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Arts & Entertainment

Finding The Church: New Documentary Dives Into the Longstanding Lizard Lounge Goth Night

The Church is more than a weekly event, it is a gathering place that attracts attendees from across the globe. A new documentary, premiering this week at DIFF, makes its case.

Director Timothy Stevens remembers when he found The Church.

In 2010, Stevens had just moved to town from Amarillo to attend the University of North Texas’ film school. The Gorehounds were playing a show at The Church, the dark alter ego of the Lizard Lounge on Swiss Avenue where Dallas’ goth-industrial music lovers and personalities sought acceptance on Sundays.  

“I hung with a really small goth crowd, and we gleaned all of our goth culture from the Internet but there wasn’t a lot of information,” Stevens says. “It became a transformational thing for me to see all these people dressed elaborately and exposed me to a lot more music genres than I’d ever known before.”  

Stevens shares a story with thousands of others who discovered the darker corner of the once mighty Lizard Lounge on the edge of Deep Ellum. It even outlived its home base and now creates converts and welcomes its regulars at the It’ll Do Club.  

“It’s the place where you can go and be accepted,” says Don Nedler, the Lizard Lounge’s owner and founder, “where no one’s going to judge you.”  

There are so many stories from The Church’s visitors that Stevens has compiled them in a new crowdfunded documentary called Dark Sanctuary: The Story of The Church. The film premieres on Sunday at the Violet Crown theater as part of the Dallas International Film Festival.  

Stevens says the idea for a documentary about The Church first came to him during a phone call with Austin Hayes, a regular patron of The Church who became one of the film’s producers.  

“At the time I was making another film, actually my first feature,” Stevens says, “and my first thought was someone should do that.”  

Lizard Lounge closed in 2020, its revenue cratering during the pandemic shutdowns. Stevens, concerned about the future of the weekly event, thought back to his conversation with Hayes and figured he should be the filmmaker to make The Church documentary.  

“This is an icon of Dallas history that stands on the edge of being lost and someone needs to document this,” Stevens says. “I decided my experience at The Church was very unique and the story that I would want to tell would focus on the community and how it gave them life and saved lives. A lot of these people who felt lost, [The Church] gave them a sense of commonality and community.”  

Nedler first based The Church on a club concept of the same name in Miami in 1994. The afterhours club had a “very 80s driven music concept” that blended new industrial music from bands like Skinny Puppy, The Cure, and Nine Inch Nails. The club’s creators, Carlos Menendez and Frank Morales, gave Nedler permission to bring a new incarnation of The Church to Dallas. 

The Sunday night club concept helped pay the Lizard Lounge’s rent for years. 

“The Lizard Lounge never would’ve survived for 30 years without The Church,” Nedler says. “It was that night we needed to keep our doors open. People thought The Church lived on because of the Lizard Lounge. It was the other way around.” 

Four years later, DJ, songwriter, and Church patron Joe Virus started spinning records for the Sunday night crowd at the Lizard Lounge. He constantly pushed for the gathering to explore music far outside of the mainstream goth fare even before he was programming the music. 

“I was hanging out there probably since the first year it was open as The Church,” Virus says. “Every night, I’d go in there and hear the same music being played. I’d go up to Leo [Del Hierro], who was the manager, and say, ‘If you want a real DJ from the goth scene, give me a call.’” 

The Church hired Virus as a DJ and first stationed him in the small video bar room where he had “free rein to do whatever I wanted,” Virus says. 

“Don called me up to the office one day and said, ‘What the hell are you playing?’” Virus says. “I’m like, ‘I’m playing industrial and gothic music’ and he’s like, ‘I haven’t heard anything familiar at all’ and these were what they were playing in New York or Berlin. The crowd is going to be into everything. You’ve got to ease them into it.” 

The following year, Virus became The Church’s DJ and the venue’s music director. If The Church was a canvas, then Virus was the brush that shaped its ultimate style and vision. 

“[Virus] was able to introduce new music into the concept and people embraced it,” Nedler says. “That’s what enabled The Church to survive over the years. It was in a constant state of evolution.” 

A documentary about The Church would be incomplete without focusing on Virus’ influence. Stevens took it one step further by hiring Virus to write the score and soundtrack for his film. Just like the trajectory at The Church, Virus’ role in the film expanded and shaped the sound of the Dark Shadows doc. He ended up creating 75 new tracks for the movie over six months. 

“In a film, you’ve got a long-playing scene that just sits there and plays for a while,” Virus says. “In a documentary, everything changes every 15 to 30 seconds.”

The Church became more than just a Dallas institution for the goth and EDM crowd. It attracted people from other countries and even some very famous humans who were attracted to the sounds and scene it was constantly shaping. 

“Madonna wanted to purchase the club at one point,” Stevens says. “She came in with her significant other at the time, which was Dennis Rodman, and they cold dropped in on the club and made a proposal to purchase the club. Don and Rodman did eventually worked out a deal, but the deal fell apart.” 

The Church’s notoriety and the reverence shared by its regulars helped carry it for more than 30 years, even after the Lizard Lounge closed in 2020. Some of the faces at It’ll Do may be new but it’s still able to provide a dark corner free from judgment where society’s definition of weird can run wild. 

“It proved me right and what I mean by that is whenever I was a little kid, I was always drawn to what was odd or weird,” Hayes says. “I remember watching The Addams Family and The Munsters on Nick at Nite when I was a kid and growing up continuing to like what was different or odd or weird and to have finally gone to a place that embraced what was odd or different or weird, I think that’s what a lot of people seek out in their life. It’s confirmation, if you will, that what you’re doing is cool.” 

Dark Sanctuary: The Story of The Church screens at 10 p.m. on Sunday, April 28 at the Violet Crown Cinema. More information is here.


Danny Gallagher

Danny Gallagher