Tuesday, 11 November 2014

WENG’S CHOP, MONSTER!, and the Rebirth of the Fanzine.

A retrospective is often a sign that its subject is en route to the dusty top shelf of history. With the recent publication of John Spuznar’s essential Xerox Ferox: the wild wild world of the horror fanzine, it might reasonably have been assumed that the epitaph of the print based film ’zine was being recorded. And quite right too; surely its present day heir is the blogosphere and the Tumblr page. But no, against all the odds, we seem to be entering a second golden age of print-delivered, film based goodies.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but there once was a time “before the internet”. Back then, if you wanted to check a fact or research an arcane area of cinematic activity, you had to either know somebody who knew something or search out a rare written record. And very often, with obscure movies, the fanzine was the place to look. Then along came the worldwideweb and Wikipedia. With such an easy-to-access resource, people seemed to stop researching and begin repeating. The internet made it too easy. Received wisdom became the order of the day. It’s as though there was a quality about having to put your thoughts in print that had made the whole enterprise more serious, more rigorous back in the days of ‘zines. Maybe a bit like the difference between films shot on “film” and those originated on video.

There were fanzines in the 50s and 60s, but the boom years were from the late 1970’s and into the 1990s. This was the time of Gore Gazette, Deep Red, Sleazoid Express, Ungawa!, Slime Time, Psychotronic and many, many more. The video explosion of the early 1980s had made numerous exploitation goodies available for the first time outside their original theatrical exposure and this was doubtless one of the factors that influenced the rise of the ‘zine. Here were a host of artefacts ignored by the mainstream, by-passed by academic critics, forgotten and unloved by the many, and therefore ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of zealous crate diggers. No film and no film-maker was deemed too lowly or too marginal to be the subject of a fact packed 10 page article or a career length interview.

Gradually, as happens with all living things, the energy leaked away. The pressure of other activities, earning a crust, having a family, or just plain old burnout, took their toll on the ‘zine world. And then came the worldwideweb… and we all found a new place to dwell.

The web’s a wonderful thing, no mistake, but one of the problems of the digital domain is that it’s a great leveller. Everything tends to assume the same degree of importance (or lack of). Easy availability makes things somehow less interesting. And before you know it, you’ve ended up watching a marathon of Big Bang Theory catch ups rather than staying awake all night to review the entire Shaw Brothers Black Magic series. 

Many things (vinyl records, VHS cassettes, folk music), once they seem on the verge of vanishing, tend to acquire almost mystically a second lease on life. So it has been with the humble film ‘zine. Perhaps it was the very intangibility of the digital world that made people nostalgic for a product you could actually hold in your hands (and read in the crapper). Gradually, over the last few years, the print ‘zine has started to make a comeback.

Tim Paxton was one of the pioneers when it came to promoting weird world cinema. His zines Video Voice, Highball, Naked! Screaming! Terror!, Monster (and then later Monster! International) had a broader scope than many, delving into the arcane and the overlooked no matter where it originated from. And now he’s back (if he ever went away…) with Weng's Chop. In collaboration with Brian Harris and Tony Strauss he’s created one of the truly great contemporary zines. Which isn’t really a zine at all: it’s a book. The current issue (number 6 – although the series began with Number 0) which comes with three different cover designs, is a massive, heavily illustrated, 240 numbered pages in an outsized format.

Weng’s Chop raises the bar. This is film writing as it ought to be. The editors have assembled a fine gang of both novices and seasoned old hands from the ‘zine and publishing world, including Steve Fenton, Jared Auner, Kris Gilpin, Jeff Goodhartz, Greg Goodsell, Louis Paul, Doug Waltz, Dave Zuzelo, Krys Caroleo, Vicki Love. A recent issue (#5) includes the first of a three part series about Jungle films; articles about the Horrorthon, Pollygrind and Knoxville film festivals; the Mr Vampire series; the restoration of the much reviled Manos the Hands of Fate; Filipino vigilante films; articles about regional horror; an overview of the Johnny Wadd series; a valuable interview with Leon Isaac Kennedy; book and film reviews and much, much more. 

As noted earlier, one of the strong features of WC is its coverage of non English language films. In this issue, Part 7 of Tim Paxton’s continuing investigation of Indian cinema’s outer edges focuses on Kanti Shah, producer/director of more than two decades worth of horror and exploitation films from the real underbelly of the Bollywood industry. Paxton’s energy and enthusiasm here is heroic. He doesn’t just talk in general terms, screen a few films and then bang out his opinion piece. No, he actually watches them all. Or as many as time and brain cells will allow, which in the case of the prolific Kanti Shah is a hell of a lot of films. That’s the essential nature of the true ‘zine creator: going multiple extra miles in search of that last ounce of buried treasure long after earlier investigators have wearied of the task.

Fanzines and their creators and contributors seem to march to the beat of a different drum. Fuelled by their enthusiasm and their indefatigable curiosity, with no grants from public bodies or rich patrons, they feel themselves compelled in some mysterious way to scout the back roads and byways of popular culture and to preserve their discoveries for future generations to wonder at. They are the archivists of the arcane and long may they thrive and prosper.

 Anyone who has even the vaguest interest in the kind of things that Mondo Macabro are doing is going to find much to relish in Weng's Chop and its spin off Monster! Get them all now, while you still can. They’re going to become collectors’ items soon enough and then you’ll kick yourself for having missed out.

- Pete Tombs

You can buy issues of both Weng's Chop and Monster! on Amazon and Creatspace.com.