When John Russo and George Romero sat down to write “Night of the Living Dead,” their goal was to make a truly scary horror movie.
They not only met that goal but created a whole new genre in the process.
Russo — who will appear at the Wizard World pop-culture convention (wizardworld.com) this weekend in Cleveland — is one of the founding fathers of the thriving zombie phenomenon, and a living legend in the industry.
But back in the mid-’60s, he was just part of a small Pittsburgh television production company that specialized in low-budget commercials.
With a goal of getting into the movie game, Russo and Romero and their handful of business partners ponied up $600 apiece for a film budget.
Russo and Romero were the writers in the group.
“We decided it should be a horror film and that it would start in a cemetery,” said Russo in a phone interview from his Pittsburgh home. “George came in with half a story that would become ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ But it was about space aliens. The girl got away and gets to the house, but more of them come after her. I said, ‘This has all the right twists and turns, but who is attacking?’ I said it could be dead people. But what were they after? I thought, just about flesh-eating. George got called away, and I put it in the script.”
Russo and Romero would further fine-tune the script. Romero added the final siege, with the zombies unsuccessfully trying to get into the house.
“Night of the Living Dead,” released in 1968, became a landmark piece of horror, a low-budget masterpiece shot in grainy black and white in the Pittsburgh area. It would spawn a stream of movies, novels, comic books and television series that shows no sign of slowing down.
A big part of its initial success was that it stood apart from the status quo.
“Hollywood was making carbon-copy horror films at the time,” said Russo. “Attack of the Giant Grasshoppers, Attack of the Giant Lizards. They were all the same. The National Guard would be called out. They weren’t really scary.”
The movie’s realism ramped up its terror and became part of the blueprint for all that would follow. Modern takes on a zombie apocalypse — think “The Walking Dead” — borrow heavily from the original film’s goal of showing how people react under pressure.
“We said, ‘If this really happened, how would people behave?’ We wanted them to be real,” said Russo, adding that there was no attempt at making social commentary. “You don’t want people to step outside of the character. The sheriff gets called a redneck, but he was just doing a job that needed to be done. They were all just creatures of their time.”
Almost all zombie movies that came in the wake of “Night of the Living Dead” also adhere to the rules of behavior that were created, with great detail, by Russo and Romero.
“We thought out the rules about zombies,” said Russo. “The way to kill them by destroying the brain. What parts of them were animated and what parts weren’t. One of our group thought they should move like Boris Karloff, dragging a foot, but I thought they would have a certain amount of rigor mortis, and move slowly and stiffly. Every single thing we thought out.”
In one memorable segment of “Night of the Living Dead,” the chaos enveloping the Pittsburgh area is shown in a series of television news reports in which various cities are flashed on the screen while “live footage” is shown. Among those cities are Youngstown and Sharon, Pa.
It was a very effective technique, but one borne out of necessity.
“We had a low budget,” said Russo. “By adding the city names, we could inexpensively show that [the zombie outbreak] was happening all over the place without actually going there.”