A Friendly Fucking Chat With Horror Icon Joseph Pilato

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I found myself that evening, talking to Joseph Pilato, while my girlfriend walked into the room holding Taco Bell for us from down the street. I whispered to her don’t eat that in here, I’m doing the interview, I had Joseph on speaker phone, and was recording the conversation on a tiny little Olympus digital voice recorder that I had picked up just the day before.  It was pretty amazing to me, that I was talking to this zombie movie legend.  And If there was one thing I learned from watching Day Of The Dead, it’s that you don’t want to piss off Captain Rhodes.  No matter how badly you wanted some Taco Bell, you do not piss off Captain Rhodes.  Joseph Pilato was running this fucking monkey farm.

Patient Zero

In late October of 2014, I had the idea that it would be pretty awesome to interview someone from one of the original George A. Romero zombie flicks for the Zombie Movies Page. I’ve watched Night, Dawn, and Day so many times that I cannot recall, the images are burned into my brain, and I will forever love them. But how interesting would it be to hear from someone who actually experienced it? I wasn’t quite sure who to approach.

I read around, god bless the internets, and came to the conclusion that anyone whom had ever met Joseph Pilato, Captain Rhodes in Day Of The Dead, has said that he’s one hell of a stand-up guy, and always loves talking to the fans. You figure Day Of The Dead came out 30 years ago, and you would have to get tired of answering the same old questions, but Joseph was always friendly with the fans, and that’s an astonishing trait.  He’s blunt, yes, but you have to wonder just how much of that is him being in character, and you end up liking him regardless. Crude or not, he would always (by all accounts, mine now included) talk to his fans, and embraces them like he knew them for years. So I figured… yeah, let’s do this, we want to talk to Captain Rhodes.

I tracked down his talent agency, and sent a request for an interview.  After about a week or so, I got word back that he was currently on a Day of the Dead tour, and that they would forward the request to him. I grew excited. This might actually happen! We played e-mail tag for awhile, the CTC talent agency and I, and before I knew it, a couple of months had passed, and there was snow on the ground. I was starting to think that maybe it wasn’t going to happen.  It’s funny how slow time moves, and all the while I was above ground, and not in some military bunker in a zombie-infested world.

One random May morning, while checking my e-mail on the toilet before work, I came across a message from Joseph’s talent agency, telling me I’ll be speaking with Joseph Pilato today, this afternoon, to bring this opportunity to his attention in person, to expedite this request. He has just returned to LA this week. He had still been on the Day of the Dead 30th Anniversay tour, and now the interview was finally going down. I was going to talk to Captain Rhodes. Honestly, I was a little bit nervous.

Joseph and I swapped voicemails, trying to coordinate the phone interview. I asked if he wanted me to send him my questions first, and his camp told me that that wasn’t how Joseph operates, just ask him whatever, and he’ll shoot from the hip. I immediately picture Captain Rhodes. They also ask me if language is an issue… I say of course not, and again… I think of Captain Rhodes.

May 14th, 2015 – 8:04 PM EST – The Call

We discuss specifics for a bit, we talk about pod-casts and phone volume. And then it begins.

Eric Malcolm – Ladies and gentleman, and zombie-fans alike, today we have Joseph Pilato, star of some of your favorite films, and a personal favorite of our’s, Day of the Dead, and he’s respectively taken time out of his schedule to talk to us and you fans, and we’re going to ask him some questions to get inside the mind of Joseph, that we might not have seen on the screen, and…

Joseph Pilato – (Jumping in) Let me tell you something right now, Mr. Malcolm, Mr. Eric Malcolm, zombie movies, your fans better be fucking listening to this, and paying attention. And tell that English partner of yours, named after an American president, John Adams (John Adam is the zombie movie page founder)… what the fuck is he doing in England? (He lives in England). And I’m stuck here in chains, folks. So be gentle with me, because I know where you fucking live, you bunch of (mercifully inaudible).

paying attention

EM – (Awkardly laughing) …There we go… Joseph in the flesh.

JP – Part of me is in the flesh, I don’t know where the rest of me went.

The Old Days

EM – (Switching gears) So, I guess, the first thing I want to talk about, I read that you are most proud of being a Christmas caroler at Gimbel’s, in Pittsburgh?

