10 Facts About George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead

Janus Films
Janus Films

More than a half-century ago, a small group of Pittsburgh filmmakers decided to make a scary movie. Working from a shoestring budget with limited crew and a cast partly composed of amateur actors, they headed out to a Pennsylvania farmhouse and began crafting a horror classic.

Today, Night of the Living Dead is universally regarded as the king of zombie flicks, but it didn’t start out that way. What started as a weird idea for a movie about aliens went through rewrites, crucial casting decisions, and a little fire to become the film we know and love today. To celebrate the granddaddy of the modern zombie story's 50th anniversary, here are 10 gruesome facts about Night of the Living Dead.

1. THE ORIGINAL IDEA WAS AN ALIEN COMEDY.

In early 1967, writer/director George A. Romero, writer John A. Russo, and actor Rudy Ricci were working together at the Latent Image, their Pittsburgh-based commercial film company, when they decided it was time to try their hand at making a feature film. Though the effort eventually produced Night of the Living Dead, early concepts were very different. Russo initially thought of making a horror comedy about “hot-rodding” alien teens who would visit Earth, meet up with human teenagers, and generally cause mischief with the help of a cosmic pet called “The Mess.” The group’s budgetary constraints made this concept impossible, so Russo instead dreamed up an idea about a boy who runs away from home, only to discover a field of corpses under glass, which were rotting to the liking of alien creatures who would eventually consume them. Russo presented this idea to Romero, who latched on to the flesh-eating angle.

2. GEORGE ROMERO WAS HEAVILY INSPIRED BY I AM LEGEND.

Night of the Living Dead
Janus Films

Armed with Russo’s flesh-eating concept, Romero went to work, pairing it with a story he’d been working on that “basically ripped off” Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic horror novel I Am Legend. Russo later recalled that Romero returned with “about 40 really excellent pages,” including the opening in the cemetery and the arrival at the farmhouse. Russo set to work on the rest, and Night of the Living Dead began to come to life.

3. DUANE JONES REWROTE HIS OWN DIALOGUE AS BEN.

The character of Ben was originally written as an angry, rough truck driver, with somewhat crude dialogue to reflect that. When actor Duane Jones came aboard the production, he began revising the dialogue. “As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself,” actor/producer Karl Hardman, who played Harry Cooper, later recalled.

4. THE FAKE BLOOD WAS MADE ON A BUDGET.

Night of the Living Dead was made on a budget of less than $150,000, which meant everything from props to sets had to be created on the cheap. Since the film was shot in black and white, the crew never had to worry what color the blood was, so either red ink or chocolate syrup was used, depending on the desired effect in each shot. For the scene in which Karen Cooper (Kyra Schon) begins eating her father’s corpse, the crew’s leftover lunch was employed.

“Earlier in the day, we were eating hamburgers or meatball sandwiches, so they just smeared chocolate syrup all over it and that’s what I was biting into,” Schon said.

5. THE NUDE GHOUL CAUSED A SPECTATOR SCENE ON SET.

Reasoning that least some of the “ghouls” (Romero never referred to the creatures as zombies) would have woken up in the morgue and walked away naked, the crew opted for a single living dead extra to be nude on camera, and enlisted a local artist’s model for the job. When word spread that the production planned a nude scene during one of its night shoots, local residents apparently decided they wanted to have a look.

“The night they filmed the nude ghoul, all of Evans City found out about it. They had their lawn chairs set up around the edges of the property,” Judith Ridley, who played Judy, said. “It was funny to see the rest of the zombies trying to keep their eyes elsewhere instead of looking down at the obvious places on the nude one.”

6. THREE DIFFERENT CREW MEMBERS SET THEMSELVES ON FIRE DURING FILMING.

To add to the realism of the zombie attack scenes, both Russo and actor Bill Hinzman—who played the iconic “Cemetery Ghoul” in the opening sequence—volunteered to be set on fire. Russo was lit on fire during the scene when the survivors are throwing makeshift Molotov cocktails at the undead, while Hinzman poured lighter fluid on his suit so he could be lit during the scene in which Ben wards off the ghouls with a torch. In both cases, everything went according to plan, but one fire was started by accident.

For the scene in which Ben sets a chair on fire to distract the ghouls, crew member Gary Streiner volunteered to coat the prop with gasoline. Everything went fine for the first take, but when it came time to give it a second try, Streiner ran into trouble when he tried to add more gasoline.

“I just went over and started to pour the gas on and the liquid found a hot ember somewhere and a flame just came up into this container I’m holding in my hand,” he said. “I jumped back and all of a sudden I’m on fire!”

Hinzman came to the rescue and extinguished the flame before Streiner was seriously hurt.

