By Tom Kapr
Bill Hinzman (1936-2012) is largely unknown. He was mostly a behind-the-camera technician, though he appeared in a handful of low-budget horror films. He even directed a couple. But nothing to make his name known. Indeed, I didn’t even know his name until he passed away a few days ago. But he had a lasting effect on me as a cinephile, and it only took one scene in one movie.
When I was a sophomore in college, I began to get into zombie movies. I had often heard about Night of the Living Dead, but had never seen it. One weekend I decided to rent it. I was living with three roommates at the time, but on this particular weekend, they were all gone. I was alone. So, on this particular Friday night, I walked down to the dollar video store (oh, how I miss that dollar video store) and rented a VHS copy of Night of the Living Dead (yes, I’m old).
I walked back to my dorm room, fixed myself a chicken sandwich, positioned my table in front of my TV/VCR set-up (did I mention I was old?), popped in the video, and turned off the lights.
This is what I saw:
Ten minutes after starting the film, I’m staring at the screen with my mouth hanging open, mid-bite, a partially eaten sandwich in my right hand. I don’t know how long I had been holding that sandwich mere inches from my face without moving. But I finally looked at the sandwich, put it down on the plate, paused the video, got up, and turned on the lights. And I believe I paced a bit. I had shivers running up and down my spine from that scene.
And in case you didn’t figure it by now, that zombie, the first in a new cinematic breed, was played by Bill Hinzman.
I finished the film, and it’s still one of my all-time favorites. There are many things I love about it. I love the grainy black-and-white. I love the discordant soundtrack. I love how in the racially charged 1968 America, the hero was a resourceful black man (played by Duane Jones). I love how director George Romero and his writing partner John Russo created an entirely new genre of film–the post-nuclear zombie horror.
(Warning: Here be spoilers!)
And there are several horror scenes that have stuck with me in a particular way: the moment after entering the house when we see the dead lady with her face eaten off; the scene after the car accident, when the zombies are all standing around eating parts of the car’s erstwhile occupants as if they’re at a barbecue; and especially the scene when mommy walks into the basement to find daddy’s little girl eating daddy.
But it was that opening attack that had the most profound effect on me. And Hinzman totally sells it: the crazed look in his face; the staggering way he walks and–you zombie purists may notice–runs; the relentlessness with which he tries to break into the car. I have a particular horror of being trapped in a car with someone trying to break in, so this had particular resonance with me. (Or did I develop this fear after watching the film? Hm…) He’s a monster, but he still has remnants of his humanity left, most clearly seen when he uses some leftover reasoning skills to pick up the rock and break the window.
Hinzman’s zombie is still the quintessential zombie, even after forty-plus years and all the revisionism of the post-28 Days Later world. He may be gone, but he lives on (ironic though that statement may be), and it’s all because of a few minutes in a low-budget scare flick.
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