I think George was ahead of his time, I really do. I think when it was released it didn't get the respect that we thought it deserved.
Did you ever think back in '86 that you'd still be talking about Day of the Dead in 2003?
Boy... I didn't, no. I find it intersting that there's still this big fanbase for the movie. In fact, a friend of mind just told me that they were watching it on the Sci-fi channel the other day. Ya, so it's nice that it's sort of found a home and people get to see it. I'm really happy about that.
To rewind to before "Day of the Dead" for a second, what was it that first made you want to become an actress?
Well, my father's a local celebrity in Pittsburgh, they called him "Chilly Billy," and I used to be very interested in his professionalism and his work. He did all kinds of things. He had a show called Chiller Theatre, he was a writer, he was a producer, he was a director. This was all in the local market, and I used to enjoy talking with him about it at the dinner table. So I found out that Carnegie Melon University had a really good drama school that happened to be in Pittsburgh so I auditioned. I knew it would be hard to get into it, but I did, I got in.
From then on my whole life was nothing but theatre. And so after I graduated I got my equity card (actor card) and then I moved to New York when I graduated from school. Then as soon as I graduated, and I was in New York, I was lucky enough to get on a Soap Opera within the first 6 months of being there. Which was a great training ground for me. I did a lot of theatre in New York because that's what I was trained to do. Television and film were sort of bi-products of that, because I was more of a theatrical actor. I did Broadway, I did a play called "Rose" with Jessica Tandy and Linda Jackson.
I did a play called "Reckless," I originated that role, and actually that's where George (Romero) first saw me was in that play. And from my performance in Reckless, he wrote the part of 'Sara' for me.
You beat me to it. My next question was how you had gotten the part in Day of the Dead. So George had actually met you before he had written the part of Sara?
Ya, that's how I understand it. I'm sure he had outlines and ideas, he made the central female character, and then he wrote the part from what he saw that I could do in that play. I'm not exactly sure at what point in development he was in then, but he told me that he did write that part based on my performance.
Had you seen either "Night of the Living Dead" or "Dawn of the Dead" before meeting George?
I had seen "Night of the Living Dead" before that, but I wasn't a fan of horror films. My father is actually in the original film, he plays himself, Bill Cardille... he's the announcer. So, I was a very very young girl when he did that, and I remember going to see that in the movie theater when it was first released, but I was always afraid of horror films. Really, I'm not kidding, I was like a chicken (laughs) I could never understand why people like to be scared (laughs).
So out of the three films which one do you like the best?
I think that "Night of the Living Dead" is the most classic of them all. I think with "Day of the Dead" it's hard to be objective. And "Dawn of the Dead"... that was very interesting. It seems to me like most people favor it. But I think "Night of the Living Dead," that to me is a classic.
"Day of the Dead" is definitely my favorite.
Is it really? You know George said that was his favorite too.
So what did you think of George the first time you met him?
George is very kind, very kind, and incredibly giving. He's also a bit shy, but also engaging. I thought he was just a very nice man.
So you were the only women in the film. Being surrounded by guys, I was wondering how the atmosphere was on the set for you?
Well don't forget that just because I was the only female in the movie doesn't mean there weren't a lot of females working behind the scenes. It was fun, I had a good time. My little daughter was a year old and I was living in New York at the time. So Jim my husband was actually able to do a lot of his work from the place in Wampum where we were filming. So he would watch my daughter during the day, and sometimes they would come to the set and be with us on the set. My daughter and George's daughter were the same age so it was really nice, they had each other. They were very small. My daughter actually learned to walk when we were in Florida doing the exteriors! The atmosphere was great and the people were definitely really nice.
We would get up so early, and it was dark outside. Then we would go home and it was dark outside, and of course it was dark in the cave. We worked our tails off, and the people couldn't have been nicer. The whole cast and crew, you get really close when you work like that. Having the part of 'Sara' was also hard, so I was studying a lot in my little cubby hole.
Your character Sara is very strong, I was wondering how much of Sara is in you, or Visa Versa?
I think that I'm a strong person, because I've survived a lot of things. I've had to overcome a lot of things, and so with that I think I was able to tap into my idea of what I perceive as strength. I think I'm strong in the sense of being able to grow and live through your experiences with tragedy. That's very different than playing a character. In life, "strength" is different than say, playing the character of Sara. My inspiration for 'Sara' came from George's words, George's direction, along with my idea of being a person that had to do everything possible to hold it together. With Sara, underneath there was probably a lot more humanness and softness than she allowed anyone to see, because she had to survive.
