They’re Coming to Get You Barbra: A Conversation with John A. Russo and Russell Streiner

In 1967 a small independent film crew assembled a group of actors and extras together in the town of Evans City, PA to film a little independent project called Night of the Living Dead and changed the world of horror forever.  One of the most important horror films in the history of the genre, Night of the Living Dead was unlike anything that had been seen by film audiences before.  Truly ahead of it’s time, the film was groundbreaking for its use of gore, violence, drama and artistic merit, returning the chills and thrills back into the horror genre and shocking an audience that had grown desensitized to the horror genre as a result of the campy B-films and monster films of the 50’s and 60’s, opening the doors for future horror blockbusters such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist and The Shining to be made in the next decade.  But most importantly, Night of the Living Dead redefined the premise of the zombie.  Once a staple of horror films from the past, instead of being nothing more then hypnotic voodoo slaves, zombies were now walking corpses, hungry for human flesh and more horrifying then anything seen on film before.  Due to the film’s immense popualrity a sub-genre of horror films devoted to flesh eating zombies would spring from the film, becoming more and more popular as time went by.  Arguably the most groundbreaking horror film of the modern age, Night of the Living Dead has been hailed as a cinematic masterpiece by both horror fans, and film historians.

"Night of the Living Dead's" writer John A. Russo

Although the film’s director, George A. Romero, would continue to make series of zombie films and sequels well into the 1990’s, being hailed as the Godfather of the Zombie Film, the original Night of the Living Dead was a true group effort.  With Romero as director, he was joined by partners John A. Russo, who wrote the original screenplay, and producer Russell Streiner to create their unique nightmare vision.  Together the three men assembled the funds, cast and crew to put together their zombie opus.  Meanwhile, Russo and Streiner also acted in the film, with Russo playing one of the film’s zombies, and Streiner taking on the key part of the film’s first victim Johnny, the brother of Barbra who is killed in the opening scene.

"Night of the Living Dead" producer Russell Streiner, who also played the key role of Johnny, the film's first victim

While Romero continued to make horror films, Russo and Streiner worked  in other aspects of film, including collaboration on a handful of other features, but primarily making documentaries, commercials and music videos.  However, over the last five years, Russo and Streiner have been sharing their experience with the next generation of film makers as the co-directors of the John A. Russo Movie Making Program at DuBois Business College in Pennsylvania, PA.  Mentoring the next crop of aspiring film visionaries in the art and business of film production, Russo and Streiner are helping to craft and mold the future of film making.

I was honored to sit down and visit with John Russo and Russell Streiner during their visit to Toronto during Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear, in conjunction with Toronto’s FanExpo.  Two friendly and unassuming gentlemen, it was hard at first to believe that one of the most demented masterpieces of movie macabre came from their collective minds, but as our conversation continued it became very clear that Russo and Streiner were very capable of scaring the hell out of multiple generations of movie fans.

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS

THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU, BARBRA

A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN A. RUSSO AND RUSSELL STREINER

"They're coming to get you, Barbra": John A. Russo as a zombie, and Russell Streiner as Johnny in "Night of the Living Dead"

Sam Tweedle:  So lets just start with the basics.  How was Night of the Living Dead first conceived?

Russ Streiner:  George Romero and I had started a production company in Pittsburg in 1961.  We were making TV commercials, industrial films and that kind of thing, always with the eye towards making a real movie, as we referred to it.  We brought investment into the company to back it, bought our own cameras and lights and studio equipment and audio equipment and by 1967 we had enough money to film a real movie.  John, who was working with us by that time, collaborated with George on the original script for Night of the Living Dead.

"Night of the Living Dead's" director George A. Romero collaborated with John Russo on the script, changing the faced of horror forever

John A. Russo:  George and I both wrote it.  We’d beat ideas around and bounce them off each other and so on.  I had said that whatever we do had to be started in a cemetery, because cemeteries scare people.  I was working on an idea where aliens came to Earth in search for human flesh and what they were doing were killing people and putting them under glass and letting them rot there.   Meanwhile George, over a weekend before Christmas, wrote a story that did start in a cemetery and had this girl being chased and so on, and I said ‘George, this is good.  It has all the twists and turns and suspense but who are these people that are doing this?”  Well [George] didn’t know, and I said “It seems to me that they should be dead people.”  He said “Oh.  That’s good.”  But I said “What are they after though?  They attack and they grab the girl but you never say why.”  Well he didn’t seem to know that either so I said “Why don’t we use my flesh eating idea?”  So that’s how they became dead people that were after human flesh.  Then we beat some more ideas around and we had script meetings with the other people.  So we basically had the first half done and then I wrote the whole second half myself.  We made some changes during filming, but that’s basically how it happened.

