That was that. I had forgotten any of it had happened until six months later, when the campus mailman arrived at my door and asked me to sign for a package. I granted him my name and collected a large brown envelope. The outside held no address, stamp or indeed details of any kind. It certainly couldn’t be returned to sender.
Inside I found a letter with no official marking but one that referenced my ‘recent budget request.’ My imaginary request had proven successful – what luck! – and I was wished every success with the launch of my innovative new feature about the dead coming alive to devour the living. It expressed hope that the film would be seen by as many people as possible. Joined to the top was a cheque written out to me for $114,000. Delving deeper into the envelope I found a list of contacts within the film industry; producers, writers, directors, actors, script editors, the works. The execution and delivery was pure espionage and only when the cheque cleared and I had called the first name on the contact list did I actually believe any of it could be real.
The CIA, perhaps in part due to the abject failure of their other programs, believed that I passed all requirements to be regarded as a ‘Prescient Being’. They told me later that this ‘memory’ – the image of my ghouls in New York City – had been embedded in my mind at some stage of my development and there had to be a reason for it; a warning of a future disaster through precognition.
The ‘Prescient Beings Project’ had one member. It was clear that there was concern from the CIA that what I was experiencing could, one day, prove to be a scientific reality. It was a scenario that they had been researching long before they had met me and there was an inference that my ghouls and I could be ultimately responsible for Armageddon. But my instructions were clear. Equip the population with knowledge. Commence showing others what only you can see. Desensitise them to these creatures.
The men in white coats felt they found something that day, with their little device attached to my temple. Whether it amounted to more than pseudo-science at that time, I’ll never know, but from my perspective it was simple. A shadowy organisation offering to finance the same movie I had dreamed of setting out to make in any case. Did I concur with their rationale? It didn’t matter. Crazy or not, my focus arrived when the money arrived and from the contacts list I found the voices on the other end of the phone extraordinarily approachable and willing. We were starting from nothing and I still had my studies to finish, but we got it done. Four years later, in 1968, Night of the Living Dead was born.
I wanted to add legitimacy to the drama and make it feel authentic, like it was really happening, so I interspersed the invasion with false TV news footage. Audiences back then were more easily fooled than today and there was no humour to be had here. I just wanted the ghouls to be horrific and for us to fear them. I wanted their coming to be apocalyptic in nature and convince the viewer that we were fighting for our very survival.
For much of that decade the Cold War was real. We feared the nuclear option, being blown to smithereens in a heartbeat. Government-approved public information broadcasts warned of what to do in the event of a nuclear explosion. They pulled no punches in showcasing the devastation that would inevitably occur and, in all honesty, how hopeless our methods of protection from the fallout would be. We’d be dead. If the bomb went off, it was over. That’s all those broadcasts taught me.
That fear stayed with me. I wanted the fear of my ghouls to stay with people, too. Whether or not I agreed that this could ever actually take place, I tried to ensure that very specific type of fear was present in all of my creations.
I remember attending the first screening, smugly adoring my efforts in black and white and thinking that I had been one shrewd operator, the slick kid who had extracted everything I needed from the arrangement. Here was me, playing the White House for personal gain. It cultivated hubris – I had given them what they wanted and I was now a working director.
Let’s call it naivety on my part. This was, of course, just the beginning. As the years passed various faceless stooges from the Project remained in close proximity. They were a fully-formed, full-blown team dedicated to little old me – flattering. I guess they reckoned that they had invested in me and I hadn’t yet paid them back. When Night of the Living Dead picked up major traction and the word Zombie began to become synonymous with my movie, despite the fact it is never mentioned in the film or referenced in any way, I sensed that we were receiving outside assistance. They insisted that three more releases be funded periodically at dates of their choosing. The concept didn’t matter, but Zombies had to form the supporting cast. Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2008) were all paid for by the administration using American tax dollars.
The advancements to my own personal career came with a caveat; I was to commence recruitment – a Zombie Studios, if you will. The demand came while I was preparing to shoot Dawn in 1977 and although things were being asked of me, I was still very much in control of the destiny of the sub-genre, as it became. I might have been getting help, sure, but the concept was mine, as was the execution. It was exhilarating to me that not only were my films being funded, I was actively encouraged to gather a community. Influential directors and writers were being inspired by my work and I was offered the chance to bring them together, under my stewardship… I guess it fed that ever-growing ego of mine.
The goal was to formulate a ‘guild’ with the explicit intention of inflicting Zombies upon the population, to fly free and create as much content as possible. I coined the nickname The Harbingers because, after all of the fake mushroom clouds we’d been presented with on TV, we were obsessed with the end of the world. Imagine if the Zombies really came, we used to discuss – what would happen? Hundreds of scripts and book treatments began in such a way.
It wasn’t difficult to amass members, simply because Night of the Living Dead had planted the seed. Lucio Fulci, Tom Savini, Edgar Wright, Shinji Mikami, Zack Snyder… some of the most famous writers, game designers and film directors in Zombie history are surreptitious participants of The Harbingers. There are a few key players who are aware of my full backstory and the intrinsic role I had in their careers, but many more weren’t even conscious of where their backing was coming from.