May 22, 2018 Interview – John A. Russo
The art of storytelling is something that has followed us throughout history while always challenging the imagination to think outside the box. In the world of Horror, there have been a bundle of stories which has captured the imagine ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Bram Stoke’s Dracula, and right alongside these classics, is the one and only Night of the Living Dead.
A film that emerged in 1968, Night of the Living Dead would lay the blueprint for cinematic modern day zombie, making George A. Romero famous, but also forging legendary status for co-writer and visionary John A. Russo. Russo, an avid writer since childhood, would go onto to pen the 1977 novel The Return of the Living Dead – nearly a decade before it concepts would be transformed into the beloved 1985 film directed by Dan O’Bannon.
Having a knack for creating creepy stories with each screenplay/novel he writes, Russo continues to create in the genre while showing little sign of slowing down. Recently we caught up with the famed writer to talk the story behind the story of Night of the Living Dead, his latest film My Uncle John is a Zombie!, future plans, plus more.
CrypticRock.com – As a writer, you have accomplished a great deal over the past 50 years, writing a list of books and film scripts. First, briefly tell us, what led you to pursue a career as a writer?
John Russo – I discovered I had writing talent in 4th grade. A substitute teacher asked us to write a little poem. I wrote one, and she spent the rest of the day going through the books in our little library trying to find out where I copied the poem from. The regular teacher probably wouldn’t have done that because she knew how bright I was, I had the highest grades in that school.
I started reading Mark Twain about the same age. There is a long process how you decide to do be a writer. By the time I graduated from high school I knew I particularly didn’t want to work for anyone else. I started trying to write a novel and some short stories, but I didn’t really have the craftsmanship at that point. Over the years, I’ve developed that.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting, and writing is something you always improve at. Even at this stage as a writer, you still learn something new, yes?
John Russo – Well, I learn some things from my agent as well as from different readers and editors. I have learned a lot. I keep reading an average of a book a week, and I have done that most of my life. It’s the old advice – read, read, read, write, write, write, practice, practice, practice, learn, learn, learn. That’s what I do.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly. Among your many credits is the legendary 1968 classic of Night of the Living Dead. Set to celebrate its 50th anniversary come October, what initially inspired the idea behind the story? You had the original idea, correct?
John Russo – I had a lot of the original ideas, including the idea that they be dead people after human flesh. Without that, you don’t have Night of the Living Dead or the things that came after. The way that happened was, we decided to try and raise a little bit of money and get a Horror film started. George Romero and I were the writers in our group, we only had 5-6 people in our little company called Image, but we had a bunch of talent and associates. I said whatever we did had to start in the cemetery, because they are spooky to a lot of people. Even in Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula (1955), it’s funny, but it’s scary at the same time when they are in the cemetery with Dracula’s coffin.
After a long process of stops and starts, I was working on a thing where aliens came to earth in search for human flesh. In one of the beginning scenes, a kid got in an argument with his parents, was running away from home and steps through a pane of glass, and under that is a rotting corpse. My idea was these aliens liked them a bit rotted – like in medieval times in England; if they shot a goose, they hung it up to rot for a few days before they ate it – why they did that? Who the hell knows. (Laughs)
Then, George came in one day, right before Christmas, and he had written a story that started with a girl beginning chased through a cemetery after her brother has his head smashed against a tombstone. I read it and said, “George, this has the right suspense, twists, and turns, but who is chasing this girl?” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” I told him, “I thought they could be dead people.” He said, “That’s good.” I then said, “What are they after? You don’t say that either.” He said he didn’t know, so I said, “Why don’t we use our flesh-eating idea?” He said that was good. So that is how they became dead people after human flesh. We don’t even reveal that in the movie for a long time. You don’t see them eating anybody until after the young couple are blown up in the truck.
George got tied up with some kind of commercial project, and I was afraid if we didn’t finish the script, we might not ever make a movie. What we did in those days, if somebody got tied up, somebody else took over. We beat some ideas around, I rewrote his first story and screenplay for him, then I wrote the second half of the script myself. Then George and I were going to go out to a friend of ours’ house, Rudy Ricci, to drink wine and grill steaks. He was going to read the script, which he did. George said, “There’s something wrong with it.” I was wondering what he was thinking what was wrong with it, so George thought for a minute and said, “I know, it needs one more siege.” By that he meant there needed to be a moment late in the movie where the ghouls almost break in the house and they don’t succeed, but in the end, they actually do success. We didn’t write it in, we just did it. That is basically how the script came together.
