Night of the Living Dead co-creator John Russo talks about the zombie legacy he created, the current zombie craze, and dishes all kinds of graveyard dirt on one George A. Romero. Read on, Horror Fans….
Every three months, a small convention is held in a suburb of the Zombie Capital of the World, Pittsburgh, PA. Gracing this convention with his presence every time is horror legend and co-creator of Night of the Living Dead, John Russo. This convention is a place for horror, toy, comic, and sci-fi geeks alike to gather in herds and invade Monroeville, PA at least four times a year. Oh yeah, I should mention that this convention is held just 300 yards away from the mall where the original Dawn of the Dead was filmed. For those of you who don’t know, John pioneered and saved the zombie movie. He took a terrible idea, reworked it, and helped make Night of the Living Dead. To this day, that movie remains terrifying and I had the pleasure to speak with one of the men behind the horror….
RavMon: John, what’s your opinion of the current horde of zombie creations? Has it gone too mainstream?
John Russo: No, I don’t think it’s gone too mainstream at all; the more the better. I have several zombie scripts right now for my new novel that’s coming out called The Hungry Dead. It’s actually a trade paperback that’s a follow up to the trades of Night of the Living Dead and the first book I wrote, Return of the Living Dead. It’s based on my book Midnight, which is the scariest of them all. It also has Escape of the Living Dead. The more publicity about zombies with this phenomenon, the better for our careers. We’re also talking about doing Night of the Living Dead Live, which is a stage show opening in Toronto in April, 2013 and coming to Pittsburgh in October of that year to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the movie.
I don’t mind anyone coming up with their own unique take on zombies, as long as we’re not ripped off by people taking the name of the movie, scripts, etc. It causes a lot of headaches and legal problems when they do. I have not seen, nor do I care to see any of The Walking Dead. Good for them if they’re making money with it. At least they’re not ripping us off. I like my ideas to be unique and I can’t see copying from anyone else.
I was actually the one that came up with the idea of dead people in Night of the Living Dead. Romero didn’t have any idea what they’d be until I came up with that. I re-wrote the first half of his story and screenplay and wrote the second half myself. People don’t realize that. Without my ideas, you don’t have Night of the Living Dead and you don’t have the zombie phenomenon as it exists today. It was when they became flesh eaters — that did the trick.
RavMon: About your book Return of the Living Dead, I read it and I loved it. I thought it was very dark and scary. Comparing it to the movie version, it seems like a totally different story. Is there a reason why the scarier book version did not get made into a movie?
JR: The reason is, we sold that version and I was supposed to direct it. Then I brought Tobe Hooper in, and he was supposed to direct it. Later it got sold to Orion. They decided that straight horror was dead and decided to make it a comedy. I’ve only seen parts one and two of Dan O’Bannon’s version of Return of the Living Dead and I liked it. I thought he did a good job. A straight horror version probably should have been made. Escape of the Living Dead is back in to that same kind of dark horror, back to the roots. I hope a deal comes forward for that. Gunnar Hansen, Kane Hodder, Tony Todd, and Tom Savini were going to be a part of it. Cerina Vincent, and so on. The cast, they’re trying to come up with the money right now. It’s Stoneybrook Entertainment in Hollywood.
RavMon: Earlier, when Night of the Living Dead was still an idea between George Romero and yourself, George had said he took the idea from Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend. I read that story and watched the movie and didn’t get that opinion. I like Matheson as an author, and don’t think it appears as a ripoff.
JR: I never read I Am Legend, and didn’t have any idea that George was basing the story off of that. I think that I pulled his ass out of the fire unwittingly because he didn’t know. It has the right suspense, twists and turns, but who are they? He never said what these creatures were that were chasing the girl. He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘It seems to me that they can be dead people.’ He then said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we use my flesh eating idea?’ The script I was working on had to do with aliens landing on earth looking for human flesh.
I think the reason George stopped writing his version was because he knew that if he would have revealed them as vampires, then everyone would know it was an I Am Legend ripoff. That’s why I say that I bailed him out. I came up with the novelty ideas, rewrote his stuff. It needed that injection of fresh ideas because he was out of them. For a long time I didn’t even mention this kind of thing because I didn’t want to rain on George’s parade but after a while I got pissed off that people act like I don’t have a right to work with the movie and the 30th Anniversary Edition when here I was the one who came up with the idea. So, that’s the story of that.
Years later, George was on a talk show with Matheson, and I guess he was a little embarrassed because he told Matheson that he ripped off his idea. Matheson said it was alright if you didn’t make much money, which we didn’t because we were ripped off by the distributors. I’ve always worked hard at making my ideas original and unique — all of my books and scripts. I think that was a vital ingredient of making Night of the Living Dead successful. The straight horror [version] of Return of the Living Dead has that same feeling to it.
