10 Facts About George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead

Janus Films
Janus Films

More than a half-century ago, a small group of Pittsburgh filmmakers decided to make a scary movie. Working from a shoestring budget with limited crew and a cast partly composed of amateur actors, they headed out to a Pennsylvania farmhouse and began crafting a horror classic.

Today, Night of the Living Dead is universally regarded as the king of zombie flicks, but it didn’t start out that way. What started as a weird idea for a movie about aliens went through rewrites, crucial casting decisions, and a little fire to become the film we know and love today.

1. The original idea was for an alien comedy.

In early 1967, writer/director George A. Romero, writer John A. Russo, and actor Rudy Ricci were working together at the Latent Image, their Pittsburgh-based commercial film company, when they decided it was time to try their hand at making a feature film. Though the effort eventually produced Night of the Living Dead, early concepts were very different. Russo initially thought of making a horror comedy about “hot-rodding” alien teens who would visit Earth, meet up with human teenagers, and generally cause mischief with the help of a cosmic pet called “The Mess.” The group’s budgetary constraints made this concept impossible, so Russo instead dreamed up an idea about a boy who runs away from home, only to discover a field of corpses under glass, which were rotting to the liking of alien creatures who would eventually consume them. Russo presented this idea to Romero, who latched on to the flesh-eating angle.

2. George Romero was heavily inspired by I Am Legend.

Janus Films

Armed with Russo’s flesh-eating concept, Romero went to work, pairing it with a story he’d been working on that “basically ripped off” Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic horror novel I Am Legend. Russo later recalled that Romero returned with “about 40 really excellent pages,” including the opening in the cemetery and the arrival at the farmhouse. Russo set to work on the rest, and Night of the Living Dead began to come to life.

3. Duane Jones rewrote his character's dialogue.

The character of Ben was originally written as an angry, rough truck driver, with somewhat crude dialogue to reflect that. When actor Duane Jones came aboard the production, he began revising the dialogue. “As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself,” actor/producer Karl Hardman, who played Harry Cooper, later recalled.

4. The fake blood was made on the cheap.

Night of the Living Dead was made on a budget of less than $150,000, which meant everything from props to sets had to be created on the cheap. Since the film was shot in black and white, the crew never had to worry what color the blood was, so either red ink or chocolate syrup was used, depending on the desired effect in each shot. For the scene in which Karen Cooper (Kyra Schon) begins eating her father’s corpse, the crew’s leftover lunch was employed.

“Earlier in the day, we were eating hamburgers or meatball sandwiches, so they just smeared chocolate syrup all over it and that’s what I was biting into,” Schon said.

5. The nude ghoul caused a spectator scene on set.

Reasoning that least some of the “ghouls” (Romero never referred to the creatures as zombies) would have woken up in the morgue and walked away naked, the crew opted for a single living dead extra to be nude on camera, and enlisted a local artist’s model for the job. When word spread that the production planned a nude scene during one of its night shoots, local residents apparently decided they wanted to have a look.

“The night they filmed the nude ghoul, all of Evans City found out about it. They had their lawn chairs set up around the edges of the property,” Judith Ridley, who played Judy, said. “It was funny to see the rest of the zombies trying to keep their eyes elsewhere instead of looking down at the obvious places on the nude one.”

6. Three different crew members accidentally set themselves on fire during filming.

To add to the realism of the zombie attack scenes, both Russo and actor Bill Hinzman—who played the iconic “Cemetery Ghoul” in the opening sequence—volunteered to be set on fire. Russo was lit on fire during the scene when the survivors are throwing makeshift Molotov cocktails at the undead, while Hinzman poured lighter fluid on his suit so he could be lit during the scene in which Ben wards off the ghouls with a torch. In both cases, everything went according to plan, but one fire was started by accident.

For the scene in which Ben sets a chair on fire to distract the ghouls, crew member Gary Streiner volunteered to coat the prop with gasoline. Everything went fine for the first take, but when it came time to give it a second try, Streiner ran into trouble when he tried to add more gasoline.

“I just went over and started to pour the gas on and the liquid found a hot ember somewhere and a flame just came up into this container I’m holding in my hand,” he said. “I jumped back and all of a sudden I’m on fire!”

Hinzman came to the rescue and extinguished the flame before Streiner was seriously hurt.

7. George Romero and John Russo both made cameos.

Night of the Living Dead’s co-creators make cameo appearances in the film. Russo played one of the ghouls who managed to reach into the farmhouse only to be struck with a tire iron, while Romero can be seen in the Washington D.C. sequences as a reporter.

8. Duane Jones fought against an alternate ending that would have saved Ben.

Janus Films

One of the film’s most famous elements is its grim ending, in which Ben, having survived the night, is shot by the sheriff’s zombie-hunting posse and thrown on the fire. At one point, a happier ending for the film was considered, but Jones fought it and won.

“I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way,” Jones said. “The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that, and the double jolt of the hero being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”

9. Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain because of an error in the credits.

Night of the Living Dead might be the most famous public domain movie of all time, but it was never intended to be. The Walter Reade Organization, which distributed the film, wanted to release it under the title Night of the Flesh Eaters, but lawyers representing the makers of 1964’s The Flesh Eaters threatened a lawsuit, so the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead. When the title changed, though, copyright notices were not added to the opening titles or to the end credits. Though the filmmakers have fought it in federal court, the film is still in the public domain.

10. Night of the Living Dead's creators sanctioned both a remake and a revision of the original, but neither film was well received.

