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The definitive zombie thriller, Night of the Living Dead inaugurated a whole genre of horror. But co-writer/director George Romero has never been comfortable with its reputation as a political allegory concerned with race in America, or — as Variety‘s Lee Beaupre put it in 1968 — a pre–ratings code “outer-limit definition” of the “pornography of violence.” We talked with Romero about his down-to-earth intentions and budgetary limitations in time for MoMA’s world premiere of the new 4K restoration of the film.
Before Night of the Living Dead you worked with [co-writer] John Russo and [producer] Russell Streiner on commercials for your own company, the Latent Image. Did you learn how to make the movies you wanted to when you worked at Latent Image?
Oh, boy [laughs]. I always loved movies, and I was still in college at Carnegie Mellon. In those days, the news was on film, and I used to deliver news prints from station to station. There was no such thing as video back then, so I would hang out with film-lab technicians. That’s how I learned how to use the cinematic pencil, really.
Is it true that Duane Jones asked for rewrites to make the dialogue more true to the character?
Absolutely. When John and I wrote Ben’s dialogue, we thought of this as an uneducated white guy. Duane corrected some of his improper grammar. He didn’t want to be a truck driver — he wanted to be a guy who just found an abandoned truck. Duane also wanted to dress properly, not in greasy truck-driver garb. At that moment, we realized that he was concerned about race, especially since he had to slug [actress] Judy O’Dea. He said to me, “You know what’s going to happen when I walk out of the theater after they see this movie?” [Laughs] That’s the only time when we considered race. Race was not in our script, and was almost never discussed on the set.
What was the long process of selling the movie like?
There was no normal process. We were making the movie, and Russ would find investors as we went. Somebody would kick in $5,000, thereby doubling what we already had…but we did it guerrilla-style. Whenever we had a little money, we would go and shoot a little more. We were lucky that none of the actors passed away. [Laughs] Or had some tragic accident. We shot over the course of almost an entire year. Actors would have to come back…of course, it was completely nonunion. All we were doing was buying burgers for the cast.
The whole thing was serendipitous, though two tragic things happened: We didn’t have a copyright on the film. And Russ Streiner and I were driving the very first answer print of the film to New York, to show it to prospective distributors. And that night, in the car, we heard on the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. We had a black lead in our film simply because he was the best actor. But all of a sudden, the film became a racial statement. These two things were accidents that benefited us. Millions of people saw the film because of our lack of a copyright…and the fact that it was perceived as a kind of racial statement lent it gravitas.
Russell Streiner once described a typical shooting day as follows: “At four o’clock in the morning, after you’ve been working eighteen hours, your objectivity gets a little on the cloudy side, and all you’re interested in doing is sacking out someplace. You’ve been living on ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a couple of beers for three days.” Is that accurate? And if so, what kind of beer were you drinking?
I don’t remember the beer. I wasn’t a beer drinker at the time. Rolling Rock was my favorite beer, so I probably had a few of those. But we lived on set, in the farmhouse. We returned to Pittsburgh when we could, but we slept at the house when we had five or six days at a stretch up in [Evans City]. I’m telling you, man, it was completely guerrilla stuff.
Tell me about editing Night. What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were cutting the film? You worked yourself to exhaustion, no?
Yeah. I still have nightmares about the squeaking sound Duane made when he put the lighter fluid onto the chairs, and all over the furniture. Cutting that scene and syncing the sound was absolutely the worst! All my nightmares came back when we redid the audio during the restoration. Squeak, squeak, squeak! I loved the rest of the editing process. I was making a movie for the first time!
Your film came out a month before the institution of the MPAA’s first voluntary ratings system, which is basically the same model for movie ratings that we have in place today. Were you worried about censorship?
No! All we were concerned about was: Don’t blink! Push the envelope a little, but don’t cut away when the bad shit happens. We were equally concerned with the thematic message. But we did tell ourselves that we would show the gore. And why not? There was no ratings system. We were chastised for that, most notably by Roger Ebert. In those days, distributors released Night of the Living Dead with, I don’t know, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or something. Children’s fare. Ebert saw the film at a matinee with children, and wrote a damning article that was picked up by Reader’s Digest. After that, Roger and I became really good friends. I love Roger.
Drive-in movie distributor American International Pictures didn’t want to distribute the film because of its happy ending, which was a shock, since other prospective distributors frequently told you that it was an AIP type of film. How hard was it to stick to your guns and not change the ending, especially given that Columbia Pictures had courted you but ultimately decided that they couldn’t sell a black-and-white picture?
We walked away and naïvely said that we would live to fight another day. We did this not knowing about the business aspect of filmmaking at all. Maybe we should have taken that deal. But the way things worked out — including the loss of the copyright — made the film what it is. And now it’s officially art!
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