From the societal upheavals of the 1960’s to the not-all-that-more-quiescent twenty-first century, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has managed to chill the blood of horror lovers everywhere and simultaneously cast an unsettling light on the media, racial politics, and the American way of life in general. Now there’s a new documentary, BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD, that uses clips, interviews, and some evocative animation by artist Gary Pullin to not only tell the tale of how George Romero and crew took a shoestring budget and managed to create a film the rewrote the rules of horror, but also explore how this humble tale of the walking dead still manages to resonate today.
Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons sits down with BIRTH’s Executive Producer Larry Fessenden and director Rob Kuhns to talk about what NIGHT means to them, the genesis and influences of their project, and what they hope it will say about Romero’s legacy.
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From the societal upheavals of the 1960’s to the not-all-that-more-quiescent twenty-first century, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has managed to chill the blood of horror lovers everywhere and simultaneously cast an unsettling light on the media, racial politics, and the American way of life in general. Now there’s a new documentary, BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD, that uses clips, interviews, and some evocative animation by artist Gary Pullin to not only tell the tale of how George Romero and crew took a shoestring budget and managed to create a film the rewrote the rules of horror, but also explore how this humble tale of the walking dead still manages to resonate today.
Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons sits down with BIRTH’s Executive Producer Larry Fessenden and director Rob Kuhns to talk about what NIGHT means to them, the genesis and influences of their project, and what they hope it will say about Romero’s legacy.
Ever since WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) introduced movie audiences to the classic image of the zombie (a mindless revived corpse, directed by a Voodoo houngan [priest]), the restless dead have been shambling across the silver screen in various shapes and sizes, eventually throwing off the shackles of their masters and developing strange new appetites (first for human flesh, then for brains). Here is a representative sample.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932): Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi, left) directs his mindless minions. The corpses have no will of their own; the film’s true monster is their master.
REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936): This week follow-up to WHITE ZOMBIE posits the idea of an unstoppable undead army in WWI – offering the first suggestion of zombies as a worldwide threat.
THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940): This is probably the first zombie film to mix horror and comedy. Although the zombie (Noble Johnson) is revealed to be a fake planted to scare away Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, his scenes are played for scares more than laughs.
KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941): Comic actor Mantan Moreland gets some laughs from his reaction to traditional-looking zombies, who turn out to be under the direction of a Nazi scientist.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943): Darby Jones as the zombie Carrefour, in the classic produced by Val Lewton. The Voodoo element is strongly represented here. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this is probably the greatest film every made using the traditional zombie theme.
ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957): This low-budget effort is memorably only for the novel concept of water-logged zombies guarding a sunken treasure.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968): Though the word “zombie” is never mentioned, George A. Romero’s film changed the genre forever, reinventing the walking dead as cannibal corpses, driven by instinct to consume the living. Romero wrote but did not direct the 1990 color remake – a worthwhile film, but not classic.
TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971): Amando de Ossorio’s film introduced the zombie-like Knights Templar, who would return in three sequels. Despite their desiccated appearance, the Templars were more of an undead cult than mindless corpses.
LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE (a.k.a., THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, 1974): This Spanish film, obviously inspired by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, is the first to show zombie cannibal carnage in color.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978): George A. Romero’s sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers cinema’s first vision of the zombie apocalypse, which plays out in the microcosm of a shopping mall. Tom Savini’s graphic makeup effects, including exploding heads and disemboweled intestines, set the standard for all zombie films to follow.
ZOMBIE (a.k.a., ZOMBIE 2, 1979): Directed by Lucio Fulci, this Italian film combines the graphic splatter approach of DAWN OF THE DEAD with the zombies’ more traditional roots in Voodoo. The result, presented as an ersatz sequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD (which was released as ZOMBIE in Europe) launched an army of Italian zombie gorefests.
THE BEYOND (1981): Director Lucio Fulci offers two kinds of living dead: corporeal walking corpses and a more magical variety, able to appear and disappear at will.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981): Sam Raimi’s sleeper hit features human bodies possessed and sometimes resurrected by evil spirits. The grim, low-budget intensity echoes THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The 2013 remake emphasized the possession angle, so that there were few if any walking corpses on screen.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985): Dan O’Bannon’s black-comedy pseudo-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD re-imagines zombies as unkillable brain-eaters.
RE-ANIMATOR (1985): Stuart Gordon’s unrated gore film offered a more energetic species of living dead, resurrected by Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs)’ formula.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985): Romero’s third living dead film presents us with the world’s first “domesticated” zombie, Bub (Sherman Howard), capable of some primitive human thought. Romero would continue to explore the zombie apocalypse in LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
EVIL DEAD 2 (1987): Sam Raimi’s sequel to THE EVIL DEAD (1981) pushes the unrated gore to comic levels.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988): Wes Craven’s film, based on a non-fiction book, returned zombies to their West Indies roots, suggesting a realistic explanation: drugs to induce mindless catatonia.
BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. “Dead Alive,” 1992): A pre-Tolkein Peter Jackson tries to outdo Sam Raimi in the gleeful gore department, and almost succeeds.
RESIDENT EVIL (2002): based on the popular vidoegame, writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson’s film offered an amped-up version of zombie violence. Several sequels followed, the best being RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)
28 DAYS LATER (2002): Instead of traditional zombies, director Danny Boyle’s film featured living people infected by a virus that drives them to mindless homicidal rage – an idea used by George A. Romero way back in THE CRAZIES (1973). The sequel 28 WEEKS LATER expands upon and surpasses the original.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004): This remake of Romero’s classic substitutes speedy zombies in place of the familiar shambling walkers. It’s entertaining in a slick professional way, with some good characterization, but it lacks the social satire of the original.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004): Riffing off Romero’s films, this comedy combines the zombie apocalypse with a love story; the end offers another glimpse of a domesticated zombie.
FIDO (2006): Billy Connolly plays a literally domesticated zombie, serving a human household as combination butler-pet.
[REC] [ (2007): This Spanish film filtered zombies through the lens of a hand-held shaky-cam, in the style of “found footage” films. The explanation for the zombies is a combination of virus and supernatural evil, an idea explored in the first of two sequels. There was also an American remake, QUARANTINE.
I AM LEGEND (2007): Are they vampires or zombies? It’s not clear, but thanks to the star power of Will Smith, this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel reached a wider audience than any zombie movie before.
DEAD SNOW (2009): Nazis-had been done before but never better than in this somewhat comic horror film from Norway
ZOMBIELAND (2009): This took the 28 DAYS LATER concept of zombies as virus-infected-humans, and mainstreamed it for the masses with a comedic approach, achieving blockbuster success.
THE CRAZIES (2010): This remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film offers another version of viral zombies – not the living dead, but infected humans.
THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2013): This AMC series, based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, hews close to the zombie concept laid down by Romero but appealed to non-genre fans with its characterization and story-telling. The graphic make up and effects are courtesy of Greg Nicotero, who had assisted Tom Savini on DAY OF THE DEAD.
WARM BODIES (2013): This comedy-romance gives us zombies with a heart as “R” (Nicholas Hoult) finds his human emotions revived when he falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer).
WORLD WAR Z (2013): This big-budget blockbuster played out the zombie apocalypse on a bigger scale than ever before.
While posting “Anatomy of a Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead” yesterday, I was struck by something that has occurred to me several times over the years. In case you have not yet read the article (which was originally published in the printed version of Cinefantasitque magazine – Volume 4, Number 1 – back in 1975), it features a round table discussion with Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, and John Russo, essentially staking a claim to their share of the credit for the 1968 horror masterpiece directed by George Romero. Among other things, they deny any allegorical aspect to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in regard to the casting of black actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben.
[RUSSELL] STREINER: Getting back to the question you asked earlier about allegory in the film. A lot of people have read in some meaning to the casting of Duane Jones, a Negro, playing the male lead in the film. The simple truth of the matter is that he just turned out to be the best person for the part. He would have gotten the part if he were an Oriental or an American Indian or an Eskimo.
Elsewhere in the article, interviewer Gary Anthony Surmacz presses the allegorical issue slightly, asking whether symbolism could have developed on an accidental, unconscious level. Streiner’s reply is: “It could happen but it didn’t happen with this film.”
This has been the party line for decades. No allegory was intended; therefore, none exists, except in the minds of over-imaginative critics. During an appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2001, Romero himself offered a somewhat more flexible variation on this theme. Acknowledging that some unintended thematic content might have emerged in the film, he recalled:
We weren’t actually trying to use NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a forum for our socio-political leanings. They simply crept in through the back door. Perhaps there is some back-handed credit due for not shrinking from our views, for letting them show. The lead role of Ben was played by an African-American. This wasn’t a politically motivated choice. Duane Jones was simply the best actor among our friends and acquaintances. Here again, we might deserve some back-handed credit for not changing the script once Duane was cast. The script never defines Ben racially but assumes that he was a white middle-American. It never addressed race at all, anywhere in the story. I take points away from it for that.
During the shooting of our film, I realized that while we were rather proudly ignoring racial differences, we shouldn’t have been, because they existed….
What struck me upon re-reading Anatomy of a Horror Film was that I believe both Streiner and Romero are wrong, although in different ways. What Streiner ignores is that authorial intentions count for only so much; works of art that endure as classics, do so because they are open to audience interpretation, which keeps them fresh from generation to generation. The script for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD may not have intended any racial statement, and the casting of Duane Jones may have been a color-blind decision on the part of the filmmakers, but when the action plays out on screen, with Jones’ calm black man confronting the hyperventilating hot-head Harry (played by Hardman), the racial animus is palpable – and all the more intense for being unstated.
This brings me to my second point – what I see as Romero’s mistaken belief that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD should be dinged for not addressing racism openly. Had the film done so, I fear that it would, today, seem hopelessly dated – an interesting artifact of the radical ’60s, but probably not much more than that. By keeping the subtext submerged, Romero and his team – whether by accident or design – created a riddle that the audience must answer for itself. And the very nature of a riddle demands that the answer not be stated. As Jorge Luis Borges puts it in his short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”:
… “In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited.” I thought for a moment and then replied:
“The word is chess.”
Whether intentional or not, racism is the answer to the riddle that is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The fact that it is not stated openly has made the film more relevant over the ensuing decades, during which racists in our society have learned to cloak their attitudes behind more diplomatic language. For example, President Ronald Reagan never literally said that “welfare queens” were black. More recently, in 2001, when a caller to CNN’s Larry King Live told Senator Jesse Helms that “you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers,” Helms – a proud segregationist – objected to the word but not to the sentiment, saying, “When I was a little boy, one of the worst spankings I ever got is when I used that word, and I don’t think I’ve used it ever since.”
So, yes, racism is never mentioned in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Harry never drops the N-bomb (no doubt, his father spanked him when he was young). But that’s the way racism works today, denying its own existence, hiding behind rationalizations – the same way that Harry rationalizes his conflict with Ben, while never admitting the true, underlying nature of his resentment against this black man who is ordering him around.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is far from a perfect film; it is loaded with technical problems (jump-cuts, continuity lapses). Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece. Its greatness as a genre piece lies in its uncompromising depiction of believable, documentary-style of horror; its greatness as a piece of cinema lies in the unstated subtext that allows viewers to make their own interpretations.
