Actor Russell W. Streiner Talks Film at Walker-Stalker Con 2014

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For any true Zombie/Horror film aficionado no film is more beloved or discussed than the 1968 Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead. This film was the preeminent zombie film and is often credited with being the first of its kind. There have been a lot of imitators but not many can hold a candle to the Romero classic.

The year was 1968 and a young George A. Romero, a recent college drop-out who aspired to be a filmmaker set out to direct a little film titled Night of the Living Dead. Romero gathered a team of real Pittsburgh citizens, many of whom were friends and family of the cast members, reporters, police officers, and teachers.

Romero then shot the film in a revolutionary guerrilla style that became cinematic gold. Romero’s classic remains the most visceral and influential horror film ever made.

Russell Streiner in Night of the Living Dead
Russell Streiner in Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The project, a low-budget horror film, shocked the world, and would become an icon of the counterculture that created the zombie genre, which spawned multitudes of films, books, comics, and games, and has generated untold fortunes.

Night of the Living Dead is recognized internationally as an art film, for its groundbreaking treatment of American race relations and allegorical references to the Vietnam War. The film has stood the test of time and has maintained its cult status as a classic horror masterpiece.

I recently attended Walker-Stalker Con 2014 in Secaucus, New Jersey and had the opportunity to discuss the film with one of it cast members, and a zombie movie legend … Russell W. Streiner. Streiner is known for the famous line in the film “They’re coming to get you Barbara!” He also took part in the 1990 remake of the movie and played the part of Sheriff Connor McClellan after George Romero (according to Streiner) got cold feet. He also went on to write the film, Return of the Living Dead in 1985.

Judith O
Judith O’Dea

Russell W. Streiner: When we were filming our little movie we had no idea what it would launch. I don’t think anyone who has written a book, or poetry could ever imagine the outcome until the public is exposed to it. We had the good fortune of the film being widely accepted by the public, and we are just so grateful that it worked out that way.

RD: Why do you think the film has stood the test of time?

RS: I think that it has to do with the fact that it is just a pretty good story. Someone once asked the band leader Glen Miller ‘why do people keep coming to hear your music?’ And he said, ‘well I’d like to think it is good music’. I think the same thing can be said for Night of the Living Dead. It covers some very basic time-honored story points, good versus evil. The threat is always there … you can’t overcome it.

RD: The film has often been the subject of debate because George A. Romero is known for inserting politically driving imagery in his horror films. What underlying messages do you think are contained in the film? The film was made in the civil rights era, and you cast a strong African American in a leading role.

Judith O
Judith O’Dea and Russ Streiner

RS: We obviously knew that by casting Dwayne Jones, an African American, in a lead in a film that was going to happen primarily in an abandoned and remote location where he is held up with a white woman, that it would hit controversial buttons. As we knew when the truck blows up and the love interest couple gets killed in the truck and we had the element of cannibalism that they would be hot topics. We suspected there would be parts of the U.S. that would not play the movie for controversial and racial issues, but we felt it was important enough to the story to do it the way we wanted to. The big issue that independent film makers have to deal with is if you can do your own financing then you don’t have to cow-tow to financiers or studio executives and you can make the film that you want to make, and that is what happened with Night of the Living Dead.

RD: Some of the elements of the film have been the topic of many heated discussions like the lead character, a black male surviving to the morning only to be killed by a group of white men. Then you had the scenes with bonfires, and news footage of what looked like lynch mobs. Many say these images were social commentary on the assassinations of black civil rights leaders of the era like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr assassinated in 1968 and Medgar Wiley Evers, assassinated in 1963. Were these images used purposely or is it just a coincidence?

RS: I have to say that it was purely coincidental. One of the things that trigger that story point was John Russo had the idea that rural Pennsylvania where the film was made is a big deer hunting area, and it is inevitable that each year thousands of hunters are out in the woods. One will inadvertently get killed and John applied that to this accidental killing of the lead character. It had nothing to do with ‘redneck’ posses hunting blacks.

Russell Streiner
Russell Streiner

RD: You are also known for having written “Return of the Living Dead.” Why did you choose to make the zombies in this film indestructible and go against the classic ‘Romero zombie’?

RS: We didn’t decide that. Dan O’Bannon took our script and re worked it to what he wanted to do with it. Our zombies were much more traditional.

RD: Why do you think the ‘Romero zombie’ is the predominant zombie in horror films?

RS: I can’t presume to speak for George but based on conversations that we had, we both had the view that slow moving unrelenting zombies ultimately are more terrifying then ones that run real fast or have super strength.

Russell W. Dickson, lives in upstate NY, and is a Freelance journalist. He has written for both print and online news/opinion pages.Russell holds a B.A. in English, minor Journalism from The University at Albany, Albany, NY. His writing experience spans more than a decade and his work has graced the pages of newspapers, magazines, online news orgs, and political websites in both the U.S. and abroad.