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By Graham Rae | October 17, 2005


Dateline: Friday, 12/03/2004. Dead of night of the living dead in BCE Place. I am riding an escalator up from the lower level of this huge, gaudy building in the financial district of Toronto, Canada back to the ground floor, where the fourth George A. Romero “Dead” movie “Land of The Dead” is filming this evening. In full horrifying zombie makeup, I have just been to the toilets, where I tried not to wash too much of the fake blood off my hands and was grinningly told I looked like s**t by some random guy using the urinal next to me. As the film crew comes into view on the horizon I feel oddly as if I am in the surreal middle of some sort of wish-fulfillment dream over two decades in the making. I am going to shoot my first crowd scene and am nervous as hell. As I approach the milling zombie extra swarm I reflect for the millionth time on the long, strange journey that has led me from Scotland to the Great White North and my fast-approaching flesheater stardom and it still doesn’t seem any clearer or more believable…


1981. I am 11 years old in Falkirk, Scotland (directly between Glasgow and Edinburgh, if you’re interested and need a geographical reference point). Video recorders have not been out for too long (you have to pay to join places to rent tapes) and are still a novelty. My primary school friends and myself are horror film fans and, this being the golden age of the so-called UK ‘video nasties,’ the shops are full of bloody horror videos to sate our morbid-wee-shite preteen gorehound appetites. Whenever one of us sees a new sick flick we breathlessly report the next day to the rest about this sick crazy weird really gory mad film ye shoulday seen it this vampire guy zombie cannibal ninja creature gets ripped tae bits shot in the heid falls off a building heid chopped off smashed tae f**k attacked by an alien cut in half stabbed slashed sliced diced melted mutilated mauled and so on and so forth, excitedly describing the latest entry into our own private atrocity exhibition gallery to our awestruck friends. Our parents are fairly liberal (or just plain crazy) and let us watch pretty much what we want, and we are having a great time seeing the craziest goriest sleaziest vilest vicious violent videos we can. One day my pal-at-that-time Derek McLaren tells me about this great-sounding undead effort called “Zombie Flesheaters” (a Lucio Fulci film know as “Zombie” in the USA) and this amazingly cool bit where a woman’s eye gets impaled on a piece of wood. It sounds magic and I decide that this new classic, which becomes mythical among my group of peers, is the film I am going to get out the next time I go to the video shop.

So my father and I trail up to a shop in Falkirk whose name I can’t even remember now (but I can still recall the interior in vivid, lurid detail) and we go to the horror section to get the film. I can’t see the box and, being a shy 11-year-old kid, get my dad to go up to the counter and ask for it. It isn’t in, but the guy behind the counter lifts up the box for another film, “Zombies: Dawn of The Dead” and says they’ve got that one in, would that do instead? I have never heard of this film, and don’t really want to see it, I want to see “Zombie Flesheaters,” dammit, cos after all that’s what I went to the shop for, but I was too shy to say I don’t want this poor substitute for Derek’s great film and nod my head mutely. And so we take this film on Intervision Video by some guy named George A Romero home and, in disappointment, I put it in the video recorder…

…and blow my young f*****g mind.

This unexpected filmic discovery, about a group of people who hole up in a shopping mall to get away from zombies taking over the earth, is absolutely great too. It’s really, really sick and gory, with loads of folk getting shot in the heid and a zombie getting the top of its heid chopped off by a helicopter blade and zombies getting run over by trucks and a screwdriver getting stuck into a guy’s ear, and I can’t wait to tell the boys about this one. I watch and re-watch the film, taking it round to my auntie Mima’s (another great place to see horror films) in an adjacent street to show my uncle Gary, who stays round there at weekends, and he thinks it’s great too. The film really makes an immediate impact, and even after I have told my friends about it and they have seen it and we have dissected every death and smart (British word for ‘cool’) bit in it, I re-rent it at irregular intervals and it never grows tiresome to watch and, over time, becomes my all-time favorite film.

(Brief digression: it was only this year that I realized (upon careful reflection) the reason “Zombies: Dawn of The Dead” made such an impact on me was because when I saw it in 1981 I had only recently returned to Scotland the year before from South Africa, where I had spent the ages of five to ten (my first five years being spent in Scotland) living with my parents and brother. There was a shopping mall called Eastgate just outside Johannesburg that we used to visit at weekends sometimes and the shopping mall in the film (complete with first-generation videogame machines like Boot Hill) reminded me of Eastgate and the times I had spent there. But I never thought of that at the time, at least not consciously (funny the way the mind works, eh?). I just thought it was a bloody great film, and I still do.)