Sam:  Night of the Living Dead was one of the most successful independent films of all time.  How did you guys come up with the money to put it all together?

John:  Well if we had ten people and each kicked in six hundred bucks we have six thousands bucks.  We got together about ten people, between the six or seven people that worked for us and our close associates, including Marilyn Eastman and Karl Hardman, and so we called [our company] Image Ten.  But Russ worked out some more figures and came back with some dismal news that we couldn’t do it for six thousand.  It was going to take more like twelve thousand.  George went into the dumps and said “Oh, now we can’t do it.”  Well I said “The first ten people are like us.  They’re going to make the movie, and Karl and Marilyn are going to act in it, and we have another guys who’s going to be the lawyer, so they can get six shares from their six hundred, but the next ten people can only get two shares so then we can get some left over for profit.”  So we gave that a whirl and that’s how we did it.

"Night of the Living Dead" never uses the term "zombies," but helped redefined the concept of the creatures, creating a brand new horror sub-genre: "Not all zombies are ghouls. A ghoul is something that eats flesh. Not all zombies do that. We called them ghouls because that’s what they were"

Sam:  Of course Night of the Living Dead is the film that established the popular concept of the zombie, but you didn’t actually call your creatures zombies in the film.  You called them ghouls.

John:  Not all zombies are ghouls.  A ghoul is something that eats flesh.  Not all zombies do that.  We called them ghouls because that’s what they were.

Sam:  Well zombies appeared in earlier films, such as White Zombie and I Walk With a Zombie, but they were not the same sort of creatures that yours were.  They were more like hypnotized people from voodoo rituals.

John:  Well I found [zombie films] to be quite boring when I was a kid.  I didn’t get turned on by zombie films.  They weren’t as scary as werewolves or vampires.

Russell Streiner and Judith O'Dea as Johnny and Barbara in the opening scenes of "Night of the Living Dead": "Johnny is in the midst of tormenting his sister like many brother/sister sibling relationships, but just this one happened to go bad"

Sam:  But your flesh eating zombies changed everything.  They’ve influenced everything from 28 Days Later  to The Walking Dead.  Did you guys realize at the time that you were on to something different that was going to change the entire horror genre?

John:  We didn’t think of it in those terms, but we were absolutely confidant that we were making a good movie.  We believed in the story, the script, and in George Romero as a director.  We all worked our butts off and everybody contributed.  There were probably six to eight people at the core who, without them, the movie would not have became what it became.  Everybody gave 150% effort.

Sam:  Now Russ, you of course produced Night of the Living Dead

Russ:  Myself and Karl Hardman co-produced it.

Sam:  But you are also famous for playing the role of Johnny, the first victim in the film.

Johnny returns from the dead in "Night of the Living Dead's" horrifying climax

Russ:  I’m probably more famous for playing Johnny then producing the film.  Nobody cares about the producer.

Sam:  How did you get the role of Johnny?

Russ:  I had been trained as an actor so I did have some background in acting, and as we got closer and closer to the shooting date we still did not have a Johnny.  So we all agreed that I’d do it.  I’d like to say that it was stiff casting competition and lots of auditions, but that wasn’t the case.  It was just [someone saying] “Why don’t you do this.”

Sam:  But Johnny is one of the most memorable characters because he has the most memorable line in the film.  Did you guys realize that his line was going to be the catchphrase?

Russ:  Absolutely not.  I mean, it was just a line that was written.  Obviously [Johnny] is in the midst of tormenting his sister like many brother/sister sibling relationships, but just this one happened to go bad.

Sam:  What I find interesting about Night of the Living Dead is that the characters trapped in the house seem to be comprised of different segments of American society.  Very bold stereotypes that sort of define different types of people and attitudes of the general population.  Was that intentional at the time the script was being written?