You may not agree with my interpretation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that elasticity is what keeps the film alive today. As Dario Argento said to me, “When you watch a movie, you understand your truth. It’s not my truth maybe, but your truth is okay.”
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will be “okay” for generations to come, because it leaves room for us to find our own unstated truths.
EDITORIAL NOTE: It’s October, the month of Halloween horror – the season of vampires, bats, witches, and zombies. We here at Cinefantastique Online are celebrating the season with the upcoming release of the new all-zombie issue of Cinefantastique magazine – the first issue printed since 2006! As part of the celebration, we are posting this in-depth interview about the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), which was first published in 1975, in Volume 4, Number 1 of Cinefantastique (featuring Christopher Lee on the cover, from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN). Read on to learn the gory details that went into the making of a modern horror classic…
A round-table discussion with producers Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner and screenwriter John Russo about the making and the unmaking of their controversial horror film.
By Gary Anthony Surmacz
A dead body sits smack in the middle of Hardman Associates’ studio in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s propped in a chair in the path to the conference room, which probably explains why newcomers to the studio are sometimes late for meetings. Actually, it’s a mannequin, but I’ve heard rumors the thing moves about the place at night. It serves as a calling card for anyone who might get lost while looking for someone who had something to do with a film called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It let’s you know you’re in the right vicinity.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been called a fluke, a classic, a gross, outrageous money-grabber, and a good second feature for a drive-in double-bill. Not necessarily in that order. It’s also been called a symbolic work that succeeds in bringing to light the pressures and terror of a ruthless society. Whatever it may be, the fact is that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of the most successful horror films ever made. It continues to play theaters on top of double bills six years after it’s initial release. It continues to draw crowds. It continues to scare the the living day-lights out of its audience.
There is something unique about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that is hard to put your finger on. It might be because it is a sincere project by a group of Pittsburgh filmmakers who had never made a feature-length film before. It could be the way it was shot – the grainy, stark nakedness that floods the screen. It’s like stripping off the clothes and showing the bones. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has a little of everything to satisfy most customers. There’s the gore, the flowing blood. There’s violence galore. There’s an uncompromising ending that leaves most viewers dumfounded. There’s even a nude…before nudes were popular in horror films. In the final analysis, this unique film succeeded because it was the right movie at the right time. And it was honest. What it promises to its audience, it gives to them in full measure, far exceeding expectations.
This article is a round-table discussion I conducted with the producers of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner, and the film’s co-screenwriter John Russo. Karl Hardman is the president of Hardman Associates in Pittsburgh, a company specializing in industrial films, commercials, multi-media shows and recording. He also played the role of Harry Cooper in the film. Russell Streiner and John Russo are the owners of New American Films in Pittsburgh, formed in May, 1971 to produce commercials, industrial and sales films. Streiner played the role of Johnny, one of the early victims of the living dead; Russo appeared as various ghouls.
I got to know these individuals while working at Hardman Associates, where the topic of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its production frequently comes up in general conversation. It soon become apparent to me that the genesis of this key work in the horror film genre is largely misunderstood, due to the fact that the attention the film has received has focused on only one individual, George Romero. Romero wrote the original story on which the film is based, and directed, photographed and edited the film. His contribution to the success of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD cannot be minimized, and it is not the purpose of the article to do so. What does emerge from the transcribed conversation with Hardman, Russo and Streiner is that the film is not the work of one man. But in addition to giving credit where credit is due, the frank, casual, off-the-cuff conversation delves into the mechanics of how an independent horror film comes to be made and released, providing an accurate and interesting look at the anatomy of a horror film.
CFQ: Why did you choose a horror film for your first venture? Is it because it is the easiest film to make, and the easiest to sell?
HARDMAN: I think we all agreed it would be the most commercial film we could produce.
STREINER: You have to understand the production of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD began a little over six years ago. And let’s face it: it was the first feature any of us had been involved with. I think Karl might have been involved with something on the West Coast years back, but certainly not in the role of producer. And frankly, we had to do the kind of picture that we were almost assured of being able to sell. A horror film seemed to fit the bill. We did not have a distribution deal when we started into production. We did it on our money and out investors’ money, and then we secured the distribution deal.
CFQ: I take it that everything concerning NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started at Latent Image with George Romero, the director, and then the three of you came into it?
STREINER: That’s only partially correct. George and I, for example, were the two owners of Latent Image. I think the idea originated over lunch one day between George and John [Russo], and they came back and announced that we were going to do a horror film.
RUSSO: It was actually George, a fellow named Richard Ricci and myself. We were having lunch and wondered how much longer we were going to go on making commercials. We always wanted to do features. So I suggested getting a group together, putting up a little money out of our own pockets, to try to get the ball rolling and do a horror film. We mentioned Karl and Marilyn [Eastman]1 as possibilities right away. We went back and told the idea to Russ. He got excited about it and started working figures to see just how cheaply we could produce a feature if we shot 35mm black and white. Then, a couple days later, we sat down and talked about it with Karl and Marilyn.
HARDMAN: And, of course, we were very interested. We also had been wanting to go into motion picture production, but we were not nearly as able as Latent Image. Latent Image was a film house at the time.
STREINER: The original group mushroomed to some ten people. That included Karl, Marilyn, George Romero, Richard Ricci, a cousin of Romero’s associated with Latent Image. Ruddy Ricci, John, myself, and a few other people. These ten named a corporation to produce the film called Image Ten2, and once the corporation was formed, we secured our investment.
CFQ: John, how did you become involved in writing the script?
RUSSO: George wrote an original story and it was up to the point where the people came out of the basement of the house. I think that’s the first thing you saw, Karl, when you decided that you wanted to be part of the project. You saw an incomplete script first and then…maybe you don’t want to remember?
HARDMAN: I really don’t. RUSSO: But everybody said yeah, this is good, this is right on with what we should do. A couple of other ideas had already been kicked around. Then Karl, Marilyn, George and I, together, figured out an action outline of what should happen from that point on in the script. Then, sort of by default. I ended up writing the screenplay we began shooting with. I took the work George had written and all the notes from our discussions and came up with the finished script. The screenplay itself was a community effort. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of publicity scrambling among some of the people involved, and there’s been a lot of misconception about how the picture came to be. I think, in actuality, whether, for instance Karl and Russ were the producers of the picture, and I have the credit as screenwriter and George as director and so on – all of those categories merged. There was a group of anywhere from five to ten people. I think you could safely say the picture would not have been made without the presence of any one of them. It was very much a community effort. We had tremendous support from Karl’s friends and Karl’s and Marilyn’s associates, as well as our own associates and clients. You know, advertising people. Ad executives came out to be ghouls and to sit there playing around with bones and livers from slaughtered animals. There were about 250 extras in the film and we could never have made the picture without their support.
CFQ: In the beginning, was the film intended to be done under the aegis of a separate corporation or by the existing Latent Image?
STREINER: It was intended to be made under a separate corporation. There were several inherent problems had we done it as a Latent Image project. It got into a big stock hassle and things like that, so we chose the path of least resistance and that was to set up a separate corporation and then sell shares in the corporation. Latent Image, as a corporation, owns no stock in Image Ten Corporation.
RUSSO: The primary reason was that we could go to investors and say, “OK, you’re going to put your dollars into this picture and whatever money the picture makes, you’ll be paid accordingly,” rather than investors thinking their dollars would go back into the coffers of Latent Image or into the production of another film. So we set up Image Ten to do one picture and one picture only, and made an agreement with the stockholders that every dime be shared.
CFQ: In what way was the final NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD different than what you had originally planned, if it was at all?
RUSSO: I don’t think it was.
STREINER: Well, let’s face it. We’re dealing with a fantasy premise, but deep down inside we were all serious filmmakers and somewhat disappointed because we had to resort to horror for our first film. I mean everyone would like to do the great American film, but we found ourselves, through a series of what we thought were logical conclusions, making a horror film. Once we adopted that for openers, we then tried to make the best, most realistic horror film that we could make on the money we had available. In all aspects of the production we treated it as a serious film, although sometimes it’s hard to treat the kind of premise seriously. I think that overriding viewpoint is displayed in the final product. Once you buy the fact that the dead can come back to life, it’s treated in all other regards as a serious film.
CFQ: In the beginning, did you decide that this phenomenon of the dead coming back to life should happen over a wide geographical area, or be confined to a small setting for budgetary reasons?
RUSSO: We knew from the jump that it should be over a wide area. The only question was how could we deal with that in light of our limited budget. Could we actually create the feeling of the phenomenon being spread over a wide area? Karl, Russ, George and I would sit around and discuss how we could handle it. Could you deal with a small group of people confined in a house and still create the impression that the world was falling apart around them? We decided that was the route we had to go, and I think we succeeded largely with that effort.
CGQ: Your use of the television was very good in that respect.
HARDMAN: Yes. The premise of course was the Venus probe being out and on return, picking up some stray radiation. The radiation was detected and the probe exploded, with chunks falling into the Earth’s atmosphere. That, naturally, would spread it over a fairly large piece of real estate.
STREINER: There was some discussion as to whether the phenomenon needed to be explored deeply. Did we even have to reveal how the phenomenon came to be? There was some discussion about that, and then we settled for the compromise – the old radiation trick.
CFQ: Don’t you think it would have been interesting if no possible explanation were given?
RUSSO: I think all of us would have preferred it that way. But, at the time almost every film we went to see in that genre had an explanation. It seemed that the masses couldn’t live without some sort of explanation. We finally decided to give them one, even though we would rather had various explanations attempted on the television, radio, by scientists, maybe religious fanatics, or whatever. Everyone with their own explanation and none really the explicit one.
HARDMAN: It was safer to explain it. That was the only conclusion.
CFQ: George Romero has called his original story for the film “an allegory.” Basically, we’ve answered that the elements of the original story were in the completed film. Do you agree with him? Is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD an allegory?
RUSSO: I don’t agree with him.
HARDMAN: I don’t either.
STREINER: No, I don’t.
RUSSO: I think the film is an attempt to make money. And it’s an attempt to tell a good, honest emotionally involving story. A lot of the critics have jumped off the deep end in likening the ghouls to the silent majority and finding all sorts of implications that none of us ever intended. I think George wants to encourage that kind of thinking on the part of some critics. But I’d rather tell them they’re full of shit.
HARDMAN: Jack is right. That’s true.
STREINER: I think that in setting out to make a general entertainment film, if some critics were entertained to the point that they began reading all these fantastic social implications into it, fine, if that’s how they’re entertained. But I can’t say that there were any overriding social ramifications in the original design of the film. I mean that is just not true.
