October continues, and we’re moving to our next batch of favorite on-screen monsters. This week we’re talking about zombies and all the glorious ways George Romero changed that sub-genre forever. Originally an urban legend in Voodoo culture, the term “zombie” was forever married to an image of mobs of the undead searching for flesh to sink their rotting teeth into. It’s a friendly image, no doubt.
We’ve already turned our eardrums over what Romero had to say on the commentary track for Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to this groundbreaking classic, but now we’re going back to the source. This time around, Romero has brought along two members of the cast and his co-writer, John Russo, so the conversation should be a bit livelier than creatures they all had a hand in creating on screen. So here we go, all 26 things we learned from the commentary track for Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Commentators: George Romero (writer/director), Marilyn Eastman (“Helen”), Karl Hardman (“Harry”), and John Russo (co-writer)
- Romero starts the track off by saying the commentary will end up on what he hopes will be the definitive and finally final FINAL version of Night of the Living Dead. “On video.” For those keeping track at home, the Blu-ray still hasn’t been made.
- The car Barbara and Johnny are traveling in in the film’s opening scenes belonged to producer Russell Streiner’s mother, who used the car for her own, personal needs all through the shooting of this very independent film. At one point, she had accidentally dented the vehicle, and the crew had to work around or write the damage into the screenplay. The moment where Barbara drives the car into a tree to get away from the first zombie was written for this purpose. It’s also later pointed out that it’s actually Streiner playing Johnny, though he’s not credited in the film. Russo mentions they saved money by casting themselves in small roles like that.
- At some point after the film’s production, a tornado hit the cemetery location used in the opening scene uprooting trees and pulling more than 200 bodies to the surface. Romero asks if the bodies walked, to which Russo, who is telling the story, says they tried to.
- Romero asks if the tombstone Barbara is kneeling in front of was fake or not. “Are you kidding?” says Russo. “We couldn’t afford fake tombstones in those days.”
- The lightning effects were pulled off shooting closeups with the lights they had on set turned all the way up, almost whiting out objects or actors they are close to. They then cut away from medium or long shots to these closeups then back again along with a thunder sound effect to complete it. Closeups were used, because the lights they had weren’t strong enough to fill any shots that were wider.
- Likewise, the only reason they decided to add the lightning effects was because it began to drizzle on the day they filmed at the cemetery. Russo notes they added the lightning effects in case the camera picked up the rain. Also the movie was originally about hippies until an actual zombie outbreak took place in Eastern Pennsylvania. Watch Return of the Living Dead to hear that story.
- In the script’s original ending, the posse who finds the farmhouse travels through the cemetery seen in the opening moments, and the come across the car Barbara drove into the tree and even Johnny’s body. Russo points out this was changed after they decided to have Johnny come back in the end as a zombie.
- When the production came across the farmhouse location, the owners were planning to destroy it. “We said, ‘Well, we can do that for you,’” jokes Romero. The production had to completely clean the farmhouse up to make it appear livable. Russo notes the kitchen was the first room they cleaned, as they felt a clean place to have lunch was the most important factor to having a workable set.
- Russo points out how Night of the Living Dead was the first movie to feature flesh-eating zombies, and they had to invent how “ghouls,” as he calls them, walked and moved. He points out Bill Heinzman, who plays the first zombie Barbara comes across, had difficulty figuring out how to move. The script called them slow-moving, but he had to be strong enough to break windows and bust down doors. Romero’s direction to him was just to “do it anyway,” and he did. Thank you, Bill Heinzman, for inventing how zombies move.
- Romero points out that despite the film’s budget and how tight they were having to work when it came to equipment, he feels the cameras they used allowed for ample amounts of depth in each shot. He also notes late in production after they had picked up additional investors there was discussion about reshooting in color what they had already shot in black and white. They had already shot roughly a week’s worth of filming, and they would have to go to 16mm if they switched to color. All of this factored in their decision to stick with black and white.
- Russo plays the zombie Ben kills with the tire iron inside the farmhouse, and Romero mentions he approves of his co-writers “zombie walk.” “I was probably hung over,” says Russo.
- The character of Ben was written without race in mind, and Russo and Romero note they didn’t factor color into casting. Romero points out they didn’t change the script or the character once Duane Jones was cast. However, Jones changed his character, as he didn’t want to play a tough guy. Ben was originally written as a typical truck driver, but the actor wanted him to be a more subdued personality. Everyone on the commentary agrees his choices for the character work. “Duane was an intellectual,” says Hardman, “and that feeling came out in the way he played the character.”
- The farmhouse didn’t have running water, and Russo, Romero, and production designer Vincent Survinski had to stay at the house each night and settle for “cat baths” every morning. Russo remembers having to boil water on the stove and sleeping on cots. He remembers finding Survinski on the front porch one morning pouring water into sheep intestines to make them more cinematic. Now who wants to make an indie movie?
- The basement set was not part of the farmhouse, which didn’t even have a basement. Survinski built and framed the door seen in the film that supposedly leads to the basement, but it’s just fixed into the wall. The basement set was the basement of the crew’s offices in Pittsburgh.