(Second digression: a few years ago at the Edinburgh International Film Festival the documentary “American Movie,” about wannabe-director Mark Borchardt’s attempts to make low-budget horror films in Wisconsin, was screened. I recognized the guy’s horror film fan mindset immediately and could relate to his intense Romero zombie fandom. I had to interview director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price after I saw it. I put it to them that Borchardt had obviously named his daughter Dawn after “Dawn of The Dead.” Smith looked at me in amazed bemusement for a few moments, then said “You know, you’re the first person who ever got that.” Make of that what you will, but “Dead” fans recognize their own…)

Anyway. Let’s fast-forward this old, chewed story-videotape (sorry if the picture jumps or is poor quality in places) a few years. I find out piecemeal bits and pieces from reading horror magazine Fangoria (which I read when I was young, though I haven’t looked at an issue in over 15 years) about “Dawn of The Dead” (as I now know it is known in the US) and become a huge George A Romero fan. When I am 17 I am on a Youth Training Scheme and, with my meager ‘wage’ of 27 pounds (roughly $40) per week I go through on the train to Edinburgh and delight in finding hard-to-find years-old Romero tapes like “Night of The Living Dead” and the classic “Martin”. Purchasing the soundtracks for “Dawn” and “Day” I also buy a copy of ‘The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh,’ which is a book about all of Romero’s movies. I really, really want to buy the (I think it was) $100 signed hardback version of the tome, but that proves to be beyond my limited financial capacities at that time. Over the next year or two, pissed off that “Dawn of The Dead” and “Day of The Dead” (which I love and see ten times at the pictures in Falkirk when it comes out in the UK, even opening the back door of the cinema so my 15-year-old brother Tony and his pal Mikey Martin can sneak in and see the film) that are cut in Britain I send off to the US for them from FantaCo in New York, and get the copies converted from British PAL to American NTSC myself: no way, no f*****g WAY am I going to watch cut versions of classic films like these.

When I am 18 in August 1988, I attend a horror film festival, Shock Around The Clock 2, in London, at the now-sadly-defunct classic arthouse-cum-grindhouse Scala Cinema. I see some films like “Nekromantik” there and do the first US review of it for Deep Red, a now-defunct legendary splatter movie fanzine whose editor, Chas Balun, I have started corresponding with after reading about him in Fangoria and asking him if I could be a ‘foreign correspondent’ (with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of what this might entail – ahhh blissful youthful ignorance and naivety – or how I might do it from my bedroom in my parents’ house in Bainsford in Falkirk with just a typewriter and no contacts in the film industry) for the zine and getting the go-ahead. The next year at Shock 3 a young man of 18 comes up to me and asks if I am Graham Rae. Ready for a fight, I reply that I am. He tells me his name is Justin Stanley (another Romero zombie movie freak), he has read my stuff in Deep Red, he likes it and asks me if I would like to help organize a horror film festival like the one we are currently at. I tell him yeah and give him Chas Balun’s phone number and tell him to say I sent him when he calls. By the tail end of 1989 Justin has put together a festival called Splatterfest 90, scheduled for February of 1990, and we go across to the USA (my first visit) to meet some of the guests in Hollywood.

Before we go to LA, though, we stop off at a snowblown Pittsburgh where we initially are going to be zombies in the limp remake of “Night of The Living Dead”, but it is rescheduled and a meeting we are going to have with Tom Savini pulls through. But we don’t care, because we visit the consumerist Mecca where “Dawn of The Dead” was filmed, Monroeville Mall. We wander round this familiar-yet-not site excitedly, taking endless photos and playing the comedic ‘Gonk’ music from the end of the film on a ghetto blaster I am carrying (which we are told to turn off by mall security), marveling at how much – or little – some of the place has changed since the film was made there over a decade before. We then head off to Hollywood to meet Chas Balun and Scott Spiegel (director of a supermarket slasher film we want to show at the festival, “Intruder”) and, through Spiegel, who co-wrote “Evil Dead 2” with Sam Raimi, we get drunk with the Spidey director at his Silverlake abode one day as we play a Donald Trump board game (which was, as you might imagine, an incredible experience for a shy, bookish 20-year-old “Evil Dead” fan from a small boring Scottish town).

Spiegel (a cool guy and a man to whom I owe some AMAZING memories – thanks Scott) also drove us over (listening on the ghetto blaster to Screeching Weasel’s classic second album Boogada Boogada Boogada, which had just come out at that time and a band of whom I was a huge fan; funnily enough, it has a song called ‘Zombie’ which references “Dawn” in it) in his open-top stick-shift European sports car to meet the super-amiable Greg Nicotero (of the venerable KNB EFX group), another guest at the Splatterfest, who had done FX on “Intruder.” Greg took us round the KNB studio, showing us super-cool FX props from films like “Tales From The Darkside” and the then unknown “Dances With Wolves” (think lots of fake dead buffaloes!), amongst others. Tickled pink that Justin and we knew his dialogue from “Day of The Dead” (in which he played the doomed soldier Johnson: “We used to talk to Washington all the time, they could hear us then!”), Greg gave Justin a WGON-TV sticker from the helicopter in “Dawn” and me a pen-marked script from the set of “Monkeyshines” by Romero. When Greg and Scott are in London for the Splatterfest two months after that, staying in a flat in Tooting, we also hang out. This is all pertinent, by the way, because it just basically illustrates how much Romero’s work has meant to me over the years. And it all leads full-circle, don’t you worry…


