There is a point where the top-line makers of a cult film have pretty much said everything that exists, which is why asking George Romero yet again about the making of Night of the Living Dead is wholly redundant (and yet it’s done almost annually, if not whenever the film’s next anniversary ends with a zero or a five).
Most of the film’s history has been covered in various forms, spanning short interviews in documentaries about horror, zombies, anthology docs on horror filmmakers, and full-sized docs on the film, usually attached to the latest DVD release.
Thomas Brown’s Night of the Living Dead: 25th Anniversary Documentary (released only on VHS by Elite, and long out of print) was the first lengthy effort to gather together key players of the production, and included a roundtable discussion with director Romero, co-writer John Russo, co-star/co-producer Karl Hardman, and co-producer Russell Streiner. (Also of note is Roy Frumkes' 1985 film Document of the Dead [M], made during the filming of Romero's Dawn of the Dead [M].)
Aspects of the production were also covered in the feature-length commentary tracks on Elite’s 1994 laserdisc and 2002 DVD (which sported two commentaries), and the commentary track on Anchor Bay’s 30th Anniversary re-edit edition, supervised by co-writer Russo. A new feature-length doc, One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead by Robert Lucas and Chris Roe was commissioned for the 40th anniversary DVD released in 2008 by the Weinstein Company.
So what was left for director Jeff Carney and producer James Cirronella to cover in their new doc, Autopsy of the Dead (2009)?
Unlike Halloween (1978), which wasn’t the first feature film made by its makers nor cast & crew, Night was the feature film debut of several local commercial filmmakers. A co-production between Romero’s The Latent Image and Karl Hardman’s Hardman Associates, the project (reformulated under the production name Image Ten, reflecting the film’s ten financial supporters) made local media headlines in Pittsburg, and Evans City.
The Hardman office served as the media headquarters for the film's fictitious reporters, and the firm’s basement doubled as the farmhouse cellar, where the family hid from the zombies, only to be stabbed and devoured by the daughter (played by Hardman’s real daughter, Kyra Schon).
The real Evans City was also the setting for the cemetery where Barbara (Judith O’Dea) encountered her first flesh-eater, as well as the condemned farmhouse where the few surviving normal humans held out before the zombies managed to reduce the group to a single survivor – Ben (Duane Jones).
Romero enlisted the aid of local law for the posse hunt for the film’s finale, and radio and TV personalities were hired for small roles as newsmen tracking the zombie plague that’s infected America.
The involvement of so many ordinary folks and native talent made Night an event for locals, and in spite of the film’s grim subject matter, gore, and downbeat ending, it was a production and a life experience everyone was ultimately quite proud of.
Carney and Cirronella managed to track down a solid 21 participants from Night, and essentially let them reminisce about their experiences as bit players, ghouls, sound recordists, special effects technicians, and associates of Romero – some of whom furthered their own careers in commercial and horror films.
The talent pool included news veterans from radio and TV more or less played themselves - newsmen, cameramen, and helicopter pilots – but their backgrounds also gave their scenes verisimilitude, particularly newscaster Charles Craig, who wrote his own copy for the emergency TV reports about wandering zombies.
Kyra Schon, daughter of co-stars Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, gives us a tour of the basement where she portrayed the daughter who kills and eats her parents; and Bill Hinzman recalls his dual roles doing technical assistance, as well as appearing as the zombie in the cemetery who wanders to the farmhouse, and unofficially becomes the ghouls' ringleader. (Hinzman would later photograph Romero's 1973 film The Crazies, as well as the 1974 TV doc O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose, and eventually make his own zombie film, Flesh Eater, in 1988.)
There’s also memories from sound recordist / co-investor Gary Streiner, special effects man Regis Survinski (who blew up the truck and rigged the squibs whenever a zombie was shot), and Rick Catizone, who worked for The Animators, the firm that designed and executed the still frame animation for the film’s chilling ending.
The doc’s main body is centered around the filming of the farmhouse assault and posse hunt at the end, and the filmmakers back up the various recollections with film stills and surviving colour snapshots taken by locals, plus rare location footage filmed by a local news crew in 1967.
Director Carney pretty much recorded comments from every level of talent and extras, so fans will have plenty of memories to create their own vivid portrait of Night’s production. The doc's first 86 mins. contains the interviews, organized into chapters for each participant, and the subsequent 57 mins. focuses on their collective memories, mostly concerning the finale where the zombies are caught, routed out of the farmhouse, and killed by a nasty posse.
For novices, however, the information might be too overwhelming, since there are common statements among the former zombie extras, and the exhaustive material could’ve been edited into a tighter hour-long narrative. The doc also repeats some info in the Special Features gallery, such as the present-day visitations to the main locations (itself a lengthy comparative montage of film clips and present-day footage of the film’s locations), and comments by Schon in the basement of the former Hardman Associates headquarters.
The extras, though, are quite unique to this release: in addition to the location montage, there’s the aforementioned 1967 newsreel footage of the posse hunt (minus production sound); a stills archive featuring rare black & white, Polaroid, and colour stills; a lengthy blooper reel (which is generally negligible); and a nice Q&A with animator Rick Catizone, whose work on the film also extended to the animated sequences in Romero’s Creepshow (1982), and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987).
The DVD is rounded out with trailers, vintage radio spots, and publicity materials, and many of the montages are underscored with the production music used in the film (which film producer Cirronella also released on a superb CD).
Carney and Cirronella’s mandate was to preserve elements of the film’s history that’s either been marginalized or forgotten over the years, and Autopsy fills in the remaining gaps by covering some of the people Romero & Co. often referred to in their ubiquitous interviews, but where never interviewed by anyone until now.
For further info regarding the making of Autopsy of the Dead, click HERE for an interview with the filmmakers.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan