11 years before I started doing conventions in 2004, a little con called the Zombie Jamboree took place in Monroeville, PA. A modest affair, it was historic because of its guest list: just about every living star of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD attended, including the departed Keith Wayne and Karl Hardman. John Russo was also part of the NOTLD package, and he documented it in ZOMBIE JAMBOREE. As viewed in 2015, it’s a nice look at a time when conventions were simpler fare. Sadly, it’s also an advertisement for the man making it.
Russo begins with footage of a zombie headed into the Pittsburgh Expo Mart. This walking dead is walking right into the Jamboree, where he’ll join “thousands of fans!” as the cue card tells us. Narrator Russo tells us details about the show, including the year of planning and $100,000 it cost to put on. This con was put together specifically to celebrate the 25th anniversary of NOTLD, and the doc quickly segues into footage from the film (including a tacked on “©1975 Image Ten, Inc.”). So far, so good.
It’s when the doc turns to several of Romero’s TV commercials that things go awry. Russo should have kept a tight focus on the NOTLD connection, but he goes off course to advertise everything he’s ever been involved with: beer commercials, THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, his novels and movies based on them, and even a calendar. Sure, it’s nice to hear from Linnea Quigley and Brinke Stevens, but I didn’t need a five minute stretch from them in a 59-minute doc. Russo surely inserted these cuts from their Q&A because they participated in some scream queen magazine he was running at the time.
Even when he’s not squarely focused on self-promotion, Russo’s editing choices are odd. For instance, there’s a NOTLD panel that includes Romero. So why would Russo include Romero answering a MONKEY SHINES question instead one about the NIGHT? And speaking of editing, this is a sloppy affair. Poor video and audio make the thing look as if it were filmed on a VHS home video camera from 1985. The whole affair appears amateurish, which alongside all the content issues draws away from the appeal.
Russo had the chance to make something really special here. He could have captured a special moment for NOTLD fans at the 25th anniversary. Instead, he squandered the moment and produced a lackluster piece that’s more about Russo than Romero’s film.
Given my recent experience at the Walker Stalker con and my current attitude toward cons in general, had I attended Zombie Jamboree in 2015 I would probably be bored in 15 minutes. But watching Russo’s self-aggrandizing documentary of the con, I know had I attended the Jamboree in 1993 it would have been something truly special. Watching reminded me of that first Chiller I attended, long before cons became a cash grab business model devoid of fun. There used to be a wonder in meeting movie people, and Russo’s doc helped me recapture that for just a moment. ZOMBIE JAMBOREE is shoddily made, and acts as a commercial for John Russo’s enterprises as much as a document of the con. But it made me remember when cons were fun for me, and for that I appreciate it.