George Romero was making TV commercials in Pittsburgh when he created “Night Of The Living Dead.” He started with an allegorical short story and $6,000, intending to make a real blood and guts film. The seminal 1968 classic amped up the gore and redefined horror movies for fear-sated audiences in the ’60s. It’s seen as a progenitor for modern zombie pop culture. When he died July 16, 2017 in Toronto, obits declared Romero “father of the modern movie zombie.” In 1972, I spoke with Romero in Pittsburgh for Filmmakers Newsletter Magazine — in honor of today’s dedication of his star on the Walk of Fame, here is the complete interview.
Would you describe the development of “Night of the Living Dead” from the beginning?
We had $6,000 and a loose idea based on a short story I’d written which was in fact an allegorical thing. We decided to take that and turn it into a real blood and guts film, and that’s how it started.
The six originally in our group came from different fields. One was an attorney because we needed to incorporate. Two of the people were from a recording studio in town because at that time we didn’t have our own as we now do downstairs. One of the investors later on was a butcher, and that’s where we got the intestines. He brought them out to the set and we said, “That’s great.”
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A friend and I began writing a script, but we didn’t have it nearly completed when we started shooting. We cast around for people. That as kind of a random experience too: there wasn’t much to draw on in Pittsburgh except a friend of ours, Duane Jones, who is the black actor who plays Ben in the picture. We had no preconceived notion as to the role being a black role, Duane came in, he looked right, he read well, so we used him. We never took any further note of it. It’s not mentioned in the script at all, although I know we’re getting a lot of press comment over that fact. Somebody, I forget who, mentioned that when he dies you can hear the strain of “Old Man River” on the soundtrack, but it’s just not there at all.
The blond girl, Barbara, is a Pittsburgh girl who was on the West Coast and happened to come back into town about then, so we used her. And the younger girl was a secretary here and her boyfriend was a guy who was doing nightclub gigs so we used him too. Harry Cooper and his wife were the two investors from the recording studio, and their little girl is Harry’s girl in real life. So that was the group.
Then for the ghouls: whenever we needed people, we just recruited people. It was mostly our clients and friends. We just said, “C’mon out, we’ll have a ball.” And we always had kegs of beer and a lot of food and got as many as we needed every time [chuckles remembering]. We wound up paying them all SAG wages as the money came in later, but nobody was paid on the spot. No one knew whether the film would be distributed or what; but once we started we had to keep rolling because we had commercials to shoot, so we started before everything was complete.
We shot in several lumps of time, and I had an idea where we were going with the thing. I had in the back of my mind the whole time the old DC comic books-you know, Tales From the Crypt and stuff like that. I used to be a big comic fan, although I don’t think I am now except maybe in a nostalgic way. Most of the lines were written, some the night before. We’d sit around knowing the direction the thing had to go and write dialogue. Some of it, out of frustration, we just went flat out with, doing the obvious like, “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together won’t solve anything.”
The story was an allegory written to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves. But we didn’t really try to write that stuff in and we didn’t shoot it for the pat explanations or anything. We shot it just the way things would be if the dead returned to life. For instance, we let the news commentator write his own copy. We gave him the germ of the idea and he was a newsman and wrote his copy; and the sheriff and the posse, we didn’t try to gloss them up at all-we just shot a bunch of people. We gave them guns and they kind of just went ahead. The sheriff wasn’t actually a sheriff or an actor. He was just a mill hand. Just a beautiful guy. One of those guys you can put in front of a camera or in front of ten thousand people and he’ll just be himself.
“We had no preconceived notion as to the role being a black role: Duane [Jones] came in, he looked right, he read well, so we used him.”
What equipment did you use?
We shot entirely in 35mm. We used two Arriflex thirty-fives, one in a blimp. We used all quartz lights. It was all the stuff we had. We used one Nagra for sound, with one microphone, although we used lavalieres in a couple of sequences. Although we used two cameras we never had both rolling simultaneously on any of the sync sound foot-age. We had the blimp housing for one camera, and all the sound is the location sound. We didn’t dub anything, except for one or two words during the escape sequence because we were shooting wild. But the rest of it was the actual sound in the house, and in most cases you can hear it. I mean, it has kind of a hollow sound, but I thought it was pretty successful for being purely location stuff, and some of it was pretty difficult to stage.
The make-up was done by Harry and Helen Cooper, the people that played Harry and Helen in the film, that is. We didn’t really need very much. None of the effects make-up was very heavy. For costuming we just went around and picked things out-old clothes lying in people’s attics, etc.
What stock did you use to achieve your purposes?
It was all 35mm negative. Plus X mostly. Four X in some of the night stuff. Tri X where we wanted to create some grain, even when we were inside the house. We wanted that flat kind of graininess when Barbara first enters the house and when Ben first arrives and is rummaging around looking for supplies and so forth. We wanted to create a depressing or oppressing air to the thing.
Was your use of black and white intentional?
