Sunday, August 3, 2008

They're Coming to Get You!

If you're asking why this special event warranted its own blog, well, pull up a chair and I'll tell you a story.

Set the wayback machine to 1992. Vonna and I ventured out to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the first time. I was taking advantage of an opportunity to participate in John Russo's Filmmaking Seminar. Not only was it an opportunity to learn a little more about the ins and outs of low budget independent filmmaking, it was an opportunity to meet and work with one of the men responsible for the greatest horror film of all time, Night of the Living Dead.

Through this opportunity, I was able to meet John, who co-wrote the screenplay and adapted it as a novel, as well as Russell Streiner, who produced the film and performed the unforgettable role of Johnny. I also kicked off a long distance friendship with a local fan who came out for this once in a lifetime event, Rick Kastan, who I still correspond with to this day.

At that event, I picked up a flyer for another event scheduled for the following year - a Zombie Jamboree celebrating the 25th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead. In addition to assembling the surviving cast and crew, there would be a tour of the Monroeville Mall where Dawn of the Dead was shot, hosted by none other than effects artist Tom Savini, and a theatrical re-premiere of Night of the Living Dead from a pristine producer's print (or so we were told).

Back at this time, I was hip deep in Deadline Press with Peter Enfantino and Bob Morrish, where we were still publishing our magazine The Scream Factory. I thought it would be cool to do a theme issue on the Night anniversary in time for the show, and Bob had the wisdom to suggest we do an entire issue devoted to Night and zombies in fiction in film in the wake of the classic.

I coordinated with the promoter of the show to swap a stack of the anniversary special for a VIP access pass, and spent the better part of the next year assembling and/or writing content for the issue. I wrote an editorial, which you can read here, as well as a detailed analysis on the variant versions of Romero's Dead trilogy (which you can read here). I contacted Joe Bob Briggs and got his permission to reprint his review of the remake of Night, as well as a transcript of a cast reunion that he had coordinated for his show Monstervision (ask me someday about my tenure on the horror committee of Joe Bob's Board of Drive-In Movie Experts). Joe (my brother, not Bob, as in Joe Bob) helped me track down a copy of Roger Ebert's infamous Reader's Digest article decrying the films effect on young children in the audience at a matinee he attended. After clearing permissions with Reader's Digest and the Chicago Sun Times, Roger himself allowed us to reproduce it along with his thoughts 25 years later. We also were able to reprint the few extant pieces of Steve Bissette artwork created for a Night comic adaptation that was ultimately completed by someone far less proficient.

So we ambled back to Pittsburgh for the Zombie Jamboree in 1993 and had a great time meeting cast and crew alike, giving out copies of our tribute magazine to one and all. Meeting George Romero was a thrill I will never forget - he signed anything and everything brought before him for free, took pictures with fans, and I doubt got up for more than a quick bathroom break for the bulk of the convention. He said in so many words that he was not about to let down anyone who had come out just to meet him. Awesome guy. It was great to reconnect with John Russo and Russ Streiner, and meet several other cast members for the first time. Judith O'Dea was a sweetheart, very gracious and appreciative of her fans. Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman were great, too - they had taken advantage of the opportunity to make some props available to the fans, and in one of my greatest regrets, I didn't purchase a scrapbook that they put together with photos, notes and other production ephemera. Keith Wayne was a kick - he actually wouldn't sign anything for me unless I agreed to sign the copy of the tribute magazine for him. I was honestly shocked and saddened to hear he took his own life a few years later, as he seemed genuinely excited to be remembered for something he had all but forgotten. Kyra Schon was also wonderful, and I'm honored to have had the pleasure of seeing her again through the years, when in Pittsburgh visiting another good friend and Romero aficionado, Christian Stavrakis. Bill Hinzman, who portrayed the film's first zombie, was also great fun. Unfortunately Judith Ridley was unable to attend the event, and of course the late Duane Jones was present in spirit. It was a weekend of memories that I will never forget.

Tom Savini toured us around the Monroeville Mall, starting in the food court that had previously been the ice rink seen in the film. It was a great way to be introduced to the location. While much had changed in the 15 years since Dawn of the Dead had been shot there, there were still telltale signs that were immediately recognizable to fans of the film. The theatrical re-premiere was a major disappointment, and I'm sure an embarrassment to the cast and crew in attendance, as it was far from a pristine print, with a hole burned in it for the first several minutes. My original 16mm print back home looked better by comparison. That said, just the fact that I was watching the film within a row of little Karen Cooper and the man who brought the film to life was more than worth it. And this show would lead to Elite Entertainment's once and for all confirming that this was no grainy 16mm film shot in Pittsburgh as they negotiated the rights to restore and ultimately release the film in laserdisc in all it's 35mm unblemished black and white glory. It was a great show - and I've got the bottled zombie dirt to prove I was there.

But what the heck does this have to do with yet another blog, you ask? We're getting there.

So back to 1993. The show is over. Vonna and I are in the Pittsburgh airport ready to come home. I'm flying high over having experienced a dream, meeting so many people I had admired and idolized since I was very young. I wasn't ready to end the festivities. I wanted to bring a bit of the celebration back home. I described for Vonna an idea for a party - a movie party where we'd get all of our friends together to watch a series of movies. What better way to kick things off than a screening of Romero's zombie trilogy. She thankfully agreed in spirit. When we got home, we sent out invitations, I worked up a viewer's guide to tie it all together. And that day, though I didn't realize it at the time, the Mad Movie Party was born.

15 years later, despite a few lean years, and the MMP is stonger than ever before, particularly now that we have a new home in the Slaughtered Lamb Cinema. Since I'm dealing out bits of history here, might as well mention where the MMP name came from. One of my early childhood influences was the Rankin-Bass puppet classic Mad Monster Party (if you're unfamiliar, shame on you - it's like the classic Rudolph Christmas specials with monsters instead of Santa and reindeer). Since 1987, my friend Joey and I had held an annual Roll Back the Tombstone Halloween party. Before Joey moved to Southern California, we had our last Roll Back the Tombstone party in collaboration with brother Joe and his friends' annual Dead Man's Party. The next year we re-christened the Halloween party the Mad Monster Party, and when we decided to do a monthly movie party, the Mad Movie Party just seemed to be a perfect fit.

We hope you'll join us as we celebrate 15 years of movies with friends, and 40 years of the living dead. This is why the ALL DAY OF THE DEAD event is a very special one for us, and this is why it warranted it's very own blog.

I sincerely hope to see you all on October 4th, when the dead will rise again.


1 comment:

Joey Bryan said...

and since 1987 they're still coming to get me!

Not sure how I came across this old post but was allowing my brain to leak across my desk while crunching code... needed a break to the past and here this shows up.

Ahhh what ghoulishly good things that came from all those RBT parties.