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This Weekend in 1968

This Weekend in 1968: Night of the Living Dead

Ann Heppermann

Kara Oehler

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"Night of the Living Dead"
(The Walter Reade Organization)
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In movie theaters across the country 40 years ago, terror took a new form: The flesh-eating zombie. "Night of the Living Dead" unearthed an army of ghouls to scare children and adults off their seats. It was so chillingly gruesome, in fact, that film critic Roger Ebert criticized the parenting skills of people who took their children to see it. Today as part of our series "This Weekend in 1968," we talk with the people who made and acted in the film. And they tell how the events of 1968 have made people read much more into the film than the horror they wanted to create.

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Tape: There's two of them out there, have you seen any more?

John Russo: I'm John Russo, I was co-author of "Night of the Living Dead" along with George Romero and I also played the part of a zombie that gets a tire iron in the head.

Tape: Ehhhh.

Russo: And I had a very memorable line: "Ehhhh!"

Tape: Ehhhhh.

Russo: Well, I went to see every movie that came into town and I always wanted to see a good horror film, and you usually didn't.

Tape: The beast from 20,000 fathoms!

Russo: And they'd have this thing like, "Attack of the Giant Grasshopper."

Tape: The black scorpion destroys communication!

Russo: And they all had formulaic plots.

Tape: Well, call the National Guard back!

Russo: And in the end, the National Guard would come in and wipes it out with flame throwers.

Tape: Tell them we need some heavy equipment, guns, tanks, anything!

Russo: And so we wanted to make a movie that really paid people off for horror films.

Russ Streiner: It is basically, a storyline of people who are in a very rural setting.

Russo: Russ Streiner was co-producer of "Night of the Living Dead."

Streiner: They've got two major ones that they're dealing with. Number one are the unrelenting undead things that have surrounded the farmhouse that they're holed up in.

Tape: There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins.

Streiner: And the second major problem they have is dealing their own reactions within the house.

Tape: You're insane! The cellar is the safest place. I'm telling you they can't get in here!

Streiner: In a nutshell that's the hopelessness of their situation.

Tape: And so this incredible story becomes more ghastly with each report.

Russo: George Romero and I were both working on script ideas, and I said to George, "This is all really good, but who are these attackers?" and George said he hadn't figured that out yet, and I said it seems to me that they could be dead people and he said, "Oh, that's good."

Russo: My idea was aliens were coming to earth in search of human flesh, and I said why don't we use my flesh-eating idea and George said, "Oh, that's good."

Tape: Medical authorities in Cumberland have concluded that in all cases, the killers are eating the flesh of the people they murder.

Russo: You know zombies weren't heavy-weight freight material like werewolves and vampires. Until we turned them into flesh eaters…then they became terrifying.

Tape: Test, are we back on, oh, we're coming back on the air after an interruption due to technical problems.

Streiner: The cemetery scene is the very opening scene of the film. I'm Russ Streiner, I was the co-producer of the original "Night of the Living Dead." I was also the character of Johnny, the annoying brother right at the very beginning of the film.

Tape: There's nothing wrong with the radio. It must have been the station.

Judy O'Dea: I am Judith O'Dea. I played Barbara.

Tape: Which row is it in?

O'Dea: We're coming up into an old, dark, gloomy cemetery.

Streiner: To put a wreath on our father's grave.

O'Dea: We go to the gravesite.

Tape: You used to really be scared here, Johnny.

Streiner: They see an elderly person wondering in the cemetery.

O'Dea: He figures this is a wonderful way to play on Barbara's fears.

Streiner: "They're coming to get you Barbara."

O'Dea: My line to him is:

Tape: Stop it! You're ignorant.

Tape: They're coming for you, Barbara. Look, there comes one of them now!

Streiner: Look, there comes one of them now.

O'Dea: But sure enough as I cross by this fellow's path, he reaches out and attacks me.

Tape: OH NOO!!!!!

O'Dea: I scream.

Tape: Johnny!!! Help me!!!

O'Dea: Johnny comes to my aid. He is killed. And I run to save my life. That is the opening.

O'Dea: Children and adults were terrified by this movie. I can remember the Chicago Sun came out with an article that said at the beginning of the film, children were running up and down the aisle with their popcorn, they were so excited. Then as it progressed.

Tape: OOHHHH!!!

O'Dea: You saw them get quieter and quieter until at the very end, they were crying and hiding under their seats.

