Behind the Scenes: “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Easy Rider, more acceptable artistically, stole Night of the Living Dead’s thunder the following year as the poster boy for a low-budget phenomenon that would, temporarily at least, usher in a new way of Hollywood thinking. But Night of the Living Dead – initially entitled Monster Flick and Night of the Flesh-Eaters – was movie-making as fairy tale, virtually a throwback to the old trope of doughty characters putting on a show in a barn.

Using guerrilla production techniques, the movie took an astonishing six months to make starting July 1967.  Bronx-born George A. Romero specialised in advertisements and industrial shorts through his Latent Image company before branching out in Pittsburgh with some work colleagues from Hardman Associates to form a movie production company Image Ten, the name indicative of the initial ten investors.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Romero and his gang were movie neophytes out of their depth. Technically, they were pretty accomplished, churning out adverts and shorts at a steady pace, the kind of education the likes of Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne enjoyed on the London advertising scene. According to Variety, Hardman was “the largest producer of record and radio shows in Pittsburgh…(running) the most completely equipped sound and film studio in the area” while Latent Image was the city’s “biggest producer of video and industrial shorts.”

The principals of both companies proved instrumental to the movie. While Romero took on directing, cinematography and editing duties, the screenplay was down to business partner John A. Russo while another partner Russell Streiner took on the role of producer. Hardman provided actors Karl Hardman, a former RKO contract player, and Marilyn Eastman, who also supervised make-up, costumes and special effects, while Kyra Schon, the dying daughter in the film, was Hardman’s real-life daughter. The rest of the cast were unknowns, Duane Jones in the lead had at least some stage experience, female lead Judith O’Dea had worked with the producers before, while Judith Ridley was a receptionist for the production company. Romance blossomed between O’Dea and Streiner.

Romero’s debut was heavily influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s British bizarre fantasy The Tales of Hoffman (1951) but the final film clearly draws on Richard Matheson’s celebrated 1964 sci-fi novel The Last Man on Earth – filmed in 1971 as The Omega Man and in 2007 as I Am Legend. Where Matheson’s book begins at the end, Romero wanted to show the beginning of how the undead came to rule the world. Since Matheson had used vampires, Romero needed an alternative.

Explained Romero: “I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. So I said, what if the dead stop staying dead?” That tapped into the attractive notion of living forever – until you realized what that entailed.

Contrary to expectation – and myth – it didn’t exactly stumble at the box office. A month after initial release its opening salvoes were advertised in “Box Office” magazine (November 25, 1968)
accompanied by some of the better reviews harvested.

Shockerama pictures would be the easiest way to find a foothold on the distribution ladder. Initially devised as a horror comedy it took several drafts, the first couple involving aliens, before arriving at the concept of flesh-eating re-animated corpses.

Ben was originally envisaged as a blue collar truck driver and evolved into the more educated character as a result of rewriting by Duane Jones who objected to playing such a cliché. But improvisation was very much the order of the day. Recalled O’Dea: “I don’t know if there was an actual working script. We would go over what basically had to be done and then just did it the way we each felt it should be done.”

The initial investors ponied up $600 each but that proved insufficient as production developed, the company eventually raising $114,000. (The  average cost of making a movie at that time was $1.6 million.) Budget dictated location be as remote as possible, the main locale a house scheduled for demolition.  Chocolate syrup doubled as blood, human flesh was roasted ham and entrails supplied by one of the actors who was also a butcher. Clothing was anything the cast possessed that they didn’t mind being ripped. Color film was too expensive, and the resulting black-and-white footage has the effect of newsreel, almost a documentary rather than a work of fiction.

Although a myth has arisen that the movie struggled to find its way into the distribution food chain, that was not the case. Studios were desperate to find product and happy to hang their shingle on anything that could keep their clients, cinemas starved of movies, happy. Columbia and American International were both interested, but demanded a happy ending. When Romero stuck to his guns, the movie ended up with the Walter Reade organisation, a noted distributor of foreign and cult pictures, better suited to this kind of fare.

Nor was it sneaked out into cinemas as has been usually assumed. Given that by 1968 cinema managers owners were in part reliant on low-budget shockers, the National Association of Theater Owners instigated a nationwide “Exploitation Picture of the Month” campaign of which Night of the Living Dead was one of the early beneficiaries, as a result of its involvement scooping, for example, $117,000 from 26 houses in Philadelphia. and other pretty decent figures shown in the advertisement above.

