NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD RECKONING Image

REFLECTIONS ON AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE WELL-DRESSED MAN

And yet, the next morning, they get even more incredible (it helps if you read this story in the tone of me being an excited child at Christmas, by the way, to capture my mood on this set visit). I go downstairs to eat a hefty, fine breakfast (the waitress instantly taking to my Scottish accent, as north American women often do) and as I am being led to my table I spy none other than the legendary…

…Dennis Hopper.

When I was younger I was a MAJOR Hopper fan. I saw all the obscure films of his I could, and loved his madness and damaged drink-and-drugs-and-dementia-and-expletive-laden style. Seeing the Well Dressed Man sitting only a few tables away with another man I don’t recognize is a total trip, and all through eating my excellent food I plot and plan about how to approach and speak to him, cos I have to, cos, well, it’s THE HOP, isn’t it? I know he is in the film cos I have picked up wee details about it here and there, but have purposefully avoided reading the script online or checking out the pictures from the set that have been turning up there too; don’t want to ruin the surprise for myself. So I finish and, heart hammering in my chest, approach the actor’s table (having made sure that he’s not eating so I don’t disturb him that way) and get his attention. Hopper is sporting a salt-and-pepper goatee and is looking quite dapper. I introduce myself, tell him I am going to be reporting on the film for CFQ, and say that I am a big fan of his. I quote him some of his older, more obscure films: “Out of The Blue,” “Tracks” and “The Night Tide” to show that I’m not just some starfucker asskisser fan, but somebody who genuinely knows more about his work than just the usual “I loved you in ‘Speed’” crap. He seems to appreciate the stuff I mention and asks me if I’m from Ireland. I tell him no, Scotland, and he tells me he just got back from Edinburgh and St Andrew’s, where he was golfing. I tell him Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and he agrees. I also tell him that when I was around 19, 20, I used to write for a Glasgow fanzine about his movies, ‘The Last Movie Zine’, run by a female fan of his called Michelle Carr, and that she would never have forgiven me if I had not spoken to him. I also asked him if it would be possible to get a picture with him. He asks if I had a camera but I tell him I don’t as I had been given strict instructions not to bring a camera to the set. The man sitting with Hopper says it’s okay and they will get a unit publicist to take a photo at the set and I said okay, fair enough. In the end this doesn’t happen, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because I met Hopper anyway and that was enough. As a parting shot the actor tells me all his ancestors were Scottish, Mc this and Mc that, and I said “Yeah – the rogue element” and he chuckles and says ”Yeah.” Elated, I then excuse myself and leave.

DAY OF THE DEAD SET VISIT

Leaving the dining room, I mosey along to the front foyer, where around a dozen film journalists from here and there and everywhere are making sporadic conversation. This is the meeting point where we have all agreed to meet Lauren Bantit, our gracious publicist/studio representative on this trip. I introduce myself, she marks off my name, and soon we are headed out the front door and being bundled into a small white van to take us to the day’s shoot. I talk to an amiable Englishman wearing a “Shaun of The Dead” tee-shirt called Ian from an English genre mag. He tells me he’s a massive Romero fan and he hands me his Walkman headphones…to let me hear the mall muzak from “Dawn”. My kind of guy. We drive through Toronto for a few minutes and are soon at a downtown warehouse, where loads of huge crew trucks are parked. Disappointingly, there are no zombies in view, but I’m sure that will (please please please!) come soon enough. We stand about in the car park a hundred yards or so from the warehouse for around 30 minutes making introductions and small talk, me moving into instant wisecrack mode to combat the Canadian cold, and we’re joined by a few more hacks. One punk-looking dyed-red-pigtails woman is wearing a cowboy hat and a cool “Dawn of The Dead” sweatshirt, and I joke to her that she’d better watch it because I’ll steal it off her back when she’s not looking.

Another PR woman, Karen, arrives, and finally (ohmigod can’t believe it we’re gonnae see Romero zombies waited so long for this can’t believe this is really happening can’t believe I’m here we go here we go here we go) we’re moving towards the warehouse and a set just behind it. It’s a faux post-apocalyptic market where a motley crew of survivors is huddled around a whiskey-bottle-clutching Irishman (reminding me of Jarlath Conroy’s character McDermott in “Day” but this new pseudo-Celt has an intermittent accent, it has to be said) standing in front of a big cross with an arrow on it, trying to rouse onlookers into insurrection against Kaufman, Dennis Hopper’s luxury-dwelling character. I wander to different vantage points to get a better view of the action and look around a bit. There are made-up products lying around the place: some trashed-looking electrical goods, a few books (A Stranger Is Watching, Developing Language Skills) and a ripped American flag. The scene shoots and re-shoots a few times and it soon starts to get tedious. It’s all interesting enough, but I wanna see ZOMBIES DAMMIT, ZOMBIES!

