Saturday Nightmares, March 19-21
Con of the Dead: Saturday Night’s All Right for Zombies
If you’re a fan of George Romero, and you live in the tri-state area, I have a question for you: Where were you on March 19-21? Because not nearly enough of you were in Jersey City, NJ at Saturday Nightmares, meeting Romero and a multitude of actors and actresses involved in his movies. As I stated in a promo piece for the convention, this was a dream show for those who love all things Romero, with guests from MARTIN, CREEPSHOW, his first three DEAD movies, TWO EVIL EYES, and as a bonus, the man who directed DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD. If you missed out on this one, you missed out on one Hell of a show.
A week before, Icons founder Mike Cucinotta and I had traveled through the Apocalypse to get to a convention. Given this show’s penchant for the undead, I was now traveling to a show to get to the Apocalypse. Not that the trip was that far off from literal Hell. Instead of being at war with the Heavens, X and I were locked in combat with cross-town traffic in the world’s greatest city, Manhattan (and by “great,” I mean “really, really big,” not “I had a great time being stuck in cross-town traffic”). The whole trip from my house on Long Island to Jersey City should have taken less than an hour; but gridlock across a narrow strip of NYC gave us a jaunt that took more than 3 hours.
After the exhausting time in the car, we arrived. I knew next to nothing about Jersey City, but my education in the area surprised me. To be kind, it’s not exactly a nice area. Gritty, urban and run down, I was astounded that it was home to a landmark movie theatre. But that wasn’t the only surprise. I’d also never been to a hotel without a parking lot before. As we parked to bring in our bags, X held up the picture of the hotel on his internet directions, and noted that they must have airbrushed all the busted windows on the house next to it. The hotel itself… not anything I would recommend. Welcome to Jersey City.
We parked in a paid lot behind the convention, and by the time we made it to the door, it was already 6:30 p.m. I was pleasantly surprised with the venue itself. Saturday Nightmares was held at the Lowes Theatre in Jersey City, a landmark theatre that has been around for almost a century. The place had a beauty and a grandeur that your modern multiplex around the corner will never have, as well as a historic perspective. My words can’t possibly describe just how impressed I was with the Loews (that’s why I used a camera).
A decent vendors room was set up downstairs, as the guests were set up on the second floor, with narrow walkways leading to Romero on the far side from the stairs, where Ken Foree and David Emgee sat across from the master, as John Amplas and Adrienne Barbeau flanked him on either side (Amplas was stationed in front of an antique organ, with a sign that constantly reminded him not to touch it). A truly unique venue made this convention stand out from every other I’ve attended, and gave it a touch of class and distinction.
I was also impressed with the guest list. I’m a huge fan of Romero’s work, as I know so many of our readers are. For a first-time promoter, Mike Lisa was able to pull together a Romero-themed show with a decently sized guest list that should have drawn thousands of fans from all over the area. Consider that this show was about 10 minutes outside of NYC (well, okay, give or take three hours if you were riding with X). So where was everybody? I’ve seen Romero at a half dozen shows, and never once have I seen him without a long line; people will stand for hours to meet this living legend, and happily so. Imagine my shock when his table was dead empty several times on Friday night, and at least twice on Saturday morning.
Was it the location? Perhaps Jersey City was out of the convention loop (though Chiller hosts its show in Parsippany, NJ, so this doesn’t make much sense), so maybe that was it. Was it that it was a first time show without any history? Possibly. Maybe it was promotion; if not enough people hadt heard of the show, then it would explain the light traffic (and oh, how I love the words “light traffic” after this con). Whatever the reason, there should have been a lot more fans out to support Mike Lisa and his first outing. If we as a community don’t come out for burgeoning shows such as Saturday Nightmares, we’ll be stuck with the same old, same old, complaining about one show’s small guest list or another’s quality of guests. And it will be our own fault. Fortunately, business was much more brisk on Saturday, and I’m sure once Mike works out some of the kinks, he’ll have a much more successful second show. I look forward to attending Saturday Nightmares shows for many years to come.
For those who did attend the show, there were some great highlights. If you ever wanted to spend some quality time with George Romero, this was the con for you. Romero had time to wander and greet the friends he’d worked with over the years, and he was gracious when fans approached him during these jaunts. Then there was the comedy act at the top of the stairs. Hook a right and you were greeted by the pairing of Joe Pilato and Gary Klar. These two DAY OF THE DEAD buddies spent the whole two days I was there making ample fun of one another, ripping on such topics as Pilato’s hair and Klar’s appea
rance in LEGAL EAGLES. Nothing was off limits, and you got so much more than an autograph and a picture for your money. I even bought an interesting hat from Klar that just about sums his character Steele’s view on headwear.
Gary Klar spoke about how zombie author Kim Paffenroth had stopped by to give him a copy of his Romero critique Gospel of the Dead. X and I also gave him a copy of the script for our madcap zombie comedy DEADTENTION, and it turns out X and Klar both know special effects artist John Caglione. It’s a small, undead world.