Nor did it go out below-the-wire in Pittsburgh. A full-scale black-tie premiere was held on October 1, 1968, at the Reade-owned Fulton attended by Mayor Barr and the city’s safety director Norman Craig and various councillors. It rang a heavy box office bell, knocking up $62,000 – over $500,000 at today’s prices – for 11 theaters, outpointing Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which had played the same houses the week before. The distributor came up with a clever marketing ploy of taking out a $50,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London against adverse audience reaction.

The film attracted controversy for going out un-rated. There was nothing unusual about that either. Only studios aligned with the MPAA Production Code had to submit their movies for the censor’s rating. Reade, which wasn’t involved in the Code, often imported movies from Europe and part of their attraction was that they were unrated, containing levels of nudity or violence that the official censor at the time would find impossible to pass. Lack of the vaunted Production Code Seal of Approval did not prevent a movie being shown, it just meant certain cinemas would not book it.

Chicago critic Roger Ebert made journalistic hay by complaining that kids were being allowed in to watch the movie. That he might be on hand to witness their shock at the images they saw seems hard to believe since critics usually viewed pictures in advance of opening at special screenings. In any case, in Chicago, Night of the Living Dead didn’t slip through the censorship net, but was passed by the local censorship board. His beef was with them, complaining that while the censors drew the line at nudity they had nothing against cannibalism. And it seems pretty odd that the management wasn’t aware of the film’s shocking content – presumably that being the reason it was booked in the first place – and permitted youngsters to troop in.

Although New York critics gave it the thumbs-down at least the New York Times (Vincent Canby no less), Post and Daily News took the trouble to see it, so it would at least benefit from editorial exposure. The trade press were mixed. While Variety railed that it “set a new low in box office opportunism,” its trade press competitor Box Office reckoned there was “an audience for this particular brand of sadism especially in drive-ins.”

Perhaps surprisingly given critical disapproval Night of the Living Dead enjoyed first-run outings in a variety of cities, though its main target was showcase (wide local release) and drive-ins. In Los Angeles it picked up a “hip” $10,500 at the 1,757-seat first-run Warren. (Multiply by ten to get an idea of how inflation would treat the gross and bear in mind this is pre-multiplex when cinema capacity could reach 5,000 and most city center emporiums seated 500-plus). In Boston it registered a “cool” $8,000 at the 1,250-seat Center. New York’s Broadway had to wait a year when the prestigious roadshow house the DeMille, in the week before it hosted 70mm extravaganza The Battle of Britain (1969), booked Slaves (1969)/Night of the Living Dead, grossing $21,000 in an eight-day fill-in run.

In its first New York showcase, when Night of the Living Dead was the main attraction with Dr Who and the Daleks in support, it scorched through $286,000 from 39 cinemas, the joint top result for the week. Returning a year later, as the support to Slaves put another $125,000 in the kitty from 26 plantations, again the top showcase performer for the week. Among notable wider releases were $14,300 from three in Dayton where it was “weekends at capacity in ozoners” (industry jargon for drive-ins). There was $10,000 from three houses in Minnesota.

Not being a contender for sale to television extended its screen life at a time when even big hits landed on small screens within a few years. As well as Slaves it was revived as the supporting feature to newer items Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and The Nightcomers (1971). The teaming with Slaves racked up a “rousing” $82,000 in Detroit at the 5,000-seat Fox, and $55,000 the following week. The double bill with Brotherhood of Satan beat the previous week’s pairing of the reissued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/Mash. It formed part of an interesting triple bill at the 500-seat Plaza arthouse in Boston where it was teamed with Dutchman (1966) and Ulysses (1967).

But it was also building up a head of steam on the midnight screening circuit and began a record year’s run in that slot at the Plaza in Boston. Gradually, as it acquired more artistic credibility it turned up at prestigious New York 538-seat arthouse the Beekman with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in support (gross $5,000), ironically acting as trailer for a six-week programme of revivals based on “Ten Best” selections from critics which had avowedly spurned the movie. And it was chosen as the ideal companion for the once-banned Freaks (1932). Perhaps proof of the breakthrough into respectable cult territory, six years after initial release, was a New York showcase pairing with Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), drumming up $63,500 from 29 bandstands.

By the end of December 1970, rentals (the amount the studio collects from cinemas as opposed to overall gross) stood at $1 million – which probably indicated a gross of around  $3 million. It found a British distributor in Crispin and eventually rolled out successfully around the world with an estimated $18 million in global gross.