I go to write some notes in an A4 pad but my pen runs out and Ian graciously loans me one. I am just wondering where Romero is when I notice him a few yards away under a blue tent watching and filming the scene. I truly feel like I am in a dream, with a teenage hero of mine shooting a film I have waited 20 years to see. As I glance occasionally over at him and then back to the scene being filmed, a thousand quicksilver long-gone-past zombie fan thoughts pass through my reeling brain. The tall, grey-hair-and-beard-and-ponytail director zombie-shuffle-shambles out of the tent to the scene and utters a few directions. I wonder where his trademark tartan scarf is, cos I know he wears it on every shoot as a lucky omen, and I laugh in amazed delight to see it (looking very dirty and worn) hanging from his belt as he goes back to the tent. A massive grin lights up my face and Ian tells me to write the words ‘tartan scarf,’ because he saw me see it and he knows the score.

It starts to get darker and colder and Lauren and Karen usher us into a building where we will be interviewing some of the cast and crew. We are all sat round a table in a small, cramped room filled with body heat and smell and Dictaphones where two Irish setters run in and out, cute and tongue-lolling and skinny as hell and total stars amongst the press corps. I am sat right down the front next to the interviewees and have to help switch the Dictaphones of people at the back of the room on and off between interviews. We talk to (in no particular order here):

Simon Baker, who plays Riley, the anti-hero. He’s evasive as hell and an INCREDIBLY boring interviewee. I get bored with his stilted, stupid, circular, going-nowhere-slow answers and fuck with him a wee bit, asking him if there’s any zombie sex in the film. He looks at me in disgusted bemusement and calls me twisted. Result! (Scottish way of saying I got a reaction). His interview will prove to be horribly long in transcription and I only get one good quote out of it. Baker, bone up on this shit for next time, would you please? Thanks. For nothing.

Asia Argento, who plays the appropriately named hooker Slack. Argento, daughter of the famous misogynist filmmaker Dario (who co-produced the original, real, one-and-only “Dawn of The Dead”), looks frighteningly like her mad dad and exudes sexy sleaziness and manic, intense, operatic Italian lightning-rod electricity. I’m almost scared to sit next to her. However, she’s clearly tired and not too into the interview. She talks about doing kung fu and I ask her if she gets to do it in the movie on zombies. She tells me yes, and I get excited and think it’s great. Kung fu zombies! Ian later jokingly tells me he thinks she was slightly scared of my excitement. Imagine scaring an Argento! What a (dis)honor! Quality mayhem indeed! Beat that one!

Dennis Hopper, who plays Kaufman, the crazed penthouse-dwelling mogul in the film. Sitting listening to him is interesting, because he comes across as being slightly fried, yet extremely lucid and intelligent mostly, and somewhat cynical. He’s not taking the interview too seriously and basically says he’s doing the film for the money, but he respects Romero as they both started out their directorial careers at around the same time and that Romero has influenced a lot of people. Plus Hopper is a zombie movie fan too. I almost feel like asking him if having been a drug-crazed zombie for years of his life has prepared him for this role, but don’t; he’s too cool a guy, exuding none of the dangerous smoldering intensity you might expect from him in real life. I jokingly ask him if his character is into collecting expensive art, a reference to Hopper’s real-life predilections in that arena; confused, the actor answers dismissively that Kaufman is into ‘conceptual art’. Oh well. At the end of the interview, however, Hopper stand up, looks me in the eye and says to me, smiling, “Give my best to Scotland.” I tell him I will and off he goes.

Greg Nicotero, the head KNB EFX honcho. I say hiya to him, saying we haven’t seen each other in God it must be 14 years, and I tell him I can’t believe this film is really, finally, truly getting made. He’s happy about it too, being a massive “Dead” fan himself (his first paid gig was working for Tom Savini on “Day”) and talks excitedly about what gory mayhem they’re pulling off in the film and that they have used 200 gallons of Dick Smith formula stage blood in the production. I tell him that he has obviously lost none of his enthusiasm for his job and what he’s doing. He talks about a Santa Claus zombie in “Land” and I remind him that there’s one in “Dawn” that he can’t remember, but takes my word for it. After the interview I speak briefly to him outside and he says that me talking about how he was still enthusiastic was a nice thing to say. But the man is clearly buzzing with what he’s doing and it’s great to see that level of dedication and commitment in somebody at his level of filmmaking. And long may it continue, Greg.

