Catching up with Karen Cooper and Sheriff McClelland

By Mikey Taylor

In 1968 George A Romero invented a genre. The modern zombie was born when Night of the Living Dead hit theaters. Movie goers were terrified at this new monster that had been laid before them. People covered their eyes, people panicked, they even walked out because the terror on the screen was too much for them to handle. In the midst of the band of survivors, seemingly the only humans left on earth, was a sick little girl. One of these monsters had bitten her and she lie suffering on a table for the bulk of the movie. Even though she only uttered two words, “I hurt”, during the entire movie her character and image are among the most remembered and beloved from the project. I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with and befriending the actress that played that little girl and have been able to interview her a couple of times over the past few years. I hope that you enjoy my conversations with Kyra Schon, who played Karen Cooper- Romero’s littlest zombie.

This first interview took place in September of 2011 during a fund raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Our local late night horror host Dr San Guinary sponsored his Spook-o-Rama Saturday over Labor Day weekend and brought Kyra in as one of his guests. This interview features stories about filming and from the set, as well as myself getting to know Kyra.

Kyra Schon

Night of the Living Dead

September 3, 2011

 

ZAM: At the time of filming did you realize that you were a part of something so big? Did you recognize the vision of George Romero?

Kyra: I can’t say that I did. I don’t know that anybody did have any idea that it would become what it has become, the springboard to this culture because it has become sort of a culture. For me it was just a really fun couple of days on the set stabbing people and eating other people’s arms. It was a treat for me, it was just fun.

ZAM: And nothing about the movie really scared you or traumatized you at that age? Was there anything that bothered you?

Kyra: No. Nothing bothered me but I did feel like I was cheated because I didn’t get to see the truck blowing up because it happened after my bed time so that’s my one great regret. I chastised my father for that years later and he said he would blow up his Buick for me.

ZAM: And did that ever happen?

Kyra: No, no it didn’t.

ZAM: Speaking of your father, he actually played your father in the movie. What was that like working with your real dad and having to eat his arm?

Kyra: Eating his arm was OK. He actually directed me in my scenes and I felt a little bit nervous because he said “Now if you make a mistake, time is money, so try not to make a mistake” or something like that and that made me nervous. When someone tells you not to make a mistake, you’re going to make a mistake, so I felt a little pressure there where I might not have felt pressure if George(Romero) had been directing me but it was fine. How can I make a mistake lying on a table? It was pretty cool and I’m glad I got to work with my dad in that capacity.

ZAM: The cast was a pretty local, tight knit group. Was there anyone else that you had a connection with on the set?

Kyra: I felt a really strong connection with Duane Jones. We had one scene together when little Karen, my character, went upstairs and attacked him and he had to grab me and throw me onto the sofa. He was very nervous about doing that because was afraid he was going to hurt me. He didn’t hurt me. He was a really gentle guy and he was very quiet and reserved. I felt really safe with him, I can’t really explain why. He seemed very powerful but in a really quiet way and I was really drawn to him.

ZAM: We talked a bit before the interview about you going to the premier. What was that like? Did people recognize then what this movie was, that there was a new genre of horror? What was it like being there at the premier?

Kyra: I was there at the premier with both my parents, I sat with my dad and my mother sat elsewhere, and I had invited some of my friends my age and they were sitting behind me too. I actually didn’t pay much attention to the movie, I would watch it and them turn around to see what their reaction to scenes were. That was more interesting to me because I knew what was going to happen on screen, so I kept turning around watching them jumping out of their seats and shrieking. That was really great. I honestly don’t know what other people thought at the time, I know my mother said she thought it was kind of silly. I think she identified kind of a schlock element, but my mother was also a big fan of Ingmar Bergman and Fellini so seeing a zombie movie was like “Yawn” for her. I don’t think anyone at that time realized how amazing this film would become.

