FLESH & BLOOD
By Marc Lee
In 1968, a group of friends who made TV commercials decided they could out-creep Hollywood and created an iconic horror film that has creeped-out three generations of moviegoers.
Night of the Living Dead’s comic, stumbling zombies thrilled matinee audiences and rampaged through their nightmares. With a single camera, shoestring financing and one fortuitous barroom bet, the filmmakers dispatched the campy giant-bug and Martian horror flicks of the ’50s and ’60s and ushered in a darker, bloodier genre.
Squeaking into theaters a month before the MPAA’s ratings system was imposed, Dead’s gory Bosco-drenched executions and murderous 9-year-old stunned cultural conservatives. But the film opened the door for kill-fests like Friday the 13th and inspired DIY productions like Blair Witch. Worldwide, the film grossed 30 million and spawned a number of sequels from director-screenwriter George Romero and producer-screenwriter John â€œJackâ€ Russo.
Seven of the film’s cast and crew made a rare appearance together preceding a special screening in Dallas recently. To celebrate the film’s 40th-anniversary, Hollywood Life rounded them up to document a far-flung and giddy conversation as Dead’s creators—Romero, Russo, Russell Streiner, Bill Hinzman, Judith O’Dea, Kyra Schon and George Kosana—resurrected old friendships and swapped stories about the making and the raising of the Dead.
- George Romero: Director, screenwriter, editor.
- John Russo: Producer, screenwriter, editor.
- Russell Streiner: Producer; â€œJohnny,â€ Barbara’s brother who’s knocked unconscious while trying to save her in the cemetery. Eventually, we find out he’s been zombified.
- Judith O’Dea: â€œBarbra,â€ the traumatized heroine who escapes a cemetery zombie only to stumble upon a grisly murder scene in a farmhouse. Later carried off by zombies.
- Bill Hinzman: Assistant camera; all-around production guy; â€œcemetery ghoulâ€ who attacks Barbara in the cemetery and chases her into the farmhouse.
- Kyra Schon: â€œKaren Cooper,â€ the zombified 8-year-old who eats her father and stabs her mother to death with a cement trowel. In real life, she’s the daughter of Karl Hardman and step-daughter of Marilyn Eastman the film’s audio production team. Eastman also played Karen’s mother, â€œHelen.â€)
- George Kosana: Production manager; â€œSheriff McClelland,â€ who leads a posse to destroy the zombies and who gives the execution order to dispatch the film’s hero, Ben (Duane Jones), who would have been the only character to survive the zombie onslaught.
BERGMAN WOULD HAVE NEVER KNOWN WHAT HIT HIM
JOHN RUSSO: We used to go for lunch to a little bar around the corner from our studio. George and I were there with Richard Ricci. He ended up being an investor, but at the time he worked at an ad agency. George and I were bitching about the fickle advertising people. So Richard said, â€œWhy don’t we do something about it?â€ And I said, â€œWell we just got our first 35mm camera and all our own equipment…â€
GEORGE ROMERO: Richard was partly responsible for that. He was the exec who got us the Calgon thing, which got us the camera.
JOHN: That’s right! I forgot that. So anyway, I said, â€œWhat if we got 10 of us together and we each kicked in 600 bucks? We could make a horror film. We should be able to do a better job than these giant caterpillars and giant grasshoppers things that the studios are making.â€ So Richard said, â€œYou’re totally crazy!â€
GEORGE: â€œBut here’s my six!â€
JOHN: Ha, yeah! Then George said, â€œWe’re gonna make a movie!â€ And he smacked the table with his hand, the bottles and glasses flew and everybody stared at us. That’s when Richard really looked at us and said, â€œOh, you guys are totally nuts.â€ And we said, â€œWell are you in or out?â€ He thought for a minute, and then he said, “I’m in!”
RUSSELL STREINER (producer, â€œJohnnyâ€): Our group had been together for a while. Latent Image was formed in 1961, and we were doing television commercials: bank commercials, beer commercials, that kind of thing.