Human survivors from "Night of the Living Dead" including (left to right) Duane Jones as Ben, co-producer Karl Hardman as Harry, film investor Marilyn Eastman as Helen and Keith Wayne as Tom: "Once you accept this outlandish premise that the dead can come back and go after human flesh, the people in the story need to behave in the story like real people would in such an emergency"

John:  Well we wanted to make the people authentic members of society and believable people.  Our goal was that once you accept this outlandish premise that the dead can come back and go after human flesh, the people in the story need to behave in the story like real people would in such an emergency.  We can’t just have them be cardboard characters.  We don’t want all the characters to be the same so we have to go after interesting types.  So we have the hero, the victimized girl who has gone catatonic, and the young couple who are in love and then you have the idiot asshole in the basement, the unhappy wife and the wounded girl.  It’s just a good blend that makes for a good story.  Dramatic conflict is what makes good fiction work.

Sam:  The conflict begins to occur between the characters as well as the actual zombies.

John:  Exactly and that’s what happens in real life.  Put people under stress and their weaknesses and their strengths come out.  Then the issue is if they are going to pull together and survive, or are they not.  I wasn’t thinking of this at the time, but later in retrospect, [Night of the Living Dead] is like Stagecoach with zombies instead of Indians.  It’s a premise that works as a plot over and over again, whether its Zulu or The African Queen.

Duane Jones, in the role of Ben, would be the first African American to star as the principle lead in a successful horror film: "His acting is the absolute most subtle"

Sam:  One of the unique things about Night of the Living Dead was that a black actor was cast as the film’s hero.  This was rarely done in films in the 60’s, unless you were Sidney Poitier, and it was the first time that a black man was the star of a horror film.  Was it a conscious decision to make Ben a black man, or was it a good audition from Duane Jones?

John:  Mainly it was a good audition.  A friend of ours at the time, Betty Ellen Todie, was working in New York for a literary agent and she knew Duane.  We were looking to cast the lead and we were thinking [of casting] Ruddy Ricci, who was one of our investors and a friend of ours and he was a pretty good actor.  Well Easter was coming up and Betty said that Duane, who was teaching up at Columbia in New York, was coming back to see his family and maybe we should have him read for the part.  He did, he blew us away and we all unanimously agreed that he was the guy.

Sam:  Well Duane was absolutely fantastic in the movie.  He carries the film on his shoulders.

John:  His acting is the absolute most subtle.

Sam:  When Night of the Living Dead was first released in 1968 how was it initially received by audiences?

"Night of the Living Dead' opened in Pittsburg in 1968, horrifying critics and decency groups, but thrilling audiences

Russ:  Fantastic.  It started doing business right away.  What made Night of the Living Dead so successful so quickly was that the theater chain we were working with in Pittsburg was overwhelmed.  They couldn’t believe what kind of response they were getting so the exhibitor called all his pals in Philadelphia and Cincinnati and Cleveland and said “Hey, this picture is doing really well.  You’ve got to book it.”  So the play dates exploded pretty quickly.

Sam:  What is the story about the problem with the copywrite?

Russ:  We have an ongoing dispute with the copywrite office.  They seem to think that the copywrite is in public domain.  We think that it is not and we’ve never abandoned the copywrite and we’ve never offered it into the public domain.  We do have an ongoing legal dispute with the copywrite office over that very issue.

Sam:  Do you think it is an issue that will ever be solved?

An ongoing copywrite despute over "Night of the Living Dead" has been waged between the film makers and the US Copywrite Office for decades, putting the film in the public domain: "Whether Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain or not, no one can touch its lasting status"

Russ:  As far as I’m concerned it’s solved right now, but the truth of the matter is, because of the position that the copywrite office took, the general assumption is that it is in the public domain and it’s very hard to get that toothpaste back in the tube.  But whether Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain or not, no one can touch its lasting status.  No one can legistlate that.

Sam:  Of course you guys went on to do other things, but Night of the Living Dead is the film you’ll always be most famous for.  Is it the one you are the most proud of?

John:  I hope it isn’t the one I’m the most famous for.  I’m still writing and still getting published and still working on movie deals and I hope there might be something else I’ll write that’ll make a big splash.  I have scripts that are with my agents that they are working out financing for.