7. BOTH ROMERO AND RUSSO MADE CAMEOS.

Night of the Living Dead’s co-creators make cameo appearances in the film. Russo played one of the ghouls who managed to reach into the farmhouse only to be struck with a tire iron, while Romero can be seen in the Washington D.C. sequences as a reporter.

8. JONES FOUGHT AGAINST AN ALTERNATE ENDING THAT WOULD HAVE SAVED BEN.


Janus Films

One of the film’s most famous elements is its grim ending, in which Ben, having survived the night, is shot by the sheriff’s zombie-hunting posse and thrown on the fire. At one point, a happier ending for the film was considered, but Jones fought it and won.

“I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way,” Jones said. “The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that, and the double jolt of the hero being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”

9. IT’S IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN BECAUSE OF A CREDITS ERROR.

Night of the Living Dead might be the most famous public domain movie of all time, but it was never intended to be. The Walter Reade Organization, which distributed the film, wanted to release it under the title Night of the Flesh Eaters, but lawyers representing the makers of 1964’s The Flesh Eaters threatened a lawsuit, so the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead. When the title changed, though, copyright notices were not added to the opening titles or to the end credits. Though the filmmakers have fought it in federal court, the film is still in the public domain.

10. ITS CREATORS SANCTIONED BOTH A REMAKE AND A REVISION OF THE ORIGINAL, BUT NEITHER WAS WELL RECEIVED.

In 1990, Russo, Romero, and other collaborators from the original film re-teamed to remake Night of the Living Dead, with the hope that the project would help shore up their original copyright claims. Russo produced, Romero revised the original script, and makeup effects wizard Tom Savini (who would have worked on the original film had he not been serving in Vietnam at the time) was brought in to direct. The film features a strong cast (including Tony Todd as Ben) and more sophisticated makeup effects, but failed to reach the classic status of its predecessor.

Then, in 1998, Russo, Hinzman, Hardman, and actor/producer Russ Streiner (who played Johnny) decided to revisit the film for its 30th anniversary. Inspired by the Star Wars Special Editions, Russo wrote and filmed new scenes for the project, including an origin story for the Cemetery Ghoul. The effort was not well received. As for Romero, though he wasn’t involved, he reported “no bad blood” between himself and his former collaborators.

Additional Sources: Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, by Joe Kane;  One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead (2008)

The 8 Best Horror Movies to Stream on Hulu Right Now

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Looking for a good scare this Halloween season? If you’re a Hulu subscriber, you’ll be able to get your fill of creepy content. Check out eight of the best horror movies currently streaming on the service.

1. Hellraiser (1987)

Horror author Clive Barker made the move to feature directing with this tale of a man (Sean Chapman) who makes the grievous error of opening a portal to hell and proceeds to make his brother’s family targets of the sadistic Cenobites, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley). Don’t bother with the endless sequels; the original is the best (and goriest) of the lot.

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Paranoia runs deep in this remake of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In the ‘70s iteration, Donald Sutherland plays a health inspector who can’t shake the feeling that people around him seem a little off. He soon grows wise to the reality that aliens are walking among us as virtual human replicas. Naturally, they’re not keen on being discovered.

3. A Quiet Place (2018)

John Krasinski and Emily Blunt star as a couple living in a world terrorized by creatures that hunt by sound. Their largely-silent existence means every stray creak, cry, or noise threatens to expose them to the monsters—a danger that's only compounded when Blunt discovers she’s pregnant.

4. The Orphanage (2007)

A sense of dread looms over The Orphanage, a Spanish-language thriller with Belén Rueda as Laura, who returns to the child care facility that raised her so she can make a difference for a new generation of children. Strange things begin as soon as she arrives, with her son going missing and hints of unwelcome guests unraveling her nerves. It’s a film best not watched alone.

5. Event Horizon (1997)

If 1979’s Alien stirred your interest in space scares, Event Horizon might make for a worthwhile watch. After a spaceship presumed lost suddenly reappears, a crew of investigators (Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne) board to find answers.

6. Children of the Corn (1984)

A couple (Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton) passing through a small rural town find a lack of adult supervision curious—until the kids reveal themselves to be homicidal cult members. Based on a Stephen King short story.

7. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi perfected “splatstick” horror in this cult classic about hapless boob Ash (Campbell) who escapes to a remote cabin retreat with girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) and unwittingly unleashes a cascade of evil. Though it’s more amusing than scary, Raimi’s inventive imagery is morbidly fascinating.

8. Child’s Play (1988)

Good mom Catherine Hicks buys a Good Guys doll for her son, Andy. Unfortunately, the doll—dubbed Chucky—has been possessed by the spirit of a serial killer (Brad Dourif) and proceeds to make young Andy’s life miserable, particularly after he discovers the kitchen cutlery.

Ruined By a Letter: TV Show Edition

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