often removing the breathing tube from his nose out of discomfort and embarrassment. A few people seemed to recognize him as we walked by, darting the “Where-do-I-know-you-from?” look that is so common at horror conventions.
“Here it is. I can’t wait for you to see this.” Dad’s voice squeaked with an edge of adolescent exuberance.
We stopped at a screening room just as a panel discussion with the cast was ending. We took our seats as the audience applauded, and soon the lights went down, the film began, and ominous ’80s synth-pop pulsated through the room. The film: I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I.
The opening credit sequence alone made Dad seem right at home, reminding him of a more innocent era of horror films. You could sense the actors having fun, like mischievous big brothers, their tongues poking through their cheeks. Dad giggled, like he would at children on Halloween, sitting back more comfortably in his seat than he did in his rickety hospital bed. The film washed over him like a warm blanket.
I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. tells of a quiet little town much like the one we were visiting. It’s invaded by aliens who recruit two thieves to help them steal and poison the local soda supply in order to zombify the population of Pleasantville.
As I watched the little black-and-white B movie crinkle and crack on the screen, I found myself regretting how often I took moviegoing with Dad for granted. I thought about the warmth of his burly arms—which were reduced to sticks by chemo—and his love of cinema radiating through my seat; the way he nudged me with surprise snacks during the slow parts of a movie; the way we would often go to a coffee shop afterwards and almost knock our cups over while excitedly talking about films.
My brain suddenly snapped back into the zombie flick, and I jumped up in my chair to find my daydream colliding with the dreamworld on screen. My dad was suddenly in the movie.
Thirty years younger and dressed in old-fashioned detective garb, he was one of the titular F.B.I. agents, speaking urgently about the alien threat. His dialogue seeped through my ears like a zombie’s moans; I couldn’t make out a word of it in my mystified state. Did that poisoned zombie soda leak out of the screen and into my brain? Was I dreaming?
When I turned to Dad, he was already looking at me, smiling.
“Pinch me, Dad. This is crazy,” I whispered. “It’s freaking me out. That guy looks just like you.”
“It is me,” he said, barely containing his signature sly grin.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were in a horror movie?” I asked, almost yelling.
“I wanted to surprise you at the right time.”
He never failed to surprise me. Even when he was shrunken by sickness, my dad seemed larger than life, especially up on the big screen. He will always be that way, immortalized in celluloid—and in places I cannot see.
This is a reprint of work originally published in The Polk Street Review.
Sam Watermeier has been a film critic since practically before he was born. His mother went into labor with him in a movie theater during the conclusion of The Godfather Part III. Sam started writing professionally in 2009 for NUVO Newsweekly, contributing movie reviews as well as profiles of filmmakers and previews of Indianapolis film festivals. He also serves as a contributing writer for Midwest Film Journal and THiNK Magazine.