Saturday Night Dead
Jacksonville film fans owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Tim Massett. As the manager of the San Marco Theater and a member of the Jacksonville Film Festival, he has gone to great lengths to bring some of the legends of independent filmmaking to this city. As part of The Talkies series, where directors provide live commentaries during screenings of their films, Herschell Gordon Lewis and John Waters have previously graced the theater with their presence. On February 2nd, Massett outdid himself by adding none other than the King of the Zombies himself, George A. Romero, to his list of celebrity speakers!
As a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the release of the corpse classic Night of the Living Dead, Romero took the podium and guided eager fans through a 35MM big screen viewing of the film that launched his career (and a flood of imitations). This wasn’t all though, a lucky group of 25 die hard Dead fans had the opportunity to join Romero for a two hour private dinner prior to the show and pick his brain in an informal atmosphere.
On Saturday evening as the sun was setting, I began a trek into downtown Jacksonville to locate a restaurant I was unfamiliar with, The Burrito Gallery. This area of the city can be scarier after dark than anything found in a horror film so I was glad that I found the place with only a minimal amount of obligatory wrong turns (thanks a lot Mapquest!). By the time I arrived, Romero was already holding court with a riveted group of fans (all at least middle age and predominately male) as he fielded questions about his career.
As we took our places at the long banquet table, I scored an incredible bit of luck and ended up seated directly across from Mr. Romero! I quickly introduced myself and reminded our guest of honor that I had met him several times in the past going all the way back to a lecture he did in Central Florida at Valencia Community College in 1985. For the remainder of our dinner of upscale Mexican by way of New York style cuisine, I managed to dominate the conversation and, next to Romero himself, probably did more talking than anyone at the table. When fate deals you a winning hand, I say go for broke!
The topics of conversation and the questions from the assembled group were fast, furious, and varied and Romero addressed them all with a good natured wit that has obviously been honed from years of dealing with fans. Some of the many bits of trivia I discovered that night include:
- George Romero got his start in film production making short educational pieces for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood which was produced locally in Pittsburgh. As Romero put it, “whenever Fred Rogers would look at the Picture, Picture screen and say show us how light bulbs are made, I was the cat who had to go out and film them making light bulbs!”
- When Night of the Living Dead began production, Roger’s alumni Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin) was slated to play the role of Barbara! Unfortunately the powers that be thought that having a member of the Neighborhood involved in a film (then titled) Night of the Flesh Eaters wasn’t a good idea and the part went to Judith O’Dea.
- The original running time of Night was 97 or 98 minutes. The Walter Reed Company, which originally distributed the film, demanded it be cut down to 90 minutes so as not to exceed five reels of film to save on shipping costs! Among the cuts were several additional scenes of radio and television footage that gave other explanations for why the dead may have returned. Only the Venus probe explanation was retained in the final cut because it was crucial to the footage shot in Washington that Romero wanted to leave in to give the film a bigger budget feel. He never intended for there to be a definitive reason for why the zombies were coming back to life but many sources have listed this as the official explanation.
- The character of the hero, Ben, was not created or written with any race considerations in mind. The part went to African-American Duane Jones because he was the best actor they could find. In retrospect Romero wishes they had changed the script to at least acknowledge the racial tensions between Ben and Harry Cooper but in the end they are just two strong willed characters disagreeing over how to handle the situation.
- Duane Jones cautioned Romero on the scene where he strikes Barbara in an attempt to snap her out of a fit of hysteria. He felt that the scene of a black man striking a white woman would not do them any favors with Southern audiences of the 1960’s but Romero kept it in the film.
- On the night that Romero picked up the answer print of the film and was driving it to New York to screen for investors, the news came over the car radio that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. As terrible as this information was, Romero realized it would give the film he had just completed an additional edge thanks to its African-American protagonist.
- When Night was originally released, distributors had a hard time figuring out how to market it in multi-film venues such as drive-in theaters because there was nothing else quite like it. In some areas it was co-featured with Hammer Films’ Dr. Who and the Daleks (perhaps for the atomic mutant angle?) and in others with blaxploitation pictures!
