Cleveland indie filmmaker Roger Conners was seven years old when he forced his grandfather to let him watch what would become his favorite movie, George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead.
“It, like, traumatized me,” he laughs. “But that trauma turned into a strong fascination with the genre.”
Years later, the movie that inspired Conners’ love of horror would also inspire the openly gay filmmaker’s directorial debut, Rebirth, in which he also wrote, produced, and starred. The film premiered in 2020 and is slated for further distribution in 2021. A modern retelling of Romero’s film, Rebirth puts a queer spin on the original – recasting the famous role of Barbara, for example, with a gay man played by Conners – with homophobia and right-wing extremism the targets of this update’s social commentary.
The Buckeye Flame chatted with Roger Conners about Cleveland’s indie film community, queer horror, and why—now more than ever—we need to support artists.
As a filmmaker, what draws you to horror?
With horror, you’re trying to provoke fear; even though you aren’t actually being chased by a killer or attacked by a monster, your brain is convinced you are, and I find it interesting how films achieve this effect, depending on the particular way a scene is constructed and handled. I see horror movies as reflective of something ancient and dark about humanity as a species – a certain fascination with death, gore, violence that’s always existed. Horror lets us entertain that mysterious death concept that fascinates us, but fortunately in a way nobody actually gets hurt!
Horror is often a vehicle for queer stories. There’s so much written about queerness in 80s horror movies, for example, like the one Nightmare on Elm Street—
That was Nightmare on Elm Street 2. There is that fabulous Scream Queen documentary out now that talks all about that, which I highly recommend! It’s so gay!
How does your queerness fit into your cinematic vision?
When I really fell into my love of horror in my teens, I was also beginning to explore my sexuality as a queer individual. These two aspects of my identity coaligned for me. I kind of tie my coming out to that queer journey through horror, because a lot of times horror movies have characters who are the outcast, or the antihero, or who have these unique backstories that in the end help them rise up against evil. There’s something about horror movies a lot of queer people relate to – the final girls and misfits. When I started getting involved in Cleveland’s indie film scene, I realized just how huge the queer horror community really was.
How did you get involved?
I grew up acting doing theater in Gordon Square. I love to perform, but it wasn’t stage work I was entranced with as much as acting. So, I randomly auditioned for a local film being shot – Hellementary: Education in Death (2009) – and happened to get cast as one of the leads. That movie was released as a made-for-TV movie on to the Chiller horror network. We didn’t expect our first project to get onto TV – most of these projects don’t – and it opened some doors. I realized this is something I love to do and ran with it.
Where can we find your latest project, Rebirth, and what’s up next?
Rebirth just got picked up for distribution, and will have a national release this summer! I’m very excited. It’s an amazing team of people who worked together to make this happen. I also have another movie that just came out – a slasher with heavy queer themes called Teacher Shortage. Then, in late summer, I’m going to be starting a film called Domestic, which is a darker body horror film with the company Disposable Entertainment.
The pandemic really disrupted the arts industries as galleries, theaters, and music venues shut down. How has the pandemic affected your work?
I would just like to say it is so hard for artists right now. I know people are just aching to create and are feeling stifled. After this pandemic wraps, we are going to have a lot of pent up artistic energy that will need to be vented. I think a lot of beautiful art is going to come out of this. We need to support each other, go see the plays, listen to the music, go to the art showings, and watch the films – and make sure we support each other as we come out of this pandemic.
- On June 4, Rebirth will be released on DVD and various TBA streaming platforms by Midnight Releasing. Watch it!