The 3rd Time’s a Charm… If the Dead Are Living
The Living Dead Festival, Evans City, PA
October 30, 2009, at EDCO Park
Ed. note- I’m blessed to have Gary Streiner as a friend. Put aside the fact that he was a key figure in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, one of my all-time favorite horror films; and what really matters is he’s a genuinely nice guy, a sweetheart of a man who’s done his best to preserve NOTLD as a piece of history. That he assembled a group of people from the film I would likely have never met anywhere else, provided one of the greatest thrills of my life as a horror fan. Sadly, he wasn’t able to promote the 3rd annual LDF, so let’s give him all the support he needs to get it going in 2011! – P.F.
My very first writing for my former website Icons of Fright was a convention report on Pittsburgh, PA’s Monster Bash in 2007. It was a decent show, a small-scale convention where I met Kyra Schon and Bill Hinzman of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and it marked my inaugural trip to the Pittsburgh area. My second visit to the area followed a year later, when I travelled to Monroeville, home of George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. The purpose behind that one was the HorrorHound show, another convention I chronicled. But that report ended up being more about my buddy X hitting a deer than the lackluster convention itself. For Halloween weekend, 2009, I made my third visit to the area, and this trip was something altogether special. This time, I was headed to Gary Streiner’s 2nd Annual Living Dead Festival in the heart of zombieland, Evans City, PA.
Gary and I first met back in April, at the Chiller show in Jersey. At the time, he told me about the first LDF, and how he intended a show much bigger in scope as a gift to the fans who still revere NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD some forty-odd years later. And boy, did Gary deliver.
The convention didn’t start until 2 p.m. on Friday, but I was jumping out of my skin to get to the main event, so I left my hotel some 30 miles away in Coraopolis, PA and arrived in Evans City at about 10 a.m. Though rain was in the forecast, I was met by a day that was warm and sunny enough for me to leave my leather jacket in the car. Gary and his small crew were still assembling tents and shuffling things around, so I threw in a hand and got down to work. Not only watching this little band of brothers putting the grounds together at EDCO Park, but participating as well, made me feel like I’d accomplished something more important than merely going to a convention.
About an hour later, the festival’s guests started to arrive. I had a nice conversation with Gary’s brother, Russ Streiner, who I’d interviewed a few weeks earlier, and then spoke at length with Charles Craig, the movie’s famous radio voice. As others from the film walked in little by little, I was amazed that I was actually on the same grounds as the very ghouls and ghoul hunters from the film.
The highlight preceding the convention was definitely when I saw Judith Ridley walking aside Russ. This was the woman I’d come so far to see, and later when I met her, I could not have been more pleased to find her such a pleasant, smiling woman.
As a news crew showed up to interview many of the guests (I did everything to slide myself in and promote Icons of Fright, but failed to make it into the 1 minute 40 second slot), there was a break in the work, and I asked Gary where to find the Evans City Cemetery. As I was with the Monroeville Mall, I was shocked to discover that there weren’t signs everywhere promoting the Hell out of the graveyard, but Gary said the locals like to keep it as low key as possible. I had driven around earlier looking for it, but I am firmly convinced that the entire state of Pennsylvania is one giant farm in which all the mountain roads look exactly the same. I was surprised when Gary told me the cemetery was right around the corner, so I hopped in my rented Hyundai and off I went.
Let me be honest here: as a Catholic and a man who respects the dead, I felt rather ghoulish myself when I drove up, took out my camera, and started to shoot the heck out of the Evans City Cemetery. But, I asked myself, how could I go all the way to Evans City and deliver a report for Icons without pictures. So if I sold a little bit of my soul, I sold it for you Icons fans who will read this report. I’ve heard that the cemetery’s been reconfigured since 1967, but it looked the same to me. Although I was surprised to see just how small the place is; it looked bigger in the film.
Returning from my ghoulish tour, I made my way into the tiny tent that housed all the guests. Gary’s kindness was instantly apparent; so appreciative was he that I took the flight from Long Island to cover the LDF for Icons, he was gracious enough to get my banner signed by those whose signatures were missing, free of charge. Even had he not done this, I would have had high praise for him; here’s a guy who genuinely loves that people still revere NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and he’s taken it upon himself not only to preserve the film’s legacy, but to provide the legions of fans with the opportunity to meet people involved in the film, which they never would have had otherwise. A small but dedicated crowd of hardcore fans, one of whom travelled all the way from Corsica in Europe, met Gary’s enthusiasm in kind, and contributed to the festival’s unique feel. Everybody, from the farther-travelling fan to Ella Mae Smith of the film to Gary himself, was smiling. In six years of attending conventions, I’ve never felt such a positive vibe at a convention. And that all starts with Gary.