GEORGE: Karl Hardeman and Marilyn Eastman had an audio production company. While we were doing TV commercials, they had, for years, been doing radio stuff. So they had the music libraries and all the audio equipment and all of that stuff. So we kind of hooked up.
RUSS: Image Ten was formed out of 10 original investors, and that was the company specifically set up to do Night of the Living Dead.
JOHN: There were six of us at the time that worked at Latent Image. And then we had people like Rudy Ricci, Karl and Marilyn. Everybody had to bring something to the party beside their 600 bucks. They had to have some skill: Be actors like Karl and Marilyn or filmmakers like we were. After that we ended up selling only $22,000 worth of stock. And we ran all of our credit cards up and we ran all of Latent Images’ lab accounts up.
GEORGE: I had that idea, Wine on the Farm. It was this really high-minded, really Bergman-esque thing about two young kids, teenagers coming of age in the Middle Ages. It was gonna beat Bergman!
RUSS: Yeah, right!
GEORGE: So we actually went around to high schools to cast this thing. And we saw this young guy in a high school play. We brought him in, and we thought he was great. It turns out to be [future special FX master and actor] Tom Savini. The movie never happened, and Tom left and wound up as a combat photographer in Vietnam. We had it all down, you know. The movie was made … in our minds. And we actually got one investor. And this guy turned out to be a … he came in looking like, you know, in his limo and looking like he has a lot of money. And then the guy just bailed on us! We never got any interest anywhere else. So we said, â€œLet’s do something a little more conventional.â€
RUSS’S SKILL AT CHESS ADDS TO THE MIX
GEORGE: So we shot this movie. Now we had a bunch of film, we edited it, and since we had a script and a bunch of audio equipment we were actually able to show it. We were playing it on three dubbers and I was in the back room mixing it as it went!
We really needed to mix the sound. Cities the size of Pittsburgh had film labs in those days because the news was on film. We were working with one, and we knew the guy, Jack, because we sent all our commercial footage through there. We needed a mix, so Russ said, â€œYou know what? I’m gonna challenge Jack to a chess game.â€
RUSS: Well, that’s not exactly the way it happened but close.
GEORGE: Something like that. We needed a mix. We couldn’t afford it. We were basically out of bread. Soâ€¦ pick it up from there, Russ.
RUSS: Jack was relatively new at playing chess. And he happened to be dating a woman who was the collegiate female chess champion from Pennsylvania.
GEORGE: I didn’t know this!
RUSS: Across the street from WRS was a place called the Checkmate Lounge, and they had chess boards built into their tabletops. After work one day, I played Jack’s girlfriend one game, and she beat me badly. We played a second game, and I beat her badly. So, Jack sees that and says, â€œI have an idea. How about if I challenge you to a game of chess? If you lose, you have to promise me that you guys will do everything you can to make sure that our lab gets the release print order.â€ I said, â€œOK, what do I get if I win?â€ He said, â€œI will do all of your sound mixing and do your optical track for nothing.â€
GEORGE: Jesus, I didn’t think we were there that long.
JOHN: Well, you and I were getting loaded. But we were on pins and needles.
RUSS: The long and short of it is I managed to beat this guy, and he lived up to his part of the bargain. He did all of the sound mixing and the optical track.
GEORGE: True story. It’s amazing stuff. You know, we would have found the money some-damn-where. The main thing was that we were determined. Somehow, we wouldn’t have let it die. Russ is like Lancelot.
