Zombies invade RiverFest prom

BY LAURA WILLIS | APRIL 14, 2011 7:20 AM

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The prom queen looks like living hell.

A ghost-white foundation covers her face, and blue and black shadows highlight her sleep-deprived eyes. Dark red lipstick is smeared along her cheeks and neck, giving the impression that she has been sprayed with blood.

This haunting look could only be glamorous in one local: The RiverFest Zombie Prom. The event will take place at 10 p.m. Saturday in the IMU Main Lounge. Local Iowa City bands Johnny on Point, Five in a Hand, and Dead Larry will perform. The event features free admission, free food, music, and zombie makeup.

RiverFest is an annual weeklong festival that began in 1978 in Hubbard Park. In its 33rd year, the spring festival is one of the most successful student-organized events on campus. This year, it has refocused on music, hosting a weekend concert festival which organizers hope will provide entertaining events and quality music.

“I thought RiverFest needed some kind of climatic moment,” said KT Hawbaker, the co-music director of RiverFest. “I wanted it to have a big finish. I thought Zombie Prom would do that.”

Hawbaker, along with co-music director Jason Larson, drew inspiration from local rock band Dead Larry and the group of Zombie Girls who occasionally dance onstage with the musicians.

“Dead Larry captures that folksy-rock thing that is so prominent [in Iowa City],” Hawbaker said. “I felt that the bands would really help RiverFest fulfill its mission to bring local music and the community together.”

The Dead Larry performance will have a sentimental touch for the Zombie Girls members; they will remember their group’s founder, Alyssa Baye, who died on March 25 after battling heart problems throughout her life. The 22-year-old West High alumna was an avid lover of her boyfriend and Dead Larry member Joe Scarpellino, as well as live music and anything out of the ordinary.

“She was just into the odd things and went above and beyond in letting people know that she doesn’t care what you think about her,” said Zombie Girl member Alyssa Powills.

In 2008, Baye wanted to do something special for Dead Larry’s New Year’s Eve concert at the Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St. She hoped to find a way to increase the crowd’s energy during the show and thought cheerleaders for the band would do the trick.

“We wanted to get the crowd pumped up and try to get people to get up and dance,” said Zombie Girl member Ali Gruber. “We wanted to let them know that it’s OK to let loose and be weird.”

Baye’s vision wasn’t the stereotypical blond football cheerleader; hers was zombies — a spooky theme that could be easily created and correlated with Dead Larry. Torn-up garments in shades of white and black would be visually appealing. The women were sultry, dancing with burlesque movements, “blood-stained” lips, and dark circles under their eyes.

“We didn’t want to be too flashy or showy, because it’s about the band,” Gruber said. “But we did want to bring the sexy back.”

To their pleasant surprise, a fan following grew. The women kept up the zombie attire during most musical breaks at Dead Larry concerts. At other times, they experimented with costumes. In one memorable show, they resembled Japanese geishas, with white painted faces and ruby-red lips.

When Powills heard about RiverFest’s Zombie Prom, she eagerly e-mailed the rest of the group. She wanted to remember the days as a Zombie Girl again, dancing burlesque in a tattered gown.

“We are going to be showing our spirit to [Baye] on stage,” Powills said.

Besides Baye, the psychedelic band remembers Larry, a man who died without any known relatives or friends. The story of Larry inspired songs, album covers, and a logo for the group.

In 2004, lead singer Mark McGuiness visited his grandparents’ mansion-turned-apartment complex in Clinton. As he was exploring his grandparents’ attic, he found that the room was attached to Larry’s attic and went inside.

“I snuck into his place and found that everything was untouched,” he said. “Nothing had been touched since he had been there.”

To his surprise, McGuiness found clothes from the 1970s, vinyl records, and liquor. He brought the items with him to Iowa City to show his friends. The band members drank Larry’s liquor and started playing music.

“It was our tribute to this old man who died and didn’t have anything,” McGuiness said.

The group’s two full-length albums incorporate Larry’s legacy. In Story Time, the opening song “Story of Dead Larry” explains how the band came to be, with the popular lyrics “the drunken boys in the dead man’s clothes.” A low voice narrates the song, as sounds of creaking noises echo in the background. The cover of the album is a leather-bound book, signifying the beginning of Larry’s tale.

For the cover of its second album, As the Radio, there is an image of the “dead Larry brain” plugged in to a radio, which is said to be transmitting the man’s undead thoughts. The CD is built around the concept of a radio station, making it sound like someone is tuning in and out of different stations and commercials.

Larry and Baye have greatly influenced both the band and Zombie Girls group. It is this relation between the local community and music scene that RiverFest hopes to stress.

“I would like to see the younger crowd that can’t go see acts at bars actually get exposed to live music,” Larson said. “People in their teenage years need to be aware of how much music affects the community.”

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