Interviews

INTERVIEW: RUSS STREINER

By • Feb 5th, 2011 •

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“They’re Coming To Get You Barbara.”

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’S Russ Streiner on Johnny and the fight to steal back the dead.

The hallowed halls of a once lively theater house in Jersey City is host to the living dead roaming the chambers of classic era décor overlooked by a huge chandelier. At one end of the balcony sits a throne for the god of this zombie subculture, George A. Romero. At the opposite end, through the red and gold corridor, sits Johnny, the first breathing living man to tussle with a zombie in search of fresh flesh that our world was witness to in the 1968 epic battle between the living and the dead.

From where I stand, Johnny’s alter ego, Russ Streiner, is seated at a table next to Kyra Schon and across from director/producer of the DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD saga, Roy Frumkes. Next to Roy is special effects artist/actor/director Tom Savini and John Russo. None other than the zombie that changed Johnny’s life, Bill Hinzman, is several feet away without the slightest sign of zombie inanition. Joe Pilato, crude and lascivious, successfully holding court in front of autograph hounds and fans, boisterously belts out a series of quips and assaults peppered with an enormous heaping of profanity.

42 years after the flesh-eating apocalypse that besieged Pittsburgh, children, the old, Goth, cinephiles, and zombie devotees take this trek to pay homage to THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Although Romero and company did not create the zombie genre, they certainly have been regarded as though they have; and rightfully so. WHITE ZOMBIE was released in 1936 and only a few zombie films were released between that film and Romero’s DEAD films. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s release spawned a slew of zombie films and created this ever-increasing subculture. Sadly, the creators of this epic picture did not reap the financial benefits that they were due. As of today, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remains in the public domain. In the words of Charles Craig, the newscaster from the film, “It’s hard for us here to believe what we are reporting to you, but it does seem to be a fact.”

FF: How did you get the role?

RUSS STREINER: How I got the role falls into the category of nepotism, because at the time we made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, George Romero and I had been business partners since 1961, and our production company had been doing business — TV commercials, educational films, industrial films, that kind of thing, all with the intention that one day we would get a chance to make a real movie. What our years of work in that industrial, commercial, filmmaking environment provided us with was great on-the-job training, and it was also a way where our company would buy and acquire a lot of production equipment. We ended up getting commissioned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, their Tourist and Travel Development Department, to shoot a series of films about the virtues and values of travel in PA. And lo and behold, they wanted one of the projects to be shot in 35mm CinemaScope. That gave us an opportunity to buy a 35mm camera and have a project that, at least in part, paid for that equipment. So now we had accumulated all the equipment that was necessary to make a movie–our real movie. All we needed was a script. So we started kicking around script ideas and what came out of that kicking around was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

FF: Who came up with the name Johnny? Did you say, ‘I want to be Johnny’?

RS: George Romero started to actually write a script, and he had the early part of the script finished when we started to creatively bat ideas around. What about this? What if this happened? What if that happened? At the time, John Russo was working with us and he would take notes during these creative sessions. John Russo eventually was the person who sat down and took all these creative round table ideas and actually created the first draft of the script. Once we agreed on the draft of the script and we knew who Johnny was and who Barbara was and those parts were written, then we set about casting them. We had all of the parts cast. One of the last ones was the casting of Duane Jones as the main male character. We were introduced to Duane by a mutual third party friend. Her name was Betty Ellen Hawhee. We’re all from Pittsburgh. At that time everybody lived in Pittsburgh. And, Duane Jones, who was acting/teaching in New York came home in the Spring of 1967 to visit his family for the Easter holiday. While he was in town, Betty Ellen arranged for him to audition for us. As soon as we saw his audition we said, “This guy has to be our Ben.” That still left us with Johnny, and it’s getting closer and closer and closer to shooting it. And I don’t know if it was Russo or Romero but somebody said, “Why don’t you just be Johnny?” So, I would like to tell you how tough the audition session was. I ended up co-producing the film with Karl Hardman and everybody agreed. It was kinda like, let’s give it to Mikey, he’ll try it. So that’s how Russ Streiner became Johnny. It was not a tough audition by any stretch of the imagination. Dress him up and get him to do it and that will be the end to it.

FF: Did you have any reservations about doing it?

