Ed. note– After a brief hiatus, we’re back to our NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Retrospective, which started off as an Appreciation Week, but went far beyond seven days. Picking it back up, here’s an interview I conducted with Russ Streiner, NOTLD’s producer and the actor who played Johnny. This was a phone interview conducted as part of Icons of Fright’s promotion of the Living Dead Festival, and I apologize that I no longer have the audio, but it’s worth printing in text. Enjoy.– P.F.
It’s safe to say that without the efforts of Russ Streiner, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would have been a different film. His onscreen presence as Johnny sets the tone for the film straight out, and his finesse as a producer helped to get the picture made and sold, and in turn, in front of audiences. He’s also a genuinely nice guy, who was generous enough to spend some time on the phone with me for an interview. During the course of our conversation, we discuss working with George Romero, his acting turn as Johnny, and casting Duane Jones. He’s got some great perspective on the film, and was happy to share.
Phil Fasso: How did you first get involved with George Romero?
Russ Streiner: I started off wanting to be an actor, which I pursued through high school. And after high school, I went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of the Theatre, and graduated from their two-year acting program. While I was there, I was working in stage shows at night, and at one of those, I was cast with another fellow. His name was Rudy Ricci, and we shared a dressing room. Rudy had been attending classes at Carnegie Mellon University (back then it was called Carnegie Tech). He was taking art classes there, and he met George Romero in an art class. George was transplanted, from the Bronx to Pittsburgh, to go to Carnegie Tech’s School of Painting and Design. Rudy brought George over to one of our shows one night, and that’s how I first got to meet him. Then, within maybe six or eight months, George called me and asked me if I would be willing to be an actor in a movie that he was putting together, called EXPOSTULATIONS. And I told him I would. I showed up for my very first day of production, and really became intrigued with the whole film production part of the business, which I knew nothing about. I stuck with EXPOSTULATIONS as an actor, and then also helped out on the crew. That’s how George and I first met. And we went on to set up a business and worked together for about 10 years.
PF: How did your experience in commercials and industrial films help you to put together a feature film?
RS: Any time you get a chance to practice your craft, whether it’s in short form like TV commercials or longer form like industrials, all of that goes to help you refine your craft. And that’s certainly how our whole group got helped out, all of which led up to 1967, when we did the actual filming of NOTLD.
PF: What was the genesis of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?
RS: Basically it started off when we first got together. We always knew that we eventually wanted to do a feature film. So during the early ‘60s, by doing TV commercials and industrial films and educational films, we were able to accumulate equipment—by the time NOTLD came around in 1967, we were actually a self-contained production unit; we had everything we needed: camera equipment, sound equipment, studio facilities, mixing equipment, editing equipment, lighting equipment. Then all we needed was a script. And in late ’66/early ’67, John Russo, who was working with us, and George Romero started to put together the beginnings of a script. We all chipped in ideas. John Russo took all of the good ideas and wove them into what became the shooting script. And that’s how it got started.
PF: What things did you bring to your role of Johnny?
RS: Well, first of all, my body. Secondly, I got the part of Johnny almost by default. We had put together all of our pre-production efforts. We had most of our casting done, but we didn’t have Johnny. And the cemetery scene, coincidentally, was the very first scene we filmed, and we didn’t get finished with all of the filming that first day, so we had to relegate it to a second day of filming. As it turned out, it was also the very last day of filming we had, so it was kind of an unusual circumstance. But when it came to the first day of shooting, we still didn’t have a Johnny. And the group said, “Well why don’t you just do Johnny?” And so that’s how I got it. So I’d like to say that it was some tough auditioning competition, but it was nothing like that. I just happened to be around, had dark, horn rimmed glasses, and got the part. I also had my background as an actor. The fact that I was also a producer of the picture didn’t hurt my chances of getting to play “Johnny,” it was another actor that I didn’t have to pay because I was also an investor in the project.
