In 1970, when he was 12 years old, William Renfro went all by himself to the Bijou Theatre in Bangor — now closed, but then located on Exchange Street — and saw George Romero’s iconic 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” a movie that came to define the horror genre. It was a life-changing experience.
“I was totally freaked out,” said Renfro. “I was hooked.”
Now 53, Renfro is still inspired by horror movies, and has spent the better part of four decades drawing and painting scenes that reflect his love for all things scary, gory and weird. Deep within his art cave — a room in his Bangor house, with a desk, a stereo and a view of the backyard — Renfro covers paper and canvas with intricate lines and brilliant color, depicting everything from specific scenes from books and movies, to more abstract, psychedelic images. “Zombs in the Gallery,” a selection of his huge body of work, is on display at Maine Jewelry & Art on Harlow Street in Bangor, throughout October.
Renfro began drawing and painting at age 15. His grandmother was a painter, and he had an uncle who was a professional photographer, so visual arts was in the family. But where others had an eye for more traditional subjects, Renfro was drawn to zombies, crazed murderers and bizarre, supernatural monsters.
“I never really cared about lighthouses and landscapes and all that,” said Renfro. “That just seemed boring. I like the weird stuff. I like drawing a guy with snakes coming out of his eyes. I like things that are decaying and falling apart.”
Throughout his teens and twenties Renfro drew mainly for himself and friends, while amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of horror movies. He cites filmmakers such as Dario Argento and David Cronenberg as personal favorites, along with characters such as Pinhead from the “Hellraiser” series, and the mysterious killer from the 1974 cult classic “Black Christmas.” He also has a deep love for painters like Salvador Dali and Hieronymous Bosch, as well as psychedelic art from the 1960s.
“For a long time, it was just for fun,” said Renfro. “I’m a very bad salesman for myself. I need a manager. It’s just something I’ve always done. I’m completely self-taught. I always had a kind of natural feel for it. It just has to be fun to draw, and that’s all I need.”
By the mid-1990s, though, Renfro began to take his considerable talent a little more seriously. His illustrations for the short-lived independent comic book “Mutandis” brought him attention from Cemetery Dance, a world-renowned publisher of horror and dark suspense books and comics. They’ve published work from the likes of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, Joe Hill and Peter Straub; in other words, right up Renfro’s alley. Renfro’s illustrations have now appeared in eight issues of Cemetery Dance Magazine, as well as in five issues of “Grave Tales,” and in a limited edition collection of short horror fiction titled “Dark Delicacies.”
Renfro also does select commissioned work, including two album covers for Atlanta, Ga.-based band Speechless and songwriter Lindsay Smith. A few years ago, he started designing stained glass, using his more abstract, geometrical works as inspiration. He shies away from tattoo designs, though he has been asked repeatedly for them, but he welcomes other project ideas, if the time is right.
“It’s really all about if it’s something that works for me and interests me,” said Renfro. “I’m up for anything if it fits.”
The Renfro family is similarly inclined toward the more macabre side of things. Sons Nick, 27, and Devin, 22, both grew up watching horror and sci-fi movies with Dad and their mom Marilyn.
“I’ve been watching since I was four or five,” said Nick Renfro, who has a 2-year-old son, Connor. “They would cover my eyes during the really violent parts. For the longest time I thought ‘Friday the 13th’ was just a movie about camping. Connor’s going to grow up on it, too.”
Even today, William Renfro spends most Saturday nights watching the horror flick of the weekend. Recent favorites include “The Hills Have Eyes,” though there’s such a breadth of horror movies made each year that he never runs out of options.
“It’s always Halloween in my head,” said Renfro.
“Zombs in the Gallery” is on display through the month of October at Maine Jewelry & Art on Harlow Street in downtown Bangor. For information, visit inkenstein.com.