JP – Oh yeah! Absolutely!  It was one of the greatest jobs that I ever had.  (I can instantly hear the glee in his voice, so I know this must be true, and also hearing his tone soften, I take a sigh of relief that Captain Rhodes has momentarily left). I actually created the job, because, they were looking for carolers, dressed in street clothes, to sing in the store. And I said, let’s turn this into Dicken’s carolers, and one of the women in the quartet had connections (inaudable) costume department, and so for five years, the day after Thanksgiving up until the 23rd of December, we sang three hours in the morning, and three hours in the afternoon, and it was a face to face with the customers, and especially the kids, and it was the best job that I ever had, and I was proud of it, and I created it. And you sing Christmas carols for a solid month, you are definitely in the Christmas spirit. I remember shooting a film one time in (inaudible), and seeing the carolers there, and it was quite an exhilarating experience.

gimbels

Scene outside of the Pittsburgh Gimbels, before going out of business in the late 80’s.

EM – Are you a Pittsburgh native?

JP – No, I grew up in Boston. I was studying with the Polish Laboratory Theater, run by a very famous man named Jerzy Grotowski, and that brought me to Pittsburgh, to an old mattress factory, that is now the Andy Warhol museum. I saw a lot of art in Pittsburgh, I worked for a wonderful theater company called City Theater, we were paid by the city, so we were city employees, and we had paid vacation days, it was just like being an actor… in a socialist country.

EM – It sounds like a good gig.

JP – It was a good gig. I’d still be there if they had it.

EM – So talking about the old days, I heard, before acting, you considered being a lawyer?

JP – Yeah, I went to Suffolk University in Boston, it has a very preeminent law school, and they had some cross-classes with Emerson College, which is a preeminent acting school, and it took me three years to figure out that I didn’t really want to be the lawyer, but I wanted to be the guy playing the lawyer. I have yet to play a lawyer, so I hope that comes around some day. Because that was the thing that got me into acting.

EM – So you liked the idea of playing a lawyer, more than actually being a lawyer, and that’s how you made the jump?

JP – That’s right, it took me awhile to figure it out, but I figured it out, and I’m glad I did. A lawyer is a very hard job. A lot of paper-work.

Working With Romero And Day Of The Dead

EM – Talking about acting, and I’m sure you get this all the time… but what is one of your favorite memories of being Captain Rhodes, in Day of the Dead?

JP – Favorite memories… hmm. I guess the favorite memory, is the camaraderie that builds up with the cast members, because we were trapped underground for 14-16 hours a day. And there were no Winnebago’s to go into, except for the Winnebago in the scene with Terry Alexander and Lori Cardille, where he gives his famous Jamaican view of the world. So we just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the movie, this is the 30th year, 30 shades of decay, and there were 12 of us all there, and it was like we picked up a beat of the film and that was yesterday, and this was today. So those are the memories, when you say favorite… and of course the opportunity, even though it was the third time working with George, the opportunity to work with him on a fairly significant character, to watch his style, his command of the camera, and the scene. He’s definitely an actor’s director.

George_Romero_2

The Master Of Horror, George A. Romero.

 

(phone trouble)

EM – So essentially your favorite memory was camaraderie, I guess that rolls into my next question. Who are you still in touch with today, from both Day and Dawn?

JP – I’m in touch with Gary Klar, I stay in touch with Lori (Cardille), I stay in touch with Terry (Alexander). Terry and I just did an independent film, that’s waiting to be titled and released. I stay in touch with (Tom) Savini. Also a book came out this year, by an author named Lee Karr, called The Making Of George A Romero’s Day Of The Dead, and it’s an interesting account, almost a day-by-day journal of the making of the movie. It’s available on Amazon, it’s a great book, and I stay in touch with him. I see George at conventions, and we always have friendly conversations, because he’s a great guy, very unpretentious, and he has a lot of love for his actors. And he’s the author as well, so he’s not interpreting someone else’s work, he’s interpreting his own work, so you’re getting everything from the horse’s mouth.

romero

The Quentin Tarantino Story

EM – Talking about directors, let’s talk about Tarantino. All of our followers have already seen the trailer of From Dusk Til Dawn, can you tell us about that?

JP – You’re really looking to break my heart, aren’t you? I came to LA in ’86. I got a phone call from Robert Kurtzman, of KNB EFX. He’s the K. He’s still affiliated with the company, but it’s moved it to Ohio, so it could have a normal upbringing, as opposed to la la land.

EM – Ohio? That’s actually my neck of the woods.