HAPPY ACCIDENTS: CAR WRECKS AND CATATONICS
RUSS: We were using my mother’s Pontiac LeMans. During the period that we weren’t using the car, she was driving it back and forth to work. And one day, somebody ran into her on the front driver’s side and crunched the front fender. So I said, â€œDon’t get it fixed! Because we need to find a way to stop the car when Judy is escaping from Bill Hinzman.â€
GEORGE: The moment his mom had that accident we said, â€œWait a minute, we can use that!â€ You understand that this isn’t Universal Studios. We couldn’t say, â€œDon’t fix it. We’ll fix it for you.â€ We just said, â€œDon’t fix it!â€
RUSS: The only thing that my mother got upset about, which we didn’t tell her about, was that Bill Hinzman was going to have to smash in the window of her car. So my brother, Gary, who also worked on the film, went out to a junkyard and got a replacement window. My mother never realized we’d smashed out her window until the night of the premiere. And she was highly pissed!
JOHN: We started shooting in the cemetery in June, but we didn’t shoot the rest of the scene until it was freezing. We didn’t know if it was going to rain. If it rains, what do we do? So that’s why there’s lightning in the scene. We did it with our lights, flicking them off and on. That way if it rained, at least we’d have established the lightning.
GEORGE: When Bill looks up from that tombstone, he had like a 1,000-watt light right here [framing Bill’s forehead with his hand].
JOHN: These lights were so hot that when we got done shooting everyday we had to clean out the roasted bug carcasses. Bill Hinzman did the cemetery zombie, and again we shot that during two different times. So we didn’t have a cemetery zombie, and I’m changing magazines. I was basically an assistant cameraman.
GEORGE: Jack did all the functional shit. Russ is great on the business side. He keeps it together that way. Jack is the guy who practically keeps it together. He says, â€œWe need a camera!â€ And so we all go, â€œOh, fuck! We need a camera!â€
JOHN: So anyway, I’m doing magazines and we don’t have a zombie for the cemetery. Earlier, I had been the zombie who had gotten the tire iron in the head. So I get into the same makeup, which was difficult because it was all Dermawax and you couldn’t get it off. So I’m all ready to do this and Bill Hinzman shows up. And I said, â€œGreat! He can be the cemetery zombie, and I can keep loading magazines.â€
JUDITH O’DEA (â€œBarbraâ€): So, that’s how you became Zombie Number One?
BILL HINZMAN: I dunno. Somebody called me told me to show up.
JOHN: We didn’t even know he was going to be there that day.
JUDITH: We did this whole scene in the car about what happened to Johnny, and it was all improv. So we’re doing this thing and everything is rolling and snot’s coming out of my nose from the cold. Then at the end they said, â€œWe may have to do this again because the sound didn’t take.â€ But it did take and that’s the scene we used in the film.
GEORGE KOSANA (production manager, â€œSheriff McClellandâ€): We shot for something like 14 hours in a row, functioning as automatons. We shot two scenes in a row before we realized that there was no film in the camera.
JOHN: What I gotta say about Judy O’Dea is she was totally believable. She got herself into that part. She looked like she was scared. In the scripting stage, we knew Karl and Marilyn would do well, but we didn’t know if we could get good enough actors. So we decided to under-write Judy’s part. You know, if she goes catatonic, she doesn’t have to act much, but instead we ended up with a good actress.
JUDITH: We all react to terror and the unexplainable in our own unique ways. Some of us go out with Uzis and shoot ’em all down; others of us have to go â€œinsideâ€ for a while to figure out what the heck is going on. And that’s what Barbara did. Or that’s certainly the way I played her.
BILL: She’s been telling me all these years that she wasn’t really acting. She was really scared!
SHE SAID SHE WAS HUNGRY
KYRA SCHON (â€œKaren Cooperâ€): I was too young, and I was lucky that I didn’t have to deal with all that â€œresponsibleâ€ stuff.
GEORGE: Let me say this. That poster of you has become the iconic poster for this movie.
KYRA: My dad took that shot at lunchtime when we were outside the farmhouse. He said, â€œI want to take a couple of shots of you.â€ And I said â€œOh, okayyy. But I’m hungry.â€ I vividly remember him taking that iconic photograph. Vividly! So that little dead stare is the result of being a brat that was really hungry.
GEORGE: What were you thinking?
