Interview by Brian Ridgway
DAVID EMGE is a multitalented actor with a considerable resume of performances. His range has allowed him roles in works as varied as A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? to premiere contemporary horror films like Hellmaster and Basket Case II. DAVID EMGE's most memorable screen role, however, is that of helicopter pilot and news reporter Stephen Andrews in DAWN OF THE DEAD.
My first interview with DAVID EMGE was in early spring of 1999. I talked to him via phone to his home in Manhattan. At the time, he was fighting a virus and despite his obvious discomfort, he was gracious and talked in length on a cold, sunny Saturday afternoon. We discussed his career, life as an actor, and living on the East Coast.
Although initially restricted to the limitations of a phone interview, I found DAVID friendly and direct. His answers were to the point, and he had solid recall of events of the past 20 years. And while I found him very cooperative in discussing his work in DAWN OF THE DEAD, my impression was that he is not one to dwell in the past. While he certainly shared a fondness for this film classic and spoke highly of GEORGE ROMERO and his DOTD co-workers, he seemed matter-of-fact about the film, and was just as eager to talk about present life and issues that concerned him.
Between acting roles, DAVID also appears at fan conventions, as well as pursuing other artistic interests such as painting. I asked him what he preferred to paint: portraits, landscapes, abstract?
"Oh, whatever is around," he answered. "Sometimes I do it for myself. And sometimes I give the paintings to family or friends."
Thoughtful yet responsive, DAVID EMGE seems an interesting dichotomy. While respectful of his craft as actor, he also seems to hold no illusions about the cult of celebrity usually associated with entertainers. He approaches his craft as he does his other lifetime projects of woodworking, art and cooking. I believe he treats each new project with the appropriate amount of reverence and respect, in turn assuring his longevity as a well-balanced artist and person.
On His Early Days in Theater:
There was a film you did some time ago -- I'm not sure what the title was, but it was done in the early 1970's -- a thriller with JOHN RUSSO. Is that correct?
Well, from 1971-1974, I lived in Pittsburgh and was working at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. And we'd do nine months or so of a season of plays, and do something around there in the summer, or just not work in the summer time. And during that period I had met several people locally, who were performers, producers, stuff like that. I did several things around Pittsburgh, between RUSS STREINER, JACK [JOHN] RUSSO -- they had a company. I didn't meet GEORGE ROMERO during that period but there were some other people around there that I had met. I did several things-- the names of them, I can't even tell you.
I wasn't aware that you lived in Pittsburgh. That must have been interesting stretch of time for you.
Yeah. It was funny. Pittsburgh, at that period, was kind of trying to scale down from being 'steel town'--lots of the mills were closed or they were having a lot of trouble. And the town was not in its best condition. It has since become pretty much a high-tech center. And they've really spiffed it up a lot--brought in a lot of different kind of industries. But at that time it was a mill-town, sort of halfway down on its knees. So, the town itself was kind of weird. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but there was an odd atmosphere about the place at the time.
But there was a strong art community for people like you--
Yeah. There is Carnegie Mellon University. That's one of the better places to do theater in America. University of Pittsburgh has a pretty good theater department. There are a lot of independent producers. There were road shows that came through there … there's a ballet … a world-famous symphony -- all this sort of stuff. Pretty active, culturally.
You said at that point of your life you hadn't run across GEORGE ROMERO.
No. I hadn't, as a matter-of-fact. A lot of people who had worked with him or went to school with him I got to know. But I just never ran into him.
We're familiar with the reputation he has nationally, but how is he perceived in Pittsburgh?
He's probably the …preeminent film director in Pittsburgh. All sorts of people have come out of that town. STEPHEN BOCHO (NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues) went to the school there.
On DAVID'S First Meeting With GEORGE ROMERO:
One thing I'd like a little background now is your involvement with DOTD. I don't know how you initially hitched up with George.
Well, you can fast-forward to 1976 … after I lived in Pittsburgh, I moved to Arlington, Virginia for three years, then moved here to New York (in 1978). I don't know how long I had been here. I was working at this restaurant downtown across from a public theater -- pretty nice place.
