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Omaha Magazine

The Dead Hour Haunts Omaha

Sep 22, 2023 04:22PM ● By Lisa Lukecart
melissa holder omaha magazine october 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Neon pink, orange, and blue lights strobe above a marquee advertising an all-night Fright Fest movie marathon at the Westwood Cinemas 8 in Omaha, Nebraska. Frankie and Finch wait awkwardly in line to buy tickets. The vibe feels first-date-gone-sour, but horror flicks and salty popcorn break the tension in an unexpected way.  

“This is a buffet of blood, gorge yourself on gore,” a woman wearing bright red lipstick breathes seductively into a microphone from the projection room overhead, her introduction—as DJ Raven—crackling over the theater.  

Zombies, werewolves, and killers literally leap off the screen to terrorize the moviegoers. Frankie and Finch run for their lives, exiting one sinister scenario after another until…

Will the couple perish on a terrible first date? Will they live to see a second? Will they turn into zombies? Flip on Amazon or Tubi to stream the rest of the episode from the anthology, The Dead Hour. 

Series Co-creator Daniel Iske believes shooting the series in Omaha “became a pride thing," which he takes as a “badge of honor.” The director utilized local locations such as farms, cornfields, and dirt roads to craft spooky scenarios, occasionally on his family's land in Springfield, Nebraska. Dead silence, discarded branches, and rusty sheds contribute to the atmosphere where normalcy takes swift detours toward the horrific. 

The premise behind the episodes, written mainly by co-creator Scott Coleman (Iske's high school friend), blends bloody disbelief with societal or psychological commentary. The first episode of season three, “The Hunted,” parodies the classic “The Most Dangerous Game” short story by Richard Connell—twisting it into a modern tale about how businesses regard employees as redundant numbers rather than humans. “Alcoholic Vampire” in the second episode of season one takes a bite into addiction.  

The campy, mind-bending spine-chillers prop themselves up with homegrown talent. The real hair-raiser reflects a low budget, cheap cameras, and a five-person crew during the initial season. All the episodes, though, tie in Melissa Holder (DJ Raven) as the seductively eerie radio host.

“We thought, wow, we could really work with this,” Iske, 43, recalled. 

After auditions, the co-creators wrote in the character of DJ Raven for opening segments to insinuate ominous forebodings, inspired in part by the The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. Holder’s raspy voice transforms to “her sex operator voice” in front of the camera surrounded sometimes by fog or candlelight, showing little more than a sultry side-eye, crimson lipstick, or a bare shoulder. The heavily mascaraed “crypt keeper” knocked down her shots in one night, spanning various locations depending on the season; sets included Iske’s basement, a downtown loft apartment, and an abandoned warehouse. Unlike her persona, Holder never foresaw this moment when she moved from Chino, California as a teenager.

“I’m embarrassed at how stereotypical I thought Nebraska would be…I didn’t think they had any theater,” she said. 

Holder, 41, assumed she would move back to California to further her career but kept finding more and more opportunities in the heartland—whether as an extra in the movie Election (earning $50 for the day while a student at Millard West High School), or at the University of Nebraska Omaha as a theater major performing in a controversial role in Keely and Du. The sixteen-year-old girl partied in the cornfields as an extra in The Dean’s Boy under Iske’s direction in 1999. 

The filmmaker didn’t start off shooting cannibal girls, agoraphobic homeowners, or android brides. Instead, along with his brother, the ten-year-old taped Star Wars action figures and cop chases with his grandfather’s camera. He edited the stories on two VCRs, relishing the storytelling, but not clinching creepiness until another collaboration with Coleman on Fields of Dead (previously known as The Wretched) in 2008.  

“It’s something I didn’t expect, but stumbled into it,” noted the University of Nebraska–Lincoln graduate, with degrees in  film and political science. “I would never call myself a horror fanatic. I don’t pretend to be a horror fanatic, but we have our style and people appreciate our different take on how we approach the episode.” 

Iske and Coleman meet with notebooks in hand, jotting down pitches that often originate as a question. “The Hole” delved into the reasons a retired man might dig a hole in his backyard, a play  on the audience's psyche rather than the visceral reactions common to blood-and-guts slashers.          

The duo started the process in 2009, shooting all three seasons over the span of five years. Word spread through social media after the premiere dropped for free on their website, opening doors to better equipment and bigger casts. “Fright Fest” felt like a full-circle moment, since Iske watched movies as a child at the now closed-down Westwood Cinemas 8 with his grandmother, Regina Miller. The ’80s track lighting provided a perfect backdrop to bring the monstrous creatures to life.  

“We were ahead of our time doing The Dead Hour since streaming wasn’t a huge thing,” Holder asserted. 

California distribution company Terror Films discovered the twelve-episode, three-season anthology series during the pandemic, providing a significant platform outside the website (since taken down as of 2023). Holder streamed the show while snuggled next to her husband and two dogs at midnight on the release date in May. Her daughter Jade, 11, and son Drew, 7, lamented over their father re-watching it  again and again, while stepson Nathan, 21, caught the action later. Iske, who owns Skyline Productions and creates corporate professional videos, thought it a “cool moment” after viewing it with his fifteen-year-old son, Chase. 

Iske still needs to learn the ropes of the streaming process, keeping him too busy to write and direct.  

“Is this a good ending to what we worked really hard on? Or is this a new beginning?” Iske wondered.

Audiences will have to wait and see since season four teeters on a cliffhanger. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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