RS: No, I had no reservations about doing it because of my educational background. I went to drama school. I always wanted to be an actor. Then, when I first met George, and how I first met him was, when he first asked me if I was interested in a small movie that he was filming called EXPOSTULATIONS. Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t know which end of the film camera you pointed. I was going to be a theatrical actor. I was going to be a live stage actor. And, I agreed to be in the movie. The very first day of production of EXPOSTULATIONS, I thought, this production thing is pretty cool. And George and I started hanging out together and a short while later we decided, hey, rather than just working on EXPOSTULATIONS, how about if we actually set up a production company. That’s how we all got started in 1961.

Johnny and Barbara

FF: Your scenes as Johnny, how far into production were they shot? Were they the first scenes shot? Last scenes shot?

RS: The answer to that is yes. The cemetery scene that opens NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was both the first scene that we filmed and it was also, coincidentally, the last scene that we filmed simply because we didn’t get finished shooting in our first day, and it had to go to a second day, but it was not a second day in sequence. The second day had already been scheduled, so the second half of the cemetery scene, the fight with Bill Hinzman got progressively pushed back through the production schedule so that it ended up being the last thing we did. That was about a three-month gap in between the first day of filming and the final cemetery scene.

FF: Is that your own wardrobe?

RS: It was all my wardrobe including the very handsome tie, and the exceptionally great-looking Buddy Holly glasses. It was my own hair, it was my own jacket, it was my own everything. And the car we were driving was my mother’s car. My brother was recording the audio. So, the Streiners have their fingerprints all over the cemetery scene. Bill Hinzman had to come along and ruin it for everyone by killing Johnny off. Just as his character was developing a head of steam, the #1 zombie comes along and kills him off. We knew right then that Johnny was going to be a character that, ironically, would come back later in the film. I guess there is no such thing as a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD spoiler because so many people have seen it.

FF: “They’re coming to get you Barbara” is one of the most recognizable lines in cinema, was it you or George who decided to deliver it in such a way?

RS: No, it was pretty much how I decided to deliver it and since Johnny was being kind of a goofball with the teasing of his sister and so forth, whining and complaining right from the beginning of the film, “Mother stays in Pittsburgh while we have to schlep into the countryside cemetery,” he realized that his nagging and whining was beginning to get to Barbara. What was scary at the time was Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster, and so Johnny adds a little touch of Karloff in his line interpretation with “…to get you, Barbara.” And it just worked, so we shot it and left it that way. Obviously it worked out pretty well.

FF: The crew, when they heard you deliver the line the first time, was there any sort reaction to it?

RS: To be honest with you, during the production, we were all seriously thinking, okay, we know the scene is running long, but we have to get the scene finished and so forth. It was pretty much a series of get your lines and change angles and get all the setups finished that we can. There wasn’t too much screwing around. I will tell you one of the reasons that I made such a big deal out of Johnny’s driving gloves at the beginning of the film is they knew when Johnny came back as a zombie to get them, that it was going to be at night. His Buddy Holly glasses would be gone, and I wanted to give him a wardrobe signature; so I figured these driving gloves will fill that need because when you see him, he bursts through the door near the end of the film and you see the hand with the black glove come up on the white door frame, you know right then that this is not going to work out too well for Barbara. But, I wanted to give that black-gloved hand as a crystal clear message to the audience–oh, oh, guess what? “Here’s Johnny.” and that device worked. I purposely froze that stare on my face. I never blink, and I stared directly at Barbara, and I think, I actually scared her in real life. I did get a reaction from the crew for that moment of Johnny’s re-entry because I think people were generally scared. They thought, maybe that I had lost my mind and was really going to drag her out to the porch.

FF: When you made this film, did you guys get a sense that you were creating something that would create a whole new genre?

We knew, obviously, we had a hokey premise. Recently dead people coming back to life is not too likely to happen. We never did answer the reason the phenomenon got started. We decided to leave that big question mark up in the air. Let the news people, let the media people try to figure out what’s going on. What do they do and then how do the people, the non-dead, react to them? And we tried to do it as we felt would be very realistic reactions and that’s the media coverage, that’s true of how the people treated them. Got them down, beat them, burned them–that kind of mentality, you know. But, that’s how we probably thought people would react.

FF: Will you address the issue of how NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD fell into public domain?