RUSSO: We tried to stay true to the premise and we’d sit here and reject things. I think we tried to make the people behave the way normal people behave. And the limitations of the film, as far as I’m concerned, stem mostly from the lack of budget. The shortcomings are just having to use music out of the library, having to go with takes because you couldn’t shoot a lot of film. We shot the picture in 30 days and they were real back-breaking days. Twenty-hour days. Some of us slept at the house where we were shooting. There wasn’t running water. We had to carry water from a spring. Remember how we used to carry garbage cans full of water at a time? Even to flush the toilets. I meant it was really hard work to shoot that film. Karl and Marilyn did the make-up. We all built props. We made dummies that had to take gunshots.
RUSSO: Friends would come out and cook for the crew and for a lot of the extras that had to show up. And still we did it in 30 days. All the shooting.
STREINER: In all honesty, I would have to say that with as many of the production’s shortcomings as we can attribute to budget, and there were a lot of those, you have to remember that it’s the first feature we had ever completed. We would be kidding ourselves to say that we even now know all the answers about how to make any film. I mean we’re still in the learning process. We had normal production headaches that we had experience at before. We learned an awful lot from the whole experience, down through the distribution arrangement. There are a lot of things that we would now never consider doing on another picture, either in terms of the production schedule or the distribution agreement. A lot of values have changed in the passing of six years.
CFQ: So, not to drag this out of press the point, I take it you don’t believe a film could gain any kind of symbolic character on an unconscious, accidental level?
RUSSO: I think that could happen.
STREINER: It could happen but it didn’t happen with this film. It’s very hard to determine. Fellini and Bergman and people like that certainly start out with a certain
design in their minds, but by the time their fans and critics get finished with their films, I’m sure a lot more is built in by the word of the critic and the word of the fan than Fellini or Bergman had in mind for a lot of their efforts.
RUSSO: Critics found all sorts of hidden meanings in STRAW DOGS. I read an interview with Sam Peckinpah where he said that he was handed a bad novel and he was handed a screenwriter. The only thing he could find good in the novel was the action in the siege at the end. So he decided to keep that and make the most he could out of it, and do a good action story. So Peckinpah’s attitude about the film was vastly different from that of the critics.
CFQ: When you sit down and say, “Let’s make a horror film,” the first thing that comes to mind is let’s scare people. What you have first is a series of incidents that are going to do just that. Did you then build your story around them?
HARDMAN: I think the main things we relied on were the ghouls and their attack, the siege of the house. As the film progressed in production, we decided as a group that we need more than that, hence, The Last Supper, the explosion of the truck. I think these were afterthoughts.
HARDMAN: Those individual incidents, involving the ghouls, were written in after production had started on the film.
CFQ: Were the ghouls in the original concept? Were the living dead intended to eat human flesh?
STREINER: They were ghouls. The original title was THE FLESH EATERS. Insofar as the gore is concerned, I can recall at the time there seemed to be a very heavy influx of so-called horror films…
HARDMAN: That was the time of BLOOD FEAST.
STREINER : ….that were made in Mexico, and other foreign countries. They were just abominable. They were just terrible films in every sense of the word. They had no terror value, period. We decided that once we reconciled ourselves to that premise, then why sell it out? If we presume that recently dead were coming back to life, would maim and otherwise devour victims, then let’s show it. I think in that sense, that’s the reason the film caught on so well. It didn’t sell out. A lot of people got sick, but when girls went to the drive-ins with their boyfriends, they ended up hiding their faces a lot. I think it has a value. In that context, in that film, I think it worked.
RUSSO: We did a lot of talking about how to pay off the kind of people that like horror films. What do they like to see? There were a lot of movies out, for instance, that would spend 15 minutes talking about a gigantic flying mantis that was killing people. In the first 15 minutes of the movie, people would be driving around in cars and every once in awhile you’d catch a glimpse of the monster behind a bush. Finally someone would get killed. Then another 15 minutes of a scientist trying to figure out what caused this gigantic thing. Then, at the end, the National Guard would come in and throw the flames on it and burn it. Our movie was not going to be like this. Whatever the terror is in the film, we said, there’s going to be plenty of it. If it’s a ghoul, then you’ll have plenty of ghouls and there’s going to be a real danger.
HARDMAN: I think one of the reasons, luckily for us, that the thing went that way was because we couldn’t fabricate sets. We couldn’t build a monster. These things were not available to us. We just couldn’t do it. We had to do it with human beings.
RUSSO: Rex Reed for example, said that one of the qualities that has made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD a genuinely terrifying film is that it deals with ordinary people in a terrifying situation. Whereas, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, for example deal with people who have supernatural powers. They’re witches and they go around killing each other. But the ordinary person doesn’t think of himself as Count Dracula wearing a tuxedo and growing fangs at night.
STREINER: Getting back to the question you asked earlier about allegory in the film. A lot of people have read in some meaning to the casting of Duane Jones, a Negro, playing the male lead in the film. The simple truth of the matter is that he just turned out to be the best person for the part. He would have gotten the part if he were an Oriental or an American Indian or an Eskimo.
HARDMAN: But people don’t believe that.
RUSSO: There’s no social comment. It was not “let’s give this black guy a break” or anything else. He just happened to turn up and be the best actor we could cast for the part. The decision was no more complex than that.3
CFQ: The casting of Jones, and the ending, which is so defeating in a sense, are probably the reasons the film has caught on. You can’t deny the reaction whether accidental or not.
RUSSO: You know, I was reading through the script the other day and I was very much surprised I had totally forgotten the first ending that was written. The ending was written two different ways. We decided after the fact to kill everybody off. The first ending had Duane and Barbara make it to the cellar. She wasn’t killed by her brother. Remember? Russ drags her outside. That doesn’t happen. She and Duane both make it to the cellar and they’re the last two survivors. Then the posse comes and, of course, she’s totally out of her head. Duane comes up out of the cellar and gets it right between the eyes. He falls dead. The posse moves into the house checking things out and the sheriff and his deputy go down into the cellar. They see the girl. The sheriff cocks his pistol. And he sees a tear. They bring her out of the cellar and in the last scene the sheriff’s putting her coat around her as the bonfire if being lit. At least she’s safe, but at that point she is almost insane.
CFQ: I take it you didn’t like that ending?
RUSSO: There’s something I like about it, but we all decided that the other ending would be better.
HARDMAN: It’s kind of a fake ending. It’s a little pat. I had a third ending. Remember that? I wanted to have everything wrapped up. Duane shot. All the ghouls wiped out. And then I wanted to have the little girl ghoul step into the frame as the posse drives away in the distance, watching the posse disappear. To have one ghoul left.
RUSSO: Most people like the uncompromising ending. They say they don’t like it, but it creates what we wanted to create. They’re just totally wiped out by the whole thing.
STREINER: You see, we could kick the ending of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD back and forth, and we could kick the gore back and forth, but somehow all those ingredients went into – and I don’t think I’m being a braggart about it – creating a memorable film. It certainly ranks with the films that are going to be around for a while. So we obviously did something right, even though we could probably nitpick and second-guess a lot of the specifics about the film.
CFQ: You mentioned that the original title of the film was THE FLESH EATERS, what were some of the other titles considered?
RUSSO: I always wanted to call it SOUTH PACIFIC.
HARDMAN: NIGHT OF ANUBIS was considered for a long time.
RUSSO: That was on the first print, Anubis being the Egyptian god of the dead.
HARDMAN: But Anubis was obscure.
STREINER: Yes, a little too esoteric for the film.
CFQ: How many years has it been playing in midnight showings in what cities?
STREINER: Well, that’s happened in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
HARDMAN: Two years straight in Minneapolis.
STREINER: It’s also interesting that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has not been out of distribution for the six-year distribution life it’s had. It’s been exhibited somewhere. That’s why it doesn’t have a rating. It’s peculiar in that sense and probably a fluke. I don’t think that has happened to any other film.
CFQ: When you have the chance, do any of you sneak into the back of theatre where the film is playing?
STREINER: I used to do that. As a matter of fact, the opening night of the film, the night after the premiere, I went by myself to an all-black theatre. It was one of the 13 or 17 situations the film opened in, and it was a predominately black theatre in a black neighborhood. That’s an experience in itself, to go watch a picture with a predominately black audience. It’s amazing how much blacks are entertained by that picture. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in terms of audience involvement. People were standing on their feet and shouting instructions to the characters. It’s really an interesting experience.
CFQ: What was the reaction of the black audience to the end of the film. Was the audience taken aback by this?
STREINER: Oh yes, and also very angry about it. You could hear murmurings of “Well, you know, they had to kill him off” and “Whitey had to get him anyway.” “He bought it from the Man.” Maybe the whole feeling would be different if, for instance, Superman had been black. I think the black community is looking for a latter day Superman. They found him In SHAFT and they find him in Ben and any number of places. But it’s really kind of gratifying to know that something you’ve had a hand in making has some impact on people. Especially when you’ve come from a background of making TV commercials which are probably the most boring things–if you ever want to spend a boring lifetime, make television commercials. It’s really a rewarding experience to listen to a black crowd because they’re not inhibited in anyway and they want their man to win.
CFQ: Both of you, Russ and Karl, played various roles in the making of the film. Both of you acted in the picture: Karl playing Harry Cooper and Russ playing Johnny, the girl’s brother. Did you find any problems in terms of acting conflicting with your behind-the-scenes work?
STREINER: Well, in my case, you noticed I was killed off in the first five minutes. I think that had to say something about my performance. I was uptight about it. You can stroll around behind the camera and you have an ability to tell people how you want to see something, but when you’re on the receiving end, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a totally different matter. I’m getting a little bit of mike-fright right now, as a matter of fact.
CFQ: Karl, you were prominent in the film, did you see any problems?
HARDMAN: Yes I did, as a matter of fact. Duane Jones, in my personal view and only my personal view, was underplaying far, far too much. He was too far down. His performance was monotonous, without color, without inflection. And that worried me because I thought there had to be some color, some inflection in the film. I guess we talked about that generally and some agreed; other didn’t. But I decided that my character should be a sharp contrast with Duane’s character. So I played Harry Cooper in a kind of frenzied, fist-clenching, nervous way. And when the first rushes finally came back and I saw myself on screen, it was really embarrassing because, to me, Harry Cooper came off like a comic opera character.
STREINER: Well, didn’t you move to Buenos Aires for a while after that?
HARDMAN: Yes. I felt I had to get out of town.
RUSSO: But I have to say that you constantly, throughout, asked for directional advice about how you were playing the character. You were always told that it was working well, and you had no reason to modify your performance during the filming. So I’m just saying that I don’t think it was your fault. That happened, and you may be partially right: if there were a middle ground that Duane could have been brought up to, the contrast might have been eased.
I was in the film and I had some problems that neither Karl nor Russ had. One of them was getting set on fire with gasoline. Bill Hindsman and I did the scene where some people were set on fire with Molotov cocktails and torches. I didn’t have a beard then, but I was the ghoul that got it in the head with the tire iron. Remember that? And the only reason for it was that we shot it at 4’ o clock in the morning and everybody had to go home. The crew stayed, at least, and they said I would do the thing. Karl did the makeup. We used derma wax. That’s what the morticians use if you get a nose taken off in a car accident. They make you a new nose with Derma wax. And that damn stuff is really something. The only way you can get it off is to use a knife and scrape it off your face. It takes a couple of hours and it pulls and feels like all your skin is coming off.
