Consorting with robots and zombies

What do you get when you put together robots, zombies and comic books?

How about a film festival?

The Graphation Film Festival showcased a selection of short films about zombies, robots, robot-like humans, zombie-like mummies and other life-forms on the fringes of society last month.

Thanks to Carnegie Mellon grad and former Pittsburgh resident George A. Romero, zombies are closely identified with Steeltown, so close-by suburban Oakmont’s Oaks Theater was the perfect venue to celebrate the not-quite-alive.

The festival followed a similar event organizers Andrew McGregor and Josiah Golojuh hosted in the Los Angeles area. The idea: promote new filmmakers and adapt their works into comic books – a twist on the current Hollywood idea of taking comics and turning them into movies.

There’s a lot of talent out there, said Golojuh, and Graphation is simply trying to get filmmakers some exposure. (McGregor and Golojuh, filmmakers who met at the University of Southern California, aren’t averse to a little exposure themselves.)

“We want to create awareness for these filmmakers,” he said. “They’ve sweated and bled over their works, and we want to let people see them.”

Some of the shorts have earned recognition and awards at other festivals – Jesse Griffith’s “Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement,” starring “RoboCop’s” Ronny Cox, is an audience favorite – and many are available online, but more exposure never hurts.

Among the festival’s highlights were “The Curse,”  a love story between a mummy and archeologist told with marionettes and backed by Josh Ritter’s wistful music; “The Man Who Knew How to Fly,”  a stylized story about a 1920s office drone based on a story by Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”); “The Machine,”  an ominous parable with Terry Gilliam-esque touches about a power-mad robot; and “Goodsam and Max,”  which manages to combine elements of “Mad Max,” “A Boy and His Dog,” old Westerns and black comedy in creating the tale of a hot babe and her cigar-chewing teddy bear in pursuit of “rats.”

Not all the films were fiction. “Nobody Dies When It’s Sunny,”  a documentary by Niles Harrison, follows around a mortuary driver as he picks up bodies – at least one of which he recognizes from his days as a drug addict; and Jonathan Minard’s “Moonrush,”  a work-in-progress, chronicles the progress in sending a privately funded mission to the moon and focuses on roboticist Red Whittaker.

Though many Hollywood films look at robots as malevolent forces – with zombies rating even lower - “Moonrush” director Minard is more optimistic about the future.

“They’ll be part of our everyday lives,” even more so than they are now, he said, only growing more social with time.

Exhibit A for robot sociability was a live performance by roboticist Heather Knight and her pal Data, a robot that has been programmed to tell jokes and – to the delight of the Oakmont audience – danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Knight founded the Robot Film Festival, which brought the robot-themed films to Pittsburgh.

McGregor, dressed nattily in a bright, swirly-patterned French-cuffed shirt and plaid vest, believes that robots, zombies and humans can live together in peace. Robots, in particular, don’t have to be fearsome overlords; they can be useful tools, able to assist the elderly or go places we can’t.

“Technology is only limited by people’s imaginations,” he said.