When a NIGHT OF THE LIVING FAN thinks of the people involved in the film, Gary Streiner likely doesn’t pop to the top of his mind. George Romero, Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea are much more likely. He’s probably not even the top Streiner on the list, as brother Russell played the cantankerous sibling Johnny. I can’t blame people, as Gary has a small, non-speaking role as one of the posse throwing corpses on the fire at the film’s end, and recorded sound for much of the film. He’s not exactly as in-your-face as Karl Hardman, who portrayed the grumpy Harry Cooper. But the last five years, Gary is one of the most important forces in keeping the NOTLD legacy alive. Through the Living Dead Fest and his efforts to restore the Evans City Chapel, Gary truly adds one more to the fire with his work as historian.
I met Gary several years back at a Chiller show. This was before some of the lesser-known NOTLD actors were on the circuit, and so he was a thrill. We hit it off immediately, and I began to promote and support the previous LDF, back in 2009. I even did a phone interview with Gary, and got some great behind-the-scenes stories. I attended the fest, and had an awesome experience, which involved my meeting Judith Ridley and several zombies for the first time. Gary had had a few other LDFs previously, but this was his toure de force, with the largest NOTLD cast and crew assembly in the history of conventions. If it weren’t for Gary, my movie poster banner would have a lot less signatures on it. I toured the Evans City Cemetery and chronicled it in photos. But most important was the smile on Gary’s face. It said he felt accomplished, that he’d not only brought the actors to the fans, but that the fans were able to take a part in the legacy moving forward.
Gary was supposed to host another LDF the next year, but those plans fell through. Sadly fell through, because I had intended to make the LDF a yearly stop on my rounds of the convention circuit. Throughout the last few years, I heard rumblings that Gary was attempting to get things back in motion, but there’s been no new LDF for us fans of George Romero’s greatest film. Until now. On August 30-31, Gary will bring the LDF back from the dead, with a tour of several locations on Friday and a signing session on Saturday. And I couldn’t be any happier if I tried.
Holding the LDF in Evans City is key to its impact culturally. Any NOTLD fan knows it’s where the majority of the classic was filmed, where the cemetery was, and the famed farmhouse. Fans travelling there may think it looks no different from the rest of Western PA, but actually being there has a different feeling. I can tell from experience that the place generates a certain giddiness and glee just driving over the town border. Gary knows the importance of the place not only in zombie history, or Romero history, but in film history in general. After all, Romero was the one who made Pennsylvania a legitimate state for filming. Just look at Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES for proof.
Gary’s also providing guests that you may not meet anywhere else. Though O’Dea, John Russo and big brother Russ are convention staples, Ella Mae Smith and Dick Heckard aren’t exactly likely to show up at a HorrorHound show. But that’s good. They give the LDF a unique flavor, and meeting them in Evans City gives those autographs a gravity they may not have had otherwise. Again, it’s that sense of taking place in a part of history, listening to Ella Mae weave stories from the set some 45 years ago. I know. I’ve met some of them there.
So Gary’s assembled actors from a classic. He’s brought them to ground zero for NOTLD. And he’s bringing in fans to share in the mix. But he’s also trying to preserve the Evans City Chapel. The building’s fallen into decay after so many decades, but Gary won’t let time erode it into the soil. The last few years, he’s been on point bringing attention to the chapel, and drawing money to restore and preserve it. He’s even elicited some famous people to support the cause, including Cyndi Lauper.
Fans might not think of Gary Streiner when they consider the forces behind NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. But they should. Gary’s tireless in his efforts, and has become a curator for the flick’s legacy. For a sound recorder who has a brief, non-speaking role, that’s impressive, as is Gary himself. He’s a good man who I’m proud to call a friend, and he knows the cultural importance of the film and refuses to let it fade. Just when it looks as if the flame will gutter out, Gary Streiner adds one more to the fire and keeps the torch lit.