When I got the part, I decided that I wanted to give him a couple of unique characteristics. One of the things was how he taunted and tormented Barbra. I wanted to make sure that he was always on the edge with Barbra, complaining about the time of day and how early they had to get up, one thing after another. And one of the wardrobe elements, of course, were the driving gloves. I wanted to make a big deal out of the driving gloves, which was my idea, because I knew when Johnny came back at the end of the film, I wanted to give him some sort of wardrobe signature that the audience would instantly know that it was him. It would be nighttime, his glasses were gone, he would be surrounded by these other dead things. So I wanted to give him a really instantaneously signature, and that turned out to be the driving gloves. And it was a device that really worked.
PF: Johnny seems like a very annoyed character. What’s your view of him?
RS: Well, I think underneath it typifies the kind of sibling relationship that a lot of brothers and sisters have. Brothers especially get into taunting and tormenting their younger sisters. And I think that comes through to the fans, and a lot of people comment on it, “Oh, that’s how my brother used to treat me,” and so forth. So I wanted to keep it realistic on that level. That plus the fact that we as actors knew what was coming, we knew that this was going to be the very first onset of the living dead things, and I just wanted to set the stage for the gloomy things to come.
PF: A great part of the subtext of NOTLD is about family. Johnny and Barbra don’t get along, and the Coopers argue as their daughter is dying. Family was also behind the camera for you. How was it working with your brother Gary and your mother?
RS: Well, obviously, it was a very good experience for all of us. My brother Gary worked with George Romero and myself since he was in high school. When we filmed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Gary was 21. So he had been working with us for a few years and was pretty good at any number of tasks. On NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in particular, he did an awful lot of the location audio work, and then ultimately the sound mixing work.
And as far as my mother, you have to understand, the way we were “constructed” at that time. The company that George and I started was called the Latent Image. And everybody’s family—George’s family, my family– became an extension of the Latent Image. So when it came to filming NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, we recruited my mother, my aunt Norma and several other family members to be zombies and so forth. And my mother provided one of the key props for the cemetery sequence, her car. So all around, it was pretty much of a family effort. Gary was also one of the 10 original investors in IMAGE TEN, INC. the company that owns NIGHT. My mother was also one of the investors who put up money to help get the picture finished.
PF: And of course there was the fortuitous car crash that George worked into the film.
RS: Well it wasn’t so much fortuitous for my mother. As I said earlier, the cemetery sequence was the first scene that we filmed, and it was also the last scene. Now, we filmed NOTLD in 30 days, but we had a break in the middle so we could go back and do regular commercial work that was keeping groceries on the table. But from the time we filmed the opening scene until we got around to the time we finished the closing scene, my mother was driving her car back and forth to work, and someone crashed into her car. And I said, “Don’t get it fixed, because we need a way to stop the car when Judith O’Dea releases the handbrake in the cemetery to get away from Bill Hinzman (the film’s cemetery ghoul), and we’ll do something with it, we’ll crash it against a tree or something like that,” and that’s what we ended up doing. We filmed it in a way to make it look as though the car actually crashed into the tree. So we were very resourceful. We had to take all the negatives and turn them to positives somehow.
PF: What was George Romero like as a director?
RS: Working with George was always a good experience. But understand, we had a business that we started in 1961, when we incorporated it. So George and I had been living together, literally like brothers, sharing apartments, sharing literally everything. We were as close or closer than brothers for quite a few years heading up to NOTLD. And it was always great working with him. And I hope he feels the same way about working with me.
PF: Casting a black man in the lead was a bold move, whether intentional or not. What statement do you think it made, having Duane Jones in the lead?
RS: Well, it became more of a statement than we had originally intended. Quite simply, Duane Jones was the best person to audition for the part of Ben. Up until we met Duane, our friend that I mentioned earlier, Rudy Ricci, was supposed to play the character of Ben. The character was originally supposed to be a rough truck driver. A mutual friend of George’s and mine was a woman by the name of Betty Ellen Haughey. She grew up in Pittsburgh, but at that time she was living in New York, and she knew of Duane Jones. He’d started off in a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh, yet he was off in New York making a living as a teacher and an actor. And she said to us, when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was really developing in pre-production and building steam, “You should really meet this friend of mine from New York, his name is Duane Jones.” Duane happened to be in Pittsburgh visiting his family for one of the holidays, and we auditioned him. And immediately, everyone including Rudy Ricci said, “Hey, this is the guy that should be Ben.”
