So I get this call from Matt Staggs and he says, “Joe, George Romero and almost the entire original cast of Night of the Living Dead are going to be in Dallas for the 40th Anniversary of what is, arguably, the greatest zombie movie ever made—if not one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Period. What do you think? Would you like to go cover the movie’s premier for Skullring?”
Now for those of you who don’t know this, I kind of have a thing for zombies. Hell, I kind of have a thing for this movie. In fact, I blame Night of the Living Dead for starting me on my love affair with horror. For some folks it’s ghosts, or werewolves, or vampires. For me, it’s zombies.
So I’m standing there in my kitchen, the phone next to my ear and Matt going, “Joe? Joe, you there?” and I’m thinking that Christmas has just come early to the McKinney household.
I tell Matt, “Well, let me see here. It’s going to take me about twenty seconds to pack, another five hours to get there. I can call the wife on the way and tell her I won’t be coming home for a while. Yeah, sounds great! I’m on the way!”
Needless to say, I’m excited when the weekend finally arrives. I show up in Dallas earlier in the day and check into my hotel room. I get my camera and my notebook and voice recorder and I set out to the beautifully restored Landmark Inwood Theater in Dallas’ Arts District.
The first thing I see is the theater marquee. “AFI Dallas and Texas Frightmare 2008 present George Romero and Night of the Living Dead.” There are people in full zombie costumes and camera crews and security everywhere. The show doesn’t start for another two hours and already the parking lot outside the Landmark is a zoo. People are lining up to catch a glimpse of the huge turnout of Romero celebrity friends, among them Tom Savini, Malcolm McDowell, Dee Wallace Stone, John Russo, and Bill Hinzman. Ordinarily, I’d be stuck out with the groundlings waiting in the cold to catch a glimpse myself, but Matt Staggs has pulled an ace out of his sleeve and handed it to me. He has secured a spot on the red carpet. Not only will I be able to meet and greet the celebs as they make their way into the theater, but I will also be attending the exclusive premier, the question and answer session afterwards, and the restricted access after party. I think to myself, Matt, you rock!
So there I am, on the red carpet, camera ready, leaning over the ropes in anticipation, and I wait. There’s an old newspaper man standing next to me. He’s dressed for the cold night air. I’m not. I look at his camera. It’s a big, fancy digital camera. Mine is a little P.O.S. my wife won at her work’s annual Christmas party. I look around. Every journalist in the place has got some variety of BIG FANCY DIGITAL CAMERA. I frown at my camera. I turn to the old newspaper man next to me and say, “I think I’ve got camera envy.”
He laughs. He says, “Don’t sweat it. Just keep the camera warm so your battery doesn’t crap out on you.”
I frown at my camera again. I didn’t know camera batteries did that when they got cold.
He says, “I’m John.”
“Joe,” I tell him, and we shake hands.
“Who you here with, Joe?”
“Skullring,” I tell him. “We cover all things horror and then some. And you?”
“Dallas Morning News,” he says. He could have added something like, “We cover all things. Period.” But he doesn’t. He’s not snooty about it at all. If anything, he’s got this faraway look in his eyes, like he’s looking a long ways back into his past. He says, “I first saw this movie when I was seventeen. It was in a drive-in in Waco, Texas. I’ll never forget it.”
“It made an impression?” I ask.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “The movie was pretty good, I guess. But what I remember is that it scared Mindy Watson so badly she finally agreed to climb into the backseat with me and let me get a hand under her bra.”
We talked for a good while after that as we waited on the celebs to make an appearance. John told me what it was like, watching Night of the Living Dead back in 1968. He told me there had never been anything like it. Sure there monster movies, but there had never been anything like all those zombies lumbering out of the dark, dragging the torn and rendered remains of their victims, munching on femurs. And that little girl at the end, eating her parents down in the basement.” He trailed off there with a shudder.
And then that little girl from the movie, an all grown up now Kyra Schon, made her way down the red carpet. Kyra Schon is a radiate, beautiful woman these days, and seeing her makes me think of my own first experience with Night of the Living Dead. I was probably fifteen or sixteen, and this would have twenty years after my new friend John, the veteran news reporter, was getting his first feel of real teat. That’s a lot of time under the bridge. A lot of gory horror movies came along after Night and went even further with the blood and guts and twisted sickness we all know and love so much. When I first saw the movie, I was a desensitized teenager who didn’t even blanch at the goriness of the film. Much later, as a grown man and a horror writer in my own right, I would read excerpts from film critics like Roger Ebert, who in a January, 1969, issue of the Chicago Sun Times wrote of the film, “The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.”
