David Emge Dies: Zombie Flyboy In Horror Classic ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ Was 77

David Emge, whose brief acting career included a performance that would become iconic to horror fans – he played the doomed pilot-turned-zombie in George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead – died January 20 at the West River Health Campus in Evansville, Indiana. He was 77.

His death was announced by his family to the Evansville Courier & Press. A cause of death was not disclosed.

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Born September 9, 1946 in Evansville, Emge began his acting career at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 1971, landing a small role in the lowbrow 1976 sex comedy The Liberation Of Cherry Jankowski (a.k.a. The Booby Hatch) before moving first to Washington, D.C., where he performed in dinner theater, and then to New York City, where Romero spotted him working as a chef.

Impressed, Romero cast Emge as helicopter pilot Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews, an accident-prone but well-meaning news pilot who escapes the undead apocalypse to find safety with a few other survivors in a suburban shopping mall.

Emge’s character manages to avoid a zombie fate for much of the movie, but eventually falls victim.

David Emge in the iconic image from ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978)
David Emge in the iconic image from ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978)

A photo of Emge’s dead-eyed, blood-spattered Zombie Stephen would become the most famous image from the film, used in promotional material and capturing the lasting attention of generations of horror fans, among them a young Simon Pegg, future star of the 2004 horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead.

“I would stare at the image of David Emge’s zombified flyboy character,” Pegg wrote in his 2011 memoir Nerd Do Well. “The film became something of an obsession for me.”

Emge appeared in only two films after Dawn of the Dead – 1990’s Basket Case 2 and 1992’s Hellmaster – but years later he’d become a favorite at horror conventions for his role as Stephen.

“Oh, this one hurts,” tweeted Brooklyn 45 screenwriter Ted Geoghegan today. “The great David Emge passed away Saturday in his hometown of Evansville IN at age 77. Dawn of the Dead is one of the best social and commercial commentaries ever set to film, and David’s nerve-addled ‘Flyboy’ ties the movie together with heart and humanity.”

Emge is survived by sisters Sue Berry, Kathleen Wittgen and Barbara Rexing; their husbands and other extended family.

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