This was one of those cons where every guest I spoke with was genuinely kind, and that definitely leaves a positive impression long after the glow of meeting new stars of the horror world wears off. From Amplas to Roy Frumkes, to my friend Gary Streiner and his brother Russ, this was an amiable group, all of whom had kind things to say about Romero and their relationship with him.
I had some personal highlights too. Though I missed Frumkes’ new version of DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, he was gracious enough to give me an audio interview; as were Pilato, Klar and Amplas. These four were extremely giving to Icons fans, as they spoke candidly about their careers and George Romero. I got to see NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 35mm (see my comments on that experience below) and though I left Saturday evening, the event hosted a print of CREEPSHOW and a Blu Ray screening of DAWN OF THE DEAD. During the day, episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE played (though it seemed the same six episodes played again and again).
This was also the first time I met Ken Foree and David Emgee. Though I have a slew of autographed pics from DAWN OF THE DEAD, I sadly realized recently that I had none with the four main cast, and all four were scheduled to be there. Unfortunately, Gaylen Ross cancelled to promote her new documentary, and as Emgee told X and me, Scott Reiniger’s wife had fallen ill, and he had to tend to her. Though I was disappointed not to meet him, I send my best to his family. Foree was affable with me, and his line was fairly consistent for the weekend. Poor Emgee looked shot from his flight on Friday night, but he was nice enough.
And then there was Russ Streiner’s toast. Having read my previous report promoting the NOTLD screening, Russ had invited me to raise a glass my departed mother. I was extremely touched as Gary joined us in honor of June Fasso.
If you are a George Romero fan who lives in the tri-state area and you passed on Saturday Nightmares, shame on you. When a promoter such as Mike Lisa offers a top flight guest list aimed squarely at you, you should come out and support his convention. He’s already hard at work on getting together the second Saturday Nightmares, out to please the fans, and if it’s anything like this past show, it’ll be well worth attending.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Screening
My heart was racing. A thrill was shooting through my system. My head may have started to swoon. The whole scene seemed impossible, when my mind tried to process it. Gary Streiner was sitting to my right, and I swear to you, Mom was sitting on my left. And in front of me, a spectacle to behold, the credits for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD were rolling on the big screen.
Mike Lisa had made this possible. He had put together Saturday Nightmares, a Romero-rrific event if ever there was one; he had assembled guests from NOTLD; he had brought in Gary Streiner as part of that classic film’s legacy; and, most precious to me, he had gotten his hands on a 35 millimeter print of the film itself, and intended to show it. In a word: beauty.
The insanity that is Joe Pilato had hit the venerable stage of the Loews Theatre earlier. Explaining that it had been around since 1929, to a robust applause he then introduced the cast of NOTLD, all of whom he said he would “bed down” after the film. With a few words each, Russ Streiner, Bill Hinzman, Charles Craig, George Kosana, John Russo, Kyra Schon and Gary Streiner introduced the movie that is their legacy.
And then it began. And the first thing Gary said was, “I love every scratch on this print.” And there it was. I loved every scratch on that print right alongside him. As the car drove up the deserted country road, Gary informed me he was actually driving it so many years ago. As soon as he had filled me in, it dawned on me: I was watching the film my mother had seen in theatres so many years ago, with someone who was directly involved in it, someone who had become a good friend of mine. This was the definition of “surreal.”
This was the definition of “wonderful.”
Gary continued to provide a running commentary as the film went on. Behind us, a fan eventually got annoyed. “Come on!” It came to me much later that I could’ve turned around and shouted, “Christ, man! I’m getting a commentary on the film from Gary Streiner,
who was in NOTLD!” But I wouldn’t let a rightly irate fan ruin the moment. I got Gary on his feet, and we jostled to an empty area on the far left. There, he regaled me with tales about Duane Jones, run-and-gun shooting in D.C. and so many other things I would never have gotten without him beside me.
It wasn’t just Gary with me, though. It was Mom. She was right there with me, watching just as she had back in 1968. She was a part of our conversation, even if she didn’t say a word. She held my hand as a movie I knew every breath of had my heart pounding and my pulse racing, as if I were seeing it for the first time. Mom was with me. Sure, Ben and Harry Cooper were in danger. But I was safe.
As Ben had his fateful encounter with Vince Survinski and the end credits came up on the screen, I was in a state of glee. In a world that is so full of chaos that zombies may as well be attacking us in the farmhouse, I could still enjoy life. Life could still be good.
I have Mike Lisa to thank for this. His gracious attitude toward George Romero’s fans offered me an opportunity I’ve waited my entire life for. And I have Gary Streiner to thank, for his friendship, his knowledge of the back story and willingness to share it with me, his audience tonight. And I have Mom to thank, for being with me tonight, in my heart, where I always carry her, so we could share a viewing of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I lost her to cancer last June, but thanks to Mike and Gary, she and I got to share something special tonight.