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Magazine of the Living Dead: The bloody rise and frightful fall of Fangoria

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Fangoria Entertainment

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James Gunn is now one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers thanks to his overseeing of the two Guardians of the Galaxy films. But Gunn’s first movie, the horror-comedy Slither, nearly killed his directing career before it had really begun. Released in March 2006, this tale of a small town cop (Nathan Fillion) facing off against a local car dealer (Michael Rooker) who has been infected by an alien parasite placed a lowly eighth at the box office over its opening weekend. There was a silver lining for Gunn, however, and it was provided by the monthly horror magazine Fangoria. The publication not only put Rooker’s grotesquely made-up visage on the cover but later awarded Slither its “Highest Body Count” trophy at Fangoria‘s annual Chainsaw Awards, a televised event at Los Angeles’s Orpheum Theater which Gunn himself attended. “I don’t really collect articles or covers,” says the director. “But I do have my Fangoria cover up in my office. Fangoria was a huge magazine to me growing up.”

There is every chance you have never picked up a copy of Fangoria. You may have never heard of the title before now. But it is hard to overestimate the New York-based magazine’s importance to the horror genre. The title boasts on its cover that Fangoria has been “First in Fright since 1979.” The truth is that for much of its life-span — and in particular during the pre-Internet age — the magazine was pretty much the only source of in-depth information about a type of film most media outlets considered too disreputable to cover. The magazine turned directors like David Cronenberg and Sam Raimi into genre stars while helping inspire Fangoria-reading Hollywood hopefuls such as Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, and future Hostel filmmaker, Eli Roth. “For anyone that was a VHS kid in the ’80s, bingeing on horror films, the only source of information we had was Fangoria,” says Roth.

Alas, it is possible that the next generation of horror hounds will be learning about new films or classic releases elsewhere. Although Fangoria has not officially closed, and articles continue to appear on its website, no new edition of the title has been published since camp horror icon Elvira graced the cover of issue #344 in the fall of 2015. Tony Timpone, who was the magazine’s editor-in-chief from 1986 to 2010, says the apparent demise of the title has hit longtime readers hard. “It’s a great crowd, the Fangoria fans,” he explains. “They were very dedicated to the magazine and they’re heartbroken to not have it to hold in their hands anymore.” Those fans include director David F. Sandberg, who had a huge hit with his debut film, 2016’s Lights Out, and then found more success with this year’s Conjuring universe prequel, Annabelle: Creation. “I’m so sad they’re not around any more,” says the Swede. “My dream was to have a movie featured in Fangoria, you know — and now that magazine doesn’t exist any more.”

Fangoria Entertainment

Fangoria was the brainchild of independent publishers Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs, who put out the science-fiction and fantasy magazine Starlog through their company, Starlog Group, Inc. The pair planned to premiere a new title which would cover much the same ground, but with an emphasis on monsters. Fangoria No. 1 hit newsstands in 1979 with Godzilla on the cover. Yet it was an article showcasing special effects wizard Tom Savini (George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) which proved particularly popular with readers and acted as a gore-splattered signpost for the title’s future direction. “Seventy-nine was the year that horror became mainstream again with Alien,” says Michael Gingold, who, as a 12-year-old, bought the first issue of Fangoria and would go on to become the magazine’s managing editor as well as one of its most prolific writers. “They found that the horror articles were the most popular in the magazine, so they gravitated more and more towards that.”

Before long, early cover stars like Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (issue No. 4) and the Star Wars robots C-3PO and R2D2 (issue No. 6) were being superseded by Jack Nicholson in The Shining (issue No. 7), a maggot-covered ghoul from director Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (issue No. 8) and a chainsaw-wielding, pig mask-wearing maniac from Motel Hell who graced the magazine’s 9th issue. “I used to save up any money I made from selling baseball cards to buy back issues,” says Roth. “The holy grail was Fango No. 9, which had the Motel Hell ‘chainsaw-pig’ on the cover. I don’t know why — but that was the most expensive one.”

Fangoria Entertainment

The magazine debuted the year after the release of director John Carpenter’s original Halloween and the year before the first Friday the 13th movie. Fangoria rapidly established itself as the place to learn about the burgeoning slasher genre and its homicidal villains Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, the latter of whom began terrorizing onscreen teens in Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street. “The slasher stalwarts were our bread and butter in the 1980s,” says Timpone. “When I joined the company in ’85, that was right when Freddy Krueger was dawning in popularity, and Fangoria‘s circulation just went through the roof. The magazine had a real heyday.”

It also had clout. Fangoria was an early booster of Sam Raimi’s franchise-inaugurating Evil Dead with editor Bob Martin writing a piece about the micro-budgeted and yet-to-be-released first film in the Nov. 1982 issue. The film’s star, Bruce Campbell, believes the article played a “huge” role in turning the film into a hit. “Fangoria mattered,” says Campbell. “It was like, s—, we got an article in Fangoria! They were very important.”

In 1985, the magazine partnered with convention organizers Creation Entertainment and launched a long-running series of events, called Fangoria‘s Weekend of Horrors. “The conventions were just amazing,” says Timpone. “I got to meet all my horror heroes. Vincent Price, Christopher Lee. Jack Nicholson was at a convention in Los Angeles and I got to introduce him. That was a real thrill.” The conventions helped publicize upcoming releases by hosting panels attended by the movie’s talent during which clips from the film would be premiered to attendees. Hmm, that sounds familiar. “I don’t know when exactly Comic-Con became more oriented towards film than comics but, yeah, we were [ahead of the game],” says Gingold. “Of course, we were the proto-horror convention. Now, there’s a convention practically every weekend somewhere in the U.S.”