JP – Are you familiar with Vermilion, Sandusky? I used to spend my summers in Vermilion. But anyways, I got a call from Bob (Kurtzman) and he said Joe I’m doing this project, and I’d like you to attach your name to it, and I said Bob, I just got out here, I’ll attach my name to a toilet bowl. So I said what’s the deal, what’s the story, and he said it’s called From Dusk Til Dawn, it’s kinda like In Cold Bold with vampires. It’s about two brothers. So I asked who wrote it, and he said this really neat kid who works in a video store, his name’s Quentin Tarantino. So I say he’s Italian, that’s cool, and we go to this party the next week, and I meet this tall guy, with a huge chin, we shake hands, and he never lets go, he just keeps shaking my hand, and going over scenes of the movie. He was going at a fever pitch, and when he finally broke the handshake, I asked Bob, what’s this guy on?, and he just said, that’s his energy. So we shot what I consider, a beautiful trailer. And if you look at it, I’m the first guy, with the proverbial black suit, white shirt, black tie. So we heard nothing from them, for six months, but Quentin keeps re-writing, and next thing I know, I pick up the paper and read about Reservoir Dogs, and he’s the next Hitchcock. Not Hitchcock, but Orson Welles. With some Hitchcock thrown in. So Canon films wanted to buy the script, because it was Tarantino’s first script. And they picked a very unknown, insignificant actor, I say wryly… umm, my mind just went blank, I can’t think… uhh, George Clooney! He played the character that I would have played in the low-budget version, and had Reservoir Dogs hadn’t gotten made, my career would have been completely different. So that’s why I call it a heartbreaking story. Of course it did get me a brief cameo on Pulp Fiction, that ended on the editing floor.

quentin-tarantino-reservoir-dogs1

Quentin Tarantino on the set of Reservoir Dogs.

 

tarantino

EM – As Dean Martin, right?

JP – Yeah, yeah, so that’s what I got out of that deal. But Quentin’s a great director too, he’s just, just, all over the place, but in a good way. He inspires. But I would have been in his stable of actors, had it gotten made, I probably would have been the guy in the black suit, the black tie, I would have been Mr. Pink (laughs).

Joseph Pilato was the first to don the Black suit, white shirt, black tie, for the record.

JP – Well, you know. I didn’t spend 30 million dollars on my wedding, but what are you going to do, that’s the business. But I’m very happy, actually I’m going to call my guy, to see if he can lift a picture off the internet, because I’ll put it on my table. We’re doing the Texas Con, May 28, so maybe I’ll put it on the table then. A lot of people don’t bring it up when they come, so maybe I’ll refresh their memory.

EM – It’s a hell of a story. So talking about directors, you also worked with Ron Howard, in Gung Ho.

Working With Ron Howard

JP – Yes I did. Wonderful, wonderful guy. I guess uh, the Opie stayed in him, because he’s curious, I mean when Michael Keaton, usually when you do a scene and you’re working with a pretty big name person, you’ll have somebody with a script in their hands, feeding you lines. But Keaton stayed, and did that, where a lot of actors just say I’ll be in my trailer. I think Ron brings that out. I think Gung Ho was underrated. (Howard) is just a great guy, a lot of similarities with George, in terms of their warmth, with actors. That’s not saying that tyrannical directors don’t make great movies, Hitchcock one of them.

Ron Howard on set of "Gung Ho"

Ron Howard shooting on set of Gung Ho.

 

EM – He’s (Hitchcock) notorious for that.

JP – Warmth get’s you a long way.

EM – So working with Romero, Tarantino, Howard. What big name director would you work with today, if it was completely up to you?

Shadowing DeNiro

JP – Scorsese. The Aviator. He’s got that new one coming out about the Irish mob. In my earlier days, I did a lot of early production work. Like on The Deer Hunter. I started out doing crowd-control, and they liked me so much, they promoted me up to talent-wrangler. Which was making sure the talent got to the set. But I ended up being De Niro’s stand-in. But the thing about it, was you were obligated to watch rehearsals, so that you can do physical movements, in the rehearsal.

deerhunter

EM – To fast forward from The Deer Hunter, a pretty hot show, The Walking Dead, you worked with Greg Nicotero?  His first big gig was Dawn, and then his first big lead gig was Day, right?

JP – Yes I did, Greg was a young buddy, a pimply-faced teenager. When I wasn’t shooting on Dawn, we would chat, and white-face hundreds of zombies at the mall, and he rose very rapidly. And I worked with him of course on Day, he was by my side.