I was doing cooking at this restaurant. I walked into work one day around 4:00 - 4:30, something like that. You had to walk through the front of the restaurant to get back to the kitchen. And this guy had these private little booths that were set up in the windows that were across the front of the building.
As I came in the building and started to go through the restaurant, the owner says, "David, come here. I want you to meet somebody." And I walked over toward the table, and there were a few guys setting there. The owner and two other guys. And one of the guys was a guy named RUDY RICCI, who played the head motorcycle thug in DAWN OF THE DEAD, and he's done a lot of film stuff around Pittsburgh…and this other guy, who I didn't recognize.
And I said, "Rudy -- what are you doing in New York? I didn't know you knew Robert, the owner!" And he said, "Sit-down" -- and we were talking and I was carrying on with RUDY RICCI, totally ignoring the other guy who was sitting there. And the owner says, "David, I want to introduce you to GEORGE ROMERO." I said "Hi George. How are you doing? Good to meet you!" And then I went right back and started talking to Rudy, ignoring GEORGE ROMERO.
And finally, I wasn't probably as egregious as that, but we sort of talked for a while. I asked what he was doing in New York. He said he was putting together a film project, and was in New York doing some casting. So, I said, "Fine. Can I audition?" He said "Sure" … so a few days later I auditioned for him for DAWN OF THE DEAD. And I got the part.
How many times had you auditioned for DOTD? Just once?
Yeah. That was pretty much it.
Were you familiar with Night of the Living Dead at all at this point?
Well, when I had met him at this restaurant, he said he was doing DAWN OF THE DEAD. And I had lived in Pittsburgh. I had already heard of GEORGE ROMERO…it wasn't like a totally alien person -- I had just never met him. So, I had known that he had done Night of the Living Dead and some other stuff, and he was doing some things around Pittsburgh other than horror movies…working…so you knew about his presence. I told him -- in honesty -- I said, "George, I have to tell you -- the first time I saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD I was at a drive-in with my girlfriend and I don't remember the movie. " And he said "Well, that's okay!" and I said, "I eventually saw it!" And he was a great guy to be with -- to work with -- to talk with. He's really a great guy. He's easy to get to know.
So, you continued to work at the restaurant until you heard from him. How long was it before you knew you had the role?
It happened fairly quickly. I met him sometime in the fall and we started working in November of that year. It wasn't like a great time period. Once I got the job he said, "I'll send you a script and we'll keep in touch and let you know what happens." It wasn't all that long a period before we actually started shooting.
Were you able to look at a complete script before he started shooting it? Did you see the whole story?
How familiar were you with the other three principle actors when you started? Did you know them at all?
I didn't know GALEN ROSS. And I didn't know KEN FOREE. As it turns out, SCOTT REINIGER was also working at the restaurant where I was working when I met George.
And there was a guy named JOHN AMPLAS (Casting Director, DOTD), who had done another movie for George called MARTIN, where he's a vampire. I knew JOHN AMPLAS when I was living in Pittsburgh, because he studied at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. So, I knew him then and he had moved here and when I moved here, I got in contact with him. He got me the job in the restaurant, which is where he was working.
So there are two other guys (laughs). There was also another guy who worked there who became one of the primary zombies. He was also the production manager or the head of production -- I forget what he did. But he was doing behind-the-scenes for the whole project. And a couple other people. But there were a handful of us that came out of the restaurant.
Is that restaurant still in business?
No. No. It was open for a while, but restaurants in New York open and close.
Did you specialize in any particular cuisine?
It was pretty much continental food. We had a lot of food that was made-to-order. Once the order was made, you didn't just take it out of the pot -- you started on the stove. A lot of cream sauces…a lot of French stuff. A lot of steaks.
Was that something you enjoyed?
Oh, I loved it!
Is that something you still do on occasion -- for friends, or whatever?
Well, you know, I cook for my family when I visit. You know -- you gotta cook so you can eat! (Laughs) It's just a little process or a talent that I just picked up.