Anyway. Years roll by, life’s trials and tribulations test and educate me. I start to write for the long-dead print incarnation of this very website (cosmic fact: Chris Gore was a zombie extra in the selfsame “Night” remake Justin and I were going to be zombies in), or more specifically the Film Threat Video Guide, an offshoot of the magazine. Through that mag in 1992 I meet Dave Williams, my brother-of-another-mother American twin (similar mindsets, music and literature tastes, etc), and we keep in contact over the years. As a writer/editor Dave moves from FTVG to American Cinematographer to Cinefantastique (which he left a few months ago to continue his own work) and, when he does so, he moves me with him, on the proviso that I can cut it in writing articles for these publications. I prove myself to him again and again, and his generous patronage (I owe you so much Dave – thanks for being one of the best for so long and putting up with me all these years) is the reason why I end up writing about stuff like Scottish art cinema (Lynne Ramsay and “Ratcatcher”) or Jim VanBebber (about the cinematography on his Pantera video for ‘Revolution Is My Name’) for AC. One of the world’s top film magazines, it’s a technical trade journal and I don’t come from a technical background…but hey, with enough balls and wordwork know-how even a monkey can follow writer’s guidelines and come up trumps, right?


Over on the Romero front, I stop following his work closely after “The Dark Half” but am still interested to hear about what he’s getting up to upon occasion. Or, more specifically, I’m interested to hear about the oft-raised-but-never-fully-verified rumors about an impending new “Dead” film “Twilight of The Dead,” which will be the end to the series that the original “Day of The Dead,” whose budget was lopped in half (and whose original script is excellent), was supposed to be. My idle “Day”-dreams of being a zombie in a Romero film (which assumed some sort of talismanic significance in my mind for a few years) fade quietly as I get older and move into new arenas of interest, leaving behind my horror fandom in my early 20s, although not my love of “Dawn” as my favorite film. By now I’m older and more educated as to Romero’s subversive social and societal subtexts in his “Dead” films and can see the nod-and-a-wink depth to them. But underneath it is all is just the sheer pleasure of seeing a world order I despise collapse and seeing an intelligently realized version of, as the director himself puts it in one clip of him I see, the vision of a new society devouring the old. The film is just a great remedy for any dazed days when I’m feeling hopeless or helpless or misanthropic at the state of the world, and the idea of a planet seemingly full of morons being wiped out and a new world disorder establishing itself is an extremely appealing one.

Plus I still think zombies are really, really cool…


In 2004 the much-debated, tedious, braindead “Dawn” ‘remake’ (or re-imagining or whatever the f**k you want to call it, which rips off the original “Day” script) comes out and I phone up BBC Radio Scotland and DEMAND to review it and do so, dismissing it and pointing people back towards the original, which has finally been released uncut on DVD in the last couple of years in the UK (having been snipped of six minutes on its initial video release). Stupid as it may be, the regurgitation remake has one good effect: its success, along with that of the “Resident Evil” films, convinces Universal Studios that they could make a mint if they put Romero back in the undead director’s chair to make another long-overdue installment of his own decades-spanning zombie flesheater holocaust saga. And thus the forever-rumblings about a fourth “Dead’ film start anew, only this time with real weight and it’s-finally-gonna-happen substance.

I tell Dave Williams that, if Cinefantastique are going to do a story on the film, I want to be the one who visits the set when it shoots. He agrees (earning a place in my good book until the end of time) and gives me the gig. I am fortuitously on holiday in Chicago (a short hop to Toronto, where “Land of The Dead” is filming) during December 2004, the omens are good…and I can hardly believe my luck as I jump on a plane to Canada on 12/01 and the culmination to a story that started over two decades before with an unsuspecting 11-year-old’s chance discovery of a horror classic in a long-gone Falkirk video shop. I get an added wee bonus on the plane. Actor Paul Dooley, who played Claude Elsinore in the 1983 Canuck cult classic “Strange Brew” (which just so happens to be one of my all-time fave films) is on the plane, and I tell him the film is great and shake his hand before settling down for the undead adventure to come.

After a journey of a little over an hour I am in Toronto and get a limousine (all the while marveling at the whole thing) from the airport to the four-star Marriott Bloor hotel I am being put up in by the generous-cos-they-can-afford-it Universal Studios. Starving, I head down to the dining room after checking in. With my $100 (Canadian) per diem I get myself the most expensive $35 coupla-inches-thick steak (best I ever ate in my life) in the place, just because I can, and toast myself with a $12 glass of red wine. This is the life indeed; things just don’t get any better than this…

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

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