STREINER: As a matter of fact, if you’re interested Jack can pop his nose off for you right now.
CFQ: Something I don’t think was fully explained in the film was the body that was found upstairs in the house at the beginning. The people in the audience kept murmuring, “They’re forgetting about the one upstairs.” We’re all waiting for it to come down, but it never does.
STREINER: Yes. The way that thing was done, the impression was to be that it was so far gone that there was almost nothing left but a skeleton. Probably if the thing had looked a little better, the thing we used as a carcass, the audience would have understood. If we would only have had enough money to spend on it to allow the camera to dwell on it a little longer. It was one of those Revell plastic, snap-together heads, with fake hair and blood and clay modeled around like skin.
CFQ: The scene that impressed me most in the entire film was the opening scene, with the car driving along the road.
HARDMAN: The car? The distant shot of the car?
CFQ: Yes, it was just so…
HARDMAN: It’s ominous.
CFQ: Right away you said to yourself that something was wrong all around. It was just so well done.
RUSSO: And that was one of the last scenes shot, if not the last. It was already getting into November and there was an ice cold drizzling rain. We had to shoot between times that it would rain. And then the people’s breath was a problem. You could see their breath and it had to match the other footage. The foliage was gone from the trees, and we had to try to get around that.
STREINER: One of the things I’m still most angry about is the original negative, the black and white negative. The prints that were struck off of that, like our first answer print, were just beautiful. It was good-looking black and white film. When the deal was finally concluded with Walter Reade, although we didn’t have it in writing, they orally agreed that the eventual prints would be pulled on Eastman stock and they would be good looking prints. Well, the print they sent in – the first time we saw it was the premiere, and it was one of the most embarrassing situations. I hope to never go through that again. There was so much detail in the original black and white that was just completely ignored. The Reade Organization figured why give it any consideration at all? It would have cost maybe three cents a foot more to have it pulled on Eastman Kodak stock.
RUSSO: Because the film was made in Pittsburgh, we suffer from condescension from people in the industry and people in other parts of the country. One reviewer said it was a grainy little product from Pittsburgh. Well, the print and negative we had looked as good as any black and white film. I don’t care what black and white film you’ve ever seen, that print looked as good as any. I was talking to a friend who saw the film in Seattle a couple weeks ago, and he saw a print where two twenty-minute sections of the film were brown. That’s the way the one at the premiere was. That’s no fault of ours. That’s purely a lab problem, yet something we get blamed for. It causes people to think, “Well, they just can’t make it in Pittsburgh like they can make it in Hollywood.” It’s totally false.
CFQ: How did you approach the distributors with this film?
RUSSO: Russ and George went to New York.
STREINER: With a great deal of trepidation. We finished the picture and George and I were driving to New York on the night Martin Luther King Was assassinated. And we figured oh, great, everything else has gone wrong up to this point, and here we show up with a film with a black cat playing the lead and probably every theatre in the country is going to be burned down within two days. We were not successful on our first attempt with the picture. Columbia Pictures had it for quite some time.
CFQ: Were they the first ones?
STREINER: They were the first ones to see the picture. In any event, Columbia had the picture tied up for some time, all the time giving us encouraging words like, “Yes, we like the picture” and “It’s just going through another battery of screenings” and things like that. I came back to Pittsburgh, and George stayed there for a couple of days. But we were satisfied that the picture was going to Columbia. Then George called us a few days later and said that Columbia eventually turned it down. At that point we started looking around for a producer’s representative. We figured our inexperience apparently must have been showing through to these people. We needed and secured a producer’s rep. After the rep picked up the picture, we had five offers that were almost identical over the next two months or so. We finally went with Walter Reade, which has turned out to be the biggest mistake we made with the picture.
CFQ: What kind of deal does an independent producer get with a major distributor?
STREINER: If we had been played fairly with, we wouldn’t have made out all that badly. We had a 50/50 deal. The prints and advertising came off the top and everything after that was to be split 50/50. And we have strong suspicions, and it’s my personal opinion, that we have not gotten a fair account from Reade. And on that basis we have now filed litigation. Litigation has already begun against the Reade Organization for both the rights to the picture and for in excess of a million dollars in damages.
CFQ: Is this being filed jointly?
STREINER: It’s being filed by Image Ten Corporation.4 Karl, Jack, George, one other stockholder and myself are at this point trustees of the corporation. It’s a five man committee appointed to be trustees for Image Ten and to look after its asset, which is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
CFQ: You have nothing more to say on this?
RUSSO: I’m not sure how much we can say without getting into a possible slander or libel thing. Maybe we should let all that stuff be said in court. I’m not sure.
STREINER: Well, I don’t think we have to reserve too many comments. Anything I would tell you is my personal opinion. But I will most strenuously use my personal opinion to influence the judgment of the stockholders. Very frankly, I think we are now being screwed by Reade and we have been screwed by Reade. It’s my intention to see that it doesn’t go on. We’re very serious about getting the rights to the picture back. We feel that there’s a lot of life left in it, and we just simply have not gotten a fair count on the thing.
CFQ: Are you ever contacted when the film is about to be released?
STREINER: No. We always learn after the fact.
HARDMAN: Reports from Reade are supposed to be sent in indicating where and when the picture has played. It’s always after the fact, that’s true. Never before, because they have the right to distribute the film wherever they deem fit.
CFQ: Initially, were you satisfied with the way the film was being distributed?
RUSSO: It only took us about three of four months to begin to get dissatisfied, not so much with the way it was being distributed at first, but with the way the returns were coming to us. The first week the picture was released showed us that it was going to be a hit. It made a lot of money in Pittsburgh and in New York and Philadelphia in the opening bookings. We had projections from the distributor and from the producer’s representative, and even from the owners of theater chains, that we would make at least a million dollars on the picture. We feel we should have made, actually more than that. Closer to two million dollars and that’s one of the reason for the lawsuit.
STREINER: The picture had been in distribution for about four month, and on the strength of the four months play-off we received a letter of estimate from our producer’s representative that went into some detail describing to us how, by the end of 1969, from just the United States and Canada, we would have accrued a quarter of a million dollars. We haven’t hit that figure yet! The picture has now played in over 400 engagements that we know of in the United Staes and Canada.
RUSSO: It played for a year in Rome in one of the largest theaters and it’s played for almost a year in Madrid. It’s been dubbed into approximately 25 foreign languages.
HARDMAN: It’s played in Paris.
CFQ: While actually filming did you do anything to attract distributors?
STREINER: The only thing we did during production was to round up an awful lot of production shots and we did put together a press kit of sorts, or a publicity kit with a dozen photographs and a few other things and sent it around to various distributors while the picture was being edited. It got very little response.
RUSSO: We had coverage during production from a local television station, and we did have one Variety article. There were some scattered newspaper articles.
STREINER: But there was no thrust. We didn’t target any distributors.
RUSSO: Once the picture was being released all of us worked very hard on publicity. We did everything we could. All of the stockholders helped with putting up posters and talking to their friends and we were interviewed on quite a few radio and television shows.
CFQ: In respect to the Reade Organization, was there any agreement made for future films?
STREINER: No. At the time we were looking for money to do another picture, and Walter Reade offered, and, in fact, got approved from the Bank of America, a letter of credit for some fifty thousand dollars. And after the letter of credit was issued they attempted to secure an agreement from us that other pictures we did could be distributed by Reade on the same terms as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. We were certain enough at the time that we were getting a shafting so we turned down the fifty thousand dollar letter of credit and the attached agreement. So there are no ties between Reade and any of the organizations we represent or any of us as individuals. If you get burned once, you’re very reluctant to stick your hand in the fire again.
CFQ: Let’s discuss the first test screening of the film. What was the general reaction of the audience? Who was there?
HARDMAN: They were largely friends, I suppose, who had heard about the film or knew about it, but hadn’t see it. People who had been in it. Everyone was given cards asking for written opinions of the film. In fact, after a couple of those screenings, it was decided to eliminate a lot of the exposition, which is the slow part of the film. The Venus probe, and what’s going on in this part of the country and that part of the country were all radically reduced in length.
RUSSO: After we finished the film we went into a period of…
STREINER: …deep depression.
RUSSO: I guess it was sort of an emotional letdown. The film was in the can, and all the really exhausting work was done. There were two or three months of really hard work in pre-production, and then thirty days of really grinding shooting. Then the footage had to come back from the lab, and we had to put the sound together with the work prints so we could look at the takes. Everybody lost enthusiasm, and nobody knew what we really had in the can anymore. Excitement picked up about two or three months later when we had the takes synchronized and we could look at them. Then we started to get the suspicion that we had turned out something pretty good. I remember when the first edit was finished. That’s when we really started to get excited. We had seen little bits and pieces of the first edit, but when we saw a relatively complete edit it just smacked us in the eyes. Karl jumped up and sad, “Goddamit! We’ve got it! We have a movie!” We knew then that it was a good horror film. All of us felt that way. And we knew it was capable of making some kind of splash, at least with horror film fans. We weren’t real surprised when it started to be successful at the box-office. We were more happy than surprised, I think.
HARDMAN: When you make a film, even though you go into it with the intellectual point of view that you may bomb out, and you’re completely willing to bomb out and what right do you have to hit with this when there were so many films being made by so many important people that don’t make it, you still think that it’s got to go. It’s going to be good enough. It’ll sell. People will dig it. So, it’s that really “on top” feeling.
CFQ: You were, I would imagine, somewhat surprised by the critical response to the film?
RUSSO: Yes, we were surprised at the critical response, like the ones that liken the ghouls to the silent majority and find all kinds of political implications.
HARDMAN: Everyone knows about the film. The longer this film stays in distribution and the more I hear about this cult and that cult, the more astounded I become that we made this film. I’m delighted, I might add.
STREINER: I think, probably, the source of a great deal of amazement to us was when it started to take off the way it did. However, we were more surprised that the Walter Reade Organization never, not even today, never really came around. They just sort of stood around and said, “Wow! We can’t figure out why we’re getting all these bookings.” You don’t figure it out; just do something to embellish it, which they have failed to do. And that part of it has always confused me. This was the first film of its kind the Reade Organization took on. They dealt with films like DAVID AND LISA and some of the old, really good British comedies and things like that. So it was a departure for them, in a certain sense. I don’t think they really knew how to cope with what happened to it. If they had a roaring success with a Peter Sellers film, they’d know how to handle that and how to milk all the play dates they could out of it, getting the percentage up and things like that. I think they always were, and still are, a little afraid to go to an exhibitor and say, “Look, this picture is doing a ton of business. Here are the terms that we want.” I just don’t think that ever happened with them.
RUSSO: These kind of arguments, I think, might be better if we didn’t print them.