In 1990, Russo, Romero, and other collaborators from the original film re-teamed to remake Night of the Living Dead, with the hope that the project would help shore up their original copyright claims. Russo produced, Romero revised the original script, and makeup effects wizard Tom Savini (who would have worked on the original film had he not been serving in Vietnam at the time) was brought in to direct. The film features a strong cast (including Tony Todd as Ben) and more sophisticated makeup effects, but failed to reach the classic status of its predecessor.

Then, in 1998, Russo, Hinzman, Hardman, and actor/producer Russ Streiner (who played Johnny) decided to revisit the film for its 30th anniversary. Inspired by the Star Wars Special Editions, Russo wrote and filmed new scenes for the project, including an origin story for the Cemetery Ghoul. The effort was not well received. As for Romero, though he wasn’t involved, he reported “no bad blood” between himself and his former collaborators.

Additional Sources: Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, by Joe Kane; One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead (2008)

11 of Our Favorite Horror Books

Penguin/Image Comics/Amazon
Penguin/Image Comics/Amazon

We’re firmly in that time of year when the air is colder, the nights are longer, and the books in our to-read pile are getting scarier. Cracking open a horror book in your comfiest chair is one of the best ways to embrace the Halloween season, and at Mental Floss, we’ve got plenty of suggestions for your next title. From genre classics that should be on everyone’s list to a few offbeat entries—including a must-read comic starring a spectacularly creepy ice cream man—here are our favorite horror books you should pick up.

1. The Penguin Book of Exorcisms // Joseph P. Laycock; $16-17

Penguin/Amazon

What better way to embrace spooky season than with this collection, which features real-life accounts of exorcisms from around the globe? When you're done, crack open The Penguin Book of Witches and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, which will also send shivers up your spine. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

2. The Witches // Stacy Schiff; $15-$17

Back Bay Books/Amazon

Few things are scarier than actual history, as Stacy Schiff's painstakingly researched and beautifully written account of the Salem Witch Trials—which began in 1692 and ended less than a year later, with 25 people dead—shows. —E.M.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

3. The Haunting of Hill House // Shirley Jackson; $9-$15

Penguin/Amazon

Often described as one of the scariest books ever, Shirley Jackson's tale of four paranormal investigators who set up shop in a haunted house will fill you with creeping dread, making it the most perfect of reads for this time of year. At around 200 pages, it's a quick read—and when you're done, you can fire up one of the novel's TV and film adaptations to keep the creepiness going. —E.M.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

4. Horrorstör // Grady Hendrix; $13-$14

Quirk Books/Amazon

If you’ve ever panicked while traversing the mazelike layout of your local IKEA, Horrorstör will be all too relatable. In this book, Orsk, a Swedish furniture store in Cleveland, Ohio, is the scene of some very paranormal activity, which spurs a handful of employees to brave an overnight shift to find out the origins of these malevolent spirits. It’s the perfect read for anyone who’s ever thought their 9-to-5 was quite literally out to get them. —Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

5. Blood Meridian // Cormac McCarthy; $10-$16

Vintage/Amazon

Awash in gruesome imagery and some of the most disturbing acts of violence ever put on the page, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian isn’t a horror tale of the jump-scare variety. Instead, it achieves pure terror by examining man’s hateful, vengeful nature under the guise of a Western. —J.S.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

6. Ice Cream Man // W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Chris O'Halloran; $15-$17

Image Comics

The spirit of EC Comics and its lurid horror anthology titles lives on in Image’s Ice Cream Man. With his sharp white uniform and truck full of sweets, the titular ice cream peddler meddles in the lives of others, often with terrifying results. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

7. The Ruins // Scott Smith; $14-$16

Vintage

Tourism takes a horrific turn in this unsettling potboiler about a group of American tourists who find that an ancient Mayan site isn’t too welcoming to visitors—and neither are the acidic vines that singe both skin and soul. —J.R.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

8. Cujo // Stephen King; $15-$17

Gallery Books/Amazon

Published in 1981, this New York Times bestseller is not for the animal lovers out there. It starts in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, which becomes terrorized by a once-friendly Saint Bernard. While this is all happening, the Trenton family moves into the seemingly idyllic town only to realize it isn't as lovely as it appears. Parents Vic and Donna are having marriage issues, and their son Tad can't sleep due to the terrors coming from his closet. Little do they know that the real monster is waiting for them outside. —Elaine Selna, Commerce Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

9. Ring // Koji Suzuki; Prices vary

Vertical/Amazon

Before the Japanese horror movie and the American remake, Ring was a bestselling novel. Published in Japan in 1991, the book turned the VCR into an instrument of terror at the height of its popularity. There are major differences between the original story and its screen adaptations, but the basic plot should be familiar to any horror fan: After watching a cursed video tape, the main character has seven days to solve the tape's mystery and escape death. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

10. Let the Right One In // John Ajvide Lindqvist; $14-$18

St. Martin's Griffin/Amazon

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 Swedish novel chronicles the friendship of a young boy named Oskar and his enigmatic new friend, Eli, who happens to be a very old vampire. Let the Right One In has all the trappings of a grade-A horror story—bloodlust, mystery, plot twists, etc.—set against a backdrop of real-world issues, from bullying to alcoholism. The protagonists may be children, but the adult themes of this novel gear it towards older readers. —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

11. Carrie // Stephen King; $7-$14

Anchor/Amazon

King's debut novel from 1974 still ranks among his best. It revolves around a teenage outcast named Carrie White who gets bullied at school and has to deal with an abusive mother at home. Any hope she has of fitting in is soon dashed as she begins developing strange telekinetic abilities. —E.S.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.