As for the guests themselves, there was a uniform appreciation among them that people would be interested in meeting them. Many of these people have never heard of a horror convention, so they were overjoyed to be signing eight posters and some 8×10’s for a single fan. Terry Gindele, the first ghoul that Ben kills, sat right across from Dave James, the last ghoul killed. Joining them was Regis Survinski, who not only played a ghoul, but also served as stunt and special effects coordinator. Fellow special effects guy and posse member Tony Pantanella was situated right next to Dick Heckard, another from the posse. Lee Hartman, a suited zombie famous for the flower in his lapel, sat right next to Ella Mae, a cheery woman who told me all three times I spoke to her that her husband’s name was Phil (a great name, if I do say so myself).
Judith Ridley steadily signed all day, and wrote her famous line about her jacket being stuck on my 8×10. The convention also sported some regulars from the circuit, as Charles Craig, George Kosana, Russ Streiner and John Russo graced this small-scale show with their presences. Russ was even good enough to sign a free 8×10 for me; I shared with him that he was the first signature I ever got from NIGHT. There was even a special surprise as cameraman Joe Unitas, who wasn’t scheduled, arrived. I have to give special mention, though, to Russ and Gary’s mom, the 91-year-old Josephine Streiner, who may have played a ghoul in the film, but was spry and lively as she signed for the fans. For anybody who needs proof that the LDF was something special, her willingness to sign until 8 that night should speak for itself. Just as much as Gary wanted to give back to the fans, the friends and associates who came out for him at the festival gave back to him and us in kind.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quality of the 8×10’s on everybody’s tables. I’ve seen more recognizable guests at conventions with photocopies that looked as if they came from a paper jam at Staples. But Gary had everybody lined up with a variety of high quality glossies. Folks, the man went all out for his festival’s attendees. I only wish every other convention had Gary running it.
Any quibbles I had with the LDF were minor, and resulted mainly because of the tiny scale. The vendor’s section amounted to a few vendors, and offered little variety (though I’m very with my long sleeved LDF shirt). The tent with the guests was tight inside, and so I had to step out every time it quickly crowded. And I actually felt bad for the panel during the Q&A, when Gary had to reach out to get fans to participate and ask questions (Sorry that I didn’t ask anything, Gary, but I had intended to do interviews the next day); I had thought with this group, questions would have been flying fast and furiously.
Oh, and Gary went out of his way to provide a pig roast for dinner; the only reason I count that as a quibble is because I’m a vegetarian; based on the success of the roast, I can guarantee this made me a minority of one. Again, these aren’t really complaints, just my musings as a guy who’s been to some very large conventions over the years. As I’m a huge fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, trust me that none of these things took away from what was one of the most enjoyable convention experiences I’ve ever had.
As the night wound down, I made acquaintances with Jim Cirronella, the producer of AUTOPSY OF THE DEAD, a documentary that features many of the LDF’s guests. Jim was kind enough to donate several copies of the DVD and some other assorted goodies for a contest we were running on Icons of Fright. If you’re a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you should pick up the doc at AUTOPSY’s official site; I’ve seen the doc since, and it’s a nice companion piece to ONE FOR THE FIRE. Jim is just one more great guy I’ve had the opportunity to meet because I love NOTLD, and he’s contributed greatly to the LDF (including chauffeuring Gary’s mom to the show. hehe).
I fully intended to attend Day #2 of the LDF, especially because Gary would be showing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on a big screen at EDCO Park. Unfortunately, my plans were at the whim of Icons of Fright, and I was called back to report on the Chiller show on Halloween day. I regret missing out on the rest of Gary’s show, even if I’ve been told it was rainy and cold. I’ll make it up to Gary and myself next year, when I’ve already committed myself to spending the full weekend.
The 2nd Annual Living Dead Festival was a tiny convention out in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania, with guests from a single movie. For those who admire that movie as much as I do, there was never a question as to whether to attend, even if you live in Corsica. My third venture to Pittsburgh was by far my best, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to Gary Streiner, whose dedication to NOTLD’s legacy was clear, as was his love of the fans who carry it forward. Gary, I know we returned that love in kind.
The Evans City Cemetery
As I noted in my convention report, I drove up to the Evans City Cemetery. As a key location in an iconic film, it was a highlight of my journalistic career to go and chronicle the place in pictures for Icons of Fright. It also creeped me out to go and steal shots at a cemetery. I did my best to tread lightly on the dead, and not to get out of my car. After all, I know it’s only a movie, but…
Below is the series of photos I took at the cemetery. Enjoy.