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Q&A: Tony Todd Talks “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: DARKEST DAWN” and More

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In 1990, Tony Todd took his first starring role in the Tom Savini-directed remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, playing the heroic Ben. This year, he reprises the part in the animated reboot NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: DARKEST DAWN, and he shares his thoughts on the new movie—and another classic-horror reboot he co-stars in—in this exclusive interview.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: DARKEST DAWN, directed by Krisztian Majdik and Zebediah De Soto, transfers the events of George A. Romero’s zombie classic (in which the late Duane Jones played Ben) to New York City, and “reunites” Todd with Bill Moseley, who played Johnny in Savini’s film and voices that character here as well. Originally announced as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: ORIGINS, the film has been in the works for quite some time, and Todd is looking forward to the final result, which premieres this month at San Diego’s Walker Stalker/Comic-Con (see info here).

FANGORIA: We’ve been hearing about this project for years now…

TONY TODD: I had almost written it off, and it kept coming back, and this last time, I said, “Are you guys for real?” It went through two directors, and apparently, it’s looking good.

FANG: How long have you been involved with DARKEST DAWN?

TODD: I started on it about three years ago, and that was my first motion-capture and voice work. Then, about a year and a half ago, I got a call saying that they were bringing in another director, and I did another separate session. They had two distinct takes, two distinct ways of working, and hopefully they made all the good choices. We have a good cast: Tom Sizemore, Danielle Harris, Bill Moseley… Bill and I, every time we see each other, we joke that we’ve been in five different films, and never in the same scene together!

FANG: So you didn’t do any of your voice work with your DARKEST DAWN co-stars?

TODD: No, it was all separate sessions, because they were using the approach where it’s all done individually. Ultimately, it will be great when you can have the other actors in the same room, wearing the [motion-capture] contraption. That would be the next step, where you’re actually engaging with the other actors physically.

FANG: How did the two directors differ in their approaches?

TODD: Well, Zeb, the first director—it was his concept, it was his energy that got [producer] Simon West’s attention, and got this thing off the ground. But I know that they were working literally 18 hours a day in the same location, in a basement, looking at computer screens, and our second director came in with fresh eyes; he was more of an editing director. What made me interested was being able to do a “remake” of Ben, in homage to Duane Jones. It was a chance to revisit a character I’d always had a fondness for.

FANG: What did you bring to the characterization that’s different from your performance in the 1990 NIGHT?

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TODD: Well, I’m 20 years older, so I know more about the world, you know; maybe I’m a little less patient with the zombies [laughs]. I’m just honored that they asked me to do it again, and I think it’s one of those interesting facts that’ll go down in some trivia drinking game somewhere. I’ve only seen trailers so far, but I’m happy with what I’ve seen, and I hope that the whole CGI/anime style doesn’t put people off, and will engage them enough. But I have faith; Simon West and Jib Polhemus and their team have been behind this for a few years, so clearly they have faith in it too.

FANG: Can you talk a little more about your “relationship” with Ben through the NIGHT movies?

TODD: Well, Duane Jones and all those people created the template. George Romero, John Russo, Russ Streiner—they set the standard for all things zombie. Yes, there had been zombie films before that; I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE was probably the start of it, though I think there was one in the ’20s, probably a silent film, that I’ve never been able to get my hands on, that dealt with some sort of plantation-zombie story. But anyway, I remember seeing the original at a drive-in, and it felt like a documentary, and as an African-American, I was given hope because Duane Jones was able to create a character from beginning to middle to end without any reference to his being African-American.

So when I had the opportunity to work with Tom, it was a perfect fit. Tom gave me my first lead, and my first real foray into the horror realm, so I’ll never forget it. This one was different, because I was isolated; I didn’t have the physical zombies, I didn’t have the other people there; all I could rely on was my voice and the story.

FANG: Beyond the change in setting, what other variations on the classic scenario will we see in DARKEST DAWN?

TODD: The basic conflicts are still there; it’s more of a return to the Barbara of the original, and trying to coax her out of her shell. The tension between Ben and Harry is exactly the same, and this time we have Joe Pilato voicing Harry; rest in peace, Tom Towles [who played Harry in Savini’s film and died this past April], by the way—that was a tragic loss. Joe is a good man, and he brought a different dimension to Harry’s anger. And then when they asked me to shoot the trailer for the Indiegogo campaign, that was a lot of fun.

FANG: As far as you know, did any of the original NIGHT team have anything to do with this movie?

TODD: I know that the original director reached out to Romero. You know, one of the problems with NIGHT is that it’s public domain, so, you know, how many editions do we have of it now? A lot of bad ones, unfortunately. In the Indiegogo video, I wanted to specifically give homage to not just Romero but John Russo, who wrote the original story, and who I don’t think gets enough credit. I wanted to make sure his name was on that page, because I’m a good friend of John’s, and I respect the man. It was one of the tragedies of not just horror history but film history that the creators didn’t get their just rewards from that first movie, and hopefully, this film will bring new attention to all of them.

FANG: You’re also attached to another zombie update, the remake of NIGHTMARE CITY (see details here).

TODD: Yeah, with Tom Savini, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to work together again. We had been working on another project that would take the point of view of the zombie as an intelligent, thinking machine, but I guess Tom felt it was more prudent to work on NIGHTMARE CITY first. I just want him to get behind the lens again. I got to visit his house in Pittsburgh a couple of months ago, and it is a museum of all things horror and science fiction. He’s got the robot from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL there; it’s amazing.

FANG: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but is there still talk about resurrecting Candyman?

TODD: No, that chatter kind of died down about three years ago. But I did get to reunite with [CANDYMAN director] Bernard Rose; we did a version of FRANKENSTEIN that won the Golden Raven at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, which was fantastic. It also won Best Actor at the Louisiana International Film Festival, and it got picked up by Alchemy for U.S. release. It was great to be with Bernard again; we filmed in LA, and it’s the same story, but updated to modern times. You know how in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster meets a blind man? In this updated version, he meets a blind homeless musician, and we had the rights to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” and I’m the one who sort of takes him to the next stage, and don’t see him for what he is.

Xavier Samuel plays the monster, and Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss are also in the cast. That’s another story that’s been done a lot, but so far we’ve been hitting gold; the critics who have seen it have loved it. Bernard’s film PAPERHOUSE also won at Brussels, so he was excited about going back there 26 years later and winning again.

I’ve got two more horror films coming out soon. One of them is called REQUIEM [co-starring Harris and Jeff Fahey], which I did with a great filmmaker named Paul Moore down in Virginia. I play a priest who conducts exorcisms for a living, and one day he confronts a challenge that’s kind of hard to get past. And I filmed one at the beginning of the year with Michael Eklund called THE COLD DESCENT, which is a supernatural thriller that takes place on a train; Lance Henriksen is in it, and Richard Riehle. That started my year off with a bang. And I’m doing a one-man show called GHOST IN THE HOUSE, which is about the legendary Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. We’re doing it next in LA, at UCLA October 9th through the 11th, and we’re coming to New York after that.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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