Sam:  So tell me about the college program that you developed.

John:  Well, I founded it and Russ joined me soon after.  We’re the co-directors of The John Russo Movie Making Program in Pennsylvania at the DuBois Business College.  Its an eighteen month accredited program and you get an associated degree on the business of movie making.  Four years in a row our students have won prizes in the 48 Hour Film Project and they have very stiff competitive.  Scripts, plots and character development are the kinds of things that we teach our film making students.  They have to learn these insights and they have to know how to develop their own scripts.

Sam:  What year did you start the program?

John Russo with students from the John A. Russo Movie Making Program at DuBois Business College in which he and Russell Streiner are co-directors: "We are really proud of the work these young people are doing. To be honest with you, they keep our ideas fresh because they push us"

John:  We’ve been at DuBois for five years.  We started it in Pittsburg and we were headquarted at WRS Motion Picture Lab which is the lab that processed Night of the Living Dead, but they went out of business due to the digital revolution, so we had to move the program.  We wanted to be with an accredited college and a place that had federal aid which we didn’t have because we had only been in business for a year.

Russ:  We are really proud of the work these young people are doing.  To be honest with you, they keep our ideas fresh because they push us.  They are extremely talented young people.  This is one of the ways that we can pass along some of the experience we’ve had.  John and I do what is called master mentoring.  In addition to the basics of how to make movies, we get into a lot of the business considerations; what its like to be an entrepreneur, some of the things you have to look out for, and not just show up and work for somebody else.

Sam:  Now are the kids that come into the school usually aware of who you guys are?

Russ:  Yeah, I have to say so because we enroll people from all around the United States.

Sam:  Do you get a lot of kids wanting to make horror movies?

"In retrospect, Night of the Living Dead is like Stagecoach with zombies instead of Indians"

Russ:  We do, but we don’t teach just horror.  The goal of the program is that after you spend eighteen months with us that whether you go into TV commercials or go into making wedding videos, music videos or documentaries, you have a solid grounding in the various genres.  But there are projects where they get to pick and choose [what they want to do] and some of them do choose to do student horror films.

Sam:  Do you have a personal love for the horror genre, or is it something you got pigeonholed into because of the success of Night of the Living Dead?

The walking dead? Nope. It's just Paul McCartney. Wait? Didn't he die in the 60's or something? Hmmmm....

Russ:  For me personally there was some of that pigeonholed going on and I did try to resist it.  I’ve done a whole variety of different documentaries and commercial work as well.  I’ve done projects around the world, and projects with Paul McCartney.  A total mixed bag.

Sam:  What was Paul McCartney like to work with?

Russ:  Absolutely fantastic, and he’s a big Night of the Living Dead fan.

Sam:  Really?

Russ:  We had a little mutual admiration going on.  George, John and I all grew up on Beatles music, and Paul was absolutely approachable and gentlemanly.  Wonderful guy to work with.

Sam:  Did he ask you to say the line?

Russ:  He did as a matter of fact.  I can’t go anywhere without that line going with me.

Sam:  How do you feel about that?  What’s it like to have your own personal catchphrase?  Are you tired of it?

Russ:  No.  Absolutely not.

Sam:  So will you say it for me?

Russ:  They’re coming to get you, Barbra.

Nobody can deny the lasting power of Night of the Living Dead.  While other horror films lose their impact as special effects, film production and audience sensitivity change over the decades, Night of the Living Dead continues to have the raw energy of demented horror that continues to shock and distrub audiences over forty years after it was made.  The idea of unstoppable walking corpses and their hunger for human flesh is a concept that will always remain disturbing to the public.  Furthermore, Night of the Living Dead remains to be just simple and subtle enough that it remains believable, and never crossing the line of becoming campy or laughable.  As a result, Night of the Living Dead is still one of the scariest and most beloved horror films of all time.  John A. Russo and Russell Streiner, along with George Romero, put their unique stamp of demented imagination and vision into making this film classic, and it will continue to scare generations of horror fans for years to come.

For more information on The John A. Russo Movie Making Program visit http://www.dbcollege.com/web-content/pages/movie_making.html.

 

 

 

 

 

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