Robert Joy, who plays the fire-scarred rifleman Charlie, Riley’s henchman. Was also in “Monkeyshines” by Romero in 1988. He’s clearly fond of Romero, and talks about him being an actor’s director who takes on board the ideas of actors. We ask about currency in the film and a spirited debate ensues. Joy is an interesting, lucid, good interview. He mentions a “zombie gladiator arena” in the film, which, along with a few other details leaked here and there by other interviewees, REALLY whets my appetite for the finished film.

Mark Canton, the producer. Canton is a trip. A big fan of the “Dead” movies, he mocks George W Bush and says he can’t believe that Dennis Hopper, a long-term friend of his, is now a Republican after having initially been such a counter-culture figure. It was him who convinced Hopper to do the flick, and told him to play Kaufman like Donald Rumsfeld. I don’t recognize him initially, but he’s the guy who was sitting with Hopper at breakfast when I spoke to the actor earlier that morning. I ask him a question and the following priceless exchange takes place:

Canton: “I love your accent man, I’m gonna put you in the movie.”
Me: “I wish you would put me in the movie.”
Canton: “You wanna be in the movie?”
Me: “Hell yes.”
Canton” “Okay, you’re in, if you wanna freeze your ass off…”

And that’s how a dream gets fulfilled, just like that, because of my impenetrable-to-many-Americans brogue. Canton asks me where I’m from. I tell him Scotland. “I know Scotland,” he says, slightly annoyed that I don’t think he knows what my accent is, “Hopper and I are golfers.” I say yeah, St Andrew’s, and tell him that Americans have asked me if I was Russian, Swedish, Irish, and even if I spoke English. He points to a man behind him (whom I find out is named Alan Newman) and tells me to tell him about Canton saying I could be in the movie and he’ll sort me out. I eye Newman like a hawk after that, cos no way, NO FUCKING WAY am I going to let him get out of my sight and thus miss my chance to be a…ZOMBIE IN A GEORGE A ROMERO “DEAD” FILM! YEEEEHHHHHHHAAAAAARRRRRRR!!!!! Not one other member of the press corps (guess I’m going to be a press corpse) is picked to be in the movie and there are some disgruntled comments from them here and there; even Ian makes a couple of anti-Scottish comments after that, clearly jealous of me. I make a show of saying to the rest of the press corps that I feel somewhat self-conscious that I was the only one picked, but inwardly I’m going fuck you all, I couldnae care less, ah’m getting tae be a zombie n ah cannae believe it!!!!!

After the interviews we are led out into a warehouse to get something to eat, where, starving, I get a smorgasbord of stuff because it all looks good. I see Greg Nicotero and tell him about what Canton had said about me being a zombie. He tells me he might stick contact lenses into my eyes, and tells me to get the PR people to send me to the makeup trailer the next night to get my zombification done. After we eat we go outside to see some explosions being filmed underneath a bridge with a road over it just outside, with the fire brigade watching in case things get out of hand. Romero is filming from a tent again. We are offered earplugs and eyeglasses to protect us, but I decline them, as does many of the press corps. There are six explosions in all, not too scary of huge but they set off a car alarm somewhere as white fireworks go off on both sides of the bridge. Cars continue to drive over the bridge through the choking white smoke. It appears that somebody has messed up and not closed off a road that should have been but, luckily, no cars crash. We joke about reports of terrorist activities as Romero shambles (and he truly does have a distinct way of walking – bear in mind he’s 6’5”) over to take a look at the smoldering blast remains. He walks away from the site as the fire brigade hose down the debris and is briefly backlit by the smoke and set lights. It’s an awesome sight, a dark moody brooding horrormeister silhouette, beautiful deathly symmetry in a gorgeous horrific image, and I think that it would make a great photo. Then it’s over and I fix it in my mind as an iconic moment from this amazing set visit.

Alan Newman comes across to talk to Ian and I and I ask him if they can use an English zombie too; just the kinda guy I am. But it’s not to be, unfortunately. His lovely wife Gail then comes up and I start talking to her as we are walked through a crowd of extras who are running along a street in a scene that reminds me for some reason of the video of ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson. Gail tells me that her ancestors were Scottish, name of Campbell, and that we could be cousins. I tell her it’s entirely possible, who knows, and she calls me her cousin from then on in the conversation. I am told by Alan to be in the lobby of the hotel at 5.15pm the next night to be made up for my turn at zombie stardom; Gail is to be made up too. Then the press corps all jumps back into the wee white van and head off back to the hotel. I am very excited but still sleep the sleep of the dead-to-be, knowing that tomorrow I am going to be immortalized in a Romero “Dead” film.

And I still can’t believe it.

The story continues in part three of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD RECKONING>>>

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