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Night of the Living Dead

Without the brilliant (and perhaps twisted) mind of one West Virginia University alumnus, flesh-eating zombies — as we’ve come to adore them — may not exist. 

That means no “Walking Dead.” No “World War Z.” No “28
Days Later.”

Little did John Russo, BS ’61, English Education, know that his vision for the creatures in a screenplay for a low-budget horror movie would redefine the horror genre and establish the standard for the modern-day, pop culture walking corpse. 

You may have heard of Russo’s screenplay — “Night of the Living Dead,” the 1968 cult classic that Variety called
an “unrelieved orgy of sadism” although the Library of
Congress deemed it “culturally, historically and
aesthetically significant.”

After a stint teaching and two years in the Army, Russo co-wrote the film with legendary director George Romero. Russo is credited with concocting the not-so-dignified characteristics of the zombies — they rise from the dead to seek human flesh. 

Since then, the Pittsburgh-area native has written, produced or directed more than 20 films and authored more than 20 books. 

QHow did you get involved in helping create one of the most iconic horror movies of all time?

AI 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. 

Cemetery

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 actually happened. 

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."

John Russo

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