No, budgetary. If we’d gone to color it would have been part of the strategy of walking the line again, because it’s very difficult to get a black and white picture distributed. We had a hell of a time because we were in black and white. In fact, there were quite a few arguments about it. When you talk to distributors the main criteria they use in determining a film’s worth has nothing at all to do with the picture itself. It’s all of the formula things, and it’s amazingly frustrating.
What was your shooting ratio on “Dead”? What ratio do you like to work on?
I’d like to work infinity to one [laughs]. I overshoot. When I shoot something I’m directing I shoot everything. Because we had such little seed money, though, on “Living Dead,” I think we came in at twelve to one. And I was amazed. I was saying until the last day, we’re not going to make it.
What do you consider a realistic ratio?
For the way I produce I like to budget a film at thirty five or forty to one, which may sound high, but we wind up shooting it. It’s a luxury I know, but we shot “Vanilla” in 16mm and “Jack’s Wife” in 16mm, and shooting 16 I was able to spill the stuff out of the camera and I just loved it.
How long were you actually in production?
It took about a seven-month period, but there were only thirty production days in there because we shot for two weeks and then we broke, then we shot again for a few days, and then we broke again. As I said, we were shooting around a commercial schedule we had to keep which really made it a bitch.
Didn’t that make continuity difficult?
Yes, but we really didn’t have any alternative. And really, it’s not like we were trying to maintain any kind of subtle mood. The attitude of that film can be understood in an instant; and you just kind of get yourself into that attitude and go out and do it.
What were some of your problems as director?
Primarily to forget that we were making a horror film. I just wanted them to appear as though they were worried about a snowstorm or something. I didn’t want anybody to get very intense with it except in the areas where we just threw up our hands and went camp with it and then we just had fun. In some sequences I just wanted them to move and say lines rather unobtrusively. Just get through it comfortably. A lot of the time I’d create the situation and get them moving before I’d even pick up the camera. Like in the sieges and some of the bigger scenes, I’d just get the situation going and walk around and look at it for awhile, then I’d pick up the camera and start shooting.
What was the most difficult scene to do?
I guess the escape sequence out of the farmhouse. There was the gun shooting, and fire, and explosions which never really came off all that well. That was the most difficult scene logistically and as far as special effects go. And it was all night stuff.
Was it something you could shoot only once?
We had two trucks we’d bought for $35 apiece and they ran, so we had another shot if we screwed up, but we got it the first time. That scene was shot wild. We took the other Arri out of the blimp and used both wild.
How’d you get the police cooperation?
We just called them up and said, “We’re shooting a film,” and they said, “Oh yeah.” And we said, “Yeah, this is what we need. We need police cars, wagons, men, dogs, weapons.” The policemen in uniform were real, and a lot not in uniform were off-duty cops that came and brought weapons and things. No problems at all. We weren’t shooting in the city, so we didn’t have to get involved with permits; but we found it very easy to get cooperation.
We just scrounged everything else we needed. The farmhouse was on a deserted farm that was going to be ripped down and we went out and rented it for the summer. We just convinced them not to rip it down until the summer was over.
You also did editing. Was that phase difficult?
It was from the standpoint that when I direct I don’t think of the cutting, I’ll go out and shoot a sequence like those sieges at the house and I’ll literally wait until I see something I want to shoot. I don’t log it or do anything with it. I just go back and look at the footage and get familiar with it, then decide how I want to cut it. And I’m often left short that way.
Rex Reed calls “Living Dead” “crudely made.” Does that bother you?
No. I agree with him. Some of it’s intentional. In other words, some of the graininess and some of the simplicity is intentional. We make a living making a glass of beer look like heaven, and we could have glossed this up too. This is one of the talents our shop has, making things look beautiful. Maybe that’s why we went as far the other way as we did. We used as often as possible what was there. We tried to be as unpretentious as possible in designing the sets. And we were. The house was bare. There was thought behind everything we brought into that farmhouse.
|Night Of The Living Dead – 1968
Newsweek called “Dead” “a step beyond in gore.” Was this intentional?
It was to the extent that we felt that films aren’t usually made this graphic. But why not? You know what’s happening. Why cut away when you know exactly what’s going on? We got the intestines, and we showed the ghouls going at them, and we said, “Well, we’re just going to leave that stuff in” [spoken like a defiant little boy imitating a vampire].
Do you feel your personality comes through in the film?
No. [big laugh] Well, it does in some of the sequences-in the ones I could shoot the way I enjoy shooting, primarily the action sequences where I could get really involved.
Cinematically I think that’s the only place you can see my style, if I have a style.
Do you have a style?
I think so. I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. I like to shoot and cut my own material. If I had to define my style I’d say it was almost cubist. Like if I had to shoot what was happening in this room right now I’d just be all over the place and not making any decisions at all until I had the material. I’d cut it so I could look at the film and remember exactly what was happening from many different points of view. It would be cubist. It other words, there wouldn’t necessarily be any relation be-tween shot to shot, but my cutaways would be informational cutaways. They’d be quick and I’d cut down as much as I could to go for as many angles and viewpoints as I could.
