An Interview with John Russo, co creator of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

True NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD fans will know his name well. John Russo, co creater of the genre changing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I was lucky enough to connect with the legend himself and ask him to answer a few of the gangs questions. So without further ado, an interview with the one and only, John Russo.


ZGM: Did you have any idea what a huge affect NOTLD would have on the horror genre?

John Russo: We knew we were making a good movie, and we were all totally committed to that. We were solidly behind George Romero as the director. We were a tightly knit production group at that time, due to our years of making literally hundred of commercial films, and we had a wall covered with awards for our work. We were each multi-talented and highly skilled in many filmmaking disciplines. So, whether it was playing a zombie or loading a magazine, we were all going to willingly do whatever it took to make the best movie we could make, even though our budget was miniscule. That being said, no one could predict that our movie would have the huge impact that it has had, not only on the horror genre but on movie making in general.

ZGM: Who came up with the line, “They’re coming to get you Barbara”?

John Russo: I think that line was in the partial story that George Romero wrote in the beginning, before I re-wrote the story, put it in screenplay form, and then wrote the rest of the script.

ZGM: How did the original script go from a sci-fi/horror/comedy to what it became?

John Russo: We actually worked out a complete plot for a sci-fi comedy, but realized after that that we could not afford the special effects — a saucer landing, etc. — that it would have required. So we re-focused on my original idea of making a horror film.
When George wrote his partial story — the story that became the beginning of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — he had the girl being chased and attacked, but he did not say who the attackers were, or what they were after. When I pointed this out to him, he said he did not know the answers to these questions. I then said that it seemed to me they could be dead people, but what were they after? He again said he didn’t know, so I said, “Why don’t we use my flesh-eating idea?” I had been working on a story about aliens who came to earth in search of human flesh, but I was writing it in such a way that you did not see a saucer landing, etc. George agreed with my ideas, and so that’s how they became flesh-eating ghouls. And without those ideas you don’t have NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or any of the derivatives that came afterwards; in other words, that whole zombie sub-genre.

ZGM: Was there anything about the zombies that you and George Romero disagreed on? Like how they should move or act?

John Russo: We did not disagree on any of it, but we were inventing these flesh-eating zombies as we went along — the way they’d walk, whether or not they could talk, etc., etc. When I played a zombie, I figured I should move stiffly, with a bit of remaining rigor mortis.

ZGM: How do you feel about the recent surge of the zombie in popular culture? Romero recently kind of bashed TWD and called it a soap opera, do you feel the same?

John Russo: I think that the surge of zombies in popular culture is fun, and if someone comes up with a good idea that works, more power to him. I don’t like it when people just rip me off, but we I enjoy good, original work in the genre. I purposely don’t watch all of it because I want to keep my own work original and unique. I have not watched any of TWD for that reason. But I don’t begrudge them their success.

ZGM: Do you have a favorite zombie, or one that is most memorable to you?

John Russo: Bill Hinzman obviously did a great job as our cemetery zombie, and I think I did a very good job as the tire-iron zombie. Having been in an iconic role in a movie that is considered a classic gives me a kick of sorts, but I don’t dwell on that. I particularly like the “half zombie” on the table in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, the one who laments, “I can feel myself rot.” A riot! Perfect!

ZGM: Since you played a ghoul in NotLD, what did you enjoy most about playing a “ghoul” or “zombie” in a movie?

John Russo: What I enjoyed most about playing two zombies in NOLD is that it worked! I played the tire-iron zombie and the one that got set on fire with a Molotov cocktail — I did that stunt with real gasoline and no asbestos suit.

ZGM: Did you enjoy writing the screenplay for NotLD more than writing the novellas? If so, why?

John Russo: I enjoyed writing the novels in a way because I already had a successful blueprint. While writing the script, although I firmly believed in it as a vehicle, whether or not it would be successful was still in doubt at that point.

ZGM: Also, just out of curiousity, if zombies invade a hospital(which they always do), and a zombie bites a brain-dead person, will the brain-dead person reanimate as a zombie, or will they stay dead because their brain can’t function? I’ve always wondered what the experts would say about that.

John Russo: I would say that a brain-dead person would stay dead even if ghoul-bitten, although if I wanted to write something like that I could surely find a logical way to make it work.

Well that was awesome! Thanks so much to John Russo for answering our questions! Go to Indiegogo to view John’s latest project, THE MOB BOSS AND THE SOUL SINGER and pledge to help it get made!

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  1. What an insightful interview. This is just the sort of thing that is earning Zombie Guide Magazine a reputation as the go-to resource for zombie goodness. Thanks!

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