It’s been thirty years since I first met you. I can remember the buttery smell of microwave popcorn on that Friday night so long ago. My mother and father, my older brother and my childhood best friend and I – we were all gathered around the television in our tiny living room. Rented from our local video store earlier that day – Vision Quest and you. The Mathew Modine-wrestling film was up first. (Is it any wonder that for years, Journey’s Only the Young – the song covering that film’s opening credits, would remind me of you?)
I was but 11 years old, and had seen my share of other artistic pieces like you in my past. Why, it was one of your distant cousins, the 1982 Creepshow which first introduced me to the idea of the walking dead. A story for another day.
Right from the get-go, you were forever engrained in my nightmares – the image of that newspaper blowing in the wind, proclaiming, “The Dead Walk”. And from there on out, I could barely contain my terror – clearly some deep-set and primal fear was at work.
By the time you placed Sarah and McDermott into that corral, I found it necessary to cover my eyes and ears – pressing so tightly that it’s a wonder I didn’t have a 5-day headache. It was at this point where the tears started to flow. You got me. All right, you got me. I don’t remember what was going through my mind during the 20 or so minutes of your (from my perspective – muted) climax. Perhaps, “when will it be over?” When Sarah, John and McDermott approached that chain-link fence, only to see the helicopter in the distance and the advancing zombie horde, it was then that my brother told me it was okay to remove my vacuum-sealed hand mask from my head. It was almost over. And then Sarah opened the helicopter door and those ghoulish hands reached out to her as she screamed. I was horrified, devastated and forever marked by this terrifying experience.
My brother and friend’s post-Day of the Dead re-screening of Vision Quest was meant to soothe my jangled nerves and bring down the red puffiness of my swollen eyes.
That night, I had a most intense nightmare. The details have always been fuzzy, but I do recall that in the dream, I was wearing some sort of hat, which made me extra visible and extra appetizing to the throngs of zombies stumbling about in the dream. The trick was to somehow get rid of the hat. I woke up in a cold sweat (my brother was beside me on the living room floor – we were camping out – and my friend was on the nearby sofa). And of course, I had to pee. So in what must have been the bravest moment of my entire life, I made my way down the dark hallway, did my business and then, trembling, stared into the dark hallway back to the living room – not wanting to leave the safety of the bathroom light. The sound of the fan in the bathroom ceiling was always a bit clunky, but at that moment, it was comforting. There was never a thought to go into my own bedroom – right next to that bathroom – for it would be dark and unoccupied (ahem), so the only option was to return to the living room and the safety of numbers. A brief flicker of thought on how I would get in trouble by leaving that bathroom light and fan on all night, but there was no way I was going to tackle that dark hall without the little bit of illumination to guide me. So I left the light on, jetted down that hallway and into the living room – quickly covering myself in my sleeping bag. I was still terrified and still reeling from not only the film, but the “hat dream”. And while I was fully awake, I lay there for several minutes, wondering if I would ever fall back asleep. Another idea – I physically reached over to wake up my sleeping brother – with the thought that I could ask him to take the hat. He didn’t wake up, and the second thought to offer the horrible hat to my friend on the sofa – was quickly vanquished. The sofa was far too distant.
For years following this screening, whenever I would be in our home’s bathroom, I would not only lock the door, but would rig a piece of plywood (my father had been doing construction in the bathroom) to brace the door – offering some safety against any eventual zombie attack. I also secretly wished to find a hypnotist who would be able to somehow remove your memory from my mind. I couldn’t handle it. The fear you instilled was that intense and that pronounced.
And even now, in my mid-life – I still have terrifying and vivid zombie dreams.
Now do you see what you did to me?
Years later – my love for horror had blossomed into a full-on obsession, but I was still reluctant to look at you again. After the damage you’d done, I wasn’t ready to put myself through that emotional strain again.
But one Saturday afternoon, on the USA Network, you were played. You were cut to shreds to accommodate the censors, and so that is how I first became intimately familiar with you. I recorded you from the television that day and thus began my intense love affair.
Imagine my surprise some months later when I finally gathered the courage to actually re-rent you, in all of your un-edited glory, from that same video store. I was shocked by your graphic language, your violent, gory on-screen deaths. Sure, I’d seen it all on that original night, but one could believe that I had blocked out many of the details.
Not long after that, I purchased my own VHS copy of you. And there began my never-ending repeat marathon of your goodness. Obsession doesn’t rightfully describe what it was. Eventually I would discover your brethren – both Dawn of the Dead and the original Night of the Living Dead. And while these films obviously became staples and continued to cultivate my vivid flesh-eating zombie nightmares – they never reached the importance of you.
Zombie stories/prose/poetry, non-stop random quotes of your dialogue (much to the chagrin of my loyal friends), zombie short films shot on a Sears-rented, clunky old VHS camera and the non-stop collecting of your (and any other zombie-related) memorabilia began. I was hooked. You were my addiction. Sure, my other teenaged obsessions (Freddy Krueger and Madonna) were strong, but as I’ve aged, those obsessions have waned – and yet, here you still are.
The fact that I would eventually meet many of your cast and crew and your dear poppa, Mr. Romero – only sweetened the pot. Honest to God nerves as I met so many of your gracious stars. It was hard not to completely nerd out, but how else would I explain to them how much they (and their characters) meant to me? Well, hopefully this gushing essay will make it clear just how deeply my love for you and your many brilliant pieces – goes. Eventually, as an adult, I would get the chance to experience you on the big screen at a theatre in Chicago. It was a very big deal.
To point out only one of my favorite moments in your 101 minute running time is like some sort of extra-demented Sophie’s Choice. But who can look at Miguel’s arm amputation sequence, and not be in love? It’s bold, brilliantly acted (one of my acting heroines – Lori Cardille in her “Oscar” moment) and something which never left my mind.
To this day – 30 years later – I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve experienced you. I’ve often told friends that it’s well over 1,000 viewings, and frankly, I don’t consider that an exaggeration. In fact, it may well be a very conservative estimate.
Over these many years, you’ve influenced my screenwriting and other creative expressions, and most of all, you’ve informed my psyche – providing endless fuel for those aforementioned terrifying and still powerful nightmares.
It may be overstating it, but you’ve made me the proud horror nerd I am today. Ask any close friends or casual acquaintances – they’ll know that at my core, I’m a zombie-lover. And these ongoing memories of you and the related thoughts you’ve brought up, have always made me feel special – even though I know you had an effect on so many thousands of others. But in my mind – even to this day – I’ve always believed you were mine and mine alone.
You were made for me.
So to you – my dear love Day of the Dead – I offer a sincere congratulations on your 30th anniversary (I just made it), and ongoing kudos for your late-in-life emergence as a genuine (and now finally respected) horror classic. Sure took long enough, right? Just remember who was there for you from the beginning.
With well wishes and hopes to see you again soon…