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

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."

Romero says that in 1976, after five years and a lot of high-priced lawyers and accountants, Image 10 won a $3-million judgment against Continental. But the company went bankrupt and Image 10 never collected. All the production company got was the rights to its own movie.

So, how much did the movie gross? No one will ever know for sure. "At one point," says Russo, "we guessed about $50 million. We were getting reports of $3,000 a screen. We knew the number of engagements and we started to do some multiplication. The expert auditor's testimony said for sure we were out $3 million, based only on what they could prove in several cities. By 1976 we had collected about half a million. Now we've collected $1 million or $1.5 million."

As trustees of Image 10, Russo and Streiner have spent a great deal of time since 1976 protecting their copyright by tracking down pirated videos and bootleg T-shirts and having them taken off the market.

Part of their responsibilities as trustees also included doing a remake, which Russo says they always feared somebody else would do before they did. When Romero heard Menahem Golan was interested in doing a remake for his new 21st Century Film Corp., they made a deal. This time, however, Russo says, the original's 26 investors will get their share even if the remake never makes a dime.

Savini, 43, is a Pittsburgh native and long-time associate of Romero, who is co-executive producing the remake with Golan. Romero was absent from the set for the first half of the shoot because he was writing a script of his pal Stephen King's novel "The Dark Half" for Orion Pictures. But once he finished writing he was a constant presence, keeping a close eye on the whole production and working closely with Savini, who was directing his first feature.

Savini's many makeup and special-effects credits include the original "Friday the 13th," "The Maniac," "Dawn of the Dead," "Creepshow" and TV episodes of "Tales From the Dark Side." He's also a former actor, stuntman and Vietnam combat photographer.

The cast members are mostly unknowns, but like the original, there is a black male lead (Tony Todd, of "Platoon"). But the female lead, played by Pat Tallman, has been Ramboized for the post-feminist audience and turned into a ghoul-killing machine.

Tallman, a tall red-headed former stunt woman, says she's no big fan of gore movies and doesn't think kids should see them. But she likes playing "a heroine who is not a victim. I don't play a typical female, you know, a breasts-and-legs idiot. I get to have some thoughts, some spunk.

"Usually, in gore movies women get carved up or are the only ones stupid enough to go into a cellar. I think the way George has written Barbara is very realistic. She's doing everything she can to keep it together and at the last minute, when it's possible she could really lose her mind because she's overwhelmed by three zombies . . . she grabs a poker and she kills one. From then on, she's got some momentum."

Once Barbara learns how to kill them, she really goes for it, Tallman says, eating lunch and sporting a bloody face. "It's kind of neat. I kill my first zombie today, I really am looking forward to it. I bash his brains in with a poker. It's going to be a great way to take out frustrations."

One of Barbara's early kills--a Mr. Magruder (Walter Berry) from the American Legion Hall--is lying face down in a coagulated pool of purple blood on the floor of a once-grand Victorian farmhouse south of Pittsburgh. In the movie he's just crashed through a boarded-up window, gotten shotgunned by Barbara and is about to be tossed back outside where his fellow ghouls are swarming.

"No breathing, Walter," says Savini, "You're a limp dead body. Take one deep breath." With the camera in tight on Berry's head, his body is carefully pulled off camera feet-first--once, twice, and a third time before a cheerful Savini says, "A thing of beauty." The crew cramped into the hot, equipment-cluttered downstairs applauds.

As Berry is led off, makeup technician Jerry Gergely asks Berry how his head feels as he removes what in the splatter industry are called "squibs" or "bullet hits."

In a scene shot earlier in the evening, small explosive charges placed on the front and back of Walter's head in metal plates were detonated electronically. They simultaneously sprayed forth two condoms filled with Karo Syrup-based blood--one hidden beneath a wad of hair and one under a hunk of forehead-colored material--to simulate entrance and exit wounds.

It's standard splatter-movie stuff today, says Gergely, but not necessarily realistic. "The audience's interpretation is different from reality. A lot of the real stuff looks fake. It's the effects person's interpretation of what the audience would feel is real. It's dramatic license. Blood doesn't really splatter out of a body like that, but it's visually entertaining. It's more dramatic."

Co-producer John Russo, who says the movie is not just another mindless splatter movie that uses shock-value to sell tickets, cautions that much of the gore on the set won't make it to the screen. "We still have to get an R rating," he whispers during rehearsal for the next scene. "To execute the effect of a head blowing off, you have to do the whole thing. But you only use a few frames. You couldn't use it all and still get an R."

Gergely is working for Optic Nerve, a fledgling special-effects and makeup company in Los Angeles owned by Everett Burrell, 24, and John Vulich, 28, who learned under Savini and others makeup masters. Their 70 credits include work on "Friday the 13th," "Alien" and "Glory." "We've done so many bloody films, it's no longer a challenge to us," says Burrell during a midnight lunch break in a nearby church hall that's serving as the film crew's commissary. "This is a classic and we don't want to treat it like a porno film."

Therefore, they've taken a less-is-more approach, striving to make it as realistic as possible. They want the walking dead to look like somebody's next-door neighbors, not mutant aliens.

"A lot of zombie movies just don't look right," Burrell says. "We didn't want to stylize the work. All of us thought the zombie thing had been done into the ground. People had been very skeletal, rotted, wrinkly. That's not necessarily the way people look as they decay and die."

To get the correct recently dead look, Burrell and Vulich went to an autopsy in Pittsburgh, consulted chapters titled "Blunt Force Injury" in forensic pathology texts and studied footage from World War II Nazi death camps. "They were the closest thing to the living dead," says Vulich, who thinks horror movies have gotten a bum rap and have been emasculated by the ratings system.

Savini isn't too worried about remaking a cult classic in his first directing try. Film history is full of remakes, he says between scenes. "'Frankenstein,' "The Thing,' 'The Fly'--not better, but different. This I hope will be like that, different, and it is. It's not a strict remake of the original. Same characters, about the same plot, but it's more intense, a lot more intense."

With his name and George Romero's name on it, horror fans are going to expect some shocks and Savini doesn't want to disappoint them. "But there is a way to do it that makes it an artistic link between what's going on, unlike 'Friday the 13th,' where it's pornography, going close to the wound. You know, showing the thing going into the eye."

For example, he says, "When we kill Johnny, there's a massive crushing of the skull and stuff, and a big gash, but I didn't go 'whaaaaaaa' and go in real close."

Still, Savini has a reputation to live up to.

"With my name, I mean, I'm the King of Splatter," he says humbly, pulling on his mustache. "And some critics who talk about other bloody, gory films, say, 'It's devoid of Savini-like effects.' I'm really closely associated with splatter. People are going to expect that."

And, yes, there is a hidden agenda for Savini, an artist inside trying to get out. But he knows what he has to do to be given a chance.

"I'm not Woody Allen," he says. "I can't get away with going and making a 'Manhattan' until I can get some other films going."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World