Fangoria Entertainment

The Chainsaw Awards began in 1992. Early ceremonies were notable for the lack of attending winners. “The first year, Silence of the Lambs won everything and we didn’t get anybody from that, obviously,” laughs Gingold. “Second year, Bram Stoker’s Dracula won everything — didn’t get too many of them either. Third year, Army of Darkness (the Evil Dead threequel) won, so Sam, and Bruce, and everybody showed up for that, which was great.”

For a few years, Fangoria actually produced movies, starting with 1990’s low budget Mindwarp, starring reader favorites Campbell and Angus Scrimm, from the Phantasm horror franchise. “It was a post-apocalyptic Jeremiah Johnson movie,” says Campbell. “I thought, Okay, this is cool, Fangoria is getting into the movie business.” Mindwarp did not achieve Evil Dead-level success and Fangoria Films was shut down just a few years later, which meant Fangoria missed out on the opportunity to produce an early screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. “I did some script-reading for what would have been the second round [of Fangoria productions],” says Gingold. “One of those scripts was From Dusk Til Dawn. It was interesting to see that take off later.”

While Fangoria itself may not have had success making movies, the title proved inspirational, and of practical use, to a host of future directors. “They had this feature, ‘Notes from the Underground,’ where these indie filmmakers would write about their experiences making low budget horror,” says Annabelle: Creation director Sandberg. “That was super-interesting to me, who wanted to make my own horror movies.”

Fangoria also helped filmmakers by continuing to highlight the work of special effects artists, like Savini and Rob Bottin (The Thing). “Essentially, it was a manual, if you wanted to be a special effects magician,” says Roth. “I would read the recipes for fake blood. I learned about latex. I learned all about makeup. I’ll never forget reading about a movie called The Mutilator, where they had this photo of this body ripped in half. When I made Cabin Fever, I ripped my character in half to try and replicate that photograph.” Roth’s devotion was rewarded when Timpone put Cabin Fever on the cover of Fangoria No. 224 in the summer of 2003. “All my 12-year-old-self ever wanted, was to be on the cover of Fangoria,” he says. “To me, that was better than winning an Oscar.”

Fangoria Entertainment

The Cabin Fever cover was a typically gruesome affair, which showed the face of actress Jordan Ladd eaten away by the film’s flesh-consuming virus. But Timpone recalls that it was sex and bad language rather than gore which caused problems for the title. “I ran a photo from a movie called Breeders,” he says. “These women were covered in this alien slime but one of their nipples was visible and I got in trouble for running nudity in the magazine. Another time, it was a quote from a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, where Freddy says to Zsa Zsa Gabor, ‘Who gives a f— what you think?’ Our writer put that in the article, so we got thrown off some newsstands for dropping the f-bomb.”

Another problem for the title was studios’ reluctance to give the magazine images of their monsters and slasher villains. “Sometimes studios did not want to show the monster on the cover — or anywhere,” says Gingold. “They wouldn’t get us the photos. Dimension Films used to be awful about that. We covered Halloween 6 and they would not send us any photos of Michael Myers, because they wanted to preserve the mystique of a character who had already been in five other films.”

Timpone stepped down as editor-in-chief in 2010, by which time the title’s fortunes were being negatively affected by the rise of rival horror websites. “There was a day when we were the only guys visiting the set of a horror movie,” says Timpone. “When the internet came along, we’d wind up getting lumped in with six or seven horror websites, all getting the same material.”

Being featured in Fangoria still meant the world to many readers-turned-filmmakers and could make a big difference to their careers. Mike Flanagan’s genre credits over the past few years include the haunted mirror movie Oculus, the horror sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil, and the recent Stephen King adaptation, Gerald’s Game. But the filmmaker says he might not have made any of those movies without Fangoria’s support for his 2011 film, Absentia. “I owe a lot of my career to Fangoria,” he says. “They really championed Absentia and I’m not sure that I would have gotten the traction necessary to make Oculus if they hadn’t.”

Fangoria Entertainment

Timpone’s replacement, Chris Alexander remained editor-in-chief for five years — a tenure which included an issue guest-edited by Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller —  before he was succeeded by Gingold. The Fangoria veteran survived just seven months before being let go by the title’s current owner, Tom DeFeo, in May of last year. “I only edited two [issues] and they were only digital,” he says. “By that point the company was in pretty bad financial shape.” Gingold is a much-liked figure in the horror scene and his firing prompted director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy) to tweet “Fangoria will never be the same w/o him.”

Gingold was replaced by writer Ken Hanley but his tenure proved equally short-lived. On Feb. 11 of this year, Hanley wrote on Twitter that he was no longer involved with the magazine and that “there will likely never be another issue of Fangoria, especially in print, unless there’s new ownership.” Hanley’s message prompted sadness in the horror community but not much surprise, given the magazine’s continued absence from shelves and allegations that the title was becoming delinquent in its payments to contributors. Two days later, however, an item appeared on the Fangoria website which explained that a lack of advertising revenue had caused the stall in publishing but insisted “we’ll continue trying to conquer the uphill battle to restore our print issues that our fans urgently long for.” The piece further promised, “we will be working endlessly to make good on any funds owed…for articles written.” The article also contained an official statement from Fangoria owner DeFeo in which he thanked readers for their patience as the magazine dealt with its “internal issues.” (DeFeo declined to be interviewed for this article.)

So, is the print version of Fangoria dead? Maybe. Then again, in horror, things do have a habit of returning from the grave. “I go to Barnes and Noble and the newsstand is overflowing with film magazines, and genre magazines,” says Timpone. “It could be reborn. It really needs a new management, a new editorial team, a budget. I really think that there’s still life in the old corpse!”