Ed. note– Gary Streiner is more than just someone who was involved with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to me, he’s a friend. I met him at a Chiller a few years ago, and we became fast friends. I did everything I could to promote the second annual LDF on Icons of Fright a few years back, and Gary was kind enough to set me up interviews with Charles Craig and his brother Russ Streiner. We also spent over an hour on the phone together as I conducted this interview. It first appeared on Icons of Fright, but as with the Charles Craig and Russ Streiner chats, it’s no longer available there, which makes Death Ensemble the only place to find all three. As for the LDF, there hasn’t been another one since the 2nd, and NOTLD fans eagerly await for Gary to bring the show back to Evans City.– P.F.
Among those names made famous by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD some 41 years ago, Gary Streiner might not be the first to come to mind for the film’s many fans. Though Gary was not as prominent as George Romero or Gary’s own brother Russ, he was part of a tight-knit team that produced what would become not only a classic horror film, but a classic film in general. One of the ten original investors in NOTLD, his role as the film’s recording guy and sound mixer gave him an inside view of the movie. He was kind enough recently to discuss some of his experiences on NOTLD with me, as well as his second annual Living Dead Festival, an autograph signing and showing of the movie which will include many first time guests, including Judith Ridley.
Phil Fasso: How did you first get involved with George Romero?
Gary Streiner: I got involved with George Romero through my brother Russ, who was studying to be an actor at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. George came there one night to see a performance that my brother was in, brought there by a mutual friend.
So George and Russ became friends and later partners, off doing their thing. I was still in high school, not really working full time at all, and they were off doing a project called EXPOSTULATIONS, a 16 mm film that George was in the process of making. So I came out one Sunday or Saturday, to be part of a crowd. They had a quasi-company going, called The Latent Image, and at that point in time, they were just doing still photos, and nuts and bolts for industrial catalogues, I mean the most mundane stuff you can possibly imagine. They rented a place over on the South Side of Pittsburgh, and George was living there; it was a great space, because it had 3 sections to it: the front space the office. And I’m like a 15 year old kid at this time, and this is all like playing/work. You go off to brother’s quasi-office, you know.
George was a chronic soda drinker, and he just couldn’t speak in the morning without a cigarette and a Mountain Dew. So there were three sections to this building, the front was the office, and the middle section was used as a studio and it was literally filled with Mountain Dew bottles. Because George was a chain smoker, he put all of his cigarettes out in the bottles. So my first professional job was to get all the cigarette butts out of the pop bottles, so I could then take them up the street and return them for the 3 cent deposit, for my paycheck. To kind of get an idea of how many pop bottles there were. There were weeks when I made $50.
Phil: What was the development process like on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?
Define “development process.” (laughs) What area? In the concept of it? Or in the overall of it?
Phil: How much were you involved in the back story, before the actual filming started?
Again, I was the kid, so I got to sit on the floor a lot and listen to these guys sort of thrash all this stuff out, George and Jack Russo and my brother and Rudy Ricci and sometimes Richard Ricci, in those brainstorming sessions. And we were also running a company, so I had other chores and duties to do, but the hardcore script development went on mostly after I went home. You know, it was really a fun time, in contrast to most of today’s occupations. Even though none of us was making much money, 99% of the time, we would’ve chosen to be there than be home. That really made it fun, because the times that we were there were always exploratory. There wasn’t a lot of meetings posted on schedules, that kind of thing. The forum was extremely open,; there were never like closed door meetings, they were all conference room chit chats rather than, “Okay, it’s 9:30 and I’d better be in Board Room B for the latest script revisions.” It was much more organic, much more, “Well, we’re tired with what we’re doing over here, ” then we’d go have our meetings in a big conference room on the 5th floor. It was carpeted, and there was a couch, and you know we could just sort of lounge around and meet.
And so that’s where most of the screenplay developed. My involvement was limited, because I just truly couldn’t keep up with the big boys intellectually, I guess. And that’s really the way I felt during that time. I was like in awe of these guys, and I was so proud to be able to physically, and ultimately intellectually, able to help facilitate a lot of the things. I was another strong, strapping young man that lugged gear around and really helped to execute other people’s ideas.
Phil: NOTLD was somewhat of a family affair, with Russ and your mom involved. How was it working with family?
During NOTLD it was totally comfortable, it was great. Working with family, you knew the enemy, you knew where the skeletons were buried. There was the overshadowing thing that I will always feel, the younger brother syndrome. It’s not that it put me in a position of discomfort, by any means; it was just a fact, that I was the younger brother, and 6 years less cultured. George had been a Fine Arts major at Carnegie-Mellon, so he at least understood the concept of creativity, and again, I would say that my brother understood the creative aspects of the business a lot more. He had been in much more creative endeavors. But as a 15-year-old kid, I hadn’t created any of those categories in my personality as of yet.
Phil: Some people give their all for art. You nearly gave your life. Can you share that story?