- As well as playing Helen Cooper, Eastman plays the zombie who eats a bug off a tree. Romero points out that no one can tell it’s her underneath all the makeup on her face. Eastman points out that she did her own makeup for that shot.
- There’s some debate on whether or not Night of the Living Dead was the first movie to ever incorporate squibs to depict gunshots, and Russo mentions he felt at the time that Regis Survinski and Tony Pantanella, the special effects team who were originally fireworks specialists, were inventing the technique. Romero also questions whether or not their film was the first to use them. However, a quick search tells us a Polish film from 1955, Pokolenie, was the first movie to incorporate squibs. We still really dig fireworks, though.
- The basement used for the farmhouse’s basement also served as prop storage during production and random storage for the crew during post-production. During this time, a flood destroyed much of Romero and Russo’s early films as well as an early workprint of Night of the Living Dead.
- At one point the distributor convinced Romero to cut time from the film, and the director notes his favorite shot of the zombies in the fields outside was lost with this cut, which totaled six minutes. It was a wide shot featuring dozens of zombies, some created out of mannequins. Romero regrets not including it somewhere else in the film, but, being before the days of computer backups and Avids, it was lost with the overall cut for time.
- Other conflicts of budget and the era in which the film was made included shooting on 35mm print but only having equipment to edit on 16mm. The crew had to transfer all the footage to 16mm before they could work on editing it. Russo also notes they rarely had time or film for more than one take on any shot, and they had no way to checking it. He had to trust Romero was getting every shot just right. The sound was also mixed without seeing the picture. Now who wants to make an indie movie in the ‘60s?
- The town names used in the broadcasts seen in the film were actual town names throughout Pennsylvania, and Romero cites this for the reason they had to make announcements when it first ran on TV stating the events being depicted were not real. “We figured if we had to carry the picture from drive-in to drive-in to get it on screens, maybe people would recognize all these different towns,” says Russo. He also notes the networks were worried it would essentially be a repeat of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the controversy surrounding that.
- Romero points out an instance where two characters are both facing left while conversing, an issue with the 180-degree rule in film-making. He notes they had no way of keeping track of these things in those days, and mistakes like that were bound to happen. Storyboarding. That’s all that needs to be said. Storyboarding.
- The boards on the windows and doors had writing on them, so the crew would know which board went where during shooting. Shooting out of chronological order meant the boards had to be up or down at different points. Russo notes you can see these markings in the scene where Ben is removing the boards from the front door.
- Russo asks Hardman how he takes it that audiences cheer when Ben kills his character near the end of the film. “I take it as a tribute to my acting ability,” the actor says.
- Though Silly Putty and other basic, special effects techniques were used, most of the body parts the “zombies” are eating were real internal organs and bones from animals, and a lot of the actors playing the flesh-eater roles were friends in advertising and clients Russo and Romero were in contact with. “They were all commercial clients of ours that we considered staid people ordinarily, and it just stunned us that they chomped into these organs,” says Russo.
- While writing the screenplay for Night of the Living Dead, Romero took on a separate job, and Russo was tasked with writing the back half. When he finished, Romero read it and felt it was missing something. He felt the last act of the film needed one more attack sequence before the final attack, and Russo agrees that it filled a hole in the earlier draft. When in doubt, throw in one more zombie wave attack. It’s basic rule of zombie law.
- Russo remembers a chess challenge between Russell Streiner and the sound engineer at the lab. If Russ won the chess game, they would get the sound mix done for free, but if he lost, they’d have to pay double. Some of the cast and crew watched the game, which Russ did end up winning.
Best in Commentary
“When people say, ‘That was a brave move,’ I just say, ‘That was the way we worked.’ And most of the politics or whatever political tones are in this film with the posse and the attitude or the way the posse is depicted is much more a reflection of the way our particular group of friends were thinking at the time rather than any sort of calculated political statement we were trying to make.” -George Romero
“I’ll go to my grave with some of that nitrate.” -George Romero without context, but it’s still a damn cool quote
As likable as this commentary track for Night of the Living Dead is, it seems to be coming from a viewpoint that its audience knows much about the backstory to the film they’re watching. Romero and Russo never get into the basic idea of the film and where it came from, and much of the commentary falls into the area of the four trying to remember much of what went down behind the scenes in particular scenes. It was an extremely low-budget set, so much of the commentary includes pointing out friends, family, and crew members playing characters and locations and vehicles that belonged to people they knew. It’s indulgent, but you forgive it for the commentator’s joy in just making a movie.
Still, there seems to be a lot of information left out of what’s supposed to be the “definitive” commentary track for this film. Breaking the cast up between two commentaries was the first issue. This particular DVD features a second track with Bill Hinzman, Judith O’Dea, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon, Russell Streiner, and Vince Survinski and sounds twice as unwieldy as this one we’ve covered here. There are interesting bits scattered throughout, but it feels like much of it is a missed opportunity.