The other thing that happened was that George’s script for Dawn of the Dead was about two people living in a crawl space in the mall. He read Return of the Living Dead and all of a sudden, he saw a way to open up the script. We had a raiding party cavalierly gunning down zombies and now they’re a swat team in Dawn of the Dead. A lot of those ideas were a direct lift off of our script which is one of the main reasons why I couldn’t get it sold as straight horror. Dawn of the Dead looks like George had the original idea and I’m the copycat which is a real pain in the ass. That’s what happened.
RavMon: Tell me a little about your school up in DuBois, PA.
JR: Russ Streiner and I are co-directors of a movie making program in Dubois, PA at Dubois Business College (www.dbcollege.com). You can see samples of students’ work. Five straight years the students have won prizes in the 48-hour film project. The work they’re doing is fantastic. We think it’s an underpublicized program, but we think it’s the best in the country. I’ve studied other peoples’ programs and workshops for 30 years. I did my own seminar and my own workshop and we got the program licensed. I know what other people are doing and we’re doing it better. It’d be easier if we were in Pittsburgh.
Check it out. It’s a beautiful campus. Only 250 in the whole school, you get personal attention, you get a very good day-to-day instructor who has a master’s in filmmaking — Ryan Haggerty. Russ and I give the benefit of our 40-plus years in the entertainment industry. I’ve done 20 books, 20 movies, 30 comic books, umpteen of everything, magazines and so on. You don’t find that too often in instructors. You typically find instructors that know filmmaking but don’t know how to teach and vice versa. I have a degree in education, see what I mean? It’s all combined in one ball of wax. That’s why I’m able to come up with a curriculum that works.
RavMon: It’s good to hear that more schools regarding horror movie creation are in the Pittsburgh region. This is the second school I’ve heard of that had someone involved with the Night of the Living Dead/zombie movies in this area. I heard Tom Savini also has a similar school. Pittsburgh people like dealing with Pittsburgh people. We also like knowing that other Pittsburgh folks are making movies and spreading the knowledge to others.
JR: We started the whole thing. Before we made Night of the Living Dead, people didn’t know movies could be made here. We pioneered movie-making in Pittsburgh. Romero did a lot of movies here. Russ (Streiner) founded the Pittsburgh film office, built it up from nothing to having at least five different movies filming here at all times. I said to Russ the other day, “We don’t think about it very often. You’ve been a benefactor for thousands by founding the film office, getting the productions, getting the state to come up with the film tax credits. We don’t pat ourselves on the back enough for this. All of those people who are not just making burger-flipping money, but real dollars all because of what we did.”
RavMon: There’s already been a Night of the Living Dead (1990) remake, which I’ll admit that I liked a lot. I didn’t like it as much as the original despite the fact that I was born 12 years after the original movie was made. I feel like I was born in the wrong era. To this day, the black and white version is my favorite. I won’t watch the color, painted version. It’s my all time favorite horror movie. What’s your favorite?
JR: Somebody asked me the other day what my all-time favorite horror movie was and I told them Night of the Living Dead because it started it all and is a recognized classic. What else can I say? I liked Shaun of the Dead, liked Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead; I liked 28 Days Later, which I believed turned into a Rambo film the last half hour. I didn’t like that part, a lot of good leading up to that. I liked Evil Dead when I saw that. I recognized immediately the talent that Sam Raimi had. Those people have stuck together and did it the same way we did it. They were inspired by Night of the Living Dead for Evil Dead because they wanted to make comedies.
RavMon: Would you be okay in the land of remakes? And believe me, I am getting tired of them; would you be ok if someone came to you and said, ‘John, would you be ok with remaking the Night of the Living Dead again?’
JR: It’s time. I’d like to do a remake that was really good. I don’t think we achieved what we wanted with the first remake. I think if it had been the original movie, it would have been a big hit. We actually were number 5 in the nation when that movie came out on a couple thousand screens. We still made number 5 and it was a bad week for movies. No movie made a lot of money that week for some reason. Anyway, I think it could stand another remake.
Financially, the shareholders who have really been cheated out of a lot of money would do a remake for their benefit. It’s my job and Russ’s job since we’re trustees of the organization that made Night of the Living Dead. We’re obligated to make money for the shareholders whether we get asked to do the 30th Anniversary, a documentary, a remake, or anything like that. We’re obligated to carry the whole thing forward.
RavMon: Ok, great. Well if you wouldn’t mind. Please state the name of your school and program again.
JR: John Russo Moviemaking — www.dbcollege.com at DuBois Business College. You can click on the website and watch Russ and I talking about the program. There are also samples of student work, etc.
RavMon: John, I thank you for your time today.
JR: Sure thing.
That concludes the interview folks. Based on what’s printed here, one might think of John as “Dangerfield” of the Dead. Too many other horror pages and critics alike think that he’s stealing Romero’s ideas, or that he doesn’t have a right to release anniversary editions of the movies he helped create. I say bullshit. This man is a true Master of Horror. Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of his double book Undead and read both Night of the Living Dead as well as the original, true-horror version of Return of the Living Dead. Why don’t you read them in the dark with nothing but a flashlight to illuminate the pages? You’ll see…you’ll all see…muah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!