How did you get involved in helping create one of the most iconic horror movies
of all time?
I had been friends with George Romero and the nucleus of good friends who ended up
making “Night of the Living Dead.” I had worked with George Romero, Russ Streiner
and Rudy Ricci on a feature film of comic vignettes but that film never got finished
because we ran out of money. I then got drafted into the Army. Before I took off,
I went to say goodbye to everyone. Rudy and I popped some popcorn, grabbed a six-pack
of Pepsi and drove down to a storefront on the South Side of Pittsburgh in
Rudy’s ’55 Plymouth convertible. George and Russ fed most of the popcorn to their
pet monkey. Even though they were starving, they said to me, “If we’re doing
well when you get out of the Army, you can come work with us.”
By the time I got out, they were doing a little better. I taught school for about
a year before George said, "Come work with us." I told him, "There must be 100
guys in town who know more about cameras and lighting than I do." But he said,
"Yeah, but they're all bland and square and straight up and down."
What influence did “Night of the Living Dead” have on the industry?
It started the whole zombie craze. Before that, zombies weren’t heavyweight fright
material like vampires and werewolves. They shambled around, threw someone against
the wall or tried to choke him. They never scared me, even as a kid. In fact, most
horror films were disappointing. We wanted to give the fans something worthwhile
for a change. Not one of these duds like “Attack of the Giant Crab,” “Attack of
the Giant Grasshopper” or “Attack of the Giant Caterpillars.” Hollywood was milling
them out, and they all had the same formula. The National Guard came in with flamethrowers
and tanks and blasted the thing down, and that was it. It was seldom anything good.
What set it apart from the rest of the era’s horror films?
It’s really, really scary. We have an atavistic fear of being devoured. We were prey
for wild beasts through most of our existence. Making the zombies flesh eaters
really touched a raw nerve in people.
Actually, we didn’t even call them zombies at the time. We called them ghouls.
How do you want to be remembered?
The person who didn’t need to be because he didn’t die (laughter).
Tell me about the writing process for "Night of the Living Dead."
George and I each had an editing room with a typewriter. We'd share ideas and he'd
work on one typewriter and I'd work on another. I thought that whatever we do,
we should start it in a cemetery. I took the lead in the script discussions when
George got tied up with a commercial job. Ten of us kicked in $600 apiece to get
the ball rolling.
When writing the script, were you writing more than just horror? Was the writing
reflective of society or culture? Was there a deeper meaning?
There were no ulterior motives. No social commentary. That's a myth. One British
magazine writer said you could hear strains of "Old Black Joe” (a spiritual African-American
parlor song) on the soundtrack. Not true.
(*SPOILER ALERT!*) The sheriff isn't really a redneck. He's doing his job, which
is to gun down those things because they're dangerous. And he kills Ben by accident.
We thought, 'Wouldn't it be ironic if we killed Ben?' We wanted to be iconoclastic.
Once you accept the outlandish premise that the dead can come back and be after
human flesh, we wanted people to behave like real people would if such a thing
What's been the highlight of your career?
Everything's a highlight. I've written 20-some books. My moviemaking books are known
as the bibles of the industry. I met Quentin Tarantino at the "Land of the Dead"
premiere in Pittsburgh and he said, "You're the guy who wrote the books?" I said,
"What books?" He said, "The moviemaking books. I started a movie and didn't finish
it but then read your books, took notes, made charts and that's what guided me
through my first complete movie."
Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier [said] the same thing. They said my books took them
through film school.
It's a very gratifying thing if you start out as a teacher, a writer and then
you're able to help other people. One of the reasons is that I make it accessible.
I've done a lot of films on a shoestring budget, and it shows other people how
they can succeed.
What advice do you have for budding writers?
I actually completed a novel before I graduated from WVU. It didn't get published
nor did it deserve to. It still took time for me to develop and perfect the craft.
You need discipline. I was too interested in having a good time, chasing girls
and doing all the things young guys do.
The novel was based on my experiences at WVU and included a lot of my zany friends,
fictionalized. It was one of my lighter books. Later in life, I went back
and lifted characters and sections that found a place in other projects. I tell
everybody, "Don't throw away your stuff. Keep everything you write. One of the
worst things that happened to Hemingway was when he lost his manuscripts in Paris.
That's a blow for any writer."