By BEN R. WILLIAMS
As I’ve gotten older, I have come to realize that Halloween is my favorite holiday.
Christmas is nice and all, but it’s too expensive. Thanksgiving is all right, but I’m not a big fan of turkey, the easy-listening station of the meat world. The best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had involved me and my buddy Doug, both of us recently single, sitting on a couch and passing a bottle back and forth while talking about the horrors of dating. Obviously, that isn’t a high bar to clear.
Halloween, on the other hand, is about getting together with friends, enjoying pleasant weather, draping fake spiders around your house, and watching horror movies.
This will probably come as no surprise, but I love horror movies. It’s getting pretty rare that I watch a movie that isn’t a horror movie. My free time is valuable, and I don’t see the point in watching a movie about two people falling in love when I could be watching a movie about multiple people being menaced by a hideous creature. Maybe I find the latter more relatable.
Every October, I try to watch 31 horror movies, one for each day of the month. I realize that for a lot of people, that must sound like an absolute nightmare. I’ve known a number of people who hate horror movies and cannot understand why anyone would want to put themselves through that experience. It’s a question I’ve asked myself from time to time.
My best theory is that with all the horror occurring in the real world, it’s a comfort to spend a couple hours being frightened by an evil clown from beyond time and space. It allows you to forget, at least temporarily, all of the real things that are much more frightening.
When I was a kid and my parents would take me to Blockbuster or Brewer’s Video, I remember trying to strike a delicate balance: I would try to find horror movies that would scare me in a fun way (the “Critters” franchise was a particular favorite) while avoiding horror movies that would scare me so badly that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
Now that I’m older and I’ve seen hundreds of horror movies, I find myself actively seeking the absolute scariest movies I can find. I find myself wanting to re-experience that irrational childhood terror, the thought that one of the “Ghoulies” really could burst out of the toilet at the worst possible time. When “The Ring” came out in 2002, I remember reading a review from a guy who said that his girlfriend spontaneously burst into tears on the car ride home from the movie, and my first thought was, “Well, I know what I’m doing this weekend.”
All of this leads me to a couple of weeks ago, when I joined up with some good friends and attended the “Days of the Dead” horror convention in Charlotte, NC.
Horror conventions are an opportunity for horror fans to meet the actors, directors and writers from some of their favorite movies. When I found out that Tom Savini would be in attendance at Days of the Dead, I knew I had to get his autograph.
If you’re remotely interested in horror films, Tom Savini is a household name. A former combat photographer, he parlayed his experiences in Vietnam and his childhood love of monster makeup into a career as one of the most significant horror special effects wizards of all time. He did makeup and special effects on 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” the first “Friday the 13th” movie, “Creepshow,” and countless other films. He’s also an actor, having appeared in such movies as “Django Unchained” and “From Dusk Til Dawn.”
The most significant achievement in Savini’s long and storied career – at least for me – is his 1990 remake of 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.”
Sometime around 1994, when I was ten years old, I was visiting my grandparents. My grandpa had found Savini’s remake of “Night of the Living Dead” on his massive satellite dish and I sat on the couch to watch it with him.
If you’ve never seen the original “Night,” first off, my condolences. Secondly, the original opens with siblings Barbara and Johnny driving to a rural cemetery to visit their father’s grave. While they’re standing at the grave, a fellow staggers up to them. They think he’s a confused old man, but he’s actually a zombie, and he attacks them.
In Tom Savini’s remake, Barbara and Johnny drive to a remote cemetery to visit their mother’s grave. A man staggers up to them. We, the audience who has seen the original, think he’s a zombie. It turns out that he really is just a confused old man. And then, the moment the old man staggers out of frame, the real zombie bursts in from off-screen and viciously attacks Barbara and Johnny.
I will never forget what this zombie looked like. His wispy gray hair, moldy suit and evil rotting face are burned into my memory. This zombie was not fun-scary; he was utterly terrifying and realistic (as much as a zombie can be realistic).
For weeks after that, I was convinced that cemetery zombie was going to get me. I remember going on a trip with a friend of mine and his parents and lying in the hotel bed for hours, wide awake, convinced that the cemetery zombie was going to emerge from the bathroom and murder me. I don’t know how he was going to get into the bathroom, considering that I had already checked it several times to make sure it was zombie-free, but I was certain it was going to happen.
As Tom Savini signed my copy of his book collecting the storyboards from “Night of the Living Dead,” I told him a shortened version of this story, and we exchanged a fist bump. It was a cool moment.
I’m sure most celebrities hear stories about how the role they played inspired someone, or how their script allowed someone to laugh again. For those who create horror, however, there can be no greater compliment than, “That thing you did scarred me for life. Thank you.”