Night Of The Living Dead: 10 Things You Didn't Know About The Classic Zombie Horror Movie
By Kevin Wong on
"They're coming to get you, Barbra!"
50 years ago, George Romero debuted Night of the Living Dead, a groundbreaking movie that led to dozens of imitators. The monsters in these films weren't called "zombies"--Romero referred to them as "ghouls"--but they created the zombie archetype that's been used in the half century since. They reanimate. They shamble. And the only way to permanently kill them is to destroy their brains and burn them.
Romero would go on to create other acclaimed films in his "Dead" franchise, such as Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005). But Night of the Living Dead remains the scariest; even its black and white graininess adds a documentary feel to the whole thing.
The film has been interpreted as an allegory for various historical events, from the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Movement. There was a sense, due to its realism, that this film meant to do more than make its audience jump. And that gave other horror filmmakers an inspiration to strive for more--to frame their narratives as social satire rather than pure pulp.
Today, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, we scoured old interviews and articles to find 10 obscure facts about the film. How many of these are you aware of? Let us know in the comments.
10. Romero began filming without the money to finish the movie.
The budget for the movie was $114K, and Romero didn't even have that when the movie started shooting. Romero started with $6K; ten investors, including Romero, each chipped in $600. George Kosana, who played the sheriff (the one with the ammo belt at the end of the film), was one of those people. The plan was to shoot until the money ran out, interest outside investors on the strength of that footage, and then use that money to shoot some more.
The plan worked, although it was stop-and-go; the shoot took nine months. even though they only filmed for 30 days. Romero also confined his shooting schedule to the weekends and evenings, in between his day job directing commercials.
9. Barbra and Johnny's car belonged to the producer's mom.
Romero did everything he could to save money. He cast locals as the zombies, and he cast members of the crew in bit roles. Producer Russell Streiner played Johnny. And Johnny's car--the one you see on the winding road at the beginning of the film--belonged to Russell Streiner's mother; she was also one of the film's original ten investors.
When the car wasn't being used on set, Streiner's mother drove it back and forth to work. And on one of those days, she got into a car accident, which dented the driver's side, Streiner told her to not get it fixed, and the crew worked a crash into the script to explain the damage. That's why Barbra wrecks the car against a tree while running away from the Cemetery Zombie.
8. It rained during the cemetery scene, which forced some improvisation.
The film was shot in Philadelphia in real locations; you can even visit the cemetery where Romero shot the opening scene.
On-location shooting can be tricky; the director is at the mercy of outside factors (like passersby and inclement weather) beyond his or her control. And because it started began raining on the morning of the cemetery shoot, Romero filmed the character close-ups with the lights turned up, so the rain wouldn't show up on film. This became "lightning"—Romero later added thunder sounds in post-production to create the illusion of an approaching storm.
7. Ben was originally scripted as a rough-spoken truck driver.
Romero originally scripted the role of Ben as a tough, truck driver. Here's a snippet of the original script for Ben, as originally intended:
“Don’t you mind the creep outside. I can handle him. There’s probably gonna be lots more of ‘em. Soons they fin’ out about us. Ahm outa gas. Them pumps over there is locked. Is there food here? Ah get us some grub. Then we beat ‘em off and skedaddle. Ah guess you putzed with the phone.”
And here's the same dialogue done by Duane Joes, who was eventually cast as Ben:
“Don’t worry about him. I can handle him. Probably be a whole lot more of them when they find out about us. The truck is out of gas. The pump out here is locked--is there a key? We can try to get out of here if we get some gas. Is there a key?” [Ben tries the phone.] “‘Spose you’ve tried this. I’ll see if I can find some food.”
The changes were made by Jones himself, who refused to say the lines as written.
6. Judith O'Dea (Barbra) ad-libbed her monologue.
There was a lot of improvisation; before shooting, the actors would talk about what they wanted to portray, and then they would improvise when the cameras were rolling. Judith O'Dea, who played Barbra, remembered a specific time that she improvised heavily:
“The sequence where Ben is breaking up the table to block the entrance and I'm on the couch and start telling him the story of what happened... it's all ad-libbed. This is what we want to get across... tell the story about me and Johnny in the car and me being attacked… We filmed it once. There was a concern we didn't get the sound right, but fortunately they were able to use it.”
5. Duane Jones (Ben) didn't want to punch Barbra.
As a black man in 1960s America, Jones was concerned about how he would be viewed by the public after the film's release—specifically because of the scene where his character, Ben, punches Barbra in the face, knocking her out.
“Duane said, ‘You’re asking me to hit a white woman. You know what’s going to happen when I walk out of the theater?,’” Romero said. “We kept saying, ‘Come on--it’s a new day.’”
Romero maintained, in every interview, that the racial commentary in the film was a happy accident; he cast Jones not because he was black, but because he was the best person who auditioned for the role. In fact, in the original script, Ben was supposed to be white.
4. The actor who killed Ben didn't find out until he saw the movie in theaters.
The posse member who killed Ben was played by Vince Survinski, who was also the production manager for the film. Survinski had no idea about his key role; he thought he was just another gunman.
"I shot the hero without knowing it," Survinski said. "I didn't know what I was shooting at in that scene until I saw the picture. The first time I saw it with an audience of kids at a matinee, I was afraid to leave the theater! I waited until they all left and snuck out a back door!"
3. Duane Jones fought for the infamous, sad ending.
It's the ultimate downer ending: After locking himself in the basement and surviving the worst night of his life, Ben is shot by a gun-toting posse that mistakes him for another zombie. Romero considered changing the ending, but Jones fought to keep things the way they were.
“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," said Jones in a rare interview. “The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”
And the decision to keep the ending cost Romero early on. "We went to four or five distributors before going with Reade," said Romero in a separate interview. "Columbia showed a great deal of interest. In fact, they told us their main reason for turning it down was that it was in black and white. And AIP then said it was too unmitigated. They said, 'Well, if you shoot a happy ending to the thing, or shoot the guy surviving, or develop a romantic interest, then maybe we’ll talk about it.'"
2. There's a 30th Anniversary recut of the film that utterly butchers it.
Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, thanks to an error by film distributor Walter Reade. They forgot to put a copyright notification on the print when they changed the title card from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead.
This meant that numerous filmmakers and would-be directors could remade and remix the film without paying Romero a dime. And although the film's public domain status helped cement its popularity, it's also led to a fair amount of embarrassing crap.
Take, for example, the 30th anniversary edition of the film, created by co-writer John Russo, which swaps out the original soundtrack for a different one by Scott Licina. It also cuts footage, such as the the car drive during the opening credits, and replaces it with brand new footage. These new scenes, which bookend the film, flesh out the story of the Cemetery Zombie (who is performed by his original actor Bill Hinzman!), and star Licina as Reverend Hicks. They are awful to watch, and you can see them here.
1. The cast members got some left field fan requests.
Kyra Schon, who plays the little girl zombie that eats her father and stabs her mother to death at the end of the film, has a website called The Ghoul Next Door, where she answers a lot of questions about her role in the film. Buried deeply in the FAQ is this little gem about fans:
"One guy asked me to bite him on his arm so he could have my teethmarks inked over by a tattoo artist. Another guy asked me to bleed on his photograph (I cut my hand at a convention and was bleeding at the time). I obliged in both instances. I won't do either one again, so don't ask. I recently had a request for a lock of hair. Saliva - blood - hair."
Schon is active in the fan community and attends conventions, as do the other remaining members of the crew and cast.