(Laughs) Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Our level of expertise was limited, and our level of naiveté was enormous. We didn’t know a lot. It was just like, “Okay, this chair was on fire a few minutes ago, I’ll check it out, make sure there’s no sparks. Then I’ll take this plastic gallon jug of gasoline and dump it all over it and light it again.” Not very bright, not hugely safety cautious, by any means. So yeah, I did in fact catch myself on fire, and it was pretty terrifying, and considering everything, yes, I am hugely lucky. I had a full gallon of gasoline in my hand, which was now being flung in the air and all over me, all up my arm. And it could’ve hit my face, anything could’ve happened. And thank Bill Hinzman (who played the Cemetery Ghoul), he probably was a volunteer fireman somewhere, he knew to tackle me to the ground and roll me on the ground. The whole thing was over in like 30 seconds.
Phil: What was George Romero like as a director?
Well, I think George by his own admission didn’t want to be the director. The last thing he wanted to do was have to be the boss. That was not something that he did naturally. Later as I became a more accomplished producer working with many different directors, I learned that it’s the producers challenge to, surround the director with as many creative people possible. But at that time in Pittsburgh those people didn’t exist, so a lot more fell on George’s shoulders. I don’t think the film that came out would’ve been the same if George wasn’t the person he was or at the professional level he was. And that’s a compliment, because he wasn’t a film director at the point; he’d never directed anything over 60 seconds prior to that. He did a few other longer format films, maybe 10 minutes long, travelogues and things like that for Pennsylvania, but never had to carry dialogue, or carry a scene for a long period of time.
So sometimes he took a lot longer to figure it out, like a lot of young directors I’ve worked with since then. They never know whether it’s really right or wrong until they see it. They end up doing things a bunch more times than they have to, just to have the ability to see it more times and figure it out. So I think George fell into that category as much as any real first time director would.
I think that one of George’s biggest asset is his creative mind, his ability to think mental pictures and conceptually, I think that’s what a fine artist does before he puts a brush to a canvas or a sketch pad. He could develop a creative idea, certainly as he went on, George could see things artistically, which the rest of us didn’t necessarily have the ability to do.
Phil: When did you realize that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had become a classic? And how did that feel?
I really felt it for the first real time last year. You can’t live a life and go pretty much anywhere in the world that somebody doesn’t know about it, your signature as a film, “Gary Streiner, he was one of the people who made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.” It’s pretty amazing, the various companies I’ve been in at times, to think that some pretty high powered tables could be brought to a halt by the mention of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I would get spikes like that all through my life.
And then last year when I decided to do the first Living Dead Festival. I hadn’t even been in Pittsburgh in 20 years, so it’d been a long time. Meeting fans last year, I just started thinking, “Wow, this is a real thing, this isn’t just something like a blip, this happened in my life,” 40 years later, it’s still going on, and you have humans out there just so many people I’ve met over the last year who really care about this film. The last year made me realize, not necessarily that the film was a classic, but what being a classic meant, and that’s a much bigger rush than the actual making of the film.
Phil: Romero continued to make Dead movies after NOTLD. Have you seen these other films?
I’m going to be very honest with you. I’m not a big horror fan. It’s like one of the last things I would put on my list. I just happen to be a guy who made a film, and that same film happened to become real popular. You know, I’ve seen… I couldn’t even tell you which ones I’ve seen. I’ve seen THE CRAZIES, DAWN, DAY and LAND. But it’s not like I was the guy hanging on the edge of the whatever, waiting for the next drop.
Phil: One of the notorious issues with NOTLD is the copyright issue. Your brother Russ is still fighting to get the copyright restored. Do you think this will ever be resolved?
I doubt it. I have to say, just for the pure ownership aspect of it, it would be nice, to get it restored, just for the historical accuracy of it. Certainly, our potential to capitalize on the project that we actually created is more difficult. But I’m finding that none of that really matters. Everyone knows who made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. We can’t change it, it was a stupid mistake; I can’t be sure at how many levels the mistake was made. Obviously it was made on more than one level. We were a bunch of naive kids, and we didn’t know all things we necessarily should’ve known. Now if Russ were here with me, he might have a whole different point of view. Which is why he and Jack, in particular, they’re the primary trustees of Image Ten (NOTLD’s production company), so they would. But I’m sure it’ll be an ongoing project with Russ until he dies, to get it restored, at any opportunity possible.
Phil: After 40 years, Night of the Living Dead finally got the documentary it deserved in Chris Roe’s ONE FOR THE FIRE, in which you participated. What are your thoughts on that documentary?
I will be flat out honest in saying, when I saw it, I said, “Well, it’s not an embarrassment.” Did I think it was certainly the definitive documentary of this film, or the makers of this film? No. I don’t think so at all. I think it was a lot of passion, and a lot of labor that went into finding people and then interviewing them. But I know I said more pertinent things than what actually got used in the film, and I think that just about anybody who was interviewed for the film could say the same.