RUSSO: Because you’re saying, in effect, one of Reade’s defense is probably going to be that they didn’t know how to handle the picture, and they’re going to say we got the best deals possible. They’re going to talk about their hundred-dollar deal and what you just said corroborates that. They could plead ignorance and say, “The picture got a lot of play dates, but we had to take a hundred dollars a booking.”
STREINER: Regardless of anything else, they are, in fact, in material breach of contract. There is no question about that. They had twenty days to respond to alleged breaches of contract. They failed to respond, and on that basis Image Ten considers the rights of the picture are now, once again, ours. We have been prevented by the Reade Organization from taking possession of our property. That’s the first cause of action in the law suit.
RUSSO: But as far as the money is concerned, if it’s true that they don’t realize the worth of the picture and aren’t pushing it as hard as they should, that would indicate to anyone that perhaps that’s why the picture hasn’t made money for us.
STREINER: I’m really not concerned. I’m not as apprehensive as you are.
CFQ: What would you do if you got the rights back?
HARDMAN: I’d opt to shelve it for a while, then rerelease it.
STREINER: That’s one of the things we were considering. We’re also considering when the rights come back to us, releasing it on a first-run basis. It wasn’t eligible for that the first time out, but I think because of its proven success, someone might be inclined to book it into first-run houses.
CFQ: Would you consider this film, because of the response it’s getting, somewhat of an “art” film?
HARDMAN: Art film? No.
Streiner: No. I wouldn’t consider it that way. I think it’s a flat-out entertainment picture, and people who enjoy film will continue to be entertained by it.
CFQ: Then it should be advertised as basically a splashy horror film?
HARDMAN: Yes. They’re still going with the original FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA.
STREINER: No. I don’t think you can all of a sudden say that, because a lot of people are interested in seeing this picture, it is an art film, then revamp the advertising to a level of sophistication that will get a whole new audience. I really don’t think you can do that.
CFQ: Some of the slick magazines and critics have almost called it that. I don’t think that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has a general appeal, and perhaps it could reach more people by making some changes in the outlook of the film.
STREINER: Those are really bridges we have to cross when we get to them. The first and important thing is to get the rights back. Then we’ll have to sit down and have a couple of skull sessions as to what to do with it, whether we redistribute it ourselves or look for another distributor.
RUSSO: There are certain kinds of people who need intellectual pretensions before they’ll go to see a skin flick. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has already played in the Museum of Modern Art. So maybe you are right. Maybe there are certain kinds of people who need intellectual pretensions before they’ll go see a horror film, but once they get into the theatre they’ll dig it.
HARDMAN: I think that’s true of a minority of the people.
RUSSO: Maybe we should make some attempt to sucker the audience?
STREINER: I don’t think anybody is really going to be suckered. It’s a film that pays off most people. It has some value other than the blood and guts aspect.
RUSSO: I think it’s a different thing, like I said, to sucker an audience. If you’re going to use tricks to get people into a theatre, and once they’re there they’re going to like what they see, it’s different than using tricks to get people into an audience to see something they’re disappointed in. What I’m saying is that there might be a segment of the people that would love, really enjoy a horror film, but they’ve got themselves psyched out of those kinds of plots, and they need to first believe there’s something more to it.
CFQ: What was the ratio of footage shot to footage used?
RUSSO: We shot 56,000 feet.
STREINER: We used 10, 000. It would be safe to say 5.5. to 1. Somewhere in that area.
CFQ: Who was responsible for the editing?
RUSSO: George Romero.
STREINER: What we would do, as each scene was cut, was sit down and look at it. It’s very hard to look at a film in that way. So the first impressions everyone had were pretty much created from the first rough cut of the film. Then there was a lot of discussion about what should go and what should stay. In that regard it was committee edited, but the mechanics were handled by Romero.
CFQ: Did you use stock music and who selected it?
HARDMAN: It was library music.
RUSSO: I think we all had a hand in selecting. Karl even made some in his studio.
HARDMAN: A lot of the electronic stuff.
RUSSO: Karl and Marilyn recorded a lot of the sound effects and invented sound effects here and there that were slugged in when we needed them. There’s a very practical reason for using music in place of sound effects. It’s cheaper and easier. I think we would have preferred to use naturalistic sound effects throughout NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I think it would have been more frightening than to go with the music. But the music covers up sound effects. We would have to record and sync all the footsteps and nail pounding in the film. It’s just a much more laborious, expensive process.
CFQ: Was there any crisis before or during the making of the film?
RUSSO: I think we worked very well together once we started shooting. The only discomfort we had, really, was in getting organized. We had all worked together on commercials for a short stretch, but we had never worked on a project so large, that demanded so much in that way of logistics. We spent months making dummies and things, and scouting locations, and finding out just where everybody’s head was.
STREINER: The only crisis was keeping the commode at the location working. That created some very tense, anxiety-filled moments. Other than that, I shot Karl in the chest three or four times. My brother got his arm burned one night. He did it inadvertently when we were shooting one of the outdoor scenes – well, how can you catch your arm on fire other than inadvertently?
RUSSO: Like most other films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD wasn’t shot in sequence. So, for some scenes the house would have to be totally boarded up. For other scenes that were supposed to be earlier in the film the house was in a different stage of being boarded up, and we had to remember all these different stages. When we’d un-board the house we took magic marker and wrote on the board “upper left – door,” and on another board “lower left – door.” We’d have to put these boards back in exactly the same place. In some takes, even now in the finished print, if you look closely, you see Duane boarding up and you can read “upper left – door” on the board.
HARDMAN: And then teaching Duane how to use a hammer, how to hold a hammer.
RUSSO: Duane wasn’t much of a carpenter. We had to drill holes in the boards that Duane put the nails into.
CFQ: Why did you have to shoot it that way? Why not shoot all the boarded up scenes at once?
HARDMAN: It wasn’t that well planned.
RUSSO: Well, some of the actors weren’t available. We had to work around people’s schedules, too. We couldn’t afford to break down for five days and wait, so we’d go ahead and shoot something, then backtrack.
CFQ: Was your script completed when you began shooting?
STREINER: It was completed, other than the incidents Karl mentioned that were added after the fact. Once the shooting started to take some shape, the script was embellished, but the basic script was finished when we started shooting.
CFQ: I read that the scene Karl so fondly refers to as “The Last Supper” was a spur of the moment addition. Didn’t a butcher drive onto the set with all those intestines?
HARDMAN: Well, no. One of the stockholders owned a chain of meat markets. We knew that we need intestines, livers, hearts, and stuff like that. So he arranged to get those things from the slaughter house from which he purchased meat. They were all goodies belonging lambs which are supposedly somewhat similar to human organs . We had to slush out the intestines literally. That was pretty grim.
RUSSO: That was comic when I first saw it. Vince Survinski was standing there with those intestine, washing them out with Coke bottles full of water. There wasn’t very much that was funny during the filming, at least for me. It was all hard work.
HARDMAN: I’m still amazed that somebody during the filming didn’t just collapse and die, right there on the spot.
CFQ: Because of the hours.
RUSSO: It was really, really hard work. STREINER: I don’t think we’d go through the same kind of production schedule again. At four o’clock in the morning, after you’ve been working 18 hours, your objectivity gets a little on the cloudy side, and all you’re interested in doing is sacking out someplace. You’ve been living on ham and cheese sandwiches and a couple of beers for three days.
CFQ: You used local, non-professional people in this film for supporting roles and as the ghouls. What was the reaction when you walked up to somebody and told them, “What we want you to do is wear these torn clothes and munch on animal intestines.”
HARDMAN: Both Latent Images and Hardman Associates were working closely with all the advertising agencies in the city. The word was out that this picture was going to be made. We simply put out the word that we needed extras and everyone, almost without exception, was very eager to take part. Because of the glamour, the so-called glamour.
RUSSO: We used some of the townspeople from Evans City.
CFQ: Were these people paid for what they did?
HARDMAN: Ultimately, everyone was paid.
STREINER: There was a fair amount of interest, too, in Evans City about the shooting itself. Like, the night we blew up the truck. We had two identical trucks. One we rented up there. Didn’t we buy the other one for around $45?
HARDMAN: Yes, something like that?
STREINER: We towed it up there. On the night we blew up the truck we decided to wait until two o’clock in the morning because we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. Still, in all, there must have been 100 to 150 people who hung around. They wouldn’t go home.
CFQ: Did anything happen that you didn’t expect?
STREINER: No. It was just that everyone was so curious. I just mention the truck blowing up, but there were nights when people would hang around way into the morning hours just out of sheer curiosity.
RUSSO: Well, some shrapnel came pretty close to you and me.
HARDMAN: We weren’t sure the fellow handling the demolitions wouldn’t be overenthusiastic. We shot the scene with three cameras to be sure we had it. As it turned out we were able to get two takes. The TNT blew the truck off the ground a little bit and then flames burst out all over, but they died down quickly and we got another take.
CFQ: What was the hardest scene you had to shoot? Karl, I remember something about a coat tree that kept following you down the stairs?
HARDMAN: From my own personal point of view that was the hardest.
STREINER: Karl’s famous death.
CFQ: Would you elaborate on that?
HARDMAN: Very simply, I was holding a rifle on Duane and saying we were going to do things my way. He turned and thew a board at me, knocking the rifle out of my hands. He grabbed the rifle, leveled it–whamm! Of course, as the character I saw what was coming. The force of the bullet was to slam me into the corner, I was to bounce off the corner, hit the piano on the other side of the doorway leading to the basement, then clutching myself, fall down the steps into the basement of the house. Well, there was a coat tree next to the door which had been in every shot and there were coats on it. Eleven times I got shot, slammed myself into the corner, bounced off onto the piano and got wrapped up in that coat tree, and the coat tree would follow me into the basement. By the time we got a good take I was so exhausted from laughing, I hardly had enough energy left to do it.
STREINER: Probably the most difficult shooting was the day we photographed most of the posse, the helicopter and the police dogs. It was difficult just from a pure logistics point of view. We had an awful lot of people to handle. We also had to be very careful. One person was assigned to make sure all of the live ammunition was out of the weapons being used in the scene and replaced with blanks. We didn’t want any mishaps, or anybody thinking they had an empty gun and, in fact, shooting someone. That was difficult, but only in the sense of the logistics. CFQ: The Sheriff at the end of the film is extremely loose and humorous. Was it planned that way?
RUSSO: He had never acted before. I gave him all the facts about the ghouls and about the situation. I told him when he was being interviewed to keep this fund of information in his mind and answer questions in his own words. So those were some of his own words. We decided to leave it in. CFQ: It is very difficult to assign creative credit to a cooperative effort such as filmmaking. Who deserves the credit for whatever success NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD achieved?
HARDMAN: In a singular or plural sense?
CFQ: Either way. If it’s a singular sense, who was it?
RUSSO: I think that, like I said earlier, there’s probably around ten people. Without any one of them, the picture wouldn’t have been made.
