My roommate is a zombie. The news arrived by e-mail with a link to a movie trailer—I don’t recall if it was Zombie Farm, Zombie Nation, or Zombie Ninja Gangbangers. Only that my college buddy Jed had, by the evidence of the trailer and a quick Google search, built a prolific career, and a cult following, as a B-movie horror actor who excelled at playing zombies.
This came as a shock—Jed studied English—but not an enormous one. You never expect the guy next to you in critical theory to go on to a career in the undead, of course. But Jed was always a little different. When we lived in Colorado after college, he passed up buying a bed and slept in a pile of dirty laundry. And he looked the part. He’s tall—about 6 foot 3—but he has an extremely small head (which he shaves) and tightly bunched features, all of which lends him a brontosaural aspect that seems like an occupational plus. He isn’t one of those moaning, arthritic, really-bad-movie zombies, either. He’s freaky as hell.
Watch highlights from Jed Rowen’s B-movie oeuvre
Jed is also a kind and gentle soul, and when I tracked him down to inquire about his unusual line of work, he invited me to join him at Horrorfest, an annual Denver confab of gore fans, where he is a regular celebrity guest. To prepare, I immersed myself in the Jed Rowen (his professional name) oeuvre, which extends beyond zombie films to include those about other supernatural killers (Attack of the Virgin Mummies, Werewolf in a Women’s Prison) as well as the merely psychotic or deranged (Driller, Axegrinder).
Low-budget horror doesn’t aim for white-knuckled fear so much as a kind of grisly camp; buxom “scream queens” who manage to get killed in various states of undress are a genre staple. But the main focus is the killer, who usually gets it in the end. Jed has been shot, stabbed, clubbed, axed, macheted, devoured by a wolf (actually, a “she-wolf”), and another time bludgeoned to death by a giant crayon, and has had his arm torn off by a stripper. It’s not for everyone.
As with most subcultures, B-movie gore fans evince an intensity that can make an outsider a little uneasy. Horrorfest brought them out in elaborate splendor. Soon after we arrived, the Marriott was crawling with enthusiasts sporting meat cleavers in their heads or similarly gruesome wounds. They mingled with Stormtroopers and Klingons who had wandered over from the sci-fi convention next door. It’s a cliché to say that something looks like the bar scene from Star Wars, but—no avoiding it—the Marriott bar looked like the bar scene from Star Wars. As we wandered through, Jed was frequently recognized for his role as “Inbred Jed,” the redneck from Zombie Farm, which had premiered there two years before.
The mood of the panel discussions in between screenings was more subdued. Like journalism and domestic auto manufacturing, low-budget horror is being buffeted by forces beyond the current recession. After thriving in the 1970s and ’80s, the B-movie industry went into decline in the ’90s, when Hollywood studios began stealing its audience by emphasizing fantasy, sci-fi, and especially horror. Movies like Saw and Hostel have become major-studio franchises. Whether this is good or bad was a running debate. “The benefit is that established actors are not afraid to go into the genre,” said Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed Paris Hilton (that pillar of establishment Hollywood) in the teen slasher flick House of Wax. On the other hand, a sheer love of craft—an allegiance to authentic B movies—leads many aficionados to reject Hollywood fare for the likes of Zombie Farm. To these fans, Jed is not simply an inbred cannibalistic hick but the noble practitioner of a dying art form.
His own ambitions lie beyond horror, in television and Hollywood movies. “This isn’t a leading-man face,” he remarked over dinner, flashing me a look that would send a child into therapy. “I want to become the next great character actor, like Christopher Lloyd, who is quirky and fun and appears in everything.” Horror offers exposure and a possible path to fame: actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro started out in the low-budget horror films of Roger Corman, the infamous “King of the Bs.”
It’s a hard life. Jed substitute teaches elementary school to get by while he bides his time. His protean talent did recently catch the eye of a good agent, and he’s begun auditioning for television. In the meantime, the festival circuit affords support and a venue for screening the trailer for his latest film, Dahmer vs. Gacy, which will premiere at next year’s Horrorfest. He plays a moronic Army sergeant, with convincing authority. The movie’s tagline could double as a professional zombie’s cri de coeur: “Just shut up and go with it.”