KYRA: I was thinking, â€œCan you hurry up and take this picture? I’m hungry. Do I have to do this again?!â€
RUSS: It’s one of those absolutely lucky coincidences that Kyra was Karl’s daughter. He volunteered his daughter to be in this movie that a lot of parents would have a big problem, saying, â€œYeah, my daughter can stab her screen mother and gnaw off my arm.â€
KYRA: It was fun, and there was nothing scary about it. My mother was on board with it, too, because she knew I was already a horror movie junkie.
JUDITH: Even to this day, the scene of Kyra killing Marilyn is one of the most disturbing murder scenes I’ve ever seen.
BILL: The editing made it work. You never see the cement trowel enter.
GEORGE: It’s a rip-off from Psycho! You never see the blade hit flesh.
KYRA: Marilyn wasn’t even in the room when I was stabbing her. I was stabbing into a pillow.
JOHN: And Karl’s arm, which was ripped off…
KYRA: It was delicious!
JOHN: Ha ha! It was a stump that was made from insulation, like what you’d use in a house.
KYRA: And then there was somebody’s leftover meatball sandwich … A meatball sandwich from lunch that day that was stuffed up there.
JUDITH: You ate a meatball sandwich?
KYRA: No, I didn’t eat it. I just held it in my mouth. That’s why they call it acting, Judy!
A CAMERA TO DIE FOR
GEORGE: We should take a moment and talk about the camera. Because we had one 35mm camera. It was an Aeroflex 2C. It was wonderful. I’ve never handled a better camera. However, it sounded like a Sherman Tank. So when we were shooting dialog, we had to stick it in this thing called a blimp for soundproofing, which made the camera weigh as much as Texas.
JOHN: When we were shooting the escapeâ€”when they try to get to the gas pumps and all thatâ€”we had to shoot it in one night. So we had to take the camera out of the blimp. We decided to put so much noise on the track that it would drown out the camera. And George’s famous thing is covering it with crickets. So you hear lots of crickets.
JOHN: And we did the special effects ourselves.
RUSS: Tony Pantanello and Regis Survinski made little squibs.
GEORGE: Little squibs and a couple of big ones! My first memory of â€œsquib workâ€ is The French Connection, where that guy is running up on the subway station and they shoot him from behind. We did this before! These guys said [points over to George Kosana], â€œWe’re going to put a little explosive charge here [pointing to his chest].â€ And we’re all going, â€œExplosive? Charge? Uh…â€ But he said, â€œDon’t worry about it, I’ll put a little leather thing there.â€
RUSS: They synched that with a muzzle blast, so there are a few scenes where you actually see the blast and then the squib go off.
JOHN: When you see the one zombie when they’re escaping for the house and you see the blood fly out his back? Most of the time, like in the basement, we used chocolate syrup. But it wouldn’t fly. So we made a little slit in the shirt right where the squib was and we had red ink in there, which would be liquid enough to fly.
GEORGE K.: What’s amazing is that we only had one accident during the entire productionâ€”when Gary got set on fire. Duane Jones was squirting lighter fluid onto the overstuffed chair, lighting it on fire and kicking it toward the ghouls to back them away from the house. We had to do four or five takes. We put the fire out, but we weren’t aware that the fire was still smoldering in the cushions.
JOHN: Bill Hinzman saved Gary’s life. He panicked and ran, but luckily Bill was there to tackle him, put a blanket over him and smother the flames. After Duane’s scene, we had to light that chair every time there was a scene with zombies going toward the house for continuity. And that’s what Gary was doing when he caught fire.
GEORGE: This is the other thing. Jack and I co-wrote this script. When we went our separate ways, neither one of us has ever used this â€œZombies are afraid of fire, and I’ll use that to kill them!â€ in our sequels. It was this corny fucking old-fashioned idea that we just threw in. But it’s never mattered in any of our sequels. I guess underneath it all we just knew that it’s just bullshit!