As a huge fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Monster Bash ’07 was a great convention for me. I met Kyra Schon and Chilly Billy Cardille for the first time, and though it was my second time meeting Bill Hinzman, it was the first time I got a black-and-white picture with him in Cemetery Ghoul garb. I spent some quality time talking with those three, all inside the environs of zombie country itself, Pittsburgh, PA. It was also a great convention as far as picking up a few collectibles. Off Hinzman’s table, I purchased his play version of NOTLD. In the dealers’ room, I found another great grab, John Russo’s The Complete NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Filmbook. I still consider this a steal, because I paid 95 cents less than the posted price on the back, and only later did I realize it was signed by Russo, saving myself another 20 bucks at conventions down the road. As I waited to board my plane later that day, I sat engrossed in the book, re-reading many of Russo’s anecdotes as I flew from Pittsburgh back to my native Long Island. With no definitive documentary for the film at the time, this was the first opportunity I’d ever had to encounter all these stories collectively, and I appreciated it greatly.
After a brief preface by George Romero and a one-page semi-bio titled “John Russo: Co-Author of a Horror Classic,” Russo relays the story of a luncheon that provided the spark for NOTLD. Throughout the course of the book, he’ll discuss funding, finding locations, casting, filming and the movie’s premiere in Pittsburgh. But he also gives a remarkable amount of space to the back story for the film, including Romero and Russ Streiner’s commercial production company The Latent Image. Producing award winning ads for everything from beer to pickles, these men struggled to make ends meet, with the hopes of making a movie always in the back of their minds to keep them going.
Russo’s book is fraught with all sorts of tidbits and insights. Some of his topics:
On earlier attempts at filmmaking: The Latent Image folk produced a film called EXPOSTULATIONS, which never got sound put to it, and is still unreleased. WHINE OF THE FAWN, a medieval concept, also fell through, but not before Romero tried out long time collaborator Tom Savini for a part.
On the script: Russo wanted to make a space comedy with teenagers. At one point, he conceived a cemetery scene with glass coffins. Romero was more in tune with a society on the brink of collapse, and wrote the first half of the script in longhand. Russo would finish writing the script, with key contributions from Romero, Streiner and the rest of the investors.
On finding the farmhouse: Not an easy task. They were able to get the location on the cheap because the owners were about to raze it.
On casting: Karl Hardman suggested Judith O’Dea. He and Marilyn Eastman played the Coopers because they ran Hardman Associates, and were investors. Rudy Ricci, a friend of Romero and Streiner’s from college, was originally supposed to play Ben. This would have cut out much of the film’s social context, as Ricci was white. Duane Jones was a much better actor, so all agreed he was Ben, but not because of his color.
Tidbits from the filming: Russo puts them in film order, and covers many of the goofs, such as Ben’s line about the house being boarded up tight. He also discusses his role as a ghoul, and how Bill Hinzman saved Gary Streiner from being burnt alive.
On selling the film: Columbia would have purchased it had Romero agreed to change the ending. Thankfully, he said no. Oddly, he never discusses the copyright dispute.
Russo includes all sorts of neat outside materials, such as: newspaper clippings, a synopsis of the film, and the last page of the script, in which one character’s fate is remarkably different. Best of all, he fleshes out the book with scores of pictures, scenes from the movie, as well as behind-the-scenes, and candid shots of participants.
One of the most interesting chapters comes toward the end, when Russo discusses the group’s plans to make a second film. It’s sad to read how things unraveled quickly during the pre-production of THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, arguably Romero’s worst film. Bitter dissent broke up a talented company of filmmakers, as Romero, Russo and co. went their separate ways. Russo follows with a brief discussion of his own career as a novelist and filmmaker, before wrapping up with a look at what the film’s legacy means. He’s clearly proud of the film, as he should be.
John Russo’s The Complete NOTLD Filmbook is a must-have for any fan of the film. Though his prose is a bit dull, his scrapbook covers the film’s history from how the filmmakers came together, straight through to how its loyal devotees feel about it now. It’s a great peek at the making of an important film, with a wealth of material that any fan will devour.