By now you've likely heard that this past weekend, actor Bill Hinzman passed away at age 75. I'm not so good at writing obituaries and things of the sort- I'd give that honor to Arbogast...but I'll just have to imagine what he would have written since the bastard recently closed up shop for good.
Like most horror fans, I've got a little Bill Hinzman at a convention story. And like most horror fans who have a little Bill Hinzman at a convention story, it took place in George Romero's most famous stomping grounds, the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
You know, I shouldn't build it up that much because to tell it, it doesn't seem like such a great tale, but oh well. Told you I'm not so good at this!
Anyway, I was standing and talking with John Russo, the man who co-wrote Romero's Night of the Living Dead. He had some pictures- trading cards, maybe?- from the NotLD and they were in color. I couldn't get over it, seeing all those familiar faces, humans and ghouls alike, like I'd never seen them before. I know there's a colorized version of the film floating around out there, but it's never appealed to me. The behind the scenes stuff, though, I was eating it up.
Then someone came and stood next to me. I figured it was just another fan waiting his or her turn, but then the person leaned over a bit and quietly said, "I was the first zombie." I turned, and it was Bill Hinzman...and let me tell you, it was not at all obnoxious. It sounds as if it might have been, like the equivalent of someone laughing so loudly in that way that lets you know he or she is an actor- but it wasn't. When I turned , he was just beaming, an adorable old dude in glasses. I'm sure he loved the attention and the "Oh my God, you are the first zombie!" I gave him, but after a moment, when he and Russo and I were talking and then oh, Russ Streiner came over and across the way were Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman and I was suddenly kind of surrounded by horror movie royalty and they were a gang, it felt like, both then and nearly 40 years prior, and it was just the best.
Bill Hinzman's death has affected me more than I could have thought it would- not that I ever sat around thinking about it much, mind you. But it's made me realize (or possibly just remember) how much Night of the Living Dead means to me as a horror fan. I wrote about it- and Barbra in particular- in this post (spurred on by Arbogast...damn you, man!), and I can't see a reason to try to say it any better than I did then:
Let me say right upfront: I adore this film. It's in my Top Ten or whatever number would actually make up the list of my all-time favorite horror movies. I think it's an absolute masterpiece of genre filmmaking, and in my opinion it's on the short list of Romero's best (the others being Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow, although my soft spot for Creepshow is so soft that I have no idea whether or not it's actually a good movie, you know?). Night of the Living Dead is all shock and far gorier than you remember it being; it's all exquisite lighting and camera angles; it's all horror with a bit of rotting meat on its bones, terrifying in its simplicity. Somehow, this film is one of the very few that I can always manage to watch with the mindset of the era in which it was made, and perhaps that's why it's one of my favorites, why it never fails to work for me, why I still get scared.While Hinzman wasn't really the first zombie, he was totally the first zombie, and even if my adoration-colored glasses at that convention wouldn't let me see a plain old boast as a boast...well, he deserved to boast, dammit. So tonight I'm going to pop in the restored and re-mastered edition (finally got it!), turn off the lights, and raise a glass (of water, it's all I have in the house) to the first zombie. Rest in Peace, Bill Hinzman. Thanks for all the scares (and the conversation).