On his character change from human to zombie:
That was a lot of fun. I didn't do any of the zombie stuff until the end of the shoot--they pretty much did all that footage together at the end. So, for the whole first part of the film, I watched hundreds of people be zombies. And everyone came up with their own 'designs' -- it was fun, in the assembly room before shooting at night, watching all these various people come up with their version of a zombie.
But that's the good part. The bad part was I had to do something that separated myself from everybody else. And so everyone had to come up with their own 'personality-less' creatures. It was whatever personality came out of a creature came from whatever happened to it. All that walking around on the side of my foot -- the way I carried my body -- came out of what had happened to him, so that defined how I was going to be a zombie. And George liked it so that's all that mattered. But it was different than anybody else.
On the rigors of the shoot:
It was odd, because we started out doing lots of location stuff around Pittsburgh, and I guess that was for maybe a month. And then, we had to start shooting in the mall, and this was after Thanksgiving. And the mall was totally decorated up for Christmas, so there was a lot of stuff we couldn't get done, because no matter where you looked, they was a Christmas 'thing' in the store, or in the window…in the hallways, etc.
So, we took off from the early part of December for a couple weeks until after Christmas and then went back and did a lot of the interior stuff in the mall after a lot of the Christmas decorations had been taken down. And we wrapped on around February 14. I did, anyway -- so it was actually several months that we were there.
Most of the shooting was done at night?
Pretty much all of it, because we'd go in after the mall would close.
That must have been very difficult for you.
Well, it WAS. Very odd, because you're suddenly reversing your schedule. Once it became consistent that way, you sort of got into kind of a habit with it. During the first part of the film, we were doing some night shooting, and then some in the day, and then some (again) at night -- you never knew (laughs -- to illustrate confusion) -- it was weird because you never knew when you were going to sleep. Consequently, you didn't sleep much. Everything was wacky. But at least once we got in the mall, we knew we were going to be there from ten to six for a fairly long period of time. And it actually became fine -- it was kind of odd, because (in your personal life) you never saw anybody--you slept during the day, and only went our there.
But a lot of location stuff is like that anyway. You just become so absorbed in that little life experience that the rest of the world is becomes something that's just going on around you.
And finally, comments on his co-stars and post-production:
You got along well with GALEN, SCOTT and KEN?
Oh, well had a ball.
Have you had much contact with the other cast members since the original shoot?
I haven't seen GALEN at all. In fact, in post-production, we all had to do some dubbing for things shot without sound. You had to go in and just say lines in this little booth in a sound studio. Some of that was done in New York, some in Pittsburgh. But she was in Europe and never got around to finishing her dubbing. So, a chance to see her was missed because she was out of the country. Which led, at the beginning of the film, to her calling me David the first time she seems me, rather than Stephen, and we never changed it.
As many times as I've seen it, I've never noticed it!
The first scene, in the television studio at the very beginning -- the first time I enter the scene, so to speak, there's all this hubbub. People are running all around, being crazy. And I walk in -- walk up to her, and she says "David!" (Laughs). And it's still there!
Where was that studio? Pittsburgh?
I think it was probably a studio -- I don't remember exactly, but it could've been a studio where one of the crew's film production company was located.
What kind of movies do you like? Are you a movie fan?
I like most any kind of movies. (Pause -- sighs) -- well, I'm not real big on Martial Arts movies.
Have you been asked to do one?
No, it's just…something missing in me that doesn't allow me to understand Martial Arts movies. So, I'm not really much on those. But I'll see just about anything. I like movies. I'm a sucker for them, unless they're totally incompetent, I'll buy into anything.
A couple of your favorite films?
(Laughs) Oh, Lord. That's real tough. All different kinds of movies for different reasons. DAWN OF THE DEAD is probably at the top of that list, though. That's probably my guess.
I watch it twice or so a year and I still see something different in it each time. When was the last time you watched it?
Well, you know, it's funny. I've got three or four different copies of it here, in different lengths and cuts. But I look at it every few years, if that much.
It holds up very well.
I think so, yes.
Copyright 1999 - Brian Ridgway and David Emge. This material may not be reproduced without expressed, written permission from the authors. Special thanks to David Emge and Norman England for their kind assistance.