From the Archives: How the classic zombie movie Night of the Living Dead refuses to die
In Oct. 2010, just days before the Halloween debut of AMC’s The Walking Dead, then-showrunner Frank Darabont talked to EW about the first time he saw — and the enduring influence of — Night of the Living Dead from filmmaker George A. Romero, who died Sunday at age 77. Romero and his co-producer Russ Streiner and co-writer John Russo also reflect on making the movie and the problems they encountered, and Romero admits from which book he “ripped the idea” for his “flesh eaters,” as they were originally called.
There are people who believe zombies should only walk. And there are people who believe they can run around like steroid-injecting track stars. Then, there’s Frank Darabont, executive producer of the new AMC zombie show The Walking Dead, who believes both aforementioned groups are full of hooey. “Well, it depends on the zombie’s mood,” says the Shawshank Redemption director. “If they’ve recently fed, they’re a little less interested, a little more shutdown. Other times, they’re riled to a predatory state and can get a little faster.” So, they’re mostly walking — but sometimes they jog in the manner of an arthritic grandmother? “Yes, exactly,” laughs the filmmaker, who also directed the Walking Dead pilot, which debuts, appropriately, on Halloween. “This all goes back, by the way, to the original Night of the Living Dead. The Internet adherence to zombies never running clearly ignores the first 10 minutes of that movie. Because the first zombie you see is pretty spry. He’s obviously rather hungry and worked up.”
Darabont was in junior high when he first saw George A. Romero’s 1968 tale of bloodthirsty, reanimated corpses and the bickering band of still-breathing humans they besiege — a low budget black-and-white gore fest that invented the modern-day zombie horror genre. “I remember it vividly,” says Darabont. “It was 1974, and it came to one of the revival houses in L.A. My friends and I were very affected by it.” Darabont’s fellow Walking Dead executive producer Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Abyss) says that she first saw Night of the Living Dead “through my fingers. I’m pretty sure I had to leave the room quite a few times. I’m one of those people who is highly suggestible. I do tend to believe, after I’ve seen something, that zombies are about to exist and somehow they’re going to come find me first. I’ve had therapy for this. [Laughs] But I’ve seen it a number of times and it really holds up.”
Darabont was determined to stick closely to the Night of the Living Dead template when adapting Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic book, which is itself very faithful to Romero’s zombie mythology. “Frank has really used the original Night of the Living Dead as the holy grail of reference in terms of zombie performances,” says Walking Dead make-up effects supervisor Greg Nicotero, who knows of what he speaks, having previously worked on a number of Romero’s zombie sequels, including 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead. “That’s amazing,” chuckles Romero himself, when informed of Darabont’s homage-ing of his work. “It’s very nice of Frank to think that away. But it’s still hard for me to realize how influential that film was.”
While Darabont may be a notably fervent disciple of Romero’s movie, he is far from the only person to have recently found inspiration in the film’s apocalyptic vision. Over the past decade, the zombie genre has become one of Hollywood’s surest things. Danny Boyle’s 2002’s 28 Days Later, Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead, that same year’s Shaun of the Dead, and 2009’s Zombieland all reaped healthy profits at the box office, and the four Resident Evil movies have grossed more than half a billion dollars around the world.
Zombies haven’t just triumphed at the box office. The Resident Evil video games franchise has moved 40 million units since its 1998 debut, while the undead-featuring likes of Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising have also scored with gamers. Those seeking sanctuary from the zombie cultural onslaught should not make the mistake of visiting their local book store for fear of encountering such undead tomes as Max Brooks’ World War Z and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — bestsellers both — and Bob Fingerman’s recent Pariah, in which peckish ghouls menace the residents of a Manhattan apartment block. “The DNA of Night of the Living Dead is in all modern horror,” says Fingerman. “I don’t think it’s importance can be overstated.” The Walking Dead isn’t even the first zombie TV show. That title must go to the 2008 British limited series Dead Set, which IFC has been airing stateside this week.
Remarkably, more than four decades after the release of Night of the Living Dead, the film’s influence, and the popularity of the genre it spawned, seems to be increasing. “To be a fan of zombie films was a really sub-cult thing for many decades,” says Darabont. “In the last five years, it’s become massively mainstream.” Kirkman, who in addition to creating the Walking Dead comic is also a writer on the show, believes the rise of the zombie phenomenon is tied to our tumultuous and troubled recent history. “It’s always when there’s a lot of bad things going on in society that horror is at its most popular,” he says. “Things aren’t so great out there right now, unfortunately. I think that’s a little bit of it. And zombies are pretty damn cool.”
