John Russo Reminisces on George Romero & “Night of the Living Dead”

I know I speak for many of my fellow horror fans when I say how saddened we Daves were at the news regarding George Romero’s passing. I had the honor of meeting him twice; once in Indianapolis in 2010 and then the following year with the other Dave in Massachusetts. When the news broke, I wrote on our Facebook page how he was one of the most fan-friendly celebrities you could ever meet; spending as much time as he could with you despite the prodding of his handlers. Romero had been scheduled to attend the convention we’ve been in the midst of covering, Days of the Dead Indianapolis, but his declining health forced his cancellation. The “godfather of zombies” had been slated to do a Q&A panel that Saturday afternoon and many of us wondered how DOTD planned on filling the space. It wasn’t until that morning when we learned there would, indeed, be another panel and that it would feature Romero’s dear friend and Night of the Living Dead co-writer, John A. Russo. The following dialogue is based off the audio recordings taken during that hour…

On George Romero…

Russo: I did talk to George and he had been doing better for a while but…well, we’re all just hoping for the best and that’s about all I can tell you. George and I have been friends since we were 18 years old. He was a Fine Arts Major in Pittsburgh and one of my best friends, Rudy Ritchie, was too. He’d met Romero as a Freshmen and called me up one day and said, “You gotta meet this great guy, George Romero! We’re all drawing nudes in Life Drawing class and this guy’s drawing Ben Hur!” So we went over and picked him up one day and Rudy honked the horn and George comes down to the street wearing a big sombrero, two bandoleers full of ammunition, and a big droopy black mustache. He was dressed like that because he loved the movie Viva Zapata starring Marlon Brando. So we go to Dairy Queen to get ice cream and the girl took one look at him and slammed the window shut! Well we all thought it was funny as hell and Rudy said, “You should have seen George last week, he was dressed in tin foil from head to toe!” This was after he’d seen some science-fiction film he liked so when George liked something, he’d go all out. He was very good with those costumes too and, when he did it, he did it right. So we’ve been friends ever since. George is extremely talented in many areas. He’s a great portrait artist, great caricaturist, and so many things besides an amazing writer and director. We’ve had a whole lot of fun and so many laughs over the years and when you are with George, you WILL laugh. He’s very witty and hilarious to be around. We all just wish him the best right now.

On creating Night of the Living Dead…

Russo: George and I were both writers and we’d stay up all night and walk around the streets just hashing out ideas. We bought a 35 mm camera and we decided we wanted to make a movie so a group of us all kicked in about $600 a piece and raised about $6,000 which we figured was enough to start a decent horror film. George and I each had an editing room and a type-writer and started working on the story, choosing a cemetery as the locale. I started working on something where aliens arrive and start eating human flesh even though we knew we didn’t have enough money to show a UFO landing. My story started with a young boy, say eight or nine years old, who fights with his parents before running out into the woods and discovering bodies that were being kept by aliens for future consumption. Meanwhile, George’s story had a girl being chased in a cemetery. I read what he did and said, “Well this has all the right twists and turns but who’s chasing her?” He had no idea so I suggested she was being chased by dead people and he said, “That’s good.” So then I asked what it was the dead were after and he didn’t know that either so I suggested we use the flesh-eating idea from my alien story. So that’s how it became about the dead looking for human flesh. We finished a script and then gave it to our friend, Rudy, to read. “Tell me what’s wrong with it?” George asked him but Rudy couldn’t see anything wrong with it. So then George says, “I know what’s wrong, it needs another siege!” What he meant was the scene where the zombies finally bust into the house.

The characters in Night of the Living Dead

Russo: There were some changes made while filming, such as using a little girl (“Karen”) for the child’s role instead of a boy named “Timmy” which was in the original script. We also had a cemetery caretaker taking refuge in the basement who was supposed to be a forty-something year old guy named “Tom.” Then we met a receptionist named Judy Ridley whom we all had a crush on and figured every horror film should have an attractive female in it. So we ended up making the “Tom” character younger and giving him a girlfriend (Judy). That’s how that character came to be though his initial scene wasn’t written by me. George and I were sleep deprived, staying at that farm house that had no running water and were just exhausted. We wanted to develop some sort of empathy for the character but my brain was fried. George jotted down the scene and I thought it was great. Keith Wayne, the guy who played Tom, had some acting training and was a hell of a singer. We met him at a night club where he was performing and thought he had a great stage presence. Unfortunately, he would get very nervous on camera and his eyes would start blinking about a thousand times a minute! We’d have to move the camera around a lot but, if you ever watch the movie again, just watch his eyes blinking.

Keith Wayne (1945-1995)

An amateur production?

Russo: There’s a misconception that this was an amateur film but we were a tight knit production unit and everybody knew what needed to be done without being told. There were, however, some issues. For example, the cemetery scene is terribly shot. We actually have the camera cross the axis and beak the 180-degree rule (an onscreen spatial differentiation between the characters and the scene).

Were they trying to do social commentary with the casting of Dwayne Jones as the lead or is this just retrospective thinking?

Russo: It’s retrospective thinking which George bought into at some point (laughs). We wanted to make the best possible horror film we could because, prior to that, everything was trite. Just a whole bunch of movies with the same plot like “Attack of the Giant Caterpillars” and a “giant this” and a “giant that.” The town drunk would see something but nobody would believe him and then he’d end up getting killed. Then I scientist would step in and say, ‘Wow, this looks like a caterpillar!’ Then the monster would reveal itself to be a caterpillar and the military would step in and destroy it. Just a bunch of shit! I was always disappointed seeing those films just like you’d be if you saw a movie you didn’t like (NOTE – we Terror Daves love those giant ‘this and that’ films but understand Russo’s position).  We wanted to make a horror film that, for once, gave horror fans their money’s worth. Night of the Living Dead is like Stagecoach with zombies instead of Indians. It’s the story of the human race and how you need to cooperate if you’re going to survive a crisis situation. Once we had that premise, we just wanted people to act like real people would if they were in those circumstances. I guess if you want to read more into it you can but there’s really nothing there. The sheriff isn’t necessarily a redneck, he may or may not be, we don’t know what his prejudices are or if he even has any. He’s just a guy who was given a job and does it. I remember some British guy years back writing that you could hear the song “Old Black Joe” in the soundtrack and there’s no such thing. Then George, in an interview, went right along with that. I said, “George, when you make a successful movie people are interested in the truth and the truth is more entertaining than the falsehoods. Just tell the truth!”

Duane Jones  (1937-1988)

In the film we don’t really know why the zombies exist. Do you find it a little scarier in not knowing?

Russo: Oh yeah, the movie takes place over the course of eighteen hours and, if this was a real situation, people wouldn’t have known in that time frame. I wrote the Venus probe thing so you can speculate but they never say that this was the true cause.

Every year people make the trip to the Evans City Cemetery. (including us Daves last March which you can relive HERE) When making this film, did you ever think it would still have legs?

Russo: No, we thought like most films it would play for a year or two via hometown theaters and then drive-ins might keep it lingering for a few more. I always say that this movie is a Law unto itself. There’s no movie that just goes on for over fifty years and is never off the screen. No matter what new format is developed, Night of the Living Dead comes out in that format and just goes on and on and on…

~As will the legacy of George Romero~

~Dave Fuentes

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