So that’s how we cast him, and we knew that there would be probably a bit of controversy, just from the fact that an African American man and a white woman are holed up in a farmhouse, being attacked by these living dead things outside, and they don’t really know what it’s all about. So we thought there might be some element of controversy, but that it was worth going through that controversy to have Duane Jones as the lead.
PF: When did you realize that Night had become a classic? And how did that feel?
RS: Well, we knew almost right away that it was going to be a popular film. Classic is something that developed over the years. We set out to make the best, scariest movie we could, with the relatively small amount of money that we had. The fans made it a classic. And of course, any time that happens to any type of work, it is incredibly flattering.
PF: One of the notorious issues with NIGHT is the copyright issue. You’re still fighting to get the copyright restored. Do you think this will ever be resolved?
RS: I hope it will be. But it is an issue. The copyright was wrongfully taken from us in the first place by the Copyright Office. And so it’s a battle that won’t end, and is going on to this day. We never, ever, ever intended for that picture to be offered up into the public domain. And this dispute has been going on with the Copyright Office ever since. Curiously, since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, they’ve changed the copyright laws so the same kind of thing could not happen to a picture today. So that’s the underpinning as to why we believe that our position is ultimately right. And we just have to keep pursuing it, because it is rightfully our property, and there’s no other argument to be made. It’s our property.
PF: You’ve continued to work for several years both behind and in front of the camera with John Russo. What draws you to working with him?
RS: John Russo and I have a long work history together. Although there were several years when we did not work together because we were doing different kinds of projects and had different goals. Over the last several years however we have worked closely on any number of projects including one project we are most proud of and that is the John Russo Movie Making Program at DuBois Business College in DuBois, PA. We are co-directors of that program and if I do say so myself, this is one of the most unique and best filmmaking programs anywhere. This is a true hands-on filmmaking and master mentoring film program. John and I and our senior instructor, Ephraim Stockwell, work side-by-side with our students. We share our years of filmmaking experience with them to hopefully make them into mature filmmakers more quickly. “Song of the Dead,” a 20 minute film, which will have its premier screening next Saturday night at the Evans City Living Dead Festival, is a film example of how John and I lead our filmmaking students through the various steps of actually making a movie.
Another project John Russo and I are working on is ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD. This promises to be a film that stays true to the roots of what makes a good zombie film- GOOD! We will be able to say more about this project in the next month.
PF: You make many appearances at conventions. What appeals to you about the convention circuit?
RS: The key thing would have to be coming face-to-face with fans, and understanding that this is a property that is now 41 years old, and it is quite phenomenal. It doesn’t happen to a whole lot of movies that 41 years after the fact, the fans are showing up, they still want to meet you, still want to shake your hand, get an autograph. And that is most flattering. I can’t say that I understand it, but I certainly do appreciate it.
PF: Your appearing at your brother Gary’s Living Dead Festival next week. What are you looking forward to with that?
RS: Well, it’s the same kind of thing, except the Evans City Living Dead Festival has a separate, special ingredient in that Evans City is the hometown of NIGHT OF THE LVIVING DEAD. Practically all of the film was filmed in and around Evans City. (The only exceptions were all of the basements scenes in the film; they were filmed in the basement of our office building in downtown Pittsburgh. And then we’d set off one weekend to go to Washington, D.C. to shoot the sequence with the reporters and scientists and so forth). Aside from that, everything else was filmed in Evans City. So Evans City is truly the hometown of NOTLD.
PF: NOTLD has become a cultural phenomenon that has lasted more than 40 years. As you prepare to meet fans at the LDF, what are your reflections on the film now?
RS: Well, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has taken on a life of its own, so to speak. How that happened is, new audiences are constantly being introduced to it. And that has perpetuated this film, and apparently, enough people think it’s a good picture, they find different things they like about it. But this common creative effort that we all put together as a team, people are still sensing that there’s something good and valuable in the story itself. And so, coming up to the 2nd Annual Living Dead Festival in Evans City is another opportunity to meet fans. But these fans are even a little more special, because they make the trek in from wherever they are into Evans City to celebrate the film where it was made. And that’s a really good feeling for any creative endeavor.