Even if you don’t live in Austin, chances are you’re well aware of the passionate film culture of the city, from the multiple Drafthouses to longstanding video rental landmarks like Vulcan to the myriad film festivals. But you might be unaware that the city also houses one of the most important preservation resources in cinema, the American Genre Film Archive. Established in 2009 by an “international band of movie enthusiasts,” the AGFA has quietly been working at archiving some of the weirder, rarer works in the underground. But now the AGFA has launched an IndieGoGo campaign to finance its first digital archiving venture, specifically the extremely rare film The Astrologer. We spoke with Joe Ziemba, a longtime film fanatic who is part of the American Genre Film Archive and also works for the Alamo Drafthouse.
You recently joined up with the Drafthouse as a programmer. Am I right in assuming your cult film site Bleeding Skull got you on their radar?
Yeah! I’ve been with the Alamo for a year and a half. I have two jobs — art director and film programmer. Art direction takes up most of my time, but I love both roles equally. Technically, Bleeding Skull got me on the radar in general. But my friendship with Zack Carlson sealed the deal overall. He approached me about moving to Austin and working for the Drafthouse. I’m very grateful to be here.
Obviously your passion for “80s trash horror” makes you a natural fit for the Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesday night, which you now host, but was that a automatic part of your new job or did you have to campaign for it?
Two weeks after I started working at the Alamo, Zack asked me if I would be interested in taking over Terror Tuesday. He was moving on to production work and needed someone to continue the series. After being a fan of both Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday for years from afar, I didn’t have to think about it. I was honored.
When you took on the job, were you already aware of the American Genre Film Archive and its connection to the series?
Yeah, but vaguely. I knew of AGFA, but had no idea how insanely great the collection was. The first time I walked into the archive, I didn’t want to leave. It was incredible.
The IndieGoGo page mentions that one of the most immediate missions for the AGFA is making digital copies of certain prints in the collection. What is the process for that? Are the digital conversions done strictly by rareness or is there also consideration for potential commercial interest in the films?
Commercial potential is not a goal. No one’s going to make money off of a DCP of Sinner’s Blood. But movies like Sinner’s Blood are important to us. If we love them, there’s a chance that other people in the world will also love them. We want people to see these movies. We like it when movies make people happy. Some of the rarer, one-of-a-kind prints in the archive are rapidly degrading. The next best thing to preserving that actual print is preserving a hi-rez digital version of that print. So that’s our mindset.
The first film that will be receiving this treatment is Craig Denny’s The Astrologer. Why choose that film first?
In terms of obscure exploitation, The Astrologer is a real anomaly. Not only has it never been released on home video on any format, but it’s actually a good movie. It’s part exploitation, part cinéma vérité, and all weird. Plus we’ve got the only known print in existence, so we don’t want it to suddenly fall apart before we have a chance to save the movie.
I know AGFA fosters academic relationships by loaning prints out, but is there the potential for AGFA to do seminars and critical events around these films, either through Fantastic Fest or other events?
Absolutely. That’s something we’d like to do for each film restoration — play it for as many people as possible.
Your site Bleeding Skull specializes in covering the VHS era of horror and it seems like the current generation has a healthy appreciation of VHS (as the Drafthouse connected documentary Rewind This! shows). Do you think people have a harder time having a personal connection to reels of film since they’re not an item regular consumers typically own?
Not at all. Ultimately, it’s about the movies. To me, format is inconsequential. I just want to see the movie. VHS definitely has an extra level of “collectibility” given the relatively cheap nature of collecting. But at the end of the day, it’s about watching movies and having fun.
Last week, I actually got to see your presentation of Hide and Go Shriek, a pretty crazy horror film that you mentioned never actually had a theatrical release. Are there any other films in the archive that you’d like to “premier” through Terror Tuesday? What are some of the gems in the collection you’re most impressed with?
Cool! Glad you made it out! That was a fun show. Hide and Go Shriek didn’t come from AGFA. But there are TONS of equally rare titles in the collection that I’ve played in the last year that have blown my mind. Like all-time favorites that I couldn’t believe existed on 35mm. Another Son of Sam, Meatcleaver Massacre, Mardi Gras Massacre, the list goes on. We also have a print of Doris Wishman’s “lost” Satan was a Lady. But it’s hardcore. So none of us have watched it yet. Here’s to the future!
There are still a few days left to contribute to the IndieGoGo campaign for AGFA, and some fantastic rewards are still available, like a chance to program Tough Guy Cinema or have your own private Drafthouse movie party. And if you’re in Austin tomorrow night, be sure to check out the Beast of Yucca Flats/Conrad Brooks vs. the Werewolf double header Joe is hosting.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends on twitter: @Nick_Hanover