After All These Years

Released in 1968 and made on a shoestring, George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has gone on to become one of the most influential films of all time.

Ahead of the film’s 50th anniversary, The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation joined with Image Ten, the film’s production company, to produce a stunning new restoration and 4K transfer of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, direct from the original camera negative.

At Saturday night’s screening at the Wellmont Theater, Montclair Film Festival was absolutely thrilled to welcome Producer Russ Streiner, who also played Johnny in the film and delivered the now-famous line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”; as actress Kyra Schon, who portrayed 11-year-old Karen Cooper in the film and provided one of the film’s most unforgettable moments; and investor and the film’s sound recordist Gary Streiner, who oversaw the film’s restoration on behalf of Image Ten. Here are some highlights from the event.

Photo by Kimberly Cecchini / Montclair Film

Co-producer Russell Streiner (Johnny) asked how many people had just seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for the first time. After members of the audience, including Stephen Colbert, raised their hands, he said, “Holy smokes! Wow! That for us is very gratifying and you are part of the culture that keeps theNIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD alive.”

The new version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD not only has restored the quality of the film, but it also has restored its copyright. When it was released, the distribution company inadvertently omitted the copyright on the title. “And that omission caused us darn near 50 years of grief and aggravation,” Russell said. “I don’t know if anybody paid attention…at the very end of the film–this version that you saw tonight–has its very own copyright.”

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD reincarnated. Again, and again. After its initial release, the film first gained popularity in Europe. Gary recalled receiving letters from people “who claimed to have seen it 11 times.” Americans did not really take notice of the film until Reader’s Digest mentioned it. And, it did not have anything good to say. Gary noted with a laugh, “It was a testament that there’s no such thing as bad press.”

“Imagine seeing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at a drive-in theater.” Russell said that it was played at Pittsburgh drive-in theaters when it was released and then he asked if anyone in the audience remembers them.

Photo by Kimberly Cecchini / Montclair Film

A horror fan’s dream. Kyra Schon played 11-year old Karen Cooper because she was at the filming with her real life dad Karl Hardman, who played Harry Cooper. Speaking of the film’s impact on her life, she said, “I’m a horror fan first and foremost,” and she is grateful for the like-minded friends she has made through NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

A taste for human flesh. Zombie films prior to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD referenced things like Haitian Voodoo rituals. What set their film apart from its predecessors was the writers called their zombies “ghouls”–and their ghouls sought out human flesh.

Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall referenced the political messages that are often ascribed to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Although he and his fellow filmmakers were aware of the tumultuous political atmosphere of the 1960s, Russell said, “What we simply set out to do was make the most scary film that we could.”

Casting Duane Jones, an African-American, as the hero was not a political statement, either. Russell said that they had slated another actor for the role of Ben until they met Jones. “As soon as we saw his audition, we all agreed that he had to be our Ben… none of the dialogue was changed, nothing… we made no presentation out of the fact that he was African-American. He was Ben.”

It might have not have been a conscious statement, but it spoke to some African-Americans at the time. An African-American audience member shared that his father had a screening party because he had never seen a person of color cast as the lead hero in a film prior to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

An audience member pointed out that he saw the shooting script in one scene. Russell joked, “I’m astounded that you saw a flaw in my film.”

Viewers can still search for flaws in the restored film like “Easter eggs.” “We felt that if we took too many of those things out,” Gary explained, “they would really alter the nature and the character of the film so we left them in.” Another “Easter egg” to seek out is a wooden plank with the words “Upper right hand corner” written on the back of it.

Photo by Neil Grabowsky / Montclair Film

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Written by MFF Blogger Kimberly Cecchini