“They’re dead. They’re…all messed up.”
Sheriff McClelland, Night of the Living Dead
Rounding up the requisite zombies posed far less of a challenge than initially anticipated. According to John Russo, “We were worried that we did not have enough money to pay a sufficient number of extras. But we got plenty of volunteers, including people from in and around Evans City, who jumped at the chance to be in a movie. We let them be posse members or made them up as ghouls. They were patient and enthusiastic. They gave the movie a ‘real people’ look that probably added to the believability.”
Casting a wide zombie net, Image Ten likewise looked to their immediate peers for assistance. George Romero recalls, “We had a company doing commercials and industrial films, so there were a lot of people from the advertising game who all wanted to come out and be zombies.”
Sometimes, the filmmakers resorted to more aggressive recruitment tactics. Evans City cabinet shop owner Ella Mae Smith remembers, “We were sitting in our yard and a car pulled up in front. A girl got out and she said, ‘Hi, we’re from the movie back there that we’re making. How would you and your husband like to be in it?’ And of course my husband said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think that that would be lots of fun.’ So I kind of pleaded and begged and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll go back and see what’s going on.’ But we had no idea what the film was about. So we went back and they started putting this goop all over our faces and we were ghouls. I was thrilled to death our names were up there! Maybe it was because they paid us $25.” In all, some 250 zombies showed up for the shoot.
Naturally, those zombies wouldn’t have much impact without a convincing living dead look. Just as she’d once been considered to play Barbara, prior to filming actress Judith Ridley had been picked as a possible candidate to perform that vital chore. “I was asked at Latent Image to take a makeup course,” she remembers. “They thought that in the production work, if I could do the makeup, then that would be one less freelancer that they would have to hire.” After doing a full makeover, complete with false eyelashes, on volunteer John Russo, Ridley surrendered the assignment to Marilyn Eastman.
With another projected prospect, Tom Savini, serving in Vietnam, Eastman, who had done her own makeup as a regional theater actress, now seemed the logical choice, even though her zombie-making approach proved a work in progress. “You’ll see in the beginning everyone looks like a raccoon. Gradually, they got a little more sophisticated.” With the help of a mortician’s friend called derma wax, Eastman says, “We tried to make variations in the wounds and costumes of the flesh-eaters, to indicate that they must have died in the midst of different normal activities. These were supposed to be the recently dead brought back to life.”
Since the zombies had only newly departed this mortal coil, Russo points out, “They logically would not be especially decayed or deformed, so this made the makeups easier. I played the part of one of the first zombies we filmed—the Tire Iron Zombie. My idea was that I would have a certain amount of rigor mortis, so I purposely twisted my face out of shape and moved stiffly, albeit with ‘deadly intentions.’”
As for that notorious nude pin-up ghoul who would adorn the movie’s poster (though often wearing airbrushed bra and panties, presumably to discourage the necrophiliac trade), Eastman says, “I just dusted her down with gray makeup to make her look kind of gray and dead.” Russo relates, “We used an artist’s model for this scene. We figured that some of the dead bodies in morgues would have risen, and we wanted to illustrate this point. It was another ‘believability’ factor. We also didn’t mind any word of mouth that might accrue regarding one of the few nudes to appear in horror movies at this time.”
Word of mouth apparently spread quickly—long before the film was completed. According to Judith Ridley, “The night they filmed the nude ghoul, all of Evans City found out about it. They had their lawn chairs set up around the edges of the property. Meanwhile, going many of her cohorts one better, Marilyn Eastman did triple-duty on the film, also contributing a cameo as the infamous insect-eating zombie.
What may be most remarkable, in a pre-reality TV/YouTube/and generally camera-savvy culture, is how Night’s zombies are never caught looking at the lens or deviating from their living dead personas. Soundman Gary Streiner attests to the undead extras’ extraordinary discipline: “The acting experience level of our cast was limited, to say the least, but still everyone was always totally in character. I don’t remember there being abnormal amounts of retakes being done.”
From the get-go, the filmmakers took care to establish fairly strict guidelines to set the parameters for appropriate zombie behavior. Says Russo, “We reasoned that they would move slowly; in fact, they had to move slowly, or else the script would not have worked; it would not have been believable that our hero Ben could elude them after the failed escape attempt.”
The iconic role of the opening cemetery zombie was originally reserved for Russo. “I was going to be the cemetery zombie because nobody else was around to do it. I got into makeup and then Hinzman showed up. We said, ‘Oh good, he can be the zombie because I can still load the magazines and work the clap sticks.’ So there I was all day in zombie makeup working clap sticks and Bill became the famous cemetery ghoul.’”
Hinzman worked as a snapper at Latent Image by day and moonlighted as a part-time police forensics photographer. His indelibly terrifying performance in Night still sends chills down contemporary spines. “I pretty much picked that up from a film with Boris Karloff,” he reveals. “It was the one where he got electrocuted and he came back to life [The Walking Dead]. He had one arm that was sort of dangling and he was dragging his leg. I think that’s where I got that from, subconsciously.” Marilyn Eastman’s adroit makeup reinforced that resemblance, as did Hinzman’s own hairstyle and coloring. Hinzman later recounted, “I sprayed my hair white and put some black on my cheeks. I was really surprised by how scary it turned out. I’ve been told several times how I scared the hell out of people as the lead ghoul.”
Observant Deadheads have noted that Hinzman’s zombie exhibits a bit more pep than most of his living dead peers. Hinzman explains, “Russell (Streiner) comes to her (Barbara’s) rescue and attacks me. At that point George said, ‘Okay, he’s attacking you, you have to kill Russell.’ I said, ‘How am I suppose to kill this guy when throughout the film you were always telling us that we have no power except in tandem with each other and could only rely on each other for strength.’ And he thought about it for a while and the famous line, in my memory, is, ‘Oh fuck it, just kill him.’” Those were, in fact, the final scenes shot, so Romero might be forgiven for his zombie-empowering impatience.
Many of the volunteers went above and beyond the call of living dead duty. Romero cites local TV personality Dave James’ drop-dead fall as one of the zombies popped by Sheriff McClelland’s posse as a prime example. “People get up in front of the camera,” he says with wonder, “and all of a sudden someone who’s never done anything like that before does something spectacular like that—that’s a stuntman fall!”
Not even the police—or their dogs—were immune to the zombies’ menace. “We were having lunch and it was a posse day,” Bill Hinzman looks back. “I was dressed in a zombie outfit, of course. I was having lunch with one of the girls at a picnic table. One of the cops was sitting there with a German shepherd police dog. And this cop was trying to impress the young lady sitting across the table, saying what a great dog, he wasn’t scared of anything. One of the girls playing a zombie [Paula Richards] came around the corner, she had on a long white gown and black hair and zombie makeup on. And that dog took one look at her and took off in the opposite direction!”
© Joe Kane, Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever (Citadel Press/Kensington, 2010)
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UPDATE: Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie EVER has been nominated for a Black Quill award. Yah! Vote now at Dark Scribe Magazine!