The mainstreaming of the undead is a bitter-sweet development for the team who made the original film — a group that in addition to Romero, includes Night of the Living Dead co-producer Russ Streiner, and the film’s co-screenwriter John Russo. If cultural influence was legal tender, the Night of the Living Dead team would have made a fortune from their film. But it isn’t, and 42 years after the release of the movie, its creators are still battling to overcome a series of tragi-comic mishaps that has resulted in them losing a vast amount of cash. “It’s not that we didn’t get any money,” says co-producer Streiner. “But the lion’s share of it all went to other people. George Romero, me, John Russo — we are all fairly optimistic people. If we had allowed our stomach acid over our episodes with Night of the Living Dead to churn too strongly, we would all be in mental institutions at this point.”
Back in the mid-’60s, when young Pittsburgh-based commercial-makers Streiner and Romero decided to produce a horror film as their big screen debut, they had no thought of influencing subsequent generations of auteurs. They just thought it would be the easiest way to produce a movie that would actually turn a profit. “George and I happened to be watching some particularly poorly-made horror films on the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh,” says Streiner. “And we said, ‘Look, some TV station paid money for that thing. If we can’t do something that’s at least equal to that, we’d better hang it up and stick to making TV commercials!’”
Night of The Living Dead was produced by the freshly minted company Image Ten — a small group of investors, made up of Romero, Streiner, Russo, and seven acquaintances who each kicked in $600 as seed money. Most Image Ten members would work in a variety of roles on the film, which started shooting in June 1967, and sporadically continued for the next nine months. As well as co-producing the film, Streiner played the role of Johnny, the film’s first victim, who returns in zombie form at the movie’s end to hungrily drag away his own sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea) from the isolated farmhouse where most of the film is set. Streiner also got to utter the movie’s most famous line: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Co-screenwriter Russo risked a lot more than $600 by volunteering to play a number of the film’s undead. “I’m the zombie that gets the tire iron in the head, and I also did a stunt where I got set on fire with a Molotov cocktail,” Russo once recalled to this writer. “It was about four in the morning and we were going to shoot that scene the next day, and I said to George, ‘We’re going to throw all these Molotov cocktails and it’s totally unbelievable that none of them would catch on fire.’ We had no asbestos suits, no stuntman. George says, ‘Who the hell would do that?’ I said, ‘Well, s—, I’ll do it.’” Image Ten investor Vince Survinski also worked as the film’s production designer. His responsibilities included making sure that the animal intestines which doubled as human guts looked realistic. According to Russo, “We all slept at the farmhouse, because we couldn’t afford to have security out there watching the equipment. So I get up one morning and I walk out on to the porch and Vince is filling these sheep intestines with water. He said he wanted to make sure they looked squirmy enough.”
The role of the film’s first revived corpse — the so-called “Cemetery Zombie,” whose stiff-legged jog would dictate the ambulatory speed of the ghouls in Darabont’s Walking Dead — was played by a photographer and acquaintance of the Image Ten team named Bill Hinzman. “Whenever a zombie was needed, I did the part because I had an old suit, and I was tall and skinny,” Hinzman once said. “That opening scene was the last thing that we shot. George said, ‘You look so great as a zombie, why don’t you do the graveyard zombie?’ So I did.”
The decision that Hinzman’s zombie should be “spry” was partly a pragmatic one. The opening scene of the movie required Hinzman to murder Streiner’s character, Johnny. The problem? The rest of the movie, which had already been shot, made clear that zombies had little in the way physical strength. Romero considered the problem for a while and then sliced a directorial sword through this particular Gordian knot. “Oh f— it,” he told Hinzman. “Just kill him.” In the finished film, Hinzman’s zombie is seen tussling with Streiner and then slamming his head into a gravestone before lolloping after O’Dea’s fleeing Barbra. “I hadn’t developed any rules,” admits Romero. “I really thought it was a one-off. I wasn’t thinking in terms of going on with this. Starting with the second film [1978’s Dawn of the Dead] I said, ‘Well, I have to lay down some rules, because I might wind up having to make more of these. Which I have…”
With the film finished, Image Ten struck a fifty-fifty distribution deal with the New York-based Walter Reade Organization. Romero’s movie had originally been called Night of the Flesh Eaters, but Image Ten were warned off by the producers of a 1964 movie called The Flesh Eaters. It was the Walter Reade Organization who suggested the name Night of the Living Dead, and the movie premiered under that moniker at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh on Oct. 1, 1968, before opening at around 20 local cinemas and drive-ins owned by the Associated Theaters chain. Russ Streiner recalls that the film was an immediate hit. “George Stern, one of the two cousins who owned Associated Theaters, called me right after the first night it was open, on Oct. 2,” says the co-producer. “He said, ‘My boy, you’re going to make a million bucks with this picture!’ He and his cousin, Ernie, immediately got on the phone to their exhibition pals in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland, and said, ‘We don’t quite understand this picture, but you’d better book it because we’re doing business with it.’” The film was also a hit in Europe, where it was lauded by both Britain’s Sight and Sound magazine and France’s Cahiers du Cinema, and did further business in 1970 when the Walter Reade Organization booked the movie on a double-bill with the Ossie Davis-starring potboiler Slaves.