STREINER: It’s hard to say where the success really lies. Is it in the original concept or is in the collective attitude with which the project was approached? George Romero certainly deserves a lot of the credit. But I think it would be remiss to place all the credit at George’s feet. I do think that it is impossible to single out any one person and say without his efforts this thing would not have been successful. It really didn’t work that way. There was a core of maybe five or six people who were all ultimately responsible for the success of the film and I’m not trying to add or detract credit from any one person by saying that. But in my opinion, that’s really the way it is.
RUSSO: I think the concept had a hell of a lot to do with it. As far as the concept is concerned, Russ, Karl, Marilyn, George and I worked it into what resulted in the final screenplay. And even then there were changes.
HARDMAN: I agree with what Russ has said. I think if I had to enumerate key people so far as the actual production itself, certainly George, Jack, Russ – I’m thinking of whole areas in which these people worked – myself, Marilyn and, I think Vince Survinski.
STREINER: Yes, very definitely.
HARDMAN: Vince did the majority of construction.
STREINER: Vince is one of the guys who generally is always in the background, almost never gets any publicity. He’s just as happy that way.
RUSSO: He works over at Latent Image. He made sure a lot of the special effects could happen. Demolitions and fire. Gunshot effects. Everything from set design to help with organizing things. He’s just one of your invaluable people to have around the set.
CFQ: Do any of you have an inclination to making horror films?
HARDMAN: I do. I think they’re fun.
RUSSO: I remember a suggestion made by Karl and Marilyn. We were looking for a way to get rid of the ghouls. Like how do you kill them? Karl and Marilyn suggested that one of the people in the house should discover that the ghoul dies when you smack it in the face with a Boston cream pie. Then you’d have the people in the house waiting for salvation and at the last minute this big truck pulls up…
HARDMAN: A trailer truck. We envisioned a trailer truck.
Russo: We go out with a big pie throwing contest.
HARDMAN: I ‘d forgotten about that.
STREINER: I think there’s a large enough audience for film like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Any kind of film that you feel will entertain people, filmmakers should have an inclination toward, whether it’s WHAT’S UP DOC? or Woody Allen. If people can be entertained by it, then there’s a value in making such a picture.
CFQ: There is much said about horror films giving people a release for their frustrations. Some have called them healthy outlets. Do any of you have any thoughts on this?
HARDMAN: I think if you say horror films, or films of that genre are healthy, it’s only because the people are entertained and it provides them release.
STREINER: There was a strong sentiment when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD first came out. A lot of parent groups and people like that thought that the people who made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DWEAD must be next to savages, that no civilized person could bring himself to photograph cannibalism and that sort of thing. I never felt that I shouldn’t be taken out of society.
CFQ: One of the reasons horror films are so popular is that people enjoy being frightened. Would you agree?
RUSSO: Most fairy tales have something that if frightening in them. Hansel and Gretel throw the witch in the oven. It’s in the realm of fantasy, though. It never affects anybody’s sensibilities, really.
HARDMAN: Some psychiatrists claim that it does. I don’t happen to buy that.
RUSSO: I don’t agree with that.
CFQ: In the same respect, Good always wins out over Evil in fairy tales. There are many horror films today where that just doesn’t happen, or there is no clear cut sense of good and evil. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD there is no clear definition of good or evil.
STREINER: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been out for maybe a year when a story appeared in Life magazine. It just so happened at the time the story appeared, in some small town in Nebraska, a parent group was up in arms that the owner of the only theatre in their community opted to play films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and I guess a couple of X-rated films also. Their complaint was that he had a captive audience; if people in that small town wanted to go to the theatre, they had to see what the owner thought they should see. But I can’t help thinking that when you drop your kid off in front of the show and the marquee says NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you should know it isn’t going to be a Disney film or HANS BRINKER AND THE SILVER SKATES. So, if you don’t want your kids to see a film with that title and you have some suspicions as to what it might be, then don’t take them. The article I thought was over-critical was the one they eventually reprinted in Reader’s Digest, about the effect the film had on an audience of small children. It was originally printed in some Chicago paper, then reprinted in Reader’s Digest. Well, he’s entitled to his point of view, but we’re certainly not monsters. Oh, I don’t know; maybe we are!
The thrust of the article was a comparison between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE THING. I guess when this writer Roger Ebert was younger, he was terrified of THE THING. Well, everyone has grown up since the days of THE THING, and I’m not so sure an audience isn’t prepared for a film like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Films have gone beyond that now. And I’m not certain to any higher degree of artistic level. I think a lot of the stuff shot since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is so much rubbish, frankly. I think a lot of people after seeing our film, decided they were going to pattern their films after it. I think that’s been, on the whole, unsuccessful. But audiences are prepared to cope with things like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; otherwise, they wouldn’t keep going back. Either that, or we’re raising a real society of masochists or something.
CFQ: I think we’ve covered the explicit approach to the gore in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD quite extensively, but after all the discussion about horror films, I’d be interested to know, now, in the light of all you’ve said, if you feel the gore was justified?
HARDMAN: Yes. At the time I was a negative voice; I didn’t think we had to go that far. But I’m very glad we did.
STREINER: But you have to remember that Karl can’t even face a liverwurst sandwich.
HARDMAN: I still don’t see how they did it – biting into that raw liver and heart…
STREINER: Do you want to be excused, Karl? No, I think it had its place in that film and confronted with the same decisions on basically the same points, I would probably be in favor of doing it again. Even though a lot of parent groups think we’re raving lunatics.
CFQ: After the success of your first film, one would have expected you to do another horror film, yet what you did next was THE AFFAIR.
STREINER: Image Ten was dissolved before that by its very nature. As a corporation we were only permitted by our corporate character to produce one film. Beyond that there was some disagreement what the second film should be. As a matter of fact, there was a pretty long stretch of time while various ideas were being kicked around. Everyone had several different ideas, and we finally zeroed in on a horror anthology and onto something else. The eventual result was the film now called THE AFFAIR.
CFQ: What horror films have you seen that impressed you?
RUSSO: Not too many.
STREINER: In its time, THE THING terrified me. If you can put PSYCHO into that category, certainly it is one of my all-time favorites. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was a good film. Beyond that, there aren’t too many. There are several science fiction films. Some of the things George Pal did, and there was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. That was a damn good film. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED had something for it. But it is really surprising when you sit down and try to recall the films that have made an impression on you. There are so many film your mind just snaps shut on. You can’t even recall the titles. Many of the Japanese films such as MOTHRA, I fail to see how they did the business they did, other than the fact they they were a novelty. The Japanese crush cities well, but I believe they’ve all been working from one basic script.
HARDMAN: I was going to mention FRANKENSTEIN, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and DRACULA. That places me at a point in time when I was very young and they really scared me.
RUSSO: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA really scared me, but I was in grade school when I saw it. I remember when I was a kid, really being up for seeing Frankenstein films. But I was always a little disappointed when it was over.
STREINER: From my own point of view, I am more in favor of the Hitchcock brand of suspense and terror than the overt, blatant terror. If you can trigger the audience’s imagination, you’ve won the battle. If people can be caused to use their brains, as we probably did listening to Sergeant Preston on the radio, that’s invaluable. You can’t do everything for them. You’ve got to trip something in there personal psychology if you want o make them laugh, cry or be frightened. I think the reason we have a hard time recalling good horror films is because serious filmmakers have shied away from them. You can list any number of worthwhile westerns because it was fashionable at the time for a name director to do a Western. Directors who know what they’re doing have shied away from horror films.
CFQ: Do you people have any future project in the works?
STREINER: At New American we have a film we’re treating as a direct sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD called, surprisingly, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.
CFQ: You don’t have any fears about doing a sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?
STREINER: No, because the script has really worked out well. I think we’ve managed to retain the good parts and strip away the bad. It’ll stand on its own two feet as a film. I’m very pleased how the script has gone. We’ve had a lot of battles about the script and some of the details.
RUSSO: Those were healthy battles in working out the concept. Rudy Ricci and I worked on the story, and Rudy wrote the screenplay. I’m also very happy with it. It’s unique and a whole different aspect of what happens when the dead come back to life. It’s in no way an imitation of the first film, and that was the major problem in writing a sequel.
CFQ: Is there anything any of you would like to say about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that we have not covered, or are there any misunderstandings you’d like to clear up that may have resulted from interviews with other principals?
RUSSO: There has been one basic misunderstanding that’s cropped up in all the interviews – that, actually, we had nothing to do with this picture!
STREINER: There has been a sort of running feud between people who are still with Latent Image and the people who have left and Hardman Associates. I don’t even know how it got started. As far as the success of the picture is concerned, we all have a deeply vested interest in it. I certainly don’t dislike, or hate anybody at Latent Image.
HARDMAN: Well, I think you feel put upon because of the obvious attempt to cop the glory on a single-handed basis for the production of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
STREINER: Well, yes.
HARDMAN: You know, that’s a bit gross, a bit much, I think. I don’t know the reason for it.
RUSSO: That’s the tone of the NEWSWEEK article.
HARDMAN: Yes. I happen to think that’s very unfair, when there were so many people involved, and I’m not just talking about myself.
RUSSO: There were so many people involved in ways that were crucial, and they don’t even come out in the credit. I can think of one point when we were first getting organized, Karl was being considered for director. George then wanted to put his name under consideration. Do you remember, Karl?
HARDMAN: Yes I do. I hadn’t until this minute.
CFQ: All of you are then strongly against the “one man movie” concept, especially dealing with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, because it’s quite obvious now that it wasn’t that kind of production.
RUSSO: I think filmmaking in general is a process that is very seldom dominated by one person. I think there’s a certain mythology that’s grown up around directors. I don’t believe a director is ever quite so influential in what comes out as the finished product as the mass media, or directors, would like people to believe.
Somebody once said that once you achieve a certain level of talent, after that, making films becomes a matter of luck. If you happen to be a director, then you’re the one who gets to deal with all the elements and all the supporting people. The same goes for producing. And, if the final product is successful, everybody says, “Oh! What a genius!”
CFQ: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was directed by one man.
RUSSO: George Romero directed the picture and did a damn good job of it.
STREINER: I think you make a bad mistake if you try to direct a film by committee. A producer, or financial people, can only influence production to a point. Then the person who has been delegated as director, and this is true of any film – I don’t care what it is – must focus everything through his viewpoint. Otherwise, you have a hodgepodge.
RUSSO: There are certain films, too, that don’t require an extraordinary directorial viewpoint. The director doesn’t create the film, because the script pretty much speaks for itself. Now there aren’t too many ways Duane Jones or Karl could have played their roles. Sometimes things are set in motion, and within certain parameters, they come out about the way anyone would have predicted. Then there are other films that are created from the beginning to end during the production. These films require creative talent, and maybe even genius. But I don’t believe NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of those films.
CFQ: Well, there’s only one other thing I still don’t understand. It’s that clothes pole that kept following you down the stairs, Karl. It amazed me that all those people in the farmhouse, their lives in horrifying danger, would take time out to hang their coats! FOOTNOTES (from the original article):
Marilyn Eastman, who played Helen in the film, is a vice-president and creative director at Hardman Associates.