EM – So do you watch The Walking Dead?

Joseph Pilato And The Walking Dead

JP – Uhhh…. I can pretend I do for political reasons. But uh… I feel it’s um, don’t get me wrong, success is success. The thousands of people that that live and die by the series, and The Talking Dead. I feel that, it’s a (takes a pause) soap opera with zombies. In one episode of The Walking Dead, you probably see more zombie kills, than you would see in two Romero films. I think The Walking Dead would have made a great film. Walking Dead 1, Walking Dead 2, Walking Dead 3. I think the original first two, and maybe perhaps even three, were very interesting. The thing that happens though, when you see zombies in Doritos commercials, you have films like Zombie Detention, uhhh.

EM – Zombie movies have become way more mainstream and popular, than they have been, in the last few decades.

JP – Let’s not forget, in the 20’s, there was White Zombie, I Walked With A Zombie. Karloff, I think maybe Lugosi was in one, I can’t remember. And then they kind of disappeared. And then George in the 60’s. Now the original name for Night Of The Living Dead was The Flesh Eaters, but they changed the title. But the thing is… nobody is afraid, anymore. Of it. There is, no pun intended, such a thing as overkill.

White Zombie

White Zombie, 1932

 

EM – The over-stimulation of zombies in pop-culture, does desensitize people. I’ve read that when Night of the Living Dead premiered, people threw up, and ran out of the theaters, and now you see little kids with zombies on their shirts.

The Decline Of The Zombie Era

JP – I’m actually surprised that there’s not a zombie sitcom. You know, All Of What’s Left Of The Family. You know, an Archie zombie, an Edith zombie. But it’s not of the culture of fear. Maybe there would be a zombie quiz show.

EM – But all of the categories would probably be about brains.

JP – Zombie General Hospital. All of the doctors, are zombies. It’s funny, they’re remaking Poltergeist. Why are you remaking, something that’s perfection? Because they don’t have any imagination. They go with what’s tried and true.

EM – The original was great. At the time, it was a really scary movie.

MTE1ODA0OTcxOTQ4NDEwMzgx

Poltergeist, 1982

 

Catching Up With A Legend

(Phone trouble)

EM- So what are you doing these days, what else is on the horizon, where can we see you?

JP – I’m doing a lot of conventions. I’m waiting for the release of Night Of The Living Dead Origins. So I’m waiting for that, and I have a picture coming out called Shhhh. (spelling it out) S-h-h-h-h, it’s kind of like a grind house murder mystery. And that’s what happening. I have the convention coming up on the 28. Just trying to stay, on top of things. There’s an old saying, an actor walks on the studio lot, he takes a left, he gets run over by a craft services truck. He turns right, he bumps into a casting director, who says you’re the guy we’ve been looking for. So you know, like I said, it could have gone in a different direction. Lance Henriksen, he’s one of my favorite actors. Have you seen Appaloosa?

saying

EM – I haven’t seen it, it’s a western, right?

JP – What’s his name? Viggo Mortensen? I think that’s how you say it. That was a wonderful portrayal. It took like five minutes to recognize him. I did a show, Brisco County (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.) with Bruce Campbell, he had a wonderful career starting out in horror movies. Look at Matthew McConaughey, what was his breakthrough film? Texas Chainsaw.

texaschainsawmassacrethenextgeneration03

Matthew McConaughey in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.

 

EM – Renee Zellweger, also, right?

JP – Yeah. I don’t know why she had that plastic surgery done. I don’t know why Uma Thurman had that plastic surgery, she’s fucking gorgeous. Just gorgeous. I think we need to blow up the Kardashians. Make that the last episode of the series. I’ll play the bad man.

kardashians

(laughing)

EM – I want to read that book, that you mentioned was on Amazon.  What was it called again?

JP – It’s called The Making Of George A. Romero’s Day Of The Dead, and you would swear that when you read it, it’s so in-depth, I’ve had the book for months, and there’s so much information in there. It’s crazy. You would think the guy that wrote it was on the set every day, except the guy that wrote it, was only eleven years old, but he did such vast research, it’s like this guy was there everyday. It’s interesting. I recommend it to all readers.

51gKvHxNcZL

EM – We’ll throw a link up for it on the site, so that everyone can go check it out and get a copy, and I’ll check it out myself.