Initial critical reaction to the film, however, was mostly negative. The writer for Variety claimed that the film, “casts serious aspersions on the integrity of its makers, distrib Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic, as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for unrelieved sadism.” Roger Ebert penned a lengthy piece for the Chicago Sun-Times, in which he described seeing the film at a Saturday matinee performance with a group of children whose parents had presumably deposited their offspring at the cinema under the impression that Romero’s creation was a kid-friendly sci-fi romp. “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them,” wrote Ebert. “They’d seen horror movies before, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people — you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, nobody got out alive — even the hero got killed.”
Over time, the film would become recognized as a bonafide classic. New York’s Museum of Modern Art screened Romero’s work as early as 1970 and in 1999 the Library of Congress added the movie to its National Film Registry. However, Ebert had a point. Night of the Living Dead is not a kids movie. The film is a pungent, paranoid, and very adult reflection of the troubled, violent Vietnam War era that birthed it. Indeed, Romero has said that he was deliberately trying to create footage that looked “like the news that we were seeing, from Watts, from ‘Nam.” And, as Ebert pointed out, it has an extraordinarily bleak ending. This is not a film where the cavalry arrives at the end to save the day. It is, rather, a film where an all-white posse arrives at the end and shoots in the head the sole surviving main character, a truck driver played by the late African-American actor Duane Jones.
Romero has repeatedly said that he chose Jones simply because he was the best actor they could find for the job, and the Night of the Living Dead script actually makes no mention of his race. But the casting of a black man in the lead role helped make the movie a genuinely groundbreaking effort. Sure, the film’s creators drew on an own array of influences, including the EC horror comics Romero had devoured as a youth, Howards Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing From Another World, and, in particular, Richard Matheson’s 1954 apocalyptic vampire novel I Am Legend. However, Romero’s almost documentary-style detailing of civilization’s demise represented a year-zero for the genre, and his zombies cast a shambling, but extremely long, shadow over ’70s horror. Wes Craven was directly inspired to make 1972’s infamous Last House on the Left after viewing Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s take-no-prisoners approach also had a major impact on Tobe Hooper when he came to direct 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The film remains influential today. “Night of the Living Dead is an amazing film,” says British director Gareth Edwards. “There’s a whole bunch of things that were inspiring about that.” Edwards’ first film Monsters (released this Friday) is road movie/love story-cum-horror movie that, like Romero’s classic, often looks more like a documentary than a feature. “I love the fact that at the end, you spot the one guy you care about most and — bang — he just drops dead,” says Edwards. “Then it carries on like the person who’s filming it doesn’t give a s—. To me, that moment is so clever and impactful.”
In the early ’70s, the film was regularly shown at midnight screenings across the country. Night of the Living Dead became a genuine cultural phenomenon, much to the surprise of the folks responsible for making it. “Frankly we thought it would have a lifetime of perhaps two to three years in the neighborhood theaters and drive-ins and maybe find its way into a television package,” says co-producer Russ Streiner. Instead, Night of the Living Dead developed into a longterm money-spinner — albeit one that, as far as its makers were concerned, was not spinning enough money in their direction. Eventually, the Living Dead team sued the Walter Reade Organization for underpayment, but they were thwarted in their quest for remuneration when the company filed for bankruptcy in 1977. In the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, Streiner and crew agreed to take their name off the creditor list if they were given the rights to their movie. “The New York bankruptcy court granted that,” says Streiner. “We didn’t get one dollar, but we did get the rights to the picture back.”
Alas, by then, Night of the Living Dead had fallen into the public domain, which meant the film’s rights were of extremely limited use and worth. In fact, as far as the U.S. Copyright Office was concerned, the movie had always been in the public domain. This was the fault of the Walter Reade Organization, who neglected to put a copyright notice on the title card of the movie after the name change to Night of the Living Dead. “It was our first film; we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Romero. “When they took that title off and replaced it with Night of the Living Dead, they didn’t put the copyright bug there because it normally shouldn’t be there. It should be at the end of the film.”