RS: That is a very long story. It’s an open wound as far as I am concerned. John Russo and I are the two trustees of the company. Karl Hardman used to be the third trustee of Latent Image, the company that owns THE DEAD. We used to refer to it as ‘the monster flick.’ The monster flick this and the monster flick that. All the job files and everything said Monster Flick. So, obviously, that was not a title that would sell anywhere. We decided we would use a title called THE NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS. And, as we started to leak the word to the media that our movie was just about finished, we began to refer to it as THE NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS. We were contacted by a distribution company that said, “Hey, we have a movie with flesh eaters in the title,” and their lawyer sent us a cease and desist letter saying don’t use it because if you come out with your flesh eater in the title it could lead to public confusion. So, we decided starting off with our fledgling, first theatrical film/movie rather than getting into a legal dispute right out of the gate, we’ll call it something else. So, George, said, “Why don’t we just put an esoteric title to it? That it will be changed anyway. Let’s call it NIGHT OF ANUBIS.” Anubis, those who don’t know, is one of the ancient Eqyptian gods of the dead. So we created our title NIGHT OF ANUBIS. Well, when we started making the rounds of the distribution companies and tried to get the movie distributed, we heard, “What the hell is Anubis?” No one is going to understand this! We gotta change the title! We agreed with the Walter Reade Organization, Continental Pictures, which was the actual distribution company with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. We mutually agreed on the change of title to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. According to the distribution contract, it was their responsibility to take the press kit material and so forth, that we had prepared, including changing the name/title of the film. When that title was changed from NIGHT OF ANUBIS to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the copyright was left off. Now the copyright laws that prevailed in those days, in the late sixties, has since been changed. One of the reasons they have changed is because of the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At that time if you put a movie, a book, a record, or something out without a copyright on it, you lost your rights forever. As soon as the copyright dispute came into play, we immediately challenged the copyright office on their ruling and, frankly, we still challenge it. We have never given up on that. We still maintain it was never the intention to offer this movie into the public domain and, we are doing absolutely everything possible to see that before we’re all the night of the living dead, that at least the copyright is properly restored.

FF: What has this film given you?

RS: Ah, well, one of the things, probably the main thing that’s come out of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for me is the character of Johnny, and as one of the creative team who helped throw ideas into the bushel basket. And then, as my role as one of the trustees of the company for all these years now–decades! I know the real intimate history of how the rip-off happened. All of the copyright issues. All of the problems. One way or another, I’ve been involved. So when I look at the character of Johnny, that’s almost like an out-of-body experience. It’s almost like taking on a life that’s not me. Yeah, intellectually, I know it’s me, but it’s kinda like other people playing out these roles. But, then, I am smacked in the face with the reality. I’m still a trustee, so I deal with business issues of the film to this day and so, I’ve got this kind of paradoxical juxtaposition of roles. Yeah, that’s the movie but, here’s the business end of it and you’ve got to take care of business today. A really strange kind of juxtaposition.

Nightmare's Attendees

FF: Have you continued filmmaking or film production? What is your main career?

RS: I still make independent films. Not so much theatrical films. I do my favorite genre of documentary. I really appreciate and work in the documentary field. But, John Russo and I also teach filmmaking and, I never, ever, ever imagined myself being a teacher of filmmaking. We’ve been doing this now for over three years: The John Russo Movie Making Program at a small business college at Dubois, PA, called Dubois Business College, and I am absolutely loving my role as a teacher. The reason I am absolutely loving it is because of the quality of the students we are attracting. It is so refreshing to see that there are young people who are actually paying attention. They want to learn the right way. They are as dedicated as we were making our kind of a movie. And that has turned out to be an absolute breath of fresh air. You can see the creative spark that is in these young people, that they do their own brand of knocking it out of the park.

FF: I love Pittsburgh. I am finishing a documentary on wrestler Bruno Sammartino, who is from that city. People from Pittsburgh are really proud that they are from there. Do you find that same sentiment?

RS: Absolutely! One of the other things, one of the other hats that I wear, is that I am the Chairman of the Board of the Pittsburgh Film Office. The Pittsburgh Film Office is the economic development office, for the last twenty years now, we’ve survived twenty years in an effort to attract productions to southwestern PA, and the effort has been outrageously successful. For anyone who pays attention to where movies are being made, there are a lot of movies being made in Pittsburgh!

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3 Responses »

  1. Hi Franco Fraxetti,

    As usual, you do a superb job. However, this one hits home with me and I enjoyed it immensely. Keepy it up you are a true talent and I’m proud to share a roster with you. Lot’s of facts I thought I knew, but you unleashed a bevy of new one I’ll won’t soon forget.

    Yr. Pal,

    Bryan Layne

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  3. Well, this was an informative, eye-opening approach to the nuances of film making.

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