CrypticRock.com – That is very fascinating. Were there any other changes thereafter?
John Russo – We changed some things during filming, mostly for logistical or practical reasons. The kid in the basement in my original script was a boy named Timmy, but Karl Hardman’s daughter (Kyra Schoen) could play that role, so we just changed her name to Karen and made her a girl. It was my idea Ben should be killed by accident, because Pennsylvania is a big deer hunting state. Every year 300,000 deer are shot, 10 or 12 hunters, so wouldn’t it be ironic if our lead guy was killed by accident.
I don’t know whose idea it was to bring the brother back, because in my script the idea was he was killed. Someone suggested he should come back and drag Barbara out of the house. We considered that very carefully because we wondered if people would buy that or would they think, no he is dead, how could he come back? We thought maybe only part of the brain was killed and he could come back, so we did it and it turned into one of the iconic moments in the movie.
CrypticRock.com – Wow, it is interesting to hear about the subtle changes and how it all worked out.
John Russo – Also, another key, in the original script, there is no young couple. The Tom character was cemetery caretaker in his forties hiding in the basement with the Cooper family. We thought we would put a young good-looking girl in the movie, so we gave him a girlfriend and made him younger. The other key thing was Barbara survives in my draft. She makes it to the basement with Ben and he is killed. The last scene is, she is huddled in that trench coat, the sheriff is trying to hand her some coffee, and in the background you see Ben’s body being carried out to the bonfire. The reason she, Barbara, doesn’t get shot after they kill Ben, as the sheriff and deputy make it through the rubble of the house, is they see a tear rolling down her cheek, so that tells them she is human.
CrypticRock.com – That is not a bad ending either! Many of your ideas did translate into the film. A lot of your ideas also inspired another classic Horror flick with 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead. What were your thoughts on Dan O’Bannon’s film?
John Russo – Well the way we wrote it, that film still should be made. It was stark horror, and carried it forward, dealing more with human interactions, including bad guys. That would happen if a real epidemic started – there would be religious cults, loots, rapists, murderers, and everything else. That is what that script dealt it.
Originally I was going to direct it, and at one point Frank Sinatra was going to finance it. I went out to Caesars Palace to meet with him, but his mother was killed that night, so the project went south. Then Tom Fox, the producer, decided he would pay us a lot of money for the script, and he would make it his way and he eventually hired Dan O’Bannon. The distributor said straight Horror is dead, and you have to turn it into a Comedy. Well, straight Horror is never really dead if you come up with a good idea. (Laughs) At that time, it was out of my control.
I liked what Dan did though, he was a good guy and he did a hell of a job – so did all the people in the movie. Dan sent me the script while they were shooting to novelized his script. I had to get the novel done to come out the first day the movie released. That is basically what happened.
CrypticRock.com – Very interesting. Your name is attached to both these adored films. Through the years you have continued to work and your most recent film is called My Uncle John is a Zombie! This is a fun film that mixes Comedy and Horror. Your first feature in some time, what was it like working on this film?
John Russo – It was great. Rob Lucas is my co-director and I play the lead role in that movie, because I had to. When we are all on stage, doing Q&As or whatever, I am the one who makes people laugh. I crack a lot of jokes, have done a lot of adlib stuff about zombies, and some of it is funny. I have fun lampooning the whole thing. The idea is – I have been kept alive, secretly being fed by my ditesy niece and dumbass security guard nephew.
Now, since zombies are a widespread phenomena and thought of differently these days, they decided to bring me out to advocate for zombie rights. Things go to hell in a handbasket, but I become world famous. Some people think I am a fake, some people think I am for real. I take a medical exam and it’s found out I am real. I become world famous and I even get hired to do commercials. There is one commercial for zombie lube – an amazing new sexual aid that I have developed in conjunction with the zombie research institute, headed by Dr. Strange. It will give a stiff a stiffy, so imagine what it would do for you? (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) That is pretty funny and clever! Is there actually a zombie lube made?
John Russo – We actually have zombie lube, we had it made. It has my cartoon image on the tube and it says, “I will give a stiff a stiffy.” We have the novel, posters, t-shirts, and great soundtrack. I actually wrote 3 of the songs. While we were shooting, I said to Solon Tsangaras, who is a good musician and actor, “Do my arrangement of this song.” So we cut the preview trailer to that song. Along the way I wrote two more songs and I sing them as a zombie, I am getting good reviews. (Laughs). It’s a really good soundtrack.
CrypticRock.com – The film sounds like it is a lot of fun! There is a lot of people who worked on this as well.
John Russo – Yes, Garry Lee Vincent, who is co-producer, he has published/republished some of my novels, and recently got casted as a regular character in Stranger Things. Then we have Debbie Rochon, Sarah French, and Russ Streiner, who was Johnny in Night of the Living Dead. Also, in his last movie is George Kosana – he was the sheriff in Night of the Living Dead. In this movie, he gets accused of killing Ben on purpose, and since there is no statute of limitations on murder, he gets indicted.
It’s really funny, getting good reviews, and been accepted/played at festivals. We are just replacing some of the music. We used some music from Night of the Living Dead as part of tribute to it and the lampoon of it, but we can’t figure out who has the rights to it, so we are replacing it. Then our agents will be able to go after bigger deals with the movie.
CrypticRock.com – Wonderful! So there are plans for mass distribution? Perhaps a DVD or theatrical release?
John Russo – We think it could get a good theatrical release, at least a limited one, if not more. We had a tremendous response, but we haven’t tried to close any of the deals because we want to get that music done that is being created right now. It is some of the instrumental music that needs to be replaced. Once that is done, we will be ready to go and we can go back to the foreign buyers who really got turned on by the movie. There are clips on Dread Central put up by Tony Timpone. He said he really got a kick out of the movie. Cult Classic Horror said, “If Citizen Kane and Shaun of the Dead had a baby, it would be My Uncle John is a Zombie!”
CrypticRock.com – That is a pretty good description. It will be very exciting to see what fans think once it gets the broader distribution.
John Russo – I think it has a chance to take off, it’s really unique and people laugh throughout. We had a screening in Richmond, Virginia because my friend Brad Roberts (GWAR drummer) and his wife Nicole are in the movie. Gary Lee Vincent was sitting at the bar, and he overheard one young guy talking to his friend saying, “I’ve seen hundreds of independent movies and this is the best independent movie I ever saw in my life.” Again, that kind of reaction means, if it is promoted right, it can do a ton of business.
CrypticRock.com – There is no question. Beyond My Uncle John is a Zombie!, can we expect any new films to follow in the near future?
John Russo – I am always working on all kinds of things. Before George Romero died, we were working on a remake of Night of the Living Dead. Dee Snider is interested in it and we have started to work together on that, we will see what happens. It’s a pretty wild take on the whole thing, there is no point in doing it unless it can be unique.
CrypticRock.com – That is something to look out for. Your stories have always created a very creepy atmosphere. That in mind, what are some of your influences as a writer?
John Russo – I read a lot of Horror stuff. I have read a lot of Stephen King. I stay away from a lot of things though, I don’t see a lot of Horror films unless for special reasons. I am tired of people copying each other and calling it an homage, I want my stuff to be unique. I do have a new book coming out called the Epidemic of the Living Dead. It’s a unique take on the whole thing.
We are working not just on a remake, but on a TV series that can take advantage of all the properties I have. I still have 2 or 3 zombie type scripts that haven’t been produced. Also, Gary Lee Vincent published an anthology called Rise of the Dead: An Earth-Shattering Anthology of Zombie Terror. There are 17 stories in it, and the premise was, they all had to take place in the same time frame as Night of the Living Dead – I wrote the first forward called The First One. I have another story in Jonathan Maberry’s anthology that he and George Romero had. There is a lot of good material to draw on for a television series.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like a lot of great things are happening.
John Russo – I just keep going, I like what I do. I have fun doing it, so I don’t intend to quit.