- Prior to the film going into production, it was brought to Romero’s attention that it could be made in color on their existing budget. Romero made the decision to stick with black and white because he felt it gave the film a more serious tone and made it look like newsreel footage.
I had never before heard of Romero’s connection to the beloved childhood favorite Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and was amazed that Betty Aberlin almost ended up in the film as Barbara (they’re coming to get you Lady Aberlin!). I chanced across Ms. Aberlin’s contact information while researching this article and could not resist asking her to verify this information. Her response was:
I did not know till now (thank you!) that the powers that be put the pressure on George Romero, I only know that my then-husband certainly did, and it was made pretty clear that (they would have put it into Child Development parlance) it might be confusing for children (2-4 years olds, who are just beginning to distinguish what is real and what is make-believe) to see their trusted Lady Aberlin, friend of Daniel Tiger, etc. running in terror from the Living Dead.
I’ve just published a book in answer to George MacDonald’s “Diary of an Old Soul” – my half of the book is called “The White Page Poems”.
all best wishes,
What a cool lady! Any friend of Daniel Tiger is a friend of mine and I am personally grateful she didn’t get the role! I have no idea how I would have reacted if I had seen previews for a film with her being chased by ghouls when I was five or six!
After the dinner, our group jetted a few miles away to the San Marco Theater for what we already knew would be a delayed start to the screening (since we had the guest of honor with us though we weren’t worried). Once we were seated in the VIP section of the theater, Tim made the announcement that Mr. Romero’s birthday was only two days away so the audience greeted him with song and theater personnel, in a very nice gesture, presented him with a cake.
George Romero gave an excellent commentary but nothing could compare to the discussion we had just come from! As the movie progressed and the vodka began to sink in, his topics began to shift from the trivial to the far more personal. The audience was regaled with tales of the studio system, the MPAA ratings board, and even some very touching remarks about what it was like growing up in the fifties under the ever present shadow of possible nuclear war. These last revelations went a long way to explain the nihilistic undercurrents of the Dead films, especially Night.
When the screening was over, Mr. Romero graciously visited with fans, sold merchandise (mainly DVDs, photos, and reprint posters), and gave free autographs (thanks Tim!). Fans could not have asked for a more appreciative or enjoyable guest to spend an evening with. The unanimous decision among the dinner group, including local artist Sean Leftwich, was that the event was a complete success and well worth the price. Hopefully this will be the first of more opportunities for Jacksonville fans to get up close and personal with the pioneers of cinema!
Zombie Alert: George Romero’s latest living dead film, Diary of the Dead, is scheduled to be released to theaters on February 15! During our dinner conversation I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Romero about the new film, which I was apprehensively awaiting ever since I heard him announce it at Dragoncon in 2006. To the best of my recollection, the exchange went something like this:
ED Tucker: Is your new film, Diary of the Dead, meant to be in continuity with your other four Dead films?
George Romero: Yes, it takes place at the same time as the events of the original Night of the Living Dead. A film crew is making a movie and they get caught up in these events as they are just starting to happen.
ET: So are they making their movie on 16mm film?
GR: No they are making it on video.
ET: Did they have video cameras back at the time Night of the Living Dead takes place?
GR: Ah, but you see, no one knows when Night of the Living Dead takes place!
ET: It takes place in 1966.
GR: That’s when the film was made but that doesn’t mean it takes place then.
ET: There’s a calendar on the wall in the kitchen that says 1966 on it.
GR: What?! I don’t remember any calendar in the film. Are you sure?
ET: It’s behind Ben when he’s in the kitchen talking to Barbara. I apologize for being the Night of the Living Dead equivalent of a Star Trek geek but it’s there alright.
GR: I am going to have to go back and check that. It must be something that you can only see now that they have restored the film and made it brighter.
Later that evening during the screening of a 35MM print of the film that looked like it could have survived the grindhouse era, the calendar (showing the month of December, 1966) was clearly visible in all its continuity-dating glory behind Ben in the kitchen as he searches for nails and tells Barbara to pick out the biggest ones for him. I asked Mr. Romero later if he saw it this time but he claimed to be too busy with the commentary!