Over 50 years ago, Night of the Living Dead (1968) made its mark in horror terrifying audiences everywhere. You simply cannot talk about zombies without mentioning this iconic film, which lives on today. At Days of the Dead Indianapolis, I had the pleasure of speaking with one legend who helped bring this undead feature to life: John A. Russo! Credited with co-authoring the script for Night of the Living Dead, John went on to write numerous horror books and film a controversial 1982 feature based on his best-selling novel titled Midnight.
Scifi.Radio: Hi John! Thank you for taking a moment to speak with me. You made your stamp in horror with the iconic film Night of the Living Dead (1968). What inspired the screenplay for this horror classics?
John A. Russo: I suggested that our company, The Latent Image, should make a horror film. We could probably do a better job than what we were seeing on the late night spook shows. So, we worked on script ideas. George Romero and I were the two writers of our company. I said that whatever we do should take place in a cemetery because people find that atmosphere spooky. I began working on an idea that involved aliens coming to Earth in search of human flesh. And this phenomena is discovered by a group of kids who’ve stolen a case of beer and run away from home. This story begins in the cemetery with the kids hiding the beer and one of them, wearing a ghoul mask for Halloween, steps through a pane of glass covering the ground and discovers an abundance of rotting corpses.
A few weeks later, George came in with a story that opens with a girl being chased. He had written 20 to 30 pages, I read it and told him it was pretty good! It had all the suspense, twists and turns. But I asked him “who’s chasing this girl?” He said he doesn’t know. I brought up the idea of the pursuers being dead people. He liked the idea. I asked him what they’re after and he wasn’t sure. So I proposed the idea of using my flesh eating idea. That’s how they became dead people after human flesh! Without those two ideas, you wouldn’t have Night of the Living Dead or what came after.
Scifi.Radio: That’s great how both ideas came together! What’s your favorite memory of George Romero?
John A. Russo: Oh geez. There are so many memories! George and I became friends when we were 18 years old. My first memory was when my friend Rudy introduced us. I was on vacation from WVU where I was going to school. We got into his 1955 Plymouth convertible and drove over to George’s apartment in Pittsburgh. Rudy honked the horn and George came down the street wearing a big sombrero, a big black mustachio, ammunition and two pistolas. And he didn’t even remark on it! He got in the car and we went to get ice cream at a shop where the girl slammed the window shut because she was too scared to serve us (laughs). Rudy look at me and said I should have seen him last week. Whenever George had a favorite movie, he would dress up and go different places. I’ve always remembered that about him (laughs).
Scifi.Radio: That’s hilarious! So, how much were you on set during production of Night of the Living Dead?
John A. Russo: I was on set every second of every day during production. We had a tight knit crew. We made dozens and dozens of TV commercials, sales films and documentaries. So, by the time we made Night of the Living Dead, we already knew what we were doing. George was directing while Russ and I helped with camera work. I also built props, decorated and assisted with script readings. We all pitched in to make the film what it is today.
Scifi.Radio: What is your favorite memory from that set production?
John A. Russo: It involved Vince Survinski. I came out of the farm house early one morning, and Vince was on the porch with a galvanized tub full of water. And he had a coke bottle. He had these stringy things in his hand. He was gathering water with the coke bottle and pouring it into this stuff. It was so bizarre! It looked like a scene from a Savini film. I asked Vince what in the hell he was doing. And he told me they were sheep intestines from the slaughter house. Zombies were going to be scrambling after them, but George told him they weren’t life-like enough. So he had to fill them with water and tie them in knots (laughs).
Scifi.Radio: That’s too funny! Obviously we’ve all been living some crazy times. Do you foresee a zombie apocalypse in the near future?
John A. Russo: No. (laughs) No, that’s totally fiction.
Scifi.Radio: I’m sure we all hope it stays that way (laughs). Thank you, John, for your time!
John A. Russo continues to work in indie horror with such films as My Uncle John is a Zombie and the remake to his controversial film Midnight. He has also published numerous horror novels through Burning Bulb Publishing. You can read my interview with the publishing company’s owner and director of the remake to Midnight, Gary Lee Vincent, here.