SOURCES:  John Russo, The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook (Imagine, 1985), p6,7, 31, 61, 70;  Joe Kane, Night of the Living Dead (Citadel Press, 2010) p23; Jason Paul Collum, Attack of the Killer B’s (McFarland, 2004) p3; Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 1969; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland 2019), p161; “Pittsburgh Premiere Held for Walter Reade Thriller,” Box Office, October 8,1968, p8;  “Pittsburgh’s Hometown Horror to Reade: Surprise Boff BO,” Variety, October 9, 1968, p17; “Review,” Variety, October 16, 1968, p6; “Big Success Claimed for Image Ten Film,” Box Office, October 21, 1968, pE1; Advert, Box Office, November 25, 1968, p7; “N.Y. Critics: A Shooting Gallery,” Variety, December 11, 1968, p19; “Sun-Times Wants Chicago ‘Absurd’ Censorship Brought to Halt,” Box Office, March 14, 1969, p10; “Pittsburgh’s Latent Image Make 2nd Film,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p4; “Pittsburgh’s Cannibal Film Big Box Office,” Variety, April 8, 1970, p13; Advertisement, Kine Weekly, June 16, 1970, p61; “Big Rental Films of 1970,” Variety, January 6, 1971, p11; “Year of Friday Midnight Showings,” Variety, August 16, 1972, p6.

Box Office Figures from Variety: December 4, 1968, p13; December 11, 1968, p10-p11; December 18, 1968, p8-p13; July 9, 1969, p8; March 4, 1970, p12; October 13, 1971, p8-p12; October 20, 1969, p9;  October 27, 1971, p16;  Mar 17, 1972, p10; April 12, 1972, p10; May 12, 1971, p8; July 19, 1972, p12; August 9, 1972, p8; September 25, 1974, p8.

Selling Sharif – The Pressbook for “Mayerling” (1969)

MGM didn’t know how to sell this. So they came up with three different campaigns. The first was the classical illustration of stars Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve about to kiss. This image was used for the film’s launch in the U.K. and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The artwork could be augmented if need be by various scenes from the film. You would categorize this as the straightforward romantic sell. Sharif after all was the most famous romantic idol of the decade following the monumental success of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

But this was the more liberalized 1969 rather the restrained mid-decade so MGM offered exhibitors the opportunity to promote the picture as a more salacious number, not overdone sexually since that would defeat the purpose of achieving a rating designed to attract the widest possible adult audience, but nonetheless touching on enough of the risqué to satisfy modern cinemagoing taste.

Of the two alternatives, one was considerably more spicy than the other. Using the tagline “No one woman could satisfy him…until he fell in love” this presented Sharif as wanton playboy, wine glass in hand, cavorting with cleavage-ridden woman.  The other approach, though technically more reserved, was as provocative since it highlighted Deneuve’s role as a high-class sex worker in Belle de Jour (1967), the sensational arthouse breakout. The connection would not be lost on the more sophisticated members of the audience.

Nor did the Pressbook avoid the more intimate elements of the drama and in fact the biggest article in the promotional material concerned the “emotional incest” between Sharif as the Crown Prince and his mother played by Ava Gardner – “the abnormally close relationship between the two was noted again and again in records of the era” – and in their first scene together “looked like lovers to the silver screen born.”

Historical films lent themselves to the kind of detail that journalists loved and the Pressbook for a movie set in a magnificent Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century capitalized on this.  As you might expect, waltzes played a key role in the social life of high society. The Pressbook introduced newspaper editors to the concept of “left-waltzing,” a particularly energetic form of the dance performed on state occasions. This waltz had a “strict etiquette” in that it is “forbidden to reverse no matter how dizzy one gets,” explained director Terence Young. Auditioning for extras to participate was made simpler by eliminating anyone who collided with another dancer.

The Pressbook, unusually, also casts light on directorial technique, again in reference to a waltz. This is the one where Omar Sharif scandalizes the court by opening a ball by dancing with his mistress Catherine Deneuve. Young wanted to create the effect of the whirling couple revolving into a world of their own.  To achieve this the stars had to “dance in a perfect circle, keeping a constant distance in the center of the ballroom floor from director of photography Henri Akedan and his revolving camera.”

Initially, Young resorted to “two elaborate and – as it proved – punishing devices since the dance had to be done over and over.” The first saw camera and stars balanced at opposite ends of a rotating “see-saw.” But this moved so fast Sharif lost his balance and Deneuve suffered from dizziness. Next, they were connected by a lasso but this metal contraption struck them so often in the hips it was abandoned. Finally, they reverted to the simplest of solutions, working round a circle chalked on the floor. 

To ensure authenticity, Young was able to film at the Hapsburg Palace, the Karlschirche and the Schonbrunn Palace. However, such was the urge to preserve these antiquities, the stars were not permitted to sit on any of the chairs or even get anywhere close to them, so it was standing room only for days at a time. However, the Vienna Opera House of 1888 was reconstructed on Parisian sound stages.

