Zombie Projectionists

'What I'm seeing is twenty-four hour cinema!'

'Great idea, Jim.'

You can imagine them at Head Office; those bastards who get fat on their expense account lunches and never set foot in a real cinema, and certainly never work weekends, or Bank Holidays or Boxing Day or bloody Christmas Day for Christ's sake.

'Great idea.'

'Yeah. If the supermarkets can do it, them so should we. I'm thinking of the average family, shift workers, getting the groceries then nipping in to catch a movie.'

Yes, Mr Marketing Man, that's all you'll ever think of. But I'm thinking of the non-average nutcase; the Travis Bickle wannabes, the strung out addicts, the psychos, drunks and wastrels who'll come in, puke up and sleep while we have to carry on running eight different films for an audience who isn't interested. But that's how it is these days.

Keith is writing a book while we're on shift. He won't show me any of it, but while he's off putting on the next set of shows, I take a look.

Zombies lurch up from the dank earth, spitting out chunks of soil. Worms writhe in their putrid flesh. Their eyeballs are bulging and reddened.

Sounds like your average projectionist these days. We're all earning great money of course, but what's the point when you stagger home and fall into bed exhausted. On my days off I sleep. In a satin-lined coffin. Only joking.

Keith's last epic was about a projectionist who became a vampire. Set in a cinema of course, but not one of these soulless multiplexes. Hey - that's good. A soulless building as habitation for the undead. Maybe I should mention it to him but then he'll guess I've been reading his stuff, and then he'll go into a sulk and slope off to the water tank room, where he sits in semi-darkness scribbling away.

Anyway, this story took place in one of the good old cinemas; a nineteen-thirties dream house that years of neglect and decay had turned into a nightmare. I remember them well. Like most of us, I started in the business in the seventies, during the decline, when everyone said it was dying and predicted it's extinction within ten years. I started in an old Gaumont, a vast cavern of a place whose stalls seated over a thousand, and whose circle, abandoned to the rats, took about another eight hundred. It smelled damp. The plush of the seats had worn smooth. The carpet was black and sticky from years of spilled drinks. The projection equipment looked like something out of Frankenstein's laboratory; mercury arc rectifiers whose trapped denizen danced in a violet pool. Big switches that sparked whenever the house lights dimmed. Ancient projectors with the streamlined, swoopy styling of the nineteen fifties. Valve amplifiers that heated the box up nicely, and which would respond to a poke with a broom handle when the sound faded away completely. I loved it. I was lost from the moment I first set foot in the place.

My family thought I was mad. Maybe I was, but it was a glorious madness. The chief projectionist was an old man who took a pride in his job, despite everything. When he'd gone into the box as a rewind boy, aged fourteen, things had been very different. Uniformed commissionaires put out the house full signs every night. Crowds of people queued round the block, in grainy black and white, all wearing hats. And in the box there were seven men, each with his own responsibility. The chief was God. The manager was higher than God. If you mis-timed a changeover you lost threepence from your wages; if you got a rack on screen, sixpence. And if you lost a show, the ultimate dishonour, you committed ritual suicide.

Even in the bad days of the seventies, Bill had not forgotten the old standards. No matter what happened, the show must go on.

'Remember,' he said. 'If the punters ever notice we're here, we're doing something wrong.'

He taught me well. I never put a rack on screen, never lost a show. But all our best efforts couldn't compete against the harsh realities of maintaining a building long past its sell-by date. The Gaumont closed in the autumn of nineteen eighty.

Bill retired. I stayed on, moving to a triple ten miles away, and rose through the ranks faster than anyone would have done in his day. Five years later I was a chief. Coincidentally, nineteen eighty five was the turnaround year; the year the Americans opened the first ever multiplex in Milton Keynes.

Initially, the other companies fought back, but they couldn't compete. The old buildings were sub divided again and again, transformed into monstrosities with six screens, victims of experimental surgery that never quite worked. They were hellish to run, up and down all those stairs too. But they still retained a certain character. They still had the magic, even though the ornate plasterwork and antique lightboxes might be concealed behind plasterboard panelling. In the box (especially the top box - the old, original projection box) you had a feeling of continuity with your predecessors. And because the soundproofing wasn't all it should be, when you started a feature (full Fox opening, eight on the fader) you'd hear the audience cheer, clap and drum their feet on the boards. It was still cinema.

In nineteen ninety, they built the new multiplex, and we moved over. At first it was great. Everything worked - kind of - and it was clean, new and spacious. The box - or booth as the Americans call it - was a great long corridor with projectors and gleaming platters on either side. Film lay like giant liquorice allsorts on horizontal platters. Others were stacked against the walls in the manner of discarded tyres. And audiences came back in droves.

Then they started piling more and more work on to us. One week we showed twenty four different films in our eight screens. It became more and more like a production line - fast food cinema. Shovel the customers in with an overpriced tub of popcorn and a bucket of soft drink. Slap it on screen - they don't know any different these days. And our projection room let no audience feedback break through its smooth grey walls. The audience could all be dead and you'd not know it.

Where's Keith got to, I wonder? Should have been back by now. Still, no projectionist to give any flourishes to the presentation anyway. In our air-conditioned soundproof room, no alarms have gone off, so I assume he's all right out there.

We've always opened at weekends, but now we have Saturday morning shows and late nighters. And whereas in the old days we never opened on Boxing Day, that crept in too. Firstly just for a couple of hours, then all day. And last year, they finally got a licence to open on Christmas Day itself. You ought to have seen the sad bastards who came out. Feuding families, Christmas haters, nutcases. And none of the Head Office prats took any less than their customary week off.

I'm sick of it. This isn't the business I loved. It isn't what cinema's about. The world has changed, and I am stuck somewhere in a vast auditorium; the shadowed ceiling lost above us, watching a horror movie in the closed circle with a gaggle of usherettes who peered from behind their fingers, and huddled closer as the rats scampered to and fro.

The phone rings. I can tell from the space invaders type tone that it's an internal call.

'Stop the film in screen three.' The manager sounds scared. Is it another bomb hoax, or some nutter saying he's poisoned the popcorn.

'Why? Is there a problem?'

'Just stop it.'

I hurry to the projector and shut it down, muting the sound. The air conditioning blows a cold draught down my back. Where the hell has Keith got to - this is his screen, and he should be taking care of it.

The lights raise slowly. I see movement. I see people huddled together. I see the glistening wet stain on the white screen, like an abstract painting. Damn it. That'll take some cleaning.

Then as the lights reach their full intensity, I see him. He's all covered with the same stuff. It's on his face, his hands. He's smiling, licking his lips as everyone cowers away.

I realise three things at once. It's Keith. It's blood. It's not his blood.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum.