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Zombie culinary enlightenment?

Horror goes gastronomic at Madrid’s Nocturna Fantastic Film Festival

'Meteletsa, Winter of the Dead' director Nikolai Pigarev and production designer Irina Surikova.
'Meteletsa, Winter of the Dead' director Nikolai Pigarev and production designer Irina Surikova.

The two fashionable young women were sitting at the table over lunch at a popular restaurant, thoroughly engrossed in their conversation. It’s a scene that’s been played out many times, both in real life and on film. This everyday event might have gone unnoticed except for the fact that, as they talked, they were using spoons to scoop the brains out of two lamb’s heads (complete with eyes).

Was this scene in a horror film, or something I witnessed at a hip restaurant in the center of Madrid not too long ago? It could be either, really. More likely it’s both — when horror and dining collide, as they have this week with the celebration of the city’s first film festival dedicated to the terrifying world of fantasy, sci-fi, terror and yes, brains... lots of brains.

The Nocturna Fantastic Film Festival kicked off this past Monday, June 3 at the city’s elegant Cines Palafox, and will run through Sunday, June 9. The featured films, both in and out of the official competition, are from all over the world, divided into categories with names like Dark Visions and Madness. They represent a range of terrifying genres that are rife with themes of evil, death, mayhem, possession, blood and food.

The latter should come as no surprise, given that food and talking about food have now infiltrated every aspect of our culture. And speaking of things that have permeated our culture in recent years... yes, that’s right, zombies. If film lore has taught us nothing else, it’s that zombies’ actions are purely motivated by the search for the next meal (rather like me on vacation). Nocturna of course has its fair share of this particular brand of the undead, with films including A Little Bit Zombie (Canada, 2012), GallowWalkers (USA/UK 2012), Detention of the Dead (USA, 2012), Zombibi (Netherlands, 2012), and Meteletsa, Winter of the Dead (Russia, 2012).

Food is always more satisfying when you catch it yourself"

Fortunately, both the festival, which according to Nocturna Coordinator Sergio Molina has enjoyed outstanding attendance over the past few days, and the zombies seemed to have made the right choice in coming to Madrid. After all, one of this city’s most significant gastronomic traditions is that of casquería, or organ meat, in all of its many forms: liver, testicles, tripe, sweetbreads, kidneys, heart, blood, feet, ear, tongue, cheek, lungs and brains. Madrid’s casquería, turned into such iconic dishes as callos a la madrileña (cow tripe stewed with tomato and Spanish paprika), gallinejas (fried lamb tripe), and mollejas (sweetbreads that are often breaded and fried), represents an enduring culinary tradition that continues to thrive, particularly during winter months and the San Isidro Festival in the spring.

Nikolai Pigarev, the writer and director of Meteletsa, Winter of the Dead, had no idea about this culinary tradition when he arrived in Madrid on Monday to present his film, the first-ever Russian zombie movie: “I thought we were going to get to eat churros.” His project was completely self-financed and filmed with the help of some 200 extras who had never acted before, let alone been covered in blood and told to eat one another. Pigarev has a hard time believing that even in a city known for its casquería, his zombies could find some sort of culinary enlightenment.

“In the film’s universe, zombies are always hungry for humans. However, food does have to be fresh and smell good to them, so I guess that does make them gourmets in a way,” Pigarev notes, adding: “Food is always more satisfying when you catch it yourself. Then again, zombies’ [hunger] can’t ever be satisfied, so it’s a real Catch-22.”

Carmen Arias, who has been preparing traditional casquería dishes for many years at family-run Madrid restaurant Casa Ricardo, disagrees. “There is no way that even a zombie could still be hungry after eating a whole plate of my callos a la madrileña. They are very filling.” Of course, if a zombie were to opt for the sesos (brains) at Casa Ricardo, they would be served rebozados (traditionally dusted with flour and fried).

There is no way a zombie could still be hungry after a whole plate of my tripe"

Zombies are not the only hungry monsters on hand at Nocturna this week. The Spanish film Omnívoros (2013), which premiered at the festival, tells the chilling tale of a restaurant critic who delves into the underground restaurant scene, only to come across a ring of murderous cannibals who dine on attractive people. With food as the film’s central argument, director Óscar Rojo presents a parallel world where even the most luxurious of dishes — potentially deathly fugu (pufferfish), or caviar that comes in a 24-carat gold box and costs 25,000 euros a kilo — are derided: “There was too much fugu [on that salad].” And the über rich chat casually about inflation when debating the price of a fresh human sirloin: “Meat prices have really skyrocketed, but I suppose it’s better to pay a little extra than have to become vegetarian.”

Despite the ghastly premise of the film, Rojo comments that his real intention was not to talk about cannibalism, but rather to tell the story of “regular people doing reprehensible things.”

Even so, obsessive foodies might appreciate knowing that the scene depicting close-up shots of a rare-cooked loin was the result of the director’s strictly academic research into meat cooking techniques: “It’s the same as for pork: brown on each side, then finish in the oven until pink in the center.” Actress Sara Gómez adds that research into her character, an investigative reporter named Carla, suggests that “legs are the best.” Welcome to Nocturna, folks!

As the week of terror winds to a close this weekend, there are still questions of a culinary nature begging to be answered within the framework of the fantastic film genre. Anticipating Director Joe Dante’s Saturday afternoon showing of his iconic film, Gremlins (1984), one burning question is: “If gremlins can’t drink water, what DO they drink?” My guess is vermut.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
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