By Bob Jackson
After years of making appearances at horror-film festivals all over the world, there probably isn’t much about people that really jumps out at Ken Foree and grabs his attention these days.
But he got a surprise Sunday at the Halloween Horror Expo at the Eastwood Expo Center.
The hulking, 62-year-old star of the classic 1978 horror film “Dawn of the Dead” was rendered giddy when two 51-year-old Youngstown women stepped up and introduced themselves. They were his cousins, and it was the first time they had ever met.
“This just made my trip,” said Foree, who was at the expo to meet fans and sign autographs. Foree is best known for his role as Peter Washington, the hero of “Dawn of the Dead,” which was filmed in Pittsburgh.
Clarice Love of Youngstown saw a flier promoting his appearance posted at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, where she works. She and her twin sister, Cleone Donald, immediately made plans to show up and meet the cousin they’d heard about but never met.
“It’s a big family, and we’re scattered all over the country,” Donald said. Donald and Love live in Youngs-town, and Foree, who was born in Indiana, now lives in Los Angeles. Foree said he knew he had family in this area but never had a chance to meet them. He was surprised and thrilled when his cousins showed up to say hello. He didn’t know they were coming.
“For years, we’ve told people that we’re related to him” because of Foree’s role in the classic horror movies, Love said. “Our kids know him because they’ve seen the movie.”
When he wasn’t catching up with his long-lost relatives, Foree eagerly chatted up the horror-film fans who came out to meet people from their favorite film genre.
Foree said he believes “Dawn of the Dead” has held up for so long as one of the all-time great horror films because it had “great marketing, an intriguing story that was funny at times, and it carried a political statement throughout.”
The fact that most of its action took place in a mall where its characters had access to anything they wanted for free, appealed to consumers, he said.
Still, with all that going for it, Foree said he was initially concerned that the movie might never see the light of day domestically.
“It had so much gore that I didn’t think it would play in the U.S. when I first read the script,” he said. It was so gory that it initially wasn’t even given a film rating.
Foree, who said he does about four such appearances annually, said a good horror film should have “the ability to hold the audience in its seats, engrossed in the subject matter, and slightly terrified at specific moments throughout the film.”
A solid story line also is critical, he said.
George Kosana, who also appeared at the expo Sunday, agreed, and said that’s where many of today’s horror-film efforts fall short. Having a good, underlying story helps keep the film “within the realm of believability,” he said.
“Today, it seems like all they are is exploitation for the sake of sensationalism, with special effects thrown in just because they can do them, and it holds nothing in the way of a story. They all look the same. You could carbon copy one from another,” said Kosana, who played Sheriff McClellan in the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.”
Kosana, who said he appears at dozens of horror film expos each year, said he recalls the effect “Night of the Living Dead” had on its audiences.
“Some of those people left that theater, and their lives were changed. And others went home and boarded up all the windows on their cellar,” he said, laughing.
Local filmmaker Matt Jefferson, 26, of Niles, was at the expo to hawk his films, “Macabre Phobia” and “Love The Zombie,” both of which were shot last year on location in Niles. He said the expo was a great place to meet fellow film fans as well as networking with others in the business.
“I grew up with it,” he said of why he chose to foray into the horror-film genre. His primary influence is Italian director Lucio Fulci.
John Hall, 27, and Amanda Beatrice, 20, both of Youngstown, came out to look for what they said were hard-to-find horror film memorabilia with which to decorate their home for Halloween.
“Usually you have to go to Cleveland for this kind of stuff, so it’s great to have it right here,” Hall said.