Generations of fright fiends have been struck with terror at the hands of conceptual genius John Russo. Co-Creator and collaborator of Night of The Living Dead, where our current zombie phenomenon had all began; Mr. Russo sheds some light on a dark genre that chills us to the bone yet captivates us, glued to our seats. I caught up with Mr. Russo recently while taking a break in the recording studio to discuss a myriad of skin crawling topics from the legend of influential parties to what irks him about contemporary zombie fanfare to most unusual fan encounter and of course the forth coming project Night of The Living Dead Live.
MacabreCon producer David Daniloff of Daniloff Productions was integral in creating the opportunity to exist for Nictiophobia Films to work with executive producers George Romero, Russ Streiner and John Russo after pitching the concept of a live theatre version of the classic film to Russo at the 2011 Rue Morgue Festival of Fear.
DAVE GAMMON: I just wanted to extend a very warm welcome to the often imitated never duplicated Mr. John Russo to Horrornews.net. It’s a true thrill and honor to have you join us here this evening. Let’s delve right on into the meat of the matter and discuss Night of The Living Dead Live, a theatrical production from Nictophobia Films co-executively produced by yourself, one George Romero, Russ Streiner and directed by Chris Bond of Evil Dead the musical fame. Describe the appeal or phenomenon in revisiting this classic in a live production.
JOHN RUSSO: Well the idea for doing this was brought to my attention by associate producer David Daniloff at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear. I think anytime you have a property that excites fans for forty plus years like Night of The Living Dead has done then it’s exciting to go into new venues and to see just for the fun of it what artistic endeavors can achieve with it. Night of The Living Dead has been often imitated and ripped off and so on so George Romero, Russ, myself produced the 1990 remake with Tom Savini and there have been numerous unauthorized projects and there have been numerous authorized ones then other people taking the phenomenon of flesh eating ghouls carrying it off and doing their own rift off of it like The Evil Dead and Shaun of The Dead and The Walking Dead and so on so I think that when we came up with the idea of zombie flesh eaters it seemed to strike a chord with people all over the world. It gave them the shivers and they wanted to see more of it. It’s still going.
DG: How do you find the adaptation of a live production in comparison to the film and how has the translation been so far?
JR: Well I’m not working the translation. That’s the job of the writers. We’ve seen the different drafts and versions of it. We go along and get to make our comments and approve things. So I’m looking forward to going along and seeing it. It’s kind of like being scripted, until you see it on the screen or on stage and until you get the full brunt and perspective of the people doing the work, then I’m anxious to see it but we didn’t really have any input on the way they wanted to do it rather than if we liked it when we saw it.
DG: Where do you anticipate opening?
JR: I think it’s going to open in Toronto first. I don’t have my notes in front of me, I’m not sure of the exact dates. Anyone who’s interested in going we have a website Night of The Living Dead Live.com. Just go and check it out. It’s in pre-production but it is going to happen. I just went through the agreements today. After months of going back and forth with it and Russ is dealing with the producers on the Canadian side. He and I would review the documents then pass them onto George Romero. So Russ and I just signed them this morning. In the middle of going to this recording studio and everything else, I met Russ at the coffee shop, signed the documents then right back out to the recording studio. Russ is leaving tomorrow for Toronto to bring the documents to George Romero and have promotional, publicity and sponsorship meetings with Dave Daniloff and others in the future. I would’ve been going along with them except I’m going to the Motorcity Nightmares Convention in Michigan on Thursday.
I wish I was involved in reading the drafts of the script, looking at the promotional materials and approving that and so on but we are not working producers on this. We are satisfied that the producers in Toronto will do a good job with it or else we would not have signed off on the project.
DG: That sounds like an intriguing project. I look forward to seeing it.
JR: You know everything you get to do in this business…Tom Savini spawned a saying that the more you do, the more you get to do. Your name gets out there. You learn and the business and hopefully understand the business and creatively the process, so things come along that you get excited about and you say yeah let’s go with that. Other things come along, you may not like them, you may not believe in the person all that much so you don’t do them. But this one we believe in and I think it’s going to be really good.
DG: Okay. Good. An author of horror fiction and close friend Eric Shelman (Dead Hunger) had presented this question: With an infestation of repetition, remakes and regurgitation in Hollywood what do you like the least about contemporary zombie horror adaptations that we see today?
JR: The least? I’d have to say it was one I produced, Children of The Living Dead. It’s horrible.
