In the wake of Wes Craven dying, the 20th anniversary of Keith Wayne’s death is likely to get overshadowed. I’d like to take a few paragraphs to honor Keith today, as he played a role in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD becoming a classic.
As with some of the cast, Keith enjoyed his only screen role in George Romero’s first film. His character, Tom, tries to balance the personalities of Ben and Harry, which is no easy feat. Keith plays the character as a kind young man, compassionate to Harry and the Coopers, despite how harsh Harry is on him at times. His character is pivotal in one of the film’s major turning points, as he, his girlfriend Judy and Ben try to gas up the pickup truck so they can all escape.
Wayne’s performance is suitable for what Romero asks of him. He was a good looking, All American type young man, and functions as part of the romantic couple trapped in the farmhouse. One funny trait is how much he blinks, as Wayne brought up on the Laserdisc commentary with some of the cast. Tom gets overshadowed by Duane Jones, who brings a much more nuanced performance to Ben; and by Karl Hardman, who does a lot of yelling as Harry.
As for Keith’s personal life, there’s not much to go on. Romero’s said in several places that he was a dancer and band leader, and his obituary talks about how he went on to a career as a chiropractor in the 1980s. Sadly, his death was ruled a suicide. He died at age 50.
Much like one of Romero’s zombies, Keith Wayne lives on through his role as Tom. He took part in the Zombie Jamboree and met fans back in 1993, and I’m sure they treasure the items he signed for them and the opportunity to meet him. That was long before I started going to cons, so I missed out on him. It would have been nice to thank him for his part in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a movie that means so much to me personally.
Rest in Peace, Keith.
Special thanks to Lawrence DeVincentz for his help in writing this tribute.
A reprint of Keith’s obituary, for those who are interested, below. All rights belong to the Journal of the American Chiropractic Association.