Helicopter Zombie Interview!!!

Brain Hammer interviews Jim Krut aka The Helicopter Zombie!

Fans of George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD might not recognize the name Jim Krut but they would immediately recognize his face. Well, perhaps not his face as much as everything slightly above his eyebrows, all of which was memorably torn away by the whirring blades of the WGON helicopter! That’s right, Jim Krut is none other than the uncredited actor now well known to hardcore horror fans as the helicopter zombie!

I decided to pick what was left of Jim’s brains and ask him about his incredible experience filming that clas-sick scene…


Brain Hammer: Let me start from the beginning. How did you got the part in DAWN OF THE DEAD?

Jim Krut: I’d worked with Tom Savini many years before, in college and in theatre. Back in 1977 I was living in Pittsburgh and ran into Tom on the street. We both said, Hey, and then he asked if I’d be interested in a part in a movie he was involved with. I was on my way to a movie at the time and told him “sure, give me a call.” Tom gave me more details later and we met at his place to do the prosthetics and head castings.

BH: Were you a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?

JK: I thought Night was a classic instantly. Nothing else like it. Still managed to keep me on the edge of the seat, like, “what the heck is going to happen next, aren’t these people going to find some secret trap door and boogey on out of there? Munch, munch, munch….”


BH: I understand the infamous helicopter head slice took two days to film. Is this correct?

JK: The prep work for the effect went over two weeks, as the first head cast I made with Tom cracked a few days after we did it. Had to go back and recast the head several days after that. I was actually on the set only two days, both of them at the Monroeville Airport. A quaint little block building, a long grassy landing strip and a few ramshackle buildings full of spiders.


BH: What was the most time consuming or difficult aspect of that scene, both for you and the crew?

JK: Hmmm, the most difficult part was waiting for my scene. I remember it not being good weather the first day and the second day wasn’t looking so hot, either. But I was definitely ready to go. One good aspect of the waiting was the multiple visits to the lunch wagon. After all, I was a starving artist actor in Pittsburgh at the time. I was just fortunate that my rehearsal schedule allowed me two days in a row to be available for the shooting.

When the makeup and final touches were done inside the little block building, and the time was ripe for the shooting, I went out to meet the helicopter. It was probably getting late in the afternoon, so we managed to get it all done in one take. I’m pretty sure there was a duplicate set of clothes for me, just in case we needed a second take.


BH: How was George Romero to work with? I understand you were given very little direction as how to be a zombie. Did you find this challenging?

JK: Since Tom had created the effect, I mostly learned about George Romero by watching him direct the other actors. There seemed to be more of an understanding between them all as to what was needed. I recall him as almost a big Teddy Bear of a guy, just enjoying himself and the filming without putting a lot of ego or unnecessary pressure on everyone. After all, before that, my only impressions of film directors were from scenes of them in other films, most of which weren’t complimentary.


BH: Did Tom Savini personally create the foam appliance that went on the top of your head?

JK: Yes, Tom did all the work on the appliance and prosthetics. He had the idea, the vision of what it should look like. It was just a learning experience and a wonderment for me to be part of it. Here was a friend I’d worked with years earlier, doing significant, responsible work on a major motion picture. You gotta feel impressed and pleased to be part of it.


BH: Do you remember what you were thinking when you saw yourself all made up as a zombie?

JK: “Who the heck is that? My big chance on the big screen and no one will know who I am anyway! Bummer!”

BH: The incredible effect of the helicopter blades removing the top of your head was created with a combination of the aforementioned foam appliance, black fishing line, and two tubes that pumped blood which ran down your back. Did this effect immediately work as planned, or did it require a few tries to get right?

JK: I recall Tom talking everyone through it and keeping a close eye on the progress of the scene, as did George. The only harrowing thing about walking on the boxes is that they were stacked oddly and I nearly went head over boxers. Some splash that would have made! It all went on one take. The lead up scenes, under the plane wing, walking across the field to the helicopter pad, seemed to require a few takes, but that’s pretty standard, even if it’s perfect the first time. You gotta have choices in the editing studio.


BH: What was the mood on the set? How about when the scene was finished, a bit of celebration perhaps?

JK: I seem to recall a lot of excitement, or maybe relief, when the scene was done. People were smiling and happy and clapping. That could be my preferred memory, but for everyone who was standing around watching the scene, it seemed to have an impressive effect on them at the time, too. For my part, it was relief that it went well, immediately coupled with, Gee, is there more I can do? even when you know you’ve just been killed off!


BH: Any fun stories from the shoot you’d like to share?

JK: Other than Tom, I really didn’t know anyone on the set. Since it was close quarters, there wasn’t a lot of jabbering going on near the shooting. Since I hadn’t seen any of the other zombies walking or talking, who knew what they were supposed to walk like? Did they talk, moan, drool? Like, this was all new. It was, “OK, you’re on. Do your thing.” That approach kept everyone from following a formula and looking the same. It makes it a challenge for the actor, which is the challenge most actors live for.

My theatre background was in experimental or altenative theatre, with influences from the avant garde and the Polish Laboratory Theatre. It was a perfect opportunity to do something fresh, without remorse for not following someone else’s model, or without screwing up the production because of an original look or walk.

BH: What did you think of the finished film?