Unnamed members of Image Ten include Gary Streinger, a brother of the producer, who worked sound on the film; Vince Survinski, the production manager at The Latent Image; and attorney Dave Clipper, who set up the corporation with investments, all small, from a atotal of thirty-three individuals.
Actually, casting for the role of Ben had been narrowed down to Duane Jones and Rudy Ricci, a cousin of George Romero. A videotape test of each was made, and everyone, including Ricci, voted for Jones.
The suit Image Ten filed against Walter Reade will go to trial sometime during the first six months of 1975. A judge has been appointed. A long battle ensued over jurisdiction in the case when Image Ten insisted that it be tried in Pennsylvanis. Reade insisted it be tried in New York. The dispute went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who ruled that jurisdiction for the case belongs in Pennsylvania. The case will be tried in Common Pleas Court in Allegheny County
EDITOR’S FOOTNOTE (2012):
In a personal appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, in October of 2001, George Romero revealed the results of the lawsuit mentioned in this article: Image Ten won but to little avail. Romero recalled: “We were awarded $3-million. But just in the nick of time, Walter Reade declared bankruptcy—not only to escape us; apparently, they had taken profits from a number of films. We wound up literally with three typewriters from the Reade office.” Although Image Ten reclaimed rights to the film, those rights were compromised by an unfortunate side-effect of re-titling: when the switch was made from THE FLESH EATERS to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the Walter Reade Organization neglected to replicate the copyright notice from the original title card. Hence, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been in the public domain since its initial release.
Just in time for the pre-Halloween gift-giving crush comes this breezily entertaining yet critically informative tome on the evolution, production, and aftermath of 1968’s seminal horror film, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Joe Kane, a.k.a. The Phantom of the Movies, has been covering the exploitation and B-movie scene for thirty-plus years. As editor of the tabloid The Monster Times from 1972 to its premature demise in 1976, he oversaw coverage of a slew of genre flicks, as well as running a 1974 presidential campaign for the King of the Monsters himself, Godzilla (who better to replace the reptilian Richard M. Nixon, even if it wasn’t an election year?). Since 1984, he’s been writing as The Phantom of the Movies, a hip, streetwise counterpart to trailer parkdom’s drive-in guru, Joe Bob Briggs. Whether covering the demise of NYC’s Forty-second Street grind houses for the New York Daily News or the inexorable rise of the home video marketplace for The Washington Post — in addition to editing and publishing his own quarterly film magazine, VideoScope — Kane’s credentials for the task are indisputable, while his passion for the subject is undeniable.
In his foreword, writer/director Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SCREAM) credits NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as having “liberated me to make LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, because I knew that after [NOTLD] there was a whole new kind of film blossoming in American cinema.” As Kane points out, film zombies were still mired in the voodoo traditions of 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE before NOTLD, although 1943 became a banner year with the release of REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE MAD GHOUL. It wasn’t until 1964’s gritty, Italian-lensed THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and Hammer Studios’ period-piece THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES that we see the true cinematic forefathers of director George A. Romero’s re-animated flesh-eaters.
Through interviews with the primary participants (some posthumously culled from previously printed sources), Kane recalls the struggles of Pittsburgh, PA-based The Latent Image, Inc., a commercial/industrial film production house, to come up with a viable concept for a feature film they could shoot on a shoestring budget — actually, more like a penny-candy budget! After rejecting a science-fiction comedy about “‘hot-rodding’ aliens” and their BLOB-like pet coming to Earth for some highjinks, Latent Image partner John A. Russo concocted an outline that combined elements of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and, oddly enough, 1953’s LITTLE FUGITIVE. After discussing the idea of “ghoulish people or alien creatures … feeding off human corpses,” Romero, another partner at Latent Image, came up with forty pages of story that was basically the first half of what would become NOTLD’s plot. Once the story was in place (Russo would complete the screenplay), the major hurdle of actually making their first full-length feature loomed large. Casting friends as well as professionals, a significant shift in the film’s ultimate tone and focus occurred once African-American actor Duane Jones was cast as lead character Ben, a role originally written as a redneck trucker.
While the making-of section contains much that’s been previously revealed through various print and video sources over the four decades since NOTLD’s release, it’s the aftermath of production where the story gets truly complex. Changing the title from “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” distributor Continental Releasing (a division of the esteemed Walter Reade Organization) cost the original investors their copyright of the film. Then, Continental reneged on royalty payments, and lawsuits ensued until Walter Reade Organization finally went bankrupt. Once the film’s copyright was restored to the producers, however, they had no money to pursue legal action against the many infringers.
Meanwhile, the original cast and crew drifted apart, with Romero rising to the top of the notoriety pool. Kane chronicles his post-NOTLD career with efforts such as THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA and JACK’S WIFE (both 1972), then his return to the horror genre with THE CRAZIES (1973) and the modern vampire tale MARTIN (1977). He eventually returned to the world of flesh-feasters with 1979’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, in addition to such varied genre-related projects as KNIGHTRIDERS (1981), CREEPSHOW (1982), MONKEY SHINES (1988), TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE (both the 1984-88 television series and the 1990 film), TWO EVIL EYES (1991), THE DARK HALF (1993), and BRUISER (2000). After twenty years, Romero revisited his ghoul-friends with his first studio-bankrolled zombie epic, 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD, which served as a finale to his original DEAD cycle. Two years later, he returned to his low-budget roots with DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007), which rebooted the zombie plague and spawned the first-ever direct Romero/zombies sequel, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010). Kane also briefly spans the period in Romero’s career where he became a victim of numerous unrealized projects, such as an adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s novel UNHOLY FIRE, and remakes of both THE INNOCENTS and THE MUMMY (which Universal eventually assigned to Stephen Sommers), as well as the first film version of the NOTLD-inspired videogame RESIDENT EVIL. (After shooting a wildly acclaimed 30-second, live-action spot for the game RESIDENT EVIL 2, shown only in Japan, Romero was tasked to adapt the game to a feature, but the producers were unhappy with his script and the project went to EVENT HORIZON director Paul W.S. Anderson.)
Kane examines the various LIVING DEAD spin-offs, beginning with 1985’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Romero and Russo struck a deal, whereupon Russo could use the LIVING DEAD title as long as any projects weren’t promoted as direct sequels to the original NOTLD. However, Russo’s script for RETURN was exactly that, and it was a project he hoped to direct himself. After languishing for several years, Russo turned the screenplay into a novel, then sold the project to producer Tom Fox, and it wound up at Orion Pictures. ALIEN scripter Dan O’Bannon (DARK STAR) drastically rewrote the film into a dark, twisted comedy, and ended up replacing TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE auteur Tobe Hooper as director. The film’s punk rock-influenced cast and soundtrack gave it a lively twist, but its release at the same time as Romero’s own DAY OF THE DEAD overshadowed that project. RETURN was constantly being misidentified as Romero’s work during its initial release! RETURN spawned a bevy of sequels, of which only 1993’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (directed by BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR’s Brian Yuzna), is worth a viewing. Russo and the other Latent Image partners were joined by Romero for the ill-advised 1990 remake of NOTLD, scripted by Romero and directed by DAWN and DAY’s make-up effects maestro, Tom Savini. Although a larger budget and a genre-savvy cast made for some solid production values, it was ultimately a letdown for both fans and the investors. Changes made to the plot seemed perfunctory at best, such as Barbara’s (Patricia Tallman) transformation into a Sigourney Weaveresque tough chick. It smacked of exactly what it was: an effort by the original investors to finally turn a buck. Even more desperate (and despicable) was the so-called NOTLD: THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY EDITION, released direct to home video by Anchor Bay Entertainment. “Inspired” by George Lucas’ successful twentieth anniversary re-releases of the original STAR WARS trilogy with enhanced special effects and added scenes as “Special Editions,” Russo, Karl Hardman (“Harry Cooper”), Bill Hinzman (“Cemetery Zombie”), and Russ Streiner lensed new sequences, re-edited the film, and added a new synth-rock score that was already a decade outdated. Romero, at the time hip deep in RESIDENT EVIL scripting, wisely avoided the project. It was instantly decried by fans and critics alike.
Throughout the volume, Kane scatters recollections on NOTLD by such genre luminaries as Peter Jackson (DEAD ALIVE), Danny Boyle (28 DAYS LATER), Lloyd Kaufman (THE TOXIC AVENGER), William Lustig (MANIAC), Allan Arkush (ROCK’N’ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), and Frank Hennenlotter (BASKET CASE). Also examined are spoofs such as NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1988) and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), as well as the Romero-less remakes/sequels DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004), DAWN OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM (2005), DAY OF THE DEAD (2008), and the non-sanctioned NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D (2007). The upcoming NOTLD: ORIGINS (2011) sounds utterly yawn-inspiring.
Illustrated only with b/w photos, the book includes Russo’s complete NOTLD screenplay (with red-necked dialogue for the “Truckdriver” character that became Duane Jones’ more refined “Ben”). Kane’s writing style is conversational, so you never feel lectured at while he tells the tortured tales of the film’s four-decade odyssey. My own experience with it began with a 1980 screening of DAWN OF THE DEAD at Cambridge, MA’s Orson Welles Cinema, where beer-fueled Harvard frat boys chowed down on ketchup-drenched KFC during all the zombie-feasting sequences, then tossed the denuded chicken bones at the screen! Fortunately, a Harvard Square Cinema showing of NOTLD soon followed, making me a member of the DEAD-head ranks forever after. It’s an interesting, generational divide, as Jackson and Boyle both point out their own zombie epics were more influenced by DAWN than NOTLD. DAWN was the over-the-top, kick-in-the-nuts that then drove you to seek out the more subtle, sucker-punch-to-the-gut that was NOTLD. Twenty years from now, it would be interesting to see what the filmmakers whose first exposure to the living dead is 2004’s DAWN remake or Romero’s DIARY will be inspired to unleash upon us.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE MOST TERRIFYING ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER, by Joe Kane, foreword by Wes Craven. Citadel Press, New York, NY. August 31, 2010. 316 pp. $16.95.
Also this week: TIME BANDITS on Blu-ray, DORIAN GRAY, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED, Midnight Horror Collections
Tuesday, August 24 is a big day for horror, fantasy, and science fiction on home video, with numerous titles ranging from cult films to classics, from traditional horror to cannibalistic zombie mayhem, from television to theatres to direct-to-video. Of course, the titles likely to make it onto most viewers’ lists of “what to have if lost on a desert island” are LOST: THE COMPLETE SIXTH AND FINAL SEASON and LOST: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, both of which are available on DVD and Blu-ray.
With the LOST television series now only a fond memory, ABC has assembled all sixteen episodes of Season Six into nice five-disc set, available in either DVD or Blu-ray, that offers lovely widescreen transfers, 5.1 stereo sound, and some informative bonus features:
A new 12-minute LOST chapter called “New Man In Charge,” which offers a look at what Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and Ben (Michael Emerson) do as the new Island overseers
The End: Crafting A Final Season – Join the LOST team along with other producers of some of television’s longest running shows as they examine the challenges of ending a landmark series
A Hero’s Journey – What makes a hero? Which survivors of Oceanic 815 are true heroes? These questions and more are explored
See You In Another Life, Brotha – Unlock the mysteries of this season’s intriguing flash sideways
Lost University: The Masters Program is a Blu-ray exclusive, BD Live-enabled feature that requires a broadband connection to your Blu-ray player.
