Pittsburgh native John Harrison, now working in Hollywood, got his start in 'Dawn of the Dead' as a zombie.
Not everyone’s résumé includes the word “zombie,” but that’s where John Harrison is different. Harrison, who grew up in Pittsburgh, had many jobs throughout his film career, and even though he may have played the role of a zombie in the past, he’s best known for his horror and science-fiction flicks.
While a student at Shady Side Academy, Harrison first saw productions of King Lear and Six Characters in Search of an Author by the famous American Conservatory Theater and caught the theater bug. He made his big-screen debut as a flesh-eating zombie in his mentor George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the 1978 sequel to Romero’s famous 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead.
Harrison went on to become a rare triple threat in show business—director, screenwriter and film score—and he found fame directing two popular TV shows,“Tales From the Crypt” and “Tales From the Dark Side,” as well as the Tales From the Dark Side movie (for which he also composed original music). In addition to those projects, he was the director of "Dune," the Sci Fi Channel’s Emmy Award-winning miniseries from 2000.
Within the past year, Harrison has added the following to his credits: writing and directing the film version of Clive Barker’s Book of Blood, working on an episode of the TNT show “Leverage” and creating TV pilots.
During a recent phone interview, Harrison, who lives in L.A. with his wife and two children, was anything but zombie-fied when discussing his career in entertainment.
PM: When did you begin working with George Romero?
JH: In 1970-’71 I was a student at Emerson College in Boston studying theater, and there was a movie playing at the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge—a horror movie made in Pittsburgh that everybody said to go see because it was “really out there.”
I saw Night of the Living Dead at a midnight screening, and it was everything they promised—weird, creepy and like nothing I’d ever seen. That night, someone went barreling down the aisle, through the exit doors and hurled his guts all over the streets. I thought: Man, anybody who can do this in a movie, I want to meet.
PM: And how did that happen?
JH: I moved back to Pittsburgh in the ’70s after school and put together a film company with two partners from WQED.
We knew George [Romero] was still here. I called George, got him on the phone and told him we were young filmmakers who wanted to work with him. He walked right over to our office in Oakland, sat down at our editing table and we put up some footage we’d shot. Midway through it, he stopped and said, “OK, let’s work together.”
That was the start of it (in 1974). Soon we were hanging together, having dinner with our wives and always talking about film. We were learning by osmosis, seeing the process from as up-close as possible.
PM: What did Romero teach you about making movies?
JH: He taught me that, with movies, sometimes longer is shorter. Would you say a movie like Lawrence of Arabia is too long? Never. I can think of movies shorter by half that feel longer.
The rhythm of a movie can’t be dictated by running time; I think that’s what George meant. If you cut it down, the movie can be confusing. The pipe you lay for characterization may not be enough. The motivations may not seem real or authentic. If you lay the right stuff out, the movie doesn’t feel long.
PM: David Lynch’s 1984 feature film was the first big-screen adaptation of the classic Frank Herbert science-fiction novel, Dune, and was a huge flop. What went wrong?
JH: Lynch was going to bring his own artistic sensibility to the material. There are very beautiful things in his movie, but I don’t think he had the chance to tell that story in a two-hour movie. I had the advantage of six hours spread over three nights of television.
My goal was to translate Frank Herbert’s book in the most authentic way I could. I was also really lucky in casting Dune. Someone once said that the most important thing about directing is casting the right actors. After that, your job is mostly done.
PM: Do you enjoy working with actors? You’ve directed some of the best, like William Hurt in Dune.
JH: I love them—as crazy as they are. I don’t like to just move them around. I engage the audience by the characters on the screen. They came to see the actors, not to watch me direct. If I don’t work with the actors to get them to a place that’s great, I’ve failed.
PM: Why did you gravitate to the horror genre?
JH: I don’t believe in zombies and ghosts, but what I like about them is the hyperbolized way you can tell a story through them. I like archetypal storytelling.
George [Romero’s] horror films are in your face with violence, but there’s a subtext there with humor and social commentary. The best horror films take you to a world that does not exist in reality but has a lot to say about our world.