Two of your three films have dealt with the occult. Are you a student of the black arts?
How did you finance the film?
We financed the film as we went along. We formed a separate corporation to shoot it and we were stealing a bit from the Latent Image kitty to keep the thing rolling. We got enough to put a couple sequences in the can, cut it, and then showed it to people. At that time we started to sell stock at two different levels. I forget what the exact structure was. Then when we got it down to a final interlock and needed all of our money to finish it and print it, we sold stock at a higher price. All in all it was a small amount involved. $70,000 was the cash we had in when we finally put it in the distributor’s hands, and $114,000 was the money after the deferments to the actors were paid off.
How did you go about approaching distributors?
We told the distributors that this film had some potential beyond just an ordinary “blood-and-guts” piece. No one, of, course, listened to that. It was our first time out of the gate. We didn’t have final cut approvals; we didn’t have anything, when we finally signed with the Walter Reade Organization. They gave it good promotion, but a flat, drive-in blood-and-guts promotion.
The film did pretty well when it first came out. Immediately we had indications that it was unique. It started to get editorialized by Readers Digest, Life Magazine, and people were saying, “This is about the grossest thing possible. How far will you go to make money?”
Can you name some specific things you think a distributor looks for?
Okay. For example, color. Identifiable talents. Identifiable musical talents if there aren’t any on screen. Pace. Action. And I don’t mean “here’s a scene with the pacing wrong.” I don’t mean anything that might be valid. I’m talking about real, you know, “Well, it needs some action here. I don’t care what it is.” It’s like you walk into a distributor’s office and see that chart on his wall where he knows in May of ’72 he’s got to release a Sean Connery piece, and he doesn’t give a damn what it is, except in that particular time, in order to advance Connery and to advance the studio, they have to release something there. And beyond that nothing matters. And that really is true, and it’s a very frustrating experience.
We went to four or five distributors before going with Reade. 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.”
Is Hollywood dead?
Hollywood is dead, but the distributor ain’t! Hollywood has moved is all that’s happened. I’ll be happy when there is finally a coalition of producers that are distributing because you cannot get the most basic filmic understanding from any one commercial distributor. You have people who’ve been attorneys. You have people who’ve been in other cut-throat businesses and who are looking at it from a purely business point of view. They all think they [snapping fingers] can call the shot as to what’s gonna really sell this season-and none of them really know. They analyze the most basic aspect of the last film that was a big hit, and they think they can duplicate that and they don’t. There isn’t going to be the same kind of trend each season. A good film’s going to make it, and for several reasons: Maybe it’ll be that the film has a certain attitude or a certain viewpoint that hasn’t been adopted before; or maybe it’ll even be the topical, exploitable content of the film that makes it successful. But that’s not all there is to it.
What else is there?
I put, maybe jadedly, a heavy weight on the promotion, although again, it’s a combination of reasons. But I think a film is largely sold to the public. I don’t think Easy Rider would have done anything at all (it might have been a Living Dead kind of thing) had it not had the promotion that it had.
Would you like to work on a commercially backed production?
Maybe. It’s just because I don’t have the experience, but I would want it to be a certain way and I don’t know if I could get that. I just don’t know. l don’t know that power, and again, I’m very suspicious because of the corporate involvement we’ve had. I don’t know what the pecking order is, I don’t know who really pulls those strings. I don’t know what happens over in that machine. I don’t know when you get involved in a production like, say, Rosemary’s Baby, how much does Polanski really do? Or how much does the art director do? Or how much does Mia Farrow do? Or how much does Mia Farrow’s agent do? I just don’t know. I’ve been so involved with the hassling and back-stabbing at the level we’re operating under, that I wonder what it might be like when you’re talking about that kind of money and to that many people who are either stars or have the power; and I just don’t know what it’s like; but I’m very afraid of it. I really am.
I feel this whole phase these past three years has been very temporary. I don’t know where I’m going to be two years from now, and it’s almost like OK. I’ve jumped into the corporate hassle right now, and I’m swimming blind to get through with this phase of it, hoping after each project that we get a distributor or take a step towards solvency and that maybe it’ll be the last step.
If I haven’t achieved, under this structure, the kind of solvency and creative freedom that’s going to allow me to stay with it, I don’t know what I’ll do. I might go with a commercial shop exclusively, go purely for the bread. I don’t really think I’d want to go into the studio thing. I think I’d rather be a commercial director because I think you’re really more flexible. I don’t trust the studio system. I don’t know what it’d be like, but I know the commercial market pretty well; and I know I can exist in it with very little being sand-papered off of me.
My primary thing is wanting to be in control. The only reason I’ve enjoyed being with this company is that I’ve been the president of it since it’s existed. The main thing I’ve gotten out of it is being able, in every aspect, to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do.
The one thing I hope any recognition I receive brings is just this. When I walk in, I will be able to say: “This is the way it’s going to be done.” And that’s the way I would hope it will be.