Oh What a ‘Night’: Looking Back at the ‘Living Dead’

"They're coming to bookstores, Barbara!"
"They're coming to bookstores, Barbara!"

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.

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