ZAM: There is always a racial element that is tagged onto the movie, and it wasn’t intentional. We talked last night and I had read in other places that the character of Ben before Duane Jones got it was supposed to be a red neck truck driver type of man. You had said that the movie was released or something coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr shooting. Was there any kind of back lash there?

Kyra: It wasn’t the release, those two events didn’t coincide, but when they were driving the film to the distributor before it’s release it was that day that they heard the news on the radio that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and they thought ‘Oh my God. If we look at the ending of our film and current events, how is this going to play out?’ The racial element was not intended as a racial element, but I’m sure it was viewed that way.

ZAM: They still tag it on. I’ve always heard George say if they want to tag that on, let them. It makes them talk about my movie.

Kyra: George has said too that Duane had certainly recognized racial overtones in the film. He was more sensitive to it because he was black. George and all these other guys were a bunch of white guys and it just didn’t occur to them what the backlash would be, but Duane certainly understood what it could be.

ZAM: Going back to the making of the movie, when you ate your dad’s arm what was that? What did they use for that effect?

Kyra: It was someone’s leftover meatball sandwich from lunch, They used a styrofoam thing to stuff into my dad’s shirt sleeve and smeared it with that meatball sandwich then used Bosco chocolate syrup to bind it all together and look like blood and I had a handful of it. I just held it up to my mouth, I did not actually have to eat it.

ZAM: In the years since then, what has your involvement been in the culture with cons and appearances? Has it been a huge culture that you’ve gotten into or did you get away from it for a bit?

Kyra: I got away from it for a while because the cons didn’t exist. I was asked to do my first con in 1988. I had no idea conventions were going on. It was like “Oh my God” there was this other world, this is amazing. These people feel about our movie the way I do and that’s really cool. I met a lot of new people, fans, and they became friends because we all had something in common. I wasn’t just in a horror film, I’m a big fan of horror films so it opened up a whole new world for me.

ZAM: What are some of your favorite horror films? Are you into the zombie genre or do you like to branch out a little bit?

Kyra: I like to branch out a bit. I have to say that my favorite film of all time is Jaws. From the time I read it on the beach in New Jersey when the book came out it’s my favorite. I love The Bad Seed. I kind of like the more old school stuff. I’m not a really big fan of the torture porn I can’t watch it. It just makes me feel kind of sick. I guess I like more atmospheric films, something that leaves more to the imagination. I don’t really like in your face gore and splatter because I like feeling scared, not grossed out.

ZAM: If you do view the current zombie genre, it’s gone from slow Romero zombies to fast rage zombies. What what you like to change about it?

Kyra: I would definitely get rid of fast zombies. The rage in 28 days later, it made sense because they weren’t dead so I can forgive the creatures in that, but fast zombies are ridiculous. It does not make sense. Why would you be better, stronger, or faster when you’re dead? It doesn’t make sense because things start to decay and deteriorate, it’s ridiculous. I have a couple of more current zombie favorites. Shawn of the Dead I adored. I really liked Zombie Honeymoon, and my favorite zombie movie of all time, including NOTLD, is Fido. I loved Fido.

ZAM: So you’re more a fan of the ‘zombidy’ then I guess you’d call them. The comedy and schlocky kind?

Kyra: Yeah. I think the serious zombie stuff has all been done. There’s only so much further you can take it. The make up effects of course improve with each movie, or you hope they will. I think zombies are sort of lovable creatures, I don’t think they have to be scary. In fact I don’t think they are scary. I think people are scary.

ZAM: So are there any projects on your wish list right now, anything upcoming for you?

Would you get back into the genre?

Kyra: I would love to be an extra in one of George’s films some day or in The Walking Dead or something. I think it would be fun to put back on some zombie make up. As long as I don’t have lines I would be more than happy to do something.

ZAM: In Night of the Living Dead you had minimal make up on, was it hard for you to act with the make up and get into character?

Kyra: No, it wasn’t difficult to get into character. I think it was because I was a kid and kids naturally pretend and play make believe. I think that was pretty easy for me. My make up really was minimal, I just had the dark eye circles. I wanted wounds, but it wasn’t part of the story so I was disappointed about that.

