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Oh, What a Night

To fans of the cult classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the ‘60s horror movie about flesh-eating zombies, the name Judith O’Dea is spoken with a certain reverence.

O’Dea plays the movie’s hysterical heroine-victim Barbara, who spends much of the film in a catatonic state of terror--when she’s not fleeing from the ghouls. Her character’s brother, Johnny, delivers the film’s most memorable line to O’Dea: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

Today O’Dea lives on a quiet street in Garden Grove, sharing her home with a cat and riding to work on a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle. While many of her neighbors are oblivious to the fact that she once served as zombie bait and helped turn the stomachs of millions of filmgoers, O’Dea enjoys a weird kind of celebrity.

More than 25 years after “Night” first shocked movie audiences in 1968, she still receives fan mail. She attends the occasional “Night” reunion and convention, where she finds herself surrounded by fans dressed as zombies hunting her down for her autographs.

At Hughes Electronics Corp. in El Segundo, where O’Dea works as an oral presentation specialist who trains employees in public speaking, even the most esteemed engineers will shyly ask her to sign a “Night” video. Reminders of her role are everywhere.

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“I went to see the movie ‘Bound’ yesterday, and right in the middle of the movie they show ‘Night’ airing on the TV. It ends with a head shot of me,” O’Dea says. “I just sat there and smiled. I was proud as punch.”

O’Dea’s Barbara is resurrected on small and large screens around Halloween, when “Night” usually airs somewhere on TV or cable and at midnight movie screenings.

“I’m amazed how often the movie is shown. It airs about once a month,” she says. According to Blockbuster, the “Night” video rental is in great demand this time of year.

For her part, O’Dea looks back with affection on her “Night” role.

“I liked Barbara,” says O’Dea, speaking with the slight British accent she picked up from her immigrant parents (although she grew up in Pittsburgh and had to drop the accent for “Night”).

“Barbara was a tough lady. In the end she grabbed a board and was going to fight all of the ghouls. That’s one thing I liked about her character. Back then, you didn’t see much of women fighting.”

O’Dea landed the role of Barbara in 1967 when she was 23. An actress since 15, she already had numerous stage and local TV credits and had recently moved to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh to break into movies. By coincidence, “Night” was to be filmed in her former hometown. Friends who made the film--including co-star Russell Streiner, who played, Johnny--remembered O’Dea and called her back to Pittsburgh to audition for the part.

Other actresses who tried out, she says, were prettier. O’Dea, however, had a girl-next-door quality that would give the role the realism it required.

“With everything she ever tackled, she was always completely professional,” recalls Streiner, who met O’Dea at a local drama school and still lives in Pittsburgh. “That made the casting choice rather easy.”

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“Night” was made on a shoestring budget of about $100,000 by a small group of investors that included Streiner.

“It was a real ‘You-bring-the-scenery; I’ll-bring-the-costumes’ movie,” Streiner says.

The movie was shot in just a few weeks. Most of the filming took place at a Pittsburgh farmhouse; the basement scenes were filmed at a studio in the area.

As Streiner admits, the plot was hokey. Barbara and her brother, Johnny, visit a cemetery to put a wreath on their father’s grave when they are attacked by a zombie. Johnny gets killed, and Barbara seeks refuge in a farmhouse, where she encounters other fugitives. They learn that radiation fallout from a destroyed Venus probe has caused the dead to rise from their graves and devour humans. A mob of zombies descends on the farmhouse, and all of the people hiding inside, including Barbara, are killed.

“For a film that brought such fear, we had such fun,” O’Dea recalls. Many of the zombies and other extras were friends or family members. O’Dea’s father played a member of the rifle-toting posse that moves in on the zombies at the end of the movie.

“All of the special effects were rigged by friends of friends,” she says.

The crew improvised with whatever materials were handy. The blood and guts used in the film were entrails from a butcher shop covered in chocolate syrup.

The scene where Barbara smashes her brother’s car into a tree was added to the movie after the car that was borrowed for the shoot was smashed up in a real-life accident the night before filming.

The filmmakers relied on a tape of chirping crickets to cover any sound glitches that occurred during filming.

“Any time there was an audio flaw we said, ‘Just cover it with crickets.’ You can even hear them when we’re inside the house,” O’Dea says.

When “Night” was released in 1968, distributor Continental took out an ad promising that any theater patron who died of a heart attack while watching the movie would be covered by $50,000 in life insurance. Although it was a publicity ploy, the company did take out a policy with Lloyd’s of London, according to John Russo, a “Night” investor, actor and author of “The Complete ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Film Book.”

Some people expressed horror that a lovely young woman such as O’Dea had starred in such a gruesome movie.

“They sent mail to my parents saying, ‘How can you let your daughter be in a film that scared people to death?’ ” O’Dea says.

“Night” went on to gross about $10 million, she says. But for years the film was mired in copyright and distribution problems.

The movie has been translated into 17 languages and helped push the concept of midnight screenings. A special 25th anniversary laser disc featuring interviews with the cast and crew was released last year.

“The cult fetish with ‘Night’ is incredible. It’s probably the best known low-budget horror film of all time,” says Martin Weiss, a former horror-film publicist in Los Angeles who figures he’s seen the movie about 100 times.

Weiss says any fan of horror movies knows and loves “Night” because, despite the implausible plot, the movie has a documentary quality that makes it seem real.

“If you don’t have a pile of blankets on you when you’re watching it, your goose bumps will have goose bumps,” he says.

In one of the movie’s most chilling scenes, Barbara’s brother Johnny--now a zombie--grabs and pulls her into a mob of teeth-gnashing ghouls.

“You have to assume there’s nothing left of Barbara,” Weiss says.

“Night” helped changed the way horror films were made, O’Dea says. “It was very graphic, and the good guys didn’t survive,” she says. “Maybe that’s where the realism comes from. That really scared a lot of people.”

The film still has the power to scare, even though its special effects look cheesy by today’s standards. Several years ago it was one of five movies inducted into the Horror Hall of Fame.

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After “Night,” O’Dea continued her acting career while raising her two children. Although she’s had a few roles in small movies (she played a British nanny in the made-for-TV movie “The Pirate” in the late ‘70s), she has worked primarily on stage in musicals and British comedies for Equity theater.

She performed at L.A.-area theaters while living in Santa Monica, then “started moving south” until she ended up in Garden Grove 10 years ago to be closer to a theater (now closed) in San Clemente. O’Dea also performs regularly at murder mystery parties staged by Three M Productions of Cypress.

Her acting experience has proved useful at Hughes, where she helps others prepare audiovisual presentations.

“It’s like being a director. You’re working with visuals and helping people talk to other people. All my theater and film experience comes into play.”

O’Dea isn’t usually recognized in public, but when people discover who she is, she’s treated like a celebrity.

“They walk up to her, and they don’t say ‘Hi’ or introduce themselves,” Weiss says. “They say, ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbara.’ ”

* “Night of the Living Dead” airs on A&E; at 1 a.m. Saturday.


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