The finished product is very bloody and very gory, in fact in a lot of ways it's known for that aspect of it. I was wondering if you had a problem with any of the special FX. Does that kind of thing bother you, or offend you?
No, because it was George's vision so I respected that. It's not my cup of tea, like I wouldn't consider myself a fan of that genre, but I respect it. It's not like I run out to see horror films. What I like about George is that he's always pushing the envelope, and that to me was really interesting. I like that about him.
Did you get a chance to see the film in theaters when it came out, and what was it like to see it with an audience?
We did. We first saw it in a screening just for the actors and the people who were a part of it and who lived in New York. Then we had a big opening in New York. What was it like? Boy it was scary for me, because it's your head on such a large screen (laughs). It was different for me, because I had never done such a large role on a major motion picture. Like I told you most of my work was in the theater and TV, which all three are completely different mediums.
Do you remember what the audience reaction was like?
Uh... I remember that they booed at the end. They did not like the ending. It wasn't even like a 'boo,' it was more like an 'awwwwww jeez,' because they kind of thought it was a cop-out. At the time there were a lot of things written about that. So I do remember the audience doing that, but other than that they seemed to enjoy it. They were laughing, and frightened where they should be. It was quite an exciting night. It was a long time ago, but what I remember most was their disappointment at the ending.
Did you do a lot of press at the time of the release?
No, not that much. It was just a quiet little release, and we weren't considered 'mainstream' so we didn't get the kind of press you would think. Now it's getting more than it did back then (laughs).
I was wondering if you had any insight as to maybe why you think that George's 'Dead Trilogy' has been so enduring... why new generations seem to be discovering it and liking it?
Are they really?
Well I've only discovered it in the last few years.
And there seems to be a big fan base?
I think so, ya.
Well I do get a lot of mail, but I just wondered if there was. Well... I don't know why, except that maybe perhaps it's more accessible. Also, I think George was ahead of his time, I really do. I think when it was released it didn't get the respect that we thought it deserved. You know... I'm not sure... what do you think?
I think you're right that George was ahead of his time. Also, you know it's said that every great horror film has a sense of satire to it, a message, and George's trilogy is really the perfect example of that. "Day of the Dead" is a perfect example of that. In the film you've got this dangerous plague of zombies out side, but in the end it turns out that they humans inside are the biggest enemies.
Right right, that's interesting. It's nice you know, it's very nice to have been a part of something that is resurging. I was proud of that piece, I really was. I remember feeling at the time when it came out that we didn't really get the hype that some of the bigger releases got because it was a lower budget film. We didn't get the recognition. At the time it didn't really get the respect I thought it should have. It was disappointing. The work itself though was wonderful to do, so in that sense it was worth everything I gave. You do hope that it would generate more work though. I continued to do work, but it wasn't in film. I went back to the theatre and that's where most of it was.
So are you still acting now?
Not as much, no. I am thinking of going back to it. I would love to, in fact I heard that Quentin Tarantino was a fan of this movie, and I thought about contacting him. I did do a lot of work at a place in Pittsburgh called "The City Theater," and I've done a lot of work there but I haven't worked in the theater in the past 4 years or so. It's just been a long time. Going back to New York is what I would have to do to work. I've had fantasies of going back and getting an agent again, so I would like to, because I really do miss the creative aspects of doing that work. I'm a creative person, and it's hard to stop that because you always have to express yourself somehow. So I do a lot of photography, that's something that I love to do.
You mentioned Quentin Tarantino, if something in the vein of "Day of the Dead" landed on your doorstep tomorrow, would you take the job?
Oh absolutely. Sure I would. You know it's 20 years later and I'm older, and fatter (laughs)... I'm not that fat but I mean I wonder if I entered the profession again, what I would play. Because I wouldn't be the kind of actor to have face-lifts, and try to look younger than I am. So it would be interesting to see the kind of roles I would get. I'm not sure what that would be.
Well I think you and Tarantino teaming up would be pretty cool.
Oh I know, I'd love to work with him. There's a lot of young directors I think that like the film. That would be neat, to work with some of the younger directors, I would really love to do that. It would be a nice thing because, I really did want to be a good mother, and in the profession that I'm in, it's all or nothing. Plus in those days when you get pregnant... I remember telling my agent I was pregnant... they went crazy! I had moved my way up to get where I was, and when I told my agents I was moving to Pittsburgh they just about shat. They couldn't believe it, and as I look back I realize how much I put aside.