ZAM:I think kid zombies are kind of scary because you have a harder time putting them down…

Kyra: Kids are creepy anyways.

ZAM: Kids are kinda creepy. So just wrapping up, do you have any websites that you’d like to plug? I know you have some great products that you make and sculpt.

Kyra: I have my regular NOTLD website which is called ghoulnextdoor.com and I have my jewelry website which is stonehousearts.etsy.com.

ZAM: I know I need to head over there and get one of those custom trowels that you have for sale. I just wanted to thank you for sitting down here with me today and it’s been a pleasure getting to know you.

Kyra: Thank you, I’ve had a really good time this weekend.

After spending a weekend visiting with Kyra, she quickly became a favorite amongst the cast and crew of the Dr San Guinary production and we were eager to have her back in town. One year later, in September 2012, we hosted another charity event. This time a blood drive and fund raiser for the Red Cross. Connected to this event was a special showing of Night of the Living Dead and a meet and greet with Kyra and George Kosana, who played zombie killer Sheriff McClelland. This interview focuses more on the culture that Night of the Living Dead has created and why it has held it’s popularity over the last 44 years.

Kyra Schon and George Kosana

Night of the Living Dead

September 29, 2012

ZAM: What are some of your favorite memories from Night of the Living Dead?

Kyra: My fondest memory was working with my father on this project. He played Harry Cooper, Karl Hardman was his real name, and that’s probably my fondest memory is that we had that experience in common. It kind of bonded us on a different kind of level. When I think about NOTLD I think about my dad.

George: My fondest memories, I was both the production manager on the project and played the sheriff in the film. As the production manager no one, regardless of what their function was,who was involved in that production, said “That’s not my job, I’m not doing it.” Everyone said “What else can I do? What else do you need? How can I help?” That attitude made it a joy to go to the set. It wasn’t a job, it was fun. As an actor, I think when Bill Cardille was interviewing me and I improvised the line “They’re dead, they’re all messed up.” It wasn’t in the script and I felt like saying it so I said it. It became a signature piece by which many people identify the film. If there’s a group sitting around and someone says that line, everyone there knows exactly what they mean, what they’re talking about, what scene they’re referring to and it’s an immediate connection with the film. I think that’s great.

ZAM: Speaking about how easily identifiable the film is, when you see an image of either one of you or an image from the film or even hear a line, people know exactly what it is. What do you guys think is to attribute to the notoriety, the film being so easily recognizable even nearly 50 years later. What has given it the staying power?

Kyra: I think it’s because it’s been on TV somewhere in the world every moment of every day probably since it came out and I think that aren’t too many people left in places where there is TV reception that haven’t seen it. I think everyone has seen it. Maybe not people who live in Amazonian South America but I think they’re probably the only ones left on the planet who haven’t seen it. Everyone knows the title. Everyone sort of knows the premise. It’s kind of hard to escape watching it.

George: I think a great deal of it’s success is attributed to the fact that it had a story. Everything being put out today seems to lack that, it’s exploitation for the sense of sensationalism. They have gore, sex, violence, blood, but they don’t have a story. NOTLD had a story and I think that’s what grabs people because it’s facing a reality that could be, not is, but could be. I think that catches their attention and holds it.

ZAM: You mentioned the current product that’s out there. A lot of it you could say was inspired by, borrowed from, perhaps stolen from NOTLD. Is there anything out there today horror wise, not just zombie wise but horror wise, that you guys enjoy or you guys think is ground breaking?

George: I try not to be influenced by other people’s work because when I’m writing I don’t want to subconsciously insert their ideas into my project. I want it to be my own original thought and idea so I try to avoid watching a great deal of it.

