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The Zombie Movie That Won't Die : George Romero and company are remaking their classic 'Night of the Living Dead' because they've got a score to settle

August 05, 1990|BILL STEIGERWALD

WASHINGTON, Pa. — Splatter king Tom Savini knows a naturally scary face when he sees one. When Savini, the make-up whiz who created the effects for such seminal slasher films as "Friday the 13th" and "Maniac," spied Walter Berry at a local lunch counter this spring, he immediately pegged him as a good corpse and invited Berry to play a zombie in the remake of George Romero's horror cult classic, "Night of the Living Dead."

Berry, a 53-year-old machine shop janitor, was honored, and soon, he joined 60 other cast members for a two-day zombie seminar during which a Carnegie Mellon drama professor taught them how to walk stiff-kneed, fall down, bump into chairs and otherwise act like folks risen from their graves.

Berry's particularly interesting face won him the key role of a zombie who gets his rotten brains blown out by a shotgun blast.

Destroying the brain is, as all certified cinema zombieologists know, the only guaranteed way to re-kill the walking dead, scores of whom were recently torched, crowbarred, hammered, run over and shot in gorified color at the movie's primary set, a lonely old Victorian farm house in a rural county 25 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Savini directed the $4.2-million "retelling" of the macabre low-budget black-and-white 1968 film that became a cult classic and set off a new wave of corpse-horror films. The original film was a naturalistic, gruesome movie about seven bickering people trapped in a farmhouse besieged by mysteriously resurrected flesh-eaters. It was made by Romero and his resourceful team of Pittsburgh TV-commercial producers for $114,000, much of which was deferred. It went on to gross about $50 million.

Co-written and directed by Romero, "Night of the Living Dead" showed a future generation of Tobe Hoopers and John Carpenters that it didn't take a big budget to produce big scares and big bucks. It spawned a whole school of zombie knock-offs and two sequels from Romero--"Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead."

Now that it's been colorized, it's become a Halloween TV staple. It's been parodied by Joe Piscopo in Lite beer commercials, and it's even earned serious sociopolitical points for having been forward-thinking enough to use a black actor in the lead role without attempting to justify it in the script.

It's scary to say so, but "Night of the Living Dead" just may have been Pittsburgh's greatest contribution to the film business since Gene Kelly hoofed it to Hollywood.

So why remake it? Why suffer the inevitable critical comparisons?

Besides the obvious commercial potential, Romero has a personal score to settle with Hollywood. Despite the success of the first film, he and his original investor-partners saw very little profits from it. And they had to spend most of what they did make on legal expenses of a five-year battle with their distributor, Continental Releasing, over the rights.

According to Romero, after they threw the movie--originally titled "Night of the Flesh Eaters"--into the trunk of a car and drove to New York, the major distributors considered it, but they all took a pass. The rookie filmmakers ended up negotiating a distribution deal with the Walter Reade Organization, the parent of Continental Releasing, which specialized in arty movies like "David and Lisa" and John Cassavetes' "Faces."

It didn't take too long for the folks at Image 10--Romero's production company--to realize that it was up to them to hustle their movie or see it die. They had 14 prints made, did their own promotion, financed a world premiere on Halloween night in Pittsburgh (billed as Pittsburgh's first feature film) and opened the movie at 14 local theaters.

Critics for Variety and other publications trashed it, but there hasn't been a critic tough enough to kill a zombie movie. When "Night of the Living Dead" was shown in Pittsburgh drive-ins, crowds had to be turned away and drive-in operators apologized in newspaper ads for disappointing so many customers. When the 14 prints were recycled in Philadelphia and Cleveland, the same scenes were repeated.

But there were problems. According to Romero, when Continental changed the name to "Night of the Living Dead," somehow the copyright wasn't put on the new title. The film was released without a copyright, meaning it was in the public domain, and bootlegged copies and spin-offs began appearing.

"It's a myth that the movie didn't take off until it became a cult classic," says John Russo, a Pittsburgh filmmaker-novelist who co-wrote the original with Romero and who is co-producing the remake with Russ Streiner, with whom he shared that producer credit on the first film. It's the first time since 1970 that Romero, Russo and Streiner have worked together.

The myth was encouraged by the distributor, whom Russo alleges put the crowd-drawing "Night of the Living Dead" on the second half of twin bills with no-draw movies like "Slaves" and then attributed the big grosses to the first movie while paying a flat $25 rental fee for "Night."

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