JK: When I went to the premiere in downtown Pittsburgh, I was just thrilled to be on the screen. There was a lot of talk about how much material had ended up on the cutting room floor, and that the final version we all were seeing might be sliced some more. I was half afraid to see it again, for fear my scene wouldn’t make it into another edited version.


BH: What was the crowd reaction like during your scene?

JK: Crowds liked the helicopter scene, great reactions. Me, personally, I was expecting everyone to remain perfectly quiet while my little bit of film history was rolling, understanding the work that went into every second, from makeup to learning lines, to waiting for weather and passing planes, to staying up late and missing meals, all for the art of a few seconds on film. Of course, some people would just be talking through most of the movie anyway, rude as that is. My temptation was to turn around and say, “could you hold it for just a few minutes until my scene is done?” But that would have been imperious of me. The scene tended to quiet everything down afterward.


BH: Did the success of the film shock you, or was it something that you expected all along?

JK: I don’t think anyone expected the raging success of DAWN. We all felt it was a special film, with special people, a special director and a whole new way of looking at violence and storytelling. But, seriously, when you only see parts being made, you can’t tell what the whole looks like. When you see the whole, sometimes it’s hard to separate the parts. By that, I mean, you know what had to happen to make every scene, the mishaps, the pain and hunger and talent and enthusiasm and teamwork. And, oh yeah, there’s a movie there, too. But it’s that teamwork and ensemble spirit that give Dawn such a unique, unified feeling.


BH: Dario Argento cut your scene from his European ZOMBI release of DAWN OF THE DEAD because he didn’t think the effect was convincing. I’m curious to know what you think about that?

JK: Sorry you didn’t like it, Dario. I met people from France and Germany, who knew the scene was cut, but they managed to see it anyway. So much for that type of censorship. But, hey, if Mr. Argento wanted to see things his way, I totally respect his judgement. Just sorry that his judgement fell on my head, so to speak! Directors have to make tough choices. Tom has said the humdity during the shoot fluffed up my hair a bit too much and may have given away the gag as he puts it. He’s probably right, too.

Michaelangelo points up at the Sistine Chapel and says, “crap, I meant that finger to point the other way….” But we all like the final work. Fans seem to love the scene, and you’re asking me about it 30 years after it was made. Who’s to say whose right or wrong? I’m just grateful to Tom for developing the scene and to George for using it in his final version.


BH: Tell me a little about your thoughts on the incredible legacy of DAWN OF THE DEAD. How does feel to have appeared in one of the most popular and influential horror films of all time?

JK: It’s the best. I’ve always been a horror fan, from Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to films like THE THING and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. To now be part of that genre and a part of that legacy is personally deeply satisfying. It’s also been a huge amount of fun, and it is just so crazy that there are so many fans of the film, in so many countries. We all have something in common. It’s like a mutual admiration society. We like each other because we like the same kinds of films. Maybe that’s strange, but when you’re in front of the camera, you understand that it only takes a few seconds for the camera to swing the other way, You count your blessings and appreciate that you got your chance to be part of something so special as Dawn.

Talking with Conrad Brooks, a guy I really like, about the earlier days, is always such a pleasure. He worked with Ed Wood and Bella Lugosi, met Boris Karloff, knows how movies were made during the heyday of creature features. It’s a fraternity that knows no age or sex or national boundaries. (See, I worked in the word sex, so scanners can get you more hits on the article!)


BH: Did you see the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake? If so, what did you think of it? Have you enjoyed the films that George has done since DOTD?

JK: Saw the remake. It’s a different movie with the same name. Whole different approach. The speed of the zombies has some people not liking it. For my part, I appreciate George’s work in developing some backstory or personality for the zombies in his films. You could identify with the thing that was about to bite your arm or rip out your throat. Somehow, that made it better.

I’d seen George’s earlier films and like them, too, for their raw innovation. While the later ones have a lot of George’s touch, I’ve also heard that the financiers had a lot of influence and maybe didn’t give enough consideration to George’s full vision of the pictures.


BH: Any message for the undying legions of DEAD fans?

JK: Thanks for keeping the Dead alive. Without the fans, there would be no films, conventions, parties, fun and more films. God bless you every one, I love ya!


BH: Finally, any current projects you’d like to mention?

JK: In Gary Ugarek’s upcoming DEADLAND 2: TRAPPED I portray the evil government creep behind the zombie epidemic. Lots of current government role models to work from, but Gary is a director with integrity, a sense of fun, great patience and enthusiasm. I’m sure money helps get films made, but the vision and passion for filmmaking are things that money can’t buy. In the Elias Dancey anthology ZOMBTHOlOGY, due to come out later this year also, I play a doctor. TRAPPED will also be shortened to be included as one of the three or four segments in the anthology.

I’m also looking for release of Roger Arnold”s SQUIRREL, a short horror film that should be hitting horror film festivals this year. That was a fun role. And G. Joe Shelby wanted me to do a short piece in his upcoming film, THE GREEN MAN, which he is finishing up in Pittsburgh even now. I like doing the horror and film conventions, about three or so a year at this point, depending on schedules. I also direct and help manage Gettysburg Stage, a regional theatre ensemble company in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s keeping me busy, as well as responding to fans.

“Thanks for the interest in Dawn and all the great folks involved in that film. See you in the movies!” — Jim






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