One of the best things about Austin is its film culture, spurred in no small part by the Alamo Drafthouse. And among all of the Alamo’s offerings, Video Vortex is by far my favorite. It’s a video series that “unearths ultra-obscure, ultra-bizarre movies from the fringes of the universe,” and it’s exactly as weird as it sounds. I spoke with Joe Ziemba, Director of AGFA and Genre Programming and Promotions for the Alamo Drafthouse, about this strange and delightful series.
TODO Austin: What is Video Vortex?
Joe Ziemba: Video Vortex launched in January of 2014. The initial brainstorming for the direction of the series was a collaboration between myself and my colleagues Laird Jimenez, Tommy Swenson, and Cristina Cacioppo. The goal was to create a showcase series for movies that were made directly for — or only released on — VHS. Early on were trying out all sorts of crazy titles, with the only criterion being that we loved the movies. The same monthly title screens at every Alamo across the country. I took over the series after the first few months, since this particular sub-genre is basically something I’ve devoted my life to.
Why VHS films?
My personal relationship with VHS goes hand-in-hand with BLEEDING SKULL!, a site I created in 2004 that turned into a book in 2013 (BLEEDING SKULL! A 1980s TRASH-HORROR ODYSSEY), and then a video label in collaboration with Mondo in 2015. I started seriously collecting VHS when I was touring in bands during the late 90s and early 2000s. The movies appeal to me because they’re so personal, raw, and uninhibited. Many of these films are bee-lines into the unhinged creativity of D.I.Y. filmmakers who have a do-or-die attitude about making movies. This is what they do, regardless of the resources at hand. That’s inspiring and beautiful to me. For the most part, it seems that the Video Vortex audiences in Austin share that sense of discovery. It’s like we’re seeing something forbidden and secret together. These are movies that 99% of the world’s population have never heard of, and people still show up to the screenings. That’s what makes Video Vortex so special to me.
How do you find and select the films for the screenings?
At this point, I do all of the programming, but I lean on my colleagues, friends, and girlfriend for advice and feedback. It’s an ultra-obsessive process that is fueled by joy. I put myself in the place of people in the audience and think about what they might like to see. I let my passion guide my choices, but keep in mind that the audience is who I need to please. I want VV to always feel fresh and comfortable for the audience that we’ve built up over the past few years. I never want it to end.
My top five personal favorites in no particular order would be ZOMBIE ’90: EXTREME PESTILENCE, DROID, BAD MAGIC, AMERICAN COMMANDO NINJA, and W.A.V.E’S MOST GRUESOME HITS, which was a 70-minute compilation that I edited together from a dozen mail-order-horror tapes by W.A.V.E. Productions. All of these screenings had elements of fun, discovery, and a “what-the-fuck-am-I-looking-at” feeling for the audience, which pretty much sums up why Video Vortex exists. There are definitely titles that I’d love to show –like ALIEN BEASTS, VIOLENT SHIT, and SATAN WAR – but probably won’t, just because they’re not fit for human audiences.
Where can people find Video Vortex?
We’ve at the Alamo South Lamar. There isn’t a set day for each month, but the shows are always on Sundays. On December 11th, we’re screening THE BRAIN. That movie is about a giant mutant brain that terrorizes Canadians at Christmastime.