I see you've been making yourselves at home. Good, good.
Settle into your seats -- this one's a little long.
Our previous post, saying goodbye to Bill Hinzman, garnered a comment from our ol' pal Fester -- you pubbies know him as a long-time and quite loyal patron of the S&P, raise 'em high -- who wrote:
"Night of the Living Dead has played almost as important a part in my upbringing as
any of the Universal Monsters."
Couldn't agree more, Fester. And with Sunday's passing of the Cemetery Ghoul himself, I think it's a fine time to muse over youthful memories and the influence this film has had on my growing up.
Don't worry, I'm not going to review it, or give a synopsis; we've all seen it a thousand times.
No, this is just a walk down Memory Lane... if Memory Lane passed through Evans City Cemetery.
I first beheld the wonder that is Night of the Living Dead when I was just about twelve, no older than thirteen.
To be sure, I'd seen stills in magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria, and had even seen (relatively tame) clips on television shows like That's Hollywood (remember that great series?), and I recall laughing quite hard with my mom and dad when a clip of Sheriff McClelland's "They're dead, they're... all messed up!" popped up on some Hallowe'en special or other.
So even as a little kid, I knew the basic gist -- dead people somehow come back to eat living people -- and I was terrified and fascinated by how creepy and disturbing I thought the concept was.
But when I finally caught the film on television (thank you KTTV11!) in its entirety for the first time on a late, sleepless Saturday night just at the beginning of October, I quickly realized I hadn't really known anything about it. I was enthralled, giggling, shaking my head in pure admiration. I knew I'd get no sleep, and in fact wanted to watch it again. I was terrified and euphoric, not at all wondering if it had caused damage, but if the damage was good or bad!
I was officially converted to the love of zombies.
"They're coming to get you..." Well they got me that night!
And beyond the pure enjoyment of a scary tale well told, I also felt like I had grown up a little bit, that by choosing to watch the whole thing alone, late at night, I had earned a merit badge of young manhood.
That Hallowe'en, just a few weeks later, we were setting up our family's traditional big haunted display/show at my Grandma's house, listening to spooky music and sound effects as we dressed up the house. Suddenly I heard "They're coming to get you Barbara!" coming over the sound system, and I stopped decorating and looked around. "They're dead, they're... all messed up!" came blaring over the speakers.
"Hah!" I shouted, "I know that stuff!" Turns out our friend who always helped put together the audio for Hallowe'en night had decided to put in audio from his favorite zombie films, including Night, along with the traditional music and effects. Why he chose to do it that year, I've never known, but the awesome coincidence has always made me smile like a jack o'lantern.
So for a time, every October would bring at least one or two late night broadcasts of Night (usually on KTTV11 but also on KABC7), and I would ponder the mysteries of zombies and survival while making Hallowe'en stuff, and I would easily hear tidbits of the Night soundtrack and dialogue at Grandma's house on the 31st.
Night of the Living Dead was now officially folded into my Hallowe'en experience.
In early October of 1986, my mom surprised me with a gift she had found while grocery shopping (at Ralph's, which in October was another kind of Hallowe'en 'tradition' in my family). I still have it:
(Yes Shellhawk, there's li'l Miniboo back there!)
I couldn't believe it. "It was only three bucks," Mom told me, "and I knew you had to have 'They're all messed up' before Hallowe'en!" -- my mom is really cool, by the way, didn't know if I ever told you that -- and I immediately put it into the VCR.
For some reason I put that jack o'lantern sticker over the price label during the first time I viewed the tape (the very afternoon she brought it home to me) and it's still there.
The thing is, I watched Night of the Living Dead at least once every day for weeks afterwards, especially in the early afternoons when I was generally alone (like many, I was a young bum just after high school!). After that Hallowe'en, I'd enjoy the weekly Saturday or Sunday afternoon viewing.
The ritual was: order a medium pepperoni and sausage pizza from Domino's, along with a few Cokes, and await the delivery while watching the beginning. I could count on the pizza getting there by the time Ben showed up at the farmhouse in the film, and I giggled every time his truck pulled up with a screech while the Domino's guy rang the doorbell!
At any rate, I watched this VHS copy hundreds of times. Easily hundreds of times. Christmastime. Eastertime. Summer nights were great times to chill out and visit my old ghoul friends, and of course come Autumn, it was tradition. As I built props and masks and drew up plans and ideas, I'd invariably have it playing in my room.
Over those crucial years, I folded Night into the rest of the Hallowe'en Universe I had created. I'd see an image of Bill Hinzman creeping through the graveyard, and feel a grey-orange Autumn sunset. Cooper and Ben arguing became part of a soundtrack that also included the Bride hissing, the Wolfman howling, and Linus groaning "You didn't tell me you were gonna kill it!" The ghouls from Night began hanging out with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Fly. It influenced my tastes, my craft and my outlook on celebrating the Dark.
In the Fall of 1988, I received two more Gifts of the Living Dead from -- you guessed it -- good ol' Mama. I did mention how cool she is, didn't I?
First was the Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook:
-- a blow-by-bloody-blow recounting of the history of the film by one of the film's creators, writer John Russo, and:
-- the Fantaco t-shirt I have worn every Hallowe'en since. Seriously. Come this October 31st, I'll have worn this tee atop or underneath my costume for 24 years. I wore it during the HGTV shoot so it would be visible throughout the segment. I wore it last October. It's just Hallowe'en for me.
Night has become so much a part of my Hallowe'en that I tributed it (and its younger brother Dawn) for Hallowe'en of 2008, about which you can read (and view) a little here.
You can see how this film has been an influence.
Certainly, it is not the only horrific, fantastic film to enthrall and inform and enlighten me as I grew up. It is only one of many, many influences.
But it is squarely among the handful of favorites occupying the center of what makes me, me. I have it on DVD in various releases, and I still make sure it's running (along with its Romero zombie siblings) while I make Hallowe'en.
I must thank Mssrs. Romero, Russo, Streiner, Hardman, etc., but I must also surely thank my Mama.
And again, I thank Bill Hinzman for being #1, and for shambling, shuffling, and leading us into a new world of gods, and monsters, and zombies.