When I signed onto it Joe Wolf financed it. He was a really good guy. He was one of the guys that backed Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were two of his projects. He came to me and said he thought my screenplay for Children of The Living Dead was great and I should produce it in Pittsburgh and I was going to direct it so he put up the money and then it turned into how he wanted to do his daughter’s script. It was horrible. By that time I had gotten Tom Savini signed to it and Jeff Gergely who has two Emmy’s from Babylon 5 and he’s worked on a number of my movies, I had Vince Guastini who worked with me on a couple of films and he did some of the tech make up for Dogma and Last of the Mohicans and so on. So I had all of these great people that gave up a summer’s work to do this Children of The Dead project and then it turned into his daughter’s script. By that time I wanted to resign every day but I couldn’t because these people would’ve lost a summer’s worth of work. We hoped for the best and hoped it’d get revised and instead it’s a piece of crap. I call it The Living Abomination of Children.
It’s so bad I don’t feel bad saying that even if it embarrasses Joe Wolf’s daughter. She is really something to work with or not work with. If you ask me what some of the best, I don’t watch a lot of horror films because I think Hollywood’s problem is nobody is doing anything original if they can help it. They’d rather ride off somebody else’s coat tails, rip it off and call it an homage.
(combined laughs) I mean that’s what usually happens. But I like my stuff to be unique and don’t want to get sued for plagiarism if somebody thinks they have the same idea or whatever. So I don’t watch a lot of them but if there’s a special reason, a really good thing, a really good movie, it’s getting a lot of fan attention and making a lot of money then I go to see them. I went to see 28 Days Later because in my movie making course we were using it so I wanted to see what the blow up looks like. I thought it was a very good movie most of the way except the last half hour turned into a bad Rambo film. But I really liked Shaun of The Dead, the mix of humor and so on. I’ve met those people. I think it’s great. Going way back? I thought Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead was really good. I thought he’d go far in the business and of course to say he’s gone far would be a gross understatement. Sam obviously had talent and drive, just everything it took to succeed and he’s done that. What else in the zombie field? I really liked Return of The Living Dead. I offered the original script and I was supposed to direct that. Then Tobe Hooper was supposed to direct it, then eventually we got frustrated with the money raising effort. Frank Sinatra was going to finance it believe it or not. We went off to Las Vegas and met with Frank’s lawyer and we were put up in Sinatra’s wing of Caesar’s Palace invited to the opening night party and the opening night show there. And that night to the best of my knowledge he was killed.
JR: So that put the end to that. So finally out of frustration we sold the project to Tom Fox, he took it to Orion in Hemdale. They decided horror was dead and let’s turn it into a comedy instead. They hired Dan O’Bannon to do that, rewriting and direct. I think Dan did a great job. I like the movie a lot. I saw part one and part two and nothing else. I just stopped watching them. I hear they keep degenerating so I don’t know because I haven’t seen them. Bill Butler directed a lot of them and we cast Bill in the 1990 remake that Tom Savini directed and now he directs movies and he’s directed a lot of The Return of The Living Dead sequels.
A lot of this by the way is in a really, really good documentary produced by Tommy Hudson and it’s called The More Brains documentary. It’s rated really high with Entertainment Weekly and I was really into it because nobody knew the sorts of things that were in it like I’m telling you now. Anybody that’s interested in horror films or the things you go through to make a really good horror film should get that documentary.
DG: Reflecting back as an aspiring screen writer and film maker who were some of your influences?
JR: I saw every movie that came into town in those days. I grew up in a small town Clairton, a small suburb in Pittsburgh. We had three movie theatres and the movies changed twice a week. At times there were double headers and I just saw everything that came in. I always went to all the classics. Other than Dracula and Frankenstien and so on you rarely saw a really good one. There was a lot of B and C Hollywood product that just kept repeating itself like Invasion of The Giant Grasshopper. The town drunk would see something and nobody would believe him and the town drunk would get killed. The scientists would be hard at work trying to figure out what this slime was then they’d discover it was grasshopper slime and so on and so forth. In the end the scientists would come out with it must be a mutated grass hopper. Then the national guard would come in with flame throwers and kill it. One film after another had that same plot and it whether it was a giant grasshopper or a giant prey mantis or a giant caterpillar, it was always atomic mutations. It got sickening because you’d always hoped to see a good horror film and then you never did. So until I saw Invasion of The Body Snatchers, this was a major influence on me to the extent it showed me something really good could be done in genre. When we were working on script ideas in Night of The Living Dead and all the way through I said if we could make a film that had that same impact on audiences because I saw the ten o’clock and when the people from the eight o’clock show were coming out they just had this stunned look on their faces.
