Feb 6, 2012

Bill Hinzman (1936- 2012)

You can spend an entire career in the movie business without the general public knowing who you are. Or, as in the case of Bill Hinzman, one can be familiar to millions with just one screen appearance. Of his small filmography, actor-director Bill Hinzman is instantly recognized as the first ghoul seen in George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), menacing our heroine Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) in the graveyard.

You know, this guy.

Countless pages of HTML and print have been expended upon the pioneering success of this low-budget wonder which revolutionized modern horror cinema, not least in allowing the zombies to be formidable screen monsters, after having spent decades anonymously working in Bela Lugosi's sugar mills. Like the key films of the horror genre that followed (Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Last House on the Left), Night of the Living Dead offered a bleak view of modern society, and despite whatever onscreen supernatural occurrences, the monsters were more distinctly human than ever. Suddenly, the classical horrors of King Kong or Frankenstein seemed juvenile by comparison.

Night of the Living Dead had such a mythical appeal, in spite or because of its classic "underdog" status, that a grainy shoestring movie produced in Pennsylvania could be so influential.  As such, many people involved with the project, while not necessarily Hollywood names, have become endeared by genre fans. On the virtue of this solitary appearance, Bill Hinzman was often seen at conventions (and was reportedly very nice to his fans). 

It would be unfair to confine his screen work entirely to this movie. Hinzman had walk-ons in George Romero's subsequent movies made after the success of his Image 10 company's production of the 1968 classic. There's Always Vanilla, Jack's Wife and The Crazies were for the most part critical and commercial disappointments- after which, Romero formed the Laurel company and made more comparatively accessible films like Martin and Dawn of the Dead.  After his association with George Romero, Hinzman directed The Majorettes (based upon a novel by Night's screenwriter, John Russo),  and 1988's FleshEater, a zombie opus which Hinzman also wrote.  (I have a copy of The Majorettes, which I must dig out and finally watch.)

Still, for the rest of cinematic history, Bill Hinzman will continue to endure, based upon the opening sequence in Night of the Living Dead.  "They're coming to get you, Barbara."

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