Joining us for the third installment of our Dawn of the Dead 35th anniversary celebration is Leonard Lies, who played “machete zombie.” The following interview was conducted during the Weekend of Horrors convention at the Turbinenhalle in Oberhausen, Germany.
How did you get the part of the machete zombie?
LL: I was working on the film as a grip. One night we were waiting for the actors to come onto the set, and George Romero happened to be standing next to me. I said, “George I’d like to play a zombie,” because some of the other crew members were becoming involved as either bikers or zombies, and we were near the end of the shoot, and I really wanted to be considered. He said, “Go upstairs and see what they have.”
Upstairs, on the second floor of the Monroeville Mall, was the community room where we met to prepare for the day’s work. (In this case, the night’s work.) I went upstairs, and there was one person in the community room: John Amplas who played Fisher in Day of the Dead. I said, “Hey John, George told me to come up and see what you have.” Out of the darkness, John pulled this machete with a shape cut into it for his head. We started talking about it, and he said, “You go ahead and take it.” I said, “Really? Because I don’t wanna be shot,” (I didn’t like the idea of being shot.) and he said, “No, do it, I’ve done so many extra parts that it’s okay.” You couldn’t just do that in a film today – just tell someone to go ahead and be in the movie.
Twenty-four hours later, to the moment, I was doing the scene with Tom Savini where I knock him off his motorcycle, he becomes very upset with me, runs at me, kicks me in the chest, and knocks me down to the floor. I start to get back up, and grab him by the leg, and as I’m gonna go in for the bite, Tom pulls a machete out of his boot and says the magical line, “Say goodbye, creep!” Then, of course, he hits me in the head with a machete; at least figuratively speaking, in movie terms. The producer’s wife took magnificent photos.
Did you draw any inspiration from Night of the Living Dead?
LL: When I was twelve I saw Night of the Living Dead with three of my friends, and I laughed through the whole film. It’s not that it wasn’t scary, but somehow, intuitively, I knew that they got it right. I thought, wow, this is great: real, flesh-eating zombies, and there was a kind of a texture, a rawness to it that I loved. In that sense Night of the Living Dead propelled me. I had always loved monster films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman. I also thought vampires were really exciting creatures. However, there was something about these zombies existing by some other cause than voodoo. I don’t think I realized it then, but Night of the Living Dead inspired me to keep loving monsters, and also to get a resume together when Dawn of the Dead was being made. I had a wonderful talk with George Romero, and a week later I was hired.
LL: Well, when you’re working on a film it doesn’t really feel like odd hours because we would have worked day, or night, or any other hour. It became a pattern: I would drive in at 8 p.m.; at 9 p.m. the mall music would shut off via satellite. Then we would do setups and sound recording. We couldn’t do sound recording with the music playing. At 7 a.m. the music would come back on, so we had to be done with synchronous sound recordings by that time. We also sometimes kept working if there was an action scene.
What was your favorite moment in the movie?
LL: When David Emge finally appears as a zombie. His zombie is unforgettable. It wasn’t just being a zombie. He was acting, contorting his body, and showing he was a wonderful actor without saying a word. Little known fact: Although Flyboy was a clumsy idiot in the film; he was the only actor of the three men who could really shoot a gun, because he was a Vietnam veteran.
What was the funniest thing that happened to you while filming?
LL: On the night we filmed the final scene where the helicopter flies into the dawn, the wind was blowing turbulently. The rest of the grips and I were forced to wear almost four layers of clothing, and had to physically stand on top of the lights, with sandbags on them, so they wouldn’t fly away. So we had three or four lights, three or four people, holding the lights down with sandbags for dear life, so we could shoot this final scene where they fly off into the dawn.
There was also an actor named Pat Buba who played one of the cyclists when we threw pies during the biker raid scene. All the bikers were running around slapping pies into every zombie’s face. It was very chaotic. Buba was nearsighted like me, ran, and hit a zombie in the face with a pie, and they have these big columns at the mall. He ran right into them, flush, and then he bounced off and landed on the floor. When it happened we all went, “Oh my God!” We kind of laughed, but we all felt bad.
When filming the ending to Dawn of the Dead, there’s a scene where Ken Foree decides to not commit suicide, and he fights his way through the zombie horde to make his way to the helicopter. Ken was a big guy, and he had all this energy. Well, Ken got carried away. He didn’t pull some of his punches, and was knocking people on the ground for real.
How do you feel about today’s “zombie apocalypse” trend in mainstream culture?
LL: I’m doing a film now called Zombie Culture, exploring the whole zombie phenomenon, but I haven’t come to any conclusions yet. I think it has to do with us as a race, that we’re getting to a point where we consume so much that we’re not going to leave anything behind to consume except ourselves – internally or externally. Zombies always represent an impending threat, but it’s not always about them. It used to be nuclear arms. During the Cold War as kids we thought: We’re going to get bombed! That’s kind of dovetailed into zombies. That’s the new threat.
I think that we’re all dealing with the threat of, maybe not an apocalyptic end, but a very painful end to our existence. So we try to face it in our own mirror, which is dressing up like a zombie. However, some of it is just that we want to socialize with other people. Maybe we’re a little shy, and we don’t have a place where our ego gets stroked enough. So we go out as zombies and congregate with like-minded people and have some fun.
Do you participate in zombie culture, such as zombie walks, in any way?
LL: I do a lot of shows, but I don’t do zombie walks. I go to events where zombie walks are involved. In a way it’s exciting. What do zombies do? They try to eat living human flesh, and in most of the zombie walks they’re raising food for people in food banks allowing them to survive. So those zombies walks flip cause people are actually helping other people, and food banks are getting more food on the shelves cause people are bringing food to contribute during the walks. I think that’s a nice and humanitarian thing to do.
LL: I don’t think George ever purposely put in any kind of issues or political undertone. He didn’t plan it. It just kind of happened. The film was a bit ahead of its time, and it was only the second film ever that discussed abortion clearly in a film. (The first was Baby the Rain Must Fall in 1965 with Steve McQueen.) When Flygirl is pregnant, Peter asks Flyboy, “Do you want me to take care of it?” They were talking about abortion.
I don’t think the film dealt with things in terms of political issues, but social ones. What was wonderful was that George allowed characters that were African American to be in lead roles. Again, I don’t think he did that cause it was political or social. He thought about what was best for the script, what made it believable, and whether the actors played their roles realistically. I think that’s why AMC’s The Walking Dead works so well today, because it feels believable.
Thirty-five years later, what do you think makes Dawn of the Dead so special?
LL: I think it’s one of those classic films that just keeps on giving back. It has so many great moments in it, and I think that’s what makes a film, regardless of it’s genre. To me, the most dramatic moment is when Scott Reiniger’s character dies, and he says, “I’m going to try not to come back,” and he says it with such pain and conviction in his voice. I saw in not too long ago in a theater and I thought it was such good acting. To me the those little special moments. [Dawn] is some peoples’ favorite film. Not horror film; just film. I understand why: If you’re a horror fan, if you like zombies, then Dawn of the Dead is like the perfect cup of tea, or the perfect first film – You will fall in love with zombies for the rest of your life.
(Artwork courtesy of Ghoulish Gary Pullin.)