I thought man, what am I going to see because I’d been away at college and came back and saw this thing and said let’s see it. So it had that stark horror, it was really something. A really shocking ending, when it came time to killing off Ben from Night of the Living Dead I said we should kill Ben off because it was a really big deer hunting state and because about 400 000 deer are killed every year by hunters. So I thought we’re always encountering countless people on the country side with guns with a lot of people who have never even used them before and somebody would get killed by accident and wouldn’t it be ironic for our hero. That’s what we did and it stunned people.
JR: Well we get tons of people that have seen Night of The Living Dead when they were four years old or five years old. We hear that story over and over and over and over again. (combined laughs)
But the craziest thing, I almost got into a fight with this guy because his wife was giving me some flack in Buffalo, New York; Twenty fifth anniversary of Night of The Living Dead. We were the guests of honor and they had us up on this desk, which we didn’t ask for but there we were elevated above everybody as if we thought we were better than everyone which we didn’t. The promoter told me I could plug in my TV and VCR in the outlet and when I went to do it the lady next to me with comic books for sale started cussing me for almost ruining her comic books. Which how am I going to do that? I’m just plugging in the thing. So she wouldn’t let up. I told her off and got a standing ovation from all two hundred dealers that were in the room at the time. Then the next day I had seen her husband. He was a big guy with a big beer belly. I’m all of five-eight and a hundred and sixty, you know? So I said to my friends, my partners on Saturday when we’re waiting for the show to open I said this guy is probably going to be pissed off now that I cussed his wife out and maybe he’ll take a swing at me. I figure I’ll hit him as hard as I can in his beer belly and see if he goes down. (combined laughs)
So sure enough he comes charging at me and sticks out his hand and wants to shake my hand. He’s all embarrassed because he figures his battle axe wife got into an argument with one of the stars of the show. So then he starts telling this story and says you know my son is twenty five years old. My father died and I was too choked up to do the eulogy. My son did it and I was very proud of him. That son was conceived in the back seat of our car at the drive inn while we were watching Night of The Living Dead.
DG: No kidding? (combined laughs)
JR: So do me a favor and do the math. Twenty fifth anniversary of Night of The Living Dead?
DG: Yeah, absolutely.
JR: 1968 in the back of a car and he’s telling me….he probably knocked her up and had to marry that bitch. (combined laughs)
See what I mean? That’s a crazy story.
DG: That is pretty crazy.
JR: So in a roundabout way he’s telling me that he’s sorry but he had to marry her.
DG: Of course you’ll be attending the Niagara Falls Comiccon/Macabrecon on June 9th in conjunction with Nictophobia Films. Any special message to your fans?
JR: Everyone should come and enjoy themselves. These things are a lot of fun. They’re great career boosters. It’s a great networking opportunity at any horror convention but if you have idea that you might like to be a film maker, if you have a works in progress or something you go there you meet actresses you meet producers you meet people that think the same that you do and get their start in the business and so on and so forth.
I tell my students that. We have a John Russo movie making program in Dubois Business College in Dubois, PA. People check it out, here I am getting a plug in….
DG: ….plug away that’s what we’re here for (combined laughs).
JR: Go to DBcollege.com and click on, you’ll see samples of student art work and so on. That’s what we tell our students you have to get out there and network. Make friends and associates that do what you want to do and help each other do it. Carpenter, Scorsese and all of them, they all went to NYU film school. They networked, they helped each other. Dan O’Bannon, John Carpenter they all met in film school. Get out there and do the same thing.
DG: It all has to start somewhere right?
JR: Yeah and if anyone sees the article come up and mention it at the show.
DG: Well I look forward to attending MacabreCon at the Niagara Falls Comic Con.
JR: Well come up and introduce yourself. I have no idea what you look like or anything and just remind me because I do a lot of interviews and you never know I might gap out. I’d like to meet you in person.
DG: I will, absolutely and thank you for your time. It’s been very enlightening and entertaining and best of luck with Nictophobia Films and the production of Night of The Living Dead Live.
For more information on Night Of The Living Dead Live check out: nightofthelivingdeadlive.com
Interview: John Russo (Night of the Living Dead)