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.

Night of the Living Dead
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.


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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)

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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