I did a film called COMEDIAN with Jerry Seinfeld, where we had 600 hours of material, and it took pretty close to 16 months to cut that into a film; and I don’t think ONE FOR THE FIRE got that type of consideration.
Me: Last year, Romero and a number of the others involved in Night did the convention circuit with the 40th Anniversary Night of the Living Dead Tour. You didn’t take part in that. Was that because of the Living Dead Fest?
No, I wasn’t asked. Certainly Jack and Russ and Kyra Schon and Judy O’Dea, and to some degree Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman and George had been doing conventions for a lot longer than last year. I think it just became a convenience, and a salable commodity to say, “All right, this is the group of people that have been out there doing it. We’ll just commission them.” The eight people that travelled became a neat little bundle. I went to the Chiller show, this April, mainly because I just wanted to go and say hello to a lot of people that I’ve met online and also to meet a lot of people like you that are helping get the festival off the ground. Now, with the Living Dead Festival, I have the ability to have my own event, that I can partake in here in Evans City, and it’s not going to get any better anywhere else.
Phil: You’re now gearing up for the 2nd annual LDF. How did the Festival come about in the first place?
A guy named Rick Reifenstein was on the Evans City Historical Commission, and they were sitting around, having one of their meetings, saying, “What can they do to raise funds?” So, one of the projects, or one of the things that got added to the list was the 40th anniversary of the NOTLD coming up, “Maybe we can do something.” Rick had that idea, and then contacted me, I guess it was a year ago last February, and said they were thinking about doing it, would I be interested. My circumstance was certainly open to it, and that’s how it all began. Rick and I started yammering ideas, and we spent most of the year—creatively thinking of what we could do. And then we got down around August, and said, “How are we gonna pay for this?” And that could’ve been the end of it right there.
But finally, I just said, “Look. We have a couple of opportunities, they won’t cost us anything; we can be part of the Oktoberfest parade, that’s free; we can be part of the Evans City Halloween parade, that’s free; and then we can have a screening at EDCO Park.” And that’s really what happened. And it was just such a magical little screening. We had literally put out about 4,000 flyers, and probably did that no more than 3 weeks before the event. And we got 300 people to show up for the screening.
Me: NOTLD fans have been calling for Judith Ridley to do conventions for years, and this year’s Living Dead Fest. How did you convince her to come?
I had to put a roof on my brother’s garage. It wasn’t about negotiations, it wasn’t about money. Russ has been talking to Judy for years about, “You really ought to think about coming out and doing one of these shows. The fans would love to see you. It would be financially rewarding.” And she just really didn’t care to do it. This wasn’t part of her life; she certainly does not perceive herself as her role in the movie. A little like me, she went on and had a life and did other things. Judy is actually having a hard time understanding why anyone would show up to see her. That’s a reality. And that’s just the sweet, brilliant innocence of this whole thing.
Well, Russ and their two kids Rachael and Justin had been harping on her for a long time. And so they finally wore her down; she finally responded positively, to the notion of doing a show. I was standing in his driveway, replacing a roof on his garage, and I just looked at him and said, “Do you know what this would mean, if she were to do our festival first?”
Judy is really happy that she can do her first show in the comforts of the family. It’s not like she’s having to go out and thrust herself into some 35,000+ fans. This’ll be a real nice way for her to enter into it. And I’m hoping it’ll be really great for the fans, because I think they’ll have an opportunity to get more quality time with her, and in the end, that’s all people really want. They don’t care about vendors tables.
Phil: NOTLD has become a cultural phenomenon that has lasted more than 40 years. As you prepare to meet fans this October, what are your reflections on the film now?
Paul McCartney was just on the Letterman show a couple of weeks ago. And Letterman asked him some question like “How long before you came on The Ed Sullivan Show were you guys big?” And Paul McCartney just stared at him with this blank stare and said, “Two days.” He proceeded to say, ‘It’s kind of crazy, but the details of most of those years are a blur to me; you get a much better answer to those kinds of questions from the fans.” And I found that to be absolutely true.
I really want to meet them, the people who have given so much of their life to this film, and I guess I want to fulfill their expectations in whatever way I can. My perceptions tell me that’s accessibility right now. That’s the thing that the true hardcore fans want more than T-shirts or posters or vinyl stickers. They just want to be able to meet and greet the people, and have access to the people who made the film. Last year, there was a doctor who came up and introduced himself at the screening, who had his 12-year-old son with him, and he introduced his son. And he said, “Thank you so much for putting this event on, because my son has never seen the movie, and now I can properly pass on the heritage, through this official screening.” That near brings tears to your eyes. Because it’s so real and so sincere.
I don’t profess to be anything more than the guy who recorded the sound for the film, and one of the original 10 investors, who now, through a quirky set of circumstances finds himself in the driver’s position to carve out the definitive NOTLD festival. 300 people came out to see this film on a freezing cold night in October in a park. And all of them went away saying “thank you.” When does that happen in America?