O'Dea: I've had several decades of family come up to me and said, "You scared me to death when I was a little kid." The first thing out of my mouth is, "Oh, I'm so sorry"…And then I stop myself and say, "Well, I guess that's what we were supposed to do."

O'Dea: In 1968, when everything was going on with all the racial problems in the country…

Streiner: We made the decision to cast an African-American actor Duane Jones in the lead male role.

Tape: Don't worry about him, I can handle him. Probably be a lot more them as soon as they find out about us.

Russo: Well we cast Duane Jones because he was the best actor that read for the part. But with that being said, I was very much aware of the effect Duane being black, especially in towns in the South where we still had white and colored water fountains and all that.

Tape: We have to wait for Johnny.

O'Dea: It was written in the script that Barbara was to smack Ben at least three times,

Tape: Please! We have got to go get Johnny! Please!!!

O'Dea: But this was a very sensitive issue for Duane Jones at that time and he said, "I can accept being smacked once. But I don't want to play it the way that you've written it." It was re-written…

Tape: Your brother is dead. No! My brother is not dead!

O'Dea: I gave him a smack--

Tape: [Slap!]

O'Dea: And he gave me the fist--

Tape: [Wham!]

O'Dea: Right in the face.

Tape: Oh!

Russo: And then she falls into his arms. And I know that a lot of the bigots in the country are going to be thinking, "Oh my God, now what's he going to do? He's got this white woman in his arms," and lays her down on the couch and he unfastens her coat…and so I was aware that it might have those kind of vibes, but we were out to make a lot of noise we were out to be iconoclastic and we didn't flinch. By the same token, we weren't out to make a social statement. We just wanted to make the scariest movie we could possibly make.

Tape: OHHHH!!!!!

O'Dea: One of the most terrifying scenes for me was the scene where Barbara really comes out of her catatonia.

O'Dea: Somebody is breaking in or some bodies.

O'Dea: They've grabbed Helen Cooper by the throat or by the hair. Barbara snaps to, she pulls her away from the door, but in doing so these zombies are breaking in…

Tape: NO! GET OUT!!!

O'Dea: And what she sees at that door just completely blows her mind.

Tape: Johnny! No!

O'Dea: It's her brother Johnny.

O'Dea: He grabs her…

Tape: Help me! Help me!

O'Dea: I'm literally swallowed up by these zombies and that, we assume, is that is Barbara's demise.

O'Dea: Our film was different at that point from any other in that not even one of them survived. At that time, that was so frightening to so many people.

Tape: All law enforcement agencies and the military have been organized to search out and destroy the marauding ghouls.

O'Dea: There is a scene where there are all kinds of people, a huge posse walking with their rifles to shoot the zombies.

Tape: Chief, if I were surrounded by six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance with them? If you have a gun shoot them in the head, that's a sure way to kill them.

Russo: I've never had a lot of confidence in people to act sanely especially when they're in a mob, and certainly we were seeing mobs. Even at a peace rally, everybody is for peace here, you don't know what they're going to do.

Russo: And so that brought me to mention, that somebody would get killed and wouldn't it be ironic if it were hero, Ben.

Tape: All right, Vince, hit him in the head, right between the eyes. Good shot, OK, he's dead. Let's go get him. That's another one for the fire.

O'Dea: Does "Night of the Living Dead" reflect the time of 1968? Absolutely. It in a way mirrors so much of what was happening at that time.

Streiner: And I think when you put those circumstances together, coupled with the fact that it was a very good story. It's still around 40 years after the fact, and it will be around, I'm convinced, a lot after we are not.

More stories from our This Weekend in 1968 series

Comments

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  • By cary baker

    From Ferndale, MI, 10/04/2008

    If you have the movie on VHS, watch in reverse. It’s kinda cool watch the zombies spitting out flesh and slapping the parts onto a body.

    By Barbara Gordon

    From Philomath, OR, 10/04/2008

    Oh, did this story bring back memories! In the very early 70's I was renting the top floor of an old house in Minneapolis and dating a pothead who insisted that all experiences were "more intense" with grass. So I was high when I saw Night of the Living Dead and then went home, alone, to this old house where I'd left all the windows open and all the blankets and other linens on the clothesline in a fit of early-spring cleaning.
    I spent a terrifying night, hiding in a closet, teeth chattering from the cold and from fright. That was the last horror movie I've ever watched.

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