The other day I had a wonderful conversation with John Amplas, famous for his work with director George A. Romero. John, in case you didn’t know, starred in Romero’s Martin (1977), a film which has been hailed as a clever deconstruction of the vampire myth. He’s also been in a bunch of other Romero movies, including Day of the Dead (1985) where he plays Fischer, a scientist caught between a mad doctor and a psychotic military commander (and zombies) in a Florida bunker. Not only is John a cool guy, he’s also a dramatist and director in his own right. I could have spent all day talking to him, but I held back, because I know he’s a busy man (and I’m a busy man too, kind of). This is the third interview in my “A Few Words” series, and it’s the third interview I wanted to not end. John, thank you again for talking to me. I don’t know about you, but I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion.
Q: You’ve stated in past interviews that you knew pretty early on you wanted to be an actor. Are there any films, performances, actors maybe, who inspired that decision?
A: I was inspired certainly by other actors. There are a lot of actors I’ve been enamored of over the years and that I’ve tried to emulate in terms of discipline and doing the work. I can name a hundred or a thousand.
Q: I understand you served in the army during Vietnam.
A: I did.
Q: Well, first of all, thank you for your service
A: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Q: What was your position in the army?
A: When I got out of the army I was a spec 5; I worked in personnel and became a company clerk for several different engineering companies In Ben Thuy and Can Tho, both in the Mekong Delta. They were primarily trucking companies. I went in in January 1969 and got out in October 1971.
Q: Did you see any action over there?
A: Well, I wasn’t one of the guys who went out on patrol, but I saw and heard a lot of gunfire.
Q: How did you become associated with George Romero?
A: A year after I got out of the army I started college at Point Park University. In my senior year George came out and saw me in a play. I met him afterwards and he made mention of this movie he was going to be working on. The story that he told me was that he was thinking of Martin as an older character, but then, having seen my performance, decided to go and kind of rewrite it a little bit. A couple of months later he called me and asked me if I wanted the role.
Q: That’s a pretty big step up, going from community theater to cinema.
A: Yeah, pretty big.
Q: What was your impression on first reading the script?
A: I loved it. It was first and foremost an original idea, which I think is the most important thing. When you’re doing anything, be it theater or film, having that original idea is paramount. Martin is a vampire who is not Gothic, not Bela Lugosi. That’s what I appreciated most about it. And still do. Honestly, I can say about all of George’s work is that he always came up with a brand new idea. We wouldn’t have any of the walking dead or living dead if not for the creation of Night of the Living Dead.
Q: Now, no one seems to know whether Martin is an actual vampire or not. It was intentionally left up to the audience to interpret it however they would. Did you ever form any conclusions of your own regarding Martin’s true nature?
A: My conclusion is probably that he’s a crazy, mixed-up kid. When you’re doing it you aren’t thinking about is he or isn’t he, you’re thinking about what’s happening dramatically on the page. Obviously Martin thought that he was a vampire, and in a certain sense, I guess he IS a vampire of sorts. He believed all of the things he was told. If you’re told that you are a thing, you will soon believe it. Like kids today. If they’re getting bad parenting and no support and someone says that they’re stupid or dumb and they hear that, they’ll pretty much start behaving in that manner. Martin’s problem was that he was told he was a vampire long and hard enough that he started believing it.
Q: After Martin you were involved with Dawn of the Dead. You did some casting for that?
A: I did primarily zombie casting. I was able to bring in some minor role folks. Doing casting for zombies was relatively simple. Once the word got out that George wanted a lot of people to play these roles, they were soon filled. Some nights we would have hundreds of people lining up in costumes and make-up. I just wanted to be around. We had such a great time shooting Martin and it came so quickly after Martin was shot. I just wanted to be part of the machine, and George was kind enough to keep me around.
Q: You also had a cameo in Dawn of the Dead as Martinez, a Hispanic gang member.
A: Yes, yes I did [laughs]
Q: Martinez is basically Martin was an EZ tacked on. Was that an intentional homage to Martin?
A: It sounds like it could be, doesn’t it? But no. They were in need of an actor to play one of these outlaws on the roof of this project, and Tom Savini grabbed me and said they needed somebody to do a little scene with Scotty Reiniger. They put me in this bad make-up and on the roof I went. [Laughs] it wasn’t an intentional thing on anybody’s part. Just “John, we need you…come on.”
Q: You’ve been teaching at Point Park University since 1982. What drew you to teaching?
A: I lived in New York from 1976 to 1982, but I still came back to Pittsburgh to act in plays. It just so happened that the chair of the department at that time asked me if I would do some part time teaching. I said yes and I’ve been there ever since. It wasn’t something that I sought, it just kind of fell into my lap. After a while, though, I really started to enjoy it. I did a lot of work with George in the beginning (Knightriders, Creepshow, Day of the Dead), but I needed, like we all do, a day job to help pay the bills.
Q: You mentioned Day of the Dead. I heard the shooting schedule was kind of grueling. Lotta late nights.
A: Yeah, they shot in these mines for a good three months. It was cold and it was damp. It was pretty uncomfortable for most people. I was one of the lucky ones because I spent only about two weeks on the movie. So it was a lot easier on me than it was on a lot of the other folks.
Q: What are your opinions on the Captain Rhodes character? Can you sort of see where he was coming from in his actions?
A: Well, yeah, sure, as a military guy who wanted to keep the living dead at bay and provide security, I can see where he was coming from. Absolutely. Not to say that he wasn’t psychotic.
Q: Oh yeah.
A: For him it was dire circumstances, and what Richard Liberty was doing as the doctor kind of went off track in terms of what the scientific purpose really was. He started to veer a little bit to the right. He wanted to train them, he wanted to bring them back, he wanted to save them, which was not necessarily the purpose of why they were down there.
Q: In the end when Captain Rhodes goes off the deep end, he kills Logan with a burst of gunfire to the chest. We don’t see any damage to his head, but at the same time, he doesn’t come back. I’ve read the original script, the one Romero couldn’t get financing for, and in it a character is killed and a big to-do is made over the fact that three or four days later, he still hasn’t reanimated, insinuating that the disease had run its course. Do you think Romero was trying to do that here?
A: I haven’t read the original script, so I don’t know what kind of changes were made. I knew that they had to change the script due to money issues. That’s the biggest problem that I heard about, so I can’t really comment.
Q: So tell me about “The Three” the concept trailer that you acted in along with Lori Cardille.
A: Well, there was never really a script. Scott Goldberg is a big fan of Day of the Dead, so he got us in there and he wanted to develop this film that took place in a similar location to Day. The truth of the matter is that I never fully understood where the movie was going because he didn’t have a developed script beyond he was going to produce super soldiers. I spent about a week on and off shooting in that mine. Unfortunately it never became a full film.
Q: Do you have anything in the works now?
A: In the near future I’ll be directing Donald Margulies’ The Country House for the Pittsburgh Playhouse. It’s basically about a family sitting around talking, but there are a lot of issues there. It was on Broadway. Blythe Danner was in it. In fact we’re going to open our season with it.
Q: Of all the movies you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?
A: That’s an easy answer. Martin. It might not be George’s best movie, but it’s his favorite and mine too. It’s an honest psychological character study, and I was lucky to be a part of it.