My own experience with the film was nothing like that of that poor little girl sitting across from Roger Ebert, but I can understand where she was coming from. Even as a desensitized teenager in the comfort of the 1980s, I too felt there was something different about Night. The film went beyond the mere physical repulsiveness of horror, and entered the strangeness of terror. That may seem like a mere semantic distinction, but it’s not. Horror, by definition, repulses you. It is an external stimulus that causes you to cringe. Terror, on the other hand, is more of an empathic phenomenon. You experience terror, as opposed to horror, when you internalize whatever it is that you’re watching. For example, you can watch J. Lo get chased around the Amazon in Anaconda, and experience horror. (Yes, I know that movie sucked ass. This is just an example, so work with me here.) But if you have an intense phobia of snakes, and somebody tries to hand you a live one, then you will experience terror. In other words, you have internalized the fear potential embodied in the snake. That is very much the way I remember my first showing of Night. I remember watching those crowds of shambling dead coming out of the trees, advancing on the house in an ever-tightening ring, and for the first time in my short life, I was genuinely scared by a movie. It was a marvelous feeling. And one that I too, have never forgotten.
Well, there I was, a grown man, a published horror novelist with a zombie title of my own under my belt, watching the 40th Anniversary premier of the movie that started it all for me. But perhaps, like the main character in Joe Hill’s excellent short story “Best New Horror,” I have been desensitized to the shock that horror tries to generate so that it no longer resonates with me. Yes, I still enjoy a good jump during a scary scene. Yes, I still enjoy reading horror novels and stories. But those things don’t rattle me like they used to. I don’t lose sleep at night. As a cop, I see more horror than I know what to do with, and seeing it done on the screen or the page sometimes leaves me with a deflated feeling, rather than the idea that I have somehow been deeply affected by it. That was the lens through which I watched the 40th Anniversary of Night. I enjoyed it immensely, because the movie really has stood the test of time with its mature treatments of racial inequalities and paranoia, but I was no longer the fifteen year old kid constantly looking over my shoulder into the darkness.
But something else was going on while I sat there in the theater. Instead of appreciating the movie solely as a creature feature, I found myself appreciating the film’s other dimensions. During the question and answer period that followed the film, George Romero said that the obvious racial themes in the movie were strictly an accident. That sounds like a load of hogwash if you ask me. Here you’ve got a young angry black man fighting for control of a house already occupied by a middle aged rich white guy and his family. Meanwhile, there’s this ring of paranoia constantly closing ranks around the house. How much more do you need to realize Night is an allegory of racial relations in 1960s America? I mean, come on. Night was recently honored by the Library of Congress as one of the 100 most important films of the 20th Century. That’s a big honor. And well-deserved, too. But I can tell you it didn’t get there just because it was gorier than anything else before it. It got there because it told us something about the way we were in 1968, and continue to be in 2008.
Now, here are few of the fun things that I remember from the big show…
Malcolm McDowell. Yes, I know the man has been in some real turkeys. But he’s also been in some great films, too, A Clockwork Orange among them. He moderated the question and answer period after the film, and he was very charming and pleasant about it. But the thing that impressed me about him was the man’s decency. You see, while we were all out on the red carpet, there was a local high school for the performing arts there with a film crew. This girl, who couldn’t have been much more than fifteen, stuck a microphone in his face and said, “So, who are you?”
“I’m Malcolm McDowell,” he said.
“Well, tell us, Mr. McDowell, what was it like filming Night of the Living Dead?”
At that point, he could have turned and walked away. He could have ridiculed her for not knowing what she was talking about. Instead, he very quietly and very kindly told her he was merely a friend of Mr. Romero here to offer him some moral support. He then spent the next ten minutes or so guiding her through the interview, suggesting topics for her to discuss.
Malcolm McDowell, as it turns out, is a class act.
Tom Savini. Do you remember that crotch pistol gun from From Dusk Till Dawn? Well, as it turns out, he kept that little prop. Hey, wouldn’t you?
John Russo. My first words to him were something like, “Gosh, Mr. Russo, I’m your biggest fan. I’ve got a tattered dog-eared copy of your novelization of Night of the Living Dead sitting on top of my hope chest at home.” Luckily, he did not call security. Instead, we talked a little about writing, and zombies, and horror. The good, old stuff. Horror the way they used to do it in the pulp magazines. It was great.