The marketers were able to take advantage of the current fashion for the vintage look as pioneered by the likes of The Beatles. Under the heading “Groovy Gear,” the promotional gurus encouraged exhibitors to target the university crowd and metropolitan areas with a preponderance of young people who would appreciate the “freaky clothes” and “up-town hippy clothing” like the military garb, long topcoats, high boots and fur hats worn in the film. Even so, the Pressbook originators were remarkably unimaginative when it came to dreaming up stunts and promotional gimmicks. Their best suggestions were a Catherine Deneuve look-alike contest and a competition to list all Omar Sharif’s roles. Rather more ambitious was the idea of inviting high school pupils to write an essay on aspects of the period.

Selling Ursula Andress – The Pressbook for “She” (1965)

Dr No (1962) had only enjoyed moderate success in the United States so it was far from given that Ursula Andress meant much to American audiences. The first Bond outing had finished 43rd in the annual box office rankings and Andress had not exactly swept Elvis Presley off his feet in her only Hollywood offering so far, Fun in Acapulco. However, she was the immediate beneficiary of one of the most extraordinary pieces of luck to fall to a barely-known star.

The gargantuan success of Goldfinger (1964) had sent studio United Artists back to the vaults to resurrect the first two films in the Bond series and put them out in a double bill – the first of many such Bond pairings – in April 1965, a couple of months before She hit the big screen in the U.S. Dr No/From Russia with Love was a record-breaking sensation, attracting three times the numbers that had attended the first release of Dr No.  So outstanding a performer was the double bill that it hit number five on the annual box office chart.   So by the time She was launched Ursula Andress’s iconic bikini-clad entrance in Dr No was fresh in audience memories.

MGM, the U.S. distributor of the Hammer picture, had wisely not counted on the unexpected resurrection of Dr No and had a stack of other promotional wheezes up its sleeve. The 12-page A3 Pressbook kicked off with a “phone stunt” whereby exhibitors would set up a message on a telephone line purportedly from “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.”  The statuesque figure of Ursula Andress in figure-clinging costume was a natural for a standee in a cinema lobby as was the setting up of an artificial flame.

There were any number of ideas for competitions held in conjunction with a radio station or local newspaper: famous women who had ended up as film titles – Cleopatra and so on; famous female rulers; or a list of “love goddesses” to whose ranks it was decreed Andress deserved a place – in posters MGM had no hesitation is calling the actress “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Journalists were to be hooked into running editorial pieces by a variety of interesting facts that could be cobbled together for an interesting article. The luxurious furs used to decorate the queen’s inner sanctum had been insured for $300,000. Andress had worn a total of nine gowns, designed by Cal Tomms, but none weighed more than a few pounds, the gossamer-like material both free-flowing and clinging to her natural assets. The crown weighed 3lb, a heavy object to carry around on your head for a week, as Andress had. Her cloak contained 3,000 feathers. No doubles were used for the duel between John Richardson and Christopher Lee, both being accomplished swordsmen.

There were human interest items as well. Both Andress and Richardson had previously signed contracts with major studios without ever being given any roles. Andress, shy in real life, had learned to claim to be someone lese when approached by fans.  Filming Dr No, she was grateful it was shot in Jamaica: “I didn’t want anyone to see what a fool I might be making of myself,” she said.

However, she was certainly self-assured in general. Interviewed exclusively for the Pressbook, she said, “Beauty gets you everywhere. It is a gate opener. It takes a long time to discover a good mind, but a beautiful woman attracts attention right away. Only stupid people think that a woman who is attractive must be silly.”

She added: “I will give you a list of the qualities that are most important for a woman – emotional range, beauty, intelligence, education and talent. Emotions are the most important, the ability to feel and love. Beauty next, and intelligence after that. Education is less important than intelligence because if you have the latter you’ll acquire education.

“I have never made a study of acting,” she explained. “I just do it if and when I feel like it. I have no desire to work on the stage and what I do in front of the camera is instinctive and spontaneous. My best takes are the first. Repetition distracts from the quality of my performance. Ayesha in She was a difficult part because this mysterious queen is 2,000 years old  and I had to be very stylized.”

Andress was central to the advertising campaign and although there were a number of different adverts, the actress featured in all, the only difference being her position on the poster, left, right or central. “She had waited 2,000 years waiting for her lover to be reborn – the lover she had slain by her own hand.” To whet audience appetite, a variety of scenes were included at the foot of some posters. 

To grab the attention of the exhibitor, and ensure full cooperation in selling the picture, MGM was offering a treasure chest of rewards for the best local campaign – a total of $10,000 in prize money. To gain additional publicity there was a single record and, more important, a new tie-in edition of the famed novel by H. Rider Haggard, which had already sold 20 million copies in America.

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