The mistake had huge consequences. “Under the old copyright law, if the first public display of your work went to the public without a copyright notice, you lost your copyright forever,” explains Streiner. Heartbreakingly, a very early workprint of the film which did feature the necessary copyright signage was lost when the basement of the building where Romero, Russo, and Streiner had based their commercials company was flooded. “All of the materials, including still photographs, publicity materials, old press kits, posters, plus the trims and outtakes from the actual movie, and the 35mm print were all ruined in that flood and ended up in a dumpster someplace,” says Streiner. The co-producer believes that had the print not been lost, it “would have put the copyright issue to rest once and for all.”
Streiner remains wearily hopeful that this situation will eventually be resolved in their favor. Romero seems to have more of a what-will-be-will-be attitude. “Of course, you have to say, ‘Jeez, what a stupid mistake,’” he sighs. “But that film really gave us our careers. I have no complaints. Yeah, Russ and Jack are still trying to establish some sort of copyright protection on it. But it’s a day late and a dollar short, you know.”
The result of the film’s public domain status is that anyone can do pretty much anything they like with it, from making new versions of the film — such as 2006’s Night of the Living Dead 3D and the forthcoming animated prequel Night of the Living Dead Origins: 3D — to selling unauthorized DVDs. “[The fact that it’s in public domain] means you could take the original film and you could make your own copies of it and sell it out of the trunk of your car,” says Streiner “It’s completely disabled our ability to go after anyone who is selling Night of the Living Dead on a non-authorized basis.” It has been estimated that in the first decade after the film’s release, Night of the Living Dead made around $12 million domestically — a figure equivalent to around $100 million in today’s terms. Streiner declines to put a figure on how much money the film may have grossed in all. “Your guess would be as good as mine,” he says, “and I don’t mean that facetiously.”
There’s no doubting the co-producer and his colleagues have lost a fortune, a fact that seems to have made I Am Legend author Richard Matheson a little happier about Romero paying such liberal homage to his book. “‘Homage’ means ‘I get to steal your work,’” Matheson told EW in 2007. “George Romero’s a nice guy, though. I met him for lunch. The first thing he said to me — putting his arms up as if I was about to strike him — he says, ‘Didn’t make any money from making Night Of The Living Dead!’” Romero laughs at the memory. “I confessed to him that that I basically ripped the idea off from I Am Legend,” says the director. “He forgave me because we didn’t make any money. He said, ‘Well, as long as you didn’t get rich, it’s okay.’”
While Night of the Living Dead may not have made its creators rich, cheap DVD copies of the film, the movie’s free availability on YouTube, and its frequent screenings on the small screen around Halloween continue to enhance the movie’s rep. Streiner admits that the public domain issue is “a double-edged sword.” Romero agrees. “The flip side is that maybe the film would not have gotten the popularity that it got, if it wasn’t for the fact that people could just show it,” he says “In the early days of video, everyone was making copies of Night of the Living Dead and selling them, and I think that helped popularize the film. You can’t do anything about it anyway, so look at the bright side.”
Certainly, Night of the Living Dead is regarded as an inspirational work even by horror directors who weren’t even born when the film was originally released. British filmmaker Marc Price says the story of how Romero and crew made their film encouraged him to start work on his own zombie movie Colin, which became a cause célèbre at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival when it was discovered that he had made his debut for almost literally nothing. “Obviously, it was the birth of the modern zombie,” says Price. “But what really appealed to me with Night of the Living Dead was that ‘We’re going to go and make this movie!’ attitude.” Meanwhile, director and horror young gun Adam Green (Frozen, the Hatchet movies) says Night of the Living Dead is “still to this day one of the most terrifying movies ever made. Any horror fan worth their cred knows and loves that movie.”
That may be so. But there are still some people unfamiliar with the Night of the Living Dead mythology — and in particular, the maximum pace at which the undead should run — as Frank Darabont discovered on the set of The Walking Dead. “We call it ‘zombie speed,’” says the director. “You can run, but it’s got to be at the speed the first zombie ran in Night of the Living Dead ran.” And how, exactly, do you explain that to an army of extras? “It’s an interesting exercise,” admits the director. “God knows how many of them have actually seen that movie. I think most of their understanding comes from more recent films like the Dawn of the Dead remake, where they’re Olympic sprinters. We’re never going to have Olympic sprinter zombies.”