GORE IN THE STORE
THE CRACK OF DAWN - IN CONVERSATION WITH
JIM KRUT AND SCOTT
As a lavish new, definitive version of George A Romero’s seminal Dawn Of The Dead arrives, original stars Jim Krut and Scott Reiniger discuss the film and its enduring legacy with Tim Murray.
It was just a small part as an extra in a low budget horror film. And yet 40 years after Dawn Of The Dead was shot, Jim Krut, whose role in the George A Romero zombie classic is over and done with in a matter of minutes, is still here, talking about his fleeting but hugely memorable appearance in the seminal horror flick. In the last 20 or so years, his convention and horror festival appearances have mushroomed, as the actor has been besieged by fans, some adorning themselves with tattoos featuring Jim and his character. Jim Krut is, and always will be, the helicopter zombie. His fame, and the character’s, have spread worldwide, fans everywhere know him as the helicopter zombie, Heck it’s even in his email address.
Krut, a genuinely charming and polite man, is as far removed from his character as you can get, and more than happy to talk about a moment that has become seared into the minds of horror film fans everywhere, as helicopter zombie (and a mild spoiler warning here, although if you haven’t yet seen Dawn Of The Dead, where have you been?) clambers over some boxes in a bid to chase down some fresh brains, only to have the top of his head lopped off by a helicopter blade. It’s become as famous as Herbert Chappell’s The Gonk, the wacky tune that accompanies the zombies roaming the shopping mall in one of Romero’s most viciously satirical scenes, and has, Krut says, only grown in stature in recent years.
“It really has taken off, so to speak,” he smiles. Krut went back to theatre after his first big screen appearance, but noted that the film’s reputation was growing at some point around 10 years or more after its first release. “It was about 30 years later,” he recalls, ”that people started coming up saying that was pretty good. And within the last 20 years, we started doing conventions. I didn’t realise people would pay for our autographs! People come from all over the US to see us. We’ve had a Dawn Of The Dead reunion convention, at a convention called Cinema Wasteland and a lot more. We just had no idea.”
Scott Reiniger had a bigger role in the film, he plays Roger; he too has noticed its growth as phenomenon in recent years: “We knew the film would be controversial, because of the amount of violence, But we had no idea it was going to take like this. It’s more popular today than it was when it came out.” Krut and Reiniger are both discussing the film to mark what promises to be the definitive version of Romero’s classic, a mammoth, multi-disc box set, boasting fully restored Blu-rays (or even more high definition 4K discs) and CDs featuring assorted versions of the film and its soundtrack, books and more.
Ironically, both came to the film via similar routes – college, theatre and knowing people involved. “I’d known Tom Savini who did the make-up and special effects, we were in college, we worked in theatre productions,” says Krut. “We went into the arts after our military service we found our way back to Pittsburgh and reconnected. I didn’t have to do an audition, Tom said ‘Jim, we’ve got this role for you in Dawn of the Dead’. I was a struggling actor, looking for a good opportunity, i told him to tell me more about it.”
For Reiniger, it was Romero’s then girlfriend, later his second wife, Christine. “I’d done a couple of commercials, that was about it. Chris Romero, then his girlfriend, she and I went to college together and had been in the theatre together. She called me and asked if I knew George A Romero – yes I did, he did Night of The Living Dead – and would you like to audition for him. The script was 225 pages long and my first reaction was it’s the most violent thing I’ve ever read in my life.”
For a film – and brief role – as memorable as Krut’s it’s remarkable that he spent so little time on the set. “It took about an hour and a half,” he recalls, “after all that anticipation, it was a bit of a let down. But I thought afterwards, ‘I like this, I want to do more’.”
For Reiniger, his most vivid memory is shooting at the central location, the shopping mall, at nights when it was shuttered to the public.
“We’d sleep all day and shoot all night,” he explains. “At about 6 o’clock in the morning, there were all these zombies there and then there were a couple of normal people, workers or customers, arriving. As we were leaving the mall they turned around and saw all these guns and bullets, they didn’t know there was a film, they stared at us and asked ‘who are you what are you doing?’”
Similarly, both remember early screenings when It became clear that maybe the film was going to become a bona fide phenomenon. Krut says: “There was a preview for the cast and crew, that’s where you realise how many people were involved. `The place was pumped. The first thing that goes through you mind, is ‘did I make it, am I going to look ridiculous?'. Then you get pulled into it. Then my scene came up. My first role. Then another bit – there’s me. Then I got the top of my head cut off. The audience was made up of people on the film, a lot of them had seen the shooting, and they let out a great response. I was just thrilled. Not only had I made it on to the screen, into the film, but it was really pretty cool. I didn’t feel foolish or like oh my God, I’ll never work again.”
Reiniger was at the premiere in New York: “My grandmother wanted to see it, I told her no, you can’t. ‘Oh no dear, I’m going to come.’ She’s sitting next to me, I blew the guy’s head off she said ‘I have to leave now’. I put her in a cab and went back in. I was kind of blown away by it.”
So why has the film last so long, its reputation only improving as the years have gone by?
“It’s really quite awesome,” says Reiniger. "t’s something I actually ask when we do any panel. I'll ask the audience that very question. More often than not, as well as the horror, the violence, it has to do with the relationships with the four main characters, what it would really be like to survive.”
Krut agrees, it’s the humans, the relationships between them that have helped give it longevity. ”What makes a film a good, lasting cult film, it’s really up to the fans,” he says. “They want something they can sink their teeth in to. A lot of monsters and creatures in films [before Dawn Of The Dead] were not relatable. As George said, one of the scariest things is that the zombies were your neighbours. They are recognisable.” Obviously, as well as the recognisable characters turned zombie, there’s also the fact that it is, of course, biting social commentary.
“The thing you didn’t notice straight away with the script is the level of satire and social commentary,” adds Reiniger. “It’s unfortunate that George isn’t here [to see its longevity continue].”
The longevity has seen the film through every imaginable format, from its original theatrical print, through the VHS era, where it was tinkered with and slashed to get it through censors in the UK, on to disc-based formats from DVD and now, in this sumptuous release, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD.
And the kind of prescient black comedy element, with zombies returning to their old human hangouts, shopping malls, rings true in the Covid-19 pandemic-era.
Although, as Reiniger concludes, let’s hope this virus doesn’t end up with the dead rising from the grave. “Hopefully we’re not going to have any zombies. I certainly hope not.”
Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition 4K and Limited Edition Blu-ray are out now from Second Sight Films.
Read our FrightFest Gore in the Store review form Steven West HERE