Kyra: There’s a lot of horror that I like but definitely not the torture porn kinds of things. I’m not a fan of those, but I do still love horror. The Decent is one of my favorite movies which didn’t just come out but it’s fairly recent. I love it. It has absolutely everything that I love in a film. It makes me feel very claustrophobic and it just skeeves me out. I’ve watched it dozens of times and absolutely love it. I think there are still some original ideas and things that are not nesessarly remakes, which I’m really sick of. There are still things in horror that I love.

ZAM: You guys do many appearances. I see everything online about all the places you’re traveling around to. What are some of your favorite things, favorite memories about the cons and appearances that you do?

Kyra: Definitely meeting fans, and other guests too of the convention. Every city that you go to has a slightly different flavor. Unfortunately when we go to the convention we don’t have a lot of time to get to know the area because we’re kind of stuck in the hotel the entire weekend. You kind of get to know the city by the people that come to your table and talking to them. That’s really the best part.

George: I think it’s giving back to the fans because, we made a picture but the fans who go to see that picture made it the success that it has become. We owe them, they do not owe us. In order to pay them back, we do the tour and will do anything we can within reason to help contribute toward the success of the show. We all seem to carry that same attitude.

ZAM: The NOTLD family, if I can refer to them in that way, the Image Ten folks and the cast and crew seem to have a camaraderie still to this day. Do you guys still hang out or keep in touch?

George: Oh yeah. It isn’t like we are with each other every minute and agree on every incident or issue because we have some heated arguments, but it’s out of respect for the other person’s point of view that enables us to resolve issues. You may bring up something I never considered or I may bring up something you never thought of and because they’re now both out on the table, now we can deal with them and come to a good conclusion. Not nessesarally the best one, but the one we most likely are to use.

Kyra: I don’t know that we hang out together so much, although Russ (Streiner) only lives a few blocks away from me and has for years and years and years. We don’t really hang out, but we do see each other at some local functions and certainly at conventions and that’s nice because you feel so comfortable around each other that it is like family. We do tend to agree, all of us, politically which is nice so we have nothing to fight about there.

ZAM: At the top of the interview we mentioned the good memories. I don’t want any big horror stories, or maybe I do, but is there anything that sticks out as a memory of something that you would have done different?

George: It’s just like with the writing. Anytime you say you’re finished, you think of something else you want to put in or take out or rearrange. We had a great many clips that were on the cutting room floor that could have been used, but weren’t. They’re gone because we were flooded and everything got wiped out in the flood. That’s unfortunate but that’s the way it is. You deal with it and move on. You don’t dwell on it, but you don’t forget it either. You make sure it doesn’t happen again.

ZAM: Kyra, you were quite a bit younger. Anything you can think of? How hard was it to lay on that table for hours on end?

Kyra: Laying on the table was a little boring because that one scene with my father and Marilyn (Eastman) was extremely long originally. Thank God that was one of the scenes that did end up on the cutting room floor. It wasn’t hard, it was just boring. I wouldn’t change a thing as far as my experience went. It was really wonderful. It was positive all the way through.

ZAM: Is there anything upcoming for you guys, or anything that you have worked on recently that you want your personal fans to know about?

Kyra: Next month I’m going to be playing a zombie in my friend, Dean Vanderkolk’s short film Day Planner of the Dead. There’s a Facebook page for it and an Indie Go Go page for it so they can find information about it on Facebook. It’s a zombie comedy so I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.

George: I have to finish re-writing a screenplay I wrote that won an award. I have to take where I’m directing the director because they don’ t like that one bit. You don’t tell the director how to make the movie, the director tells you how he wants the movie made. Once I get that done, I have to market it. Then I have a trilogy I’ve written that deals with three distinctly different psychological disorders. As soon as I finish with my comedy, then I’ll do the trilogy. As soon as I get that done, I have exclusive rights to an unsolved murder that I am to write the story for. Aside from that, doing the tour, I’m still acting and I’m a still photographer. Other than that, I don’t have anything to do.

ZAM: I want to thank you for sitting down here. It’s always a pleasure to talk to someone who was actually there and who influenced what I do.

Kyra: Thank you.

George: Thanks for having us.

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