LOST: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION is a massive set (36-disc Blu-ray discs or 38-DVDs) that contains over 84 hours of material (5,074 minutes to be exact), including “New Man In Charge.” Other bonus features on the COMPLETE COLLECTION:
One full disc of never-before-seen content
Special edition collectible Senet game as seen in Season 6
Custom LOST island replica
Exclusive episode guide
Plus all episodes and 30+ hours of bonus from Seasons 1-6
As if that were not enough to keep rapacious fans of cinefantastique satsified, this week also sees the Blu-ray debut of TIME BANDITS, the wonderfully comic time-travel fantasy from director Terry Gilliam. Despite the Monty Pythonish humor, TIME BANDITS works as an elaborate fantasy film, filled with memorable images that deserve to be experienced with the clarity that Blu-ray can bring to the home video experience. American fans of the classic approach to the horror genre may be interested in DORIAN GRAY, a 2009 adaptation of of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Starring Ben Barnes as Dorian, with Colin Firth as Lord Henry, the British film was released to theatres in its native land but never scored a stateside theatrical release. Writing for Cinefantastique Online, our own Deborah Louis Robinson called DORIAN GRAY a “well-directed” effort in the style of “old Hammer Horror films.” The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. George A. Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD arrives on home video after a VOD debut and limited theatrical distribution earlier this year. The film is not up to par by the standards of Romero’s previous work (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD, LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD), but fans may be interested in checking out the few new wrinkles he adds to his familiar cannibal zombies. The film is available in three forms: single-disc DVD, a two-disc “Ultimate Undead Edition” DVD, and Blu-ray.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the weird artsy animation experiment NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED also arrives on DVD this week. For this film, various animators were asked to recreate scenes from Romero’s 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, each in a different style. Worth checking out for curiosity if nothing else.
As for the rest:
Echo Bridge releases three themed sets: THE MIDNIGHT HORROR COLLECTION: BLOOD PREDATORS, THE MIDNIGHT HORROR COLLECTION: FLESHING EATING ZOMBIES, and THE MIDNIGHT HORROR COLLECTION: ROAD TRIP TO HELL.
Plus a handful of direct-to-video titles: HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (with Joe Mantegna), METAMORPHOSIS (with Christopher Lambert), THE HAUNTING OF SORORITY ROW, DEVIL’S DIARY, NINJA VS. ZOMBIES, and DIENER (GET IT?).
Tuesday, July 27 sees 20-something horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles released on DVD, Blu-ray, and/or Video on Demand, including two high-profile (if not necessarily high-quality) theatrical films and some classic/cult movies repackaged with collectible t-shirts (gotta find some excuse to keep re-issuing those public domain titles!). The 800,000 ton kraken this week is Warner Brothers’ release of CLASH OF THE TITANS, starring Sam Worthington. Fans have their choice of the VOD rental/purchase, a DVD, and a combo pack containing Blu-ray, DVD and a digital copy. Although not a critical favorite (in part because of an unsatisfactory 3-D face lift added in post-production), this remake is actually an improvement over the 1981 Ray Harryhausen original, with a good central idea, decent characterizations and performances, and updated special effects. Like the later JONAH HEX, CLASH OF THE TITANS went through extensive editorial revisions, including the shooting of additional footage. (In the original scenario, Zeus remains a villain throughout, and the lesser gods help Perseus to thwart his plans; the theatrical version gives Zeus a change of heart after he realizes he is being played by Hades.) The DVD bonus features include deleted scenes, which should give some idea of what was originally intended. The Blu-ray also includes the additional scenes, plus an alternate ending, in which Perseus confronts Zeus on Mount Olympus. Other Blu-ray bonus features:
Sam Worthington: An Action Hero for the Ages: a featurette on the star
Harnessing the Gods: Maximum Movie Mode: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and director Louis Leterrier offer scene breakdowns, VFX breakdowns, vignettes, and a look at locations, stunt work, and the Kraken, the Scorpiochs, Medusa.
Also arriving on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD this week is REPO MAN, the rather dismal tale of futuristic collectors who retrieve artificial organs from recipients who cannot keep up with their payments. Bonus features on the DVD and Blu-ray disc include:
DELETED SCENES with optional commentary with Director Miguel Sapochnik and Writers Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner.
UNION COMMERCIALS: See the unique Union commercials used in the film in their entirety.
INSIDE THE VISUAL EFFECTS: Get an “insider’s” look at the unique visual effects used in the film.
FEATURE COMMENTARY: Director Miguel Sapochnik and writers Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner offer their insights into the film.
Bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray disc include:
BD-LIVE™: Access the BD-Live™ Center through your Internet-connected player to get even more content, watch the latest trailers and more!
MY SCENES: Bookmark your favorite scenes from the movie.
Pocket BLU™: USHE’s groundbreaking pocket BLU app uses iPhone™, iPod® touch, iPad™ BlackBerry®, Android™, PC, Mac and other devices to work seamlessly with a network-connected Blu-ray(TM) player and offers advanced features such as:
Advanced Remote Control: A sleek, elegant new way to operate your Blu-ray™ player. Users can navigate through menus, playback and BD-Live™ functions with ease.
Video Timeline: Users can easily bring up the video timeline, allowing them to instantly access any point in the movie.
Mobile-To-Go: Users can unlock a selection of bonus content to enjoy on the go, anytime, anywhere.
Browse Titles: Users will have access to a complete list of pocket BLU™-enabled titles available and coming to Blu-ray™ Hi-Def. They can view free previews and see what additional content is available to unlock on their device.
Keyboard: Enter data into a Blu-ray player with your device’s easy and intuitive keyboard.
Social BLU™: Connect with friends on your favorite social networks to share information about your favorite movies, enjoy Blu-ray™ community features and more!
U-Control™: Universal’s exclusive feature that lets the viewer access bonus materials without leaving the movie!
The animated BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD arrives in almost more iterations than you can count: VOD for rent and purchase, single-disc DVD, double-disc special edition DVD, and Blu-ray disc; the double-disc DVD and Blu-ray are also available (exclusive from Amazon.com) with a limited edition litho cel.
Fans of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD may be interested in the new DVD of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED. This is a sort of artsy experiment, in which different animators were invited to recreate sequences of the 1968 horror film.
Kaiju fans may want to check out DEATH KAPPA, a new Japanese monster movie from th creators of TOKYO GORE POLICE. The story takes the Kappa (legendary Yokai monsters from Japanese folklore) and adds an atomic twist to create a modern monstrosity in the Godzilla mold. The film is available in DVD and Blu-ray from Tokyo Shock Cinema.
If you’re into Italian imports from the gory, glory days of the 1970s, you may want to pull out your vomit bag in preparation for BEYOND THE DARKNESS: BUIO OMEGA. This 1979 Italian voodoo thriller from Joe D’Amato, known as BURIED ALIVE in the U.S., features a score by Goblin. Synergy Entertainment offers up three old titles on DVD, packaged with collectible t-shirts, featuring reproductions of the original poster art: METROPOLIS, ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, and ATOMIC BRAIN. Each shirt is available in large and extra-large. By the way, the version of METROPOLIS is one of the old, previously available cuts of the film, not the newly restored one currently circulating in art house theatres.
The week’s other releases include:
STARGATE UNIVERSE SG-U 1.5 on DVD
A new Blu-ray disc of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
PUPPET MASTER AXIS OF EVIL on DVD and Blu-ray
CRACK IN THE WORLD, starring Dana Andrews, the DVD
SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH: THE COMPLETE SERIES on DVD
You have to give the RiffTrax crew credit for nerve if nothing else. Back when they were aboard the Satellite of Love, as part of the cult television cable hit MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett targeted the worst of the worst cinematic slime, the oozing putrescence from the lowest depths of the cinematic vault. Here, they take the old, patented formula (cracking wise on the soundtrack while the film unspools) and apply it to a classic horror film, George A. Romero’s brilliant 1968 debut, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s a risky gambit, one that risks alienating fans. The result could have been either an epic failure or a monumental, surprise hit; instead, it falls somewhere in between.
For those of you out of the loop, RiffTrax is an Internet venture, not a television show, and it consists only of audio commentary, with no host segments showing the gang doing skits based on the film. The RiffTrax website sells these down-loadable audio tracks that you can synch up with your DVDs. This allows RiffTrax to take on movies without securing the broadcast or DVD rights, so they have extended their reach quite a bit beyond what they could do as MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 (or the interim project, THE FILM CREW). Instead of going after only the worst movies ever made, they also take on more high-profile films, including the occasional classic.
The problem with this approach is just MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 was at its best when targeting films that were absolutely ridiculous or insufferably pompous. Movies that were simply bland or dull didn’t yield particularly funny results, and really good movies (e.g., Mario Bava’s DANGER: DIABOLIK) could be rendered unwatchable when subjected to the MST3K treatment.
Fortunately, the RiffTrax take on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, now available on DVD, is not the disaster one might have feared. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett never convince you that Romero’s little black-and-white opus deserves their sarcastic treatment, but they do milk more than a few laughs out of the action.
As effective as it is, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD does have its share of lapses that provide some fodder for the RiffTrax commentary, such jump cuts, continuity problems, and the classic moment when Ben (Duane Jones) claims he has the farm house pretty well boarded up – while a completely open and unguarded window is clearly visible over his shoulder.
The thing is: long-time fans have already heard the cast and crew of the film itself point out this kind of flub on the Millennium Edition DVD audio commentaries. So, if you have already heard actor Karl Hardman say there was “nowhere to go with” with his performance as Mr. Cooper because it started tense and stayed that way, hearing the RiffTrax gang make the same point sounds a bit like beating a dead horse.
At times, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett seem to be struggling against the classic status of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which remains effective despite its flaws. Consequently, the commentary track ends up resorting to tangential remarks (instead of riffing about what’s on screen, the crew imagine other things happening off screen or behind the scenes).
All reservations aside, the RiffTrax crew do come through with some zingers. Even if you are vaguely offended by their choice of target, you will have to laugh when they note that the television news reporters seem to have been cloned from the same source or accuse one spastic ghoul of doing a Joe Cocker impersonation.
The DVD offers the option of viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with or without the RiffTrax commentary, so if you don’t already own the film on disc, here’s your chance to have it at a discount price, even if you don’t want the added jokes. Unfortunately, the video quality is not as good as it should be. The image looks compressed, like a low-res video Internet file or a Video Compact Disc; at times, the motion even looks slightly stroboscopic. There are no bonus features.
The RiffTrax NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD DVD is one of a set of ten RiffTrax titles being released on Tuesday, June 16, marking the first time that RiffTrax has been made available for home video. Other titles include CARNIVAL OF SOULS, PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, MISSILE TO THE MOON, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.