JP – Yeah, it’s a big book. There’s a lot of great photographs in there. And information, that even I didn’t know. And the events that lead up to the making, and then it goes into the making, which is pretty much a day-by-day account of the making.

EM – I’m a huge movie nerd. As all our followers are. I love all the background information. I can never read enough, about that.

JP – Have you seen a film called (inaudible and sounds like Nemesis)?

EM – Nemesis?

JP – Not Nemesis. Write it down. M-I-M-E-S-I-S.

EM- Is that also about Night Of The Living Dead?

JP – Yeah. So you’ve must have heard about it, right?. But you haven’t seen it?

EM – Yeah, that’s one of those movies, that’s in my Netflix queue, the list is out of control and I need to manager it better.

JP – Yeah, so anyways (I forgot that Joseph is notorious for not owning a computer, and may not know what Netflix is), I wont tell you too much, I don’t want to spoil it for you, it’s a very uhh, it’s a very interesting film. So is Bugs, with Ashley Judd. And that actor, I can’t remember his name, he was on Boardwalk Empire for awhile. And another film, he thinks something catastrophic was going to happen to the world. I can’t remember. In terms of overkill, have you seen Signs, with Mel Gibson? You know, not til the very end of the movie, that, I wasn’t too happy about how the aliens looked, but the build-up, to it. It’s almost like, I mean Howard Hawks production of The Thing, is one of the scariest, on the edge of your seat, movie. It’s not until the end until you see the thing.

Conclusion

JP – I love genre fans. They’re not looky-loos. They come to the table. Some of them might have bones through their nose, and they bring their kids to them, and the genre is getting passed on, to another generation. And genre fans don’t just get an autograph and leave, they ask questions, they are interested in talking, moments in the film and things like that, and it’s always a joy to deal with them, and without them, we would just be two-dimensional pieces on celluloid. But fans have become our family, warm-blooded. People will come up to my table, and they’ll show me a picture of me holding a kid in my arms, and there’s this six-year-old standing there, and it’s like, that’s him. That’s the baby you were holding. It’s quite heart-warming.

Emge, Pilato, and Foree

David Emge, Joseph Pilato, and Ken Foree at a Convention.

 

EM – I guess you can say it’s a generational thing. People grow up loving these movies, and they pass it down.

JP – Yep, yep, get them away from watching the Kardashians, and reality TV, and we’ll be fine.

EM – Oh fuck that, right?

JP – Right.

EM – That’s why I will happily let my kids watch Night Of The Living Dead, and wont let them anywhere near the E! Channel.

JP – Yeah, well. As long as The Night Of The Living Dead spooks them, the way when I was a kid and watched Frankenstein the first time, I’m still a huge fan of Universal classics, I think they’re kind of the identity, I don’t care about CG or how incredible, that’s the other thing about Night Of The Living Dead, that was all artisan work, that was hands-on work.

EM – It was all just character-acting. It was scary, because of the tension. It was very Hitchcockian.

JP – It was almost good fortune that the budget got cut to pieces, because George wouldn’t bring in a rated movie, because if you read the original script, it reads big budget action movie. So what he had to do when the budget was so severely cut, he had to compress everything, and that compression kind of created a nuclear bomb. So many conflicting points of view came in that claustrophobia, and something was bound to happen.

EM – (looking at my watch and surprised that an hour had passed, it honestly felt like maybe 10 minutes) I want to sincerely thank you for taking time, just to talk to us. Me personally, I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know, heard some amazing stories, and I have to check out Mimesis.

JP – Let me know what you think of it, give me a call after you see it.

(Joseph then once again becomes Captain Rhodes, because the show must go on)

JP – Alright well listen, all you zombie movie hot-shots, you better listen to this because there’s going to be a quiz. And if you don’t pass the test, you know what’s going to happen to you, you’re going to get shot in the head. Adios amigos.

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3 thoughts on “A Friendly Fucking Chat With Horror Icon Joseph Pilato

  1. Pingback: The Top 10 Highest Grossing Box Office Zombie Movies of All Time Might Just Surprise You. | Zombie Movies

  2. Pingback: The Top 20 Highest Budget Zombie Movies Of All Time | Zombie Movies

  3. Great interview, although I must correct one mistake: Greg Nicotero never worked on “Dawn of the Dead,” at least to the best of my knowledge; his first gig was “Day of the Dead.” No doubt this was simply a transcription error.

    Liked by 1 person

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