Interview: Larry Fessenden on the Legacy of Night of the Living Dead

Note: This interview was originally published on the now defunct Grolsch Film Works website in 2014.
In 1968, a Pittsburgh-based group, headed by 27-year-old George A. Romero, made a low-budget indie film that changed the horror genre forever. Night of the Living Dead reworked the Haitian zombie figure into a flesh-eating ghoul. Its revolutionary credentials were not just in creating an entire subgenre — in which the dead rose from their graves to feast on the living — but how it reflected troubled times and the concerns of a post-war generation. With its grimy documentary-realism, stylised violence and gore, black hero Ben (played by Duane Jones) and memorable dialogue (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) Romero’s debut was a new American nightmare, one that instigated a change of direction for the genre.
Do you remember the first time you saw Night of the Living Dead?
Larry Fessenden: I saw it on television and then in a theatre, in a re-run situation. I saw Dawn of the Dead when it came out [in 1979] and, I’ll break with a lot of fans when I say this, I didn’t like Dawn of the Dead as much. The blue zombies and the humour — the satire — the comment on consumerism, I didn’t take it so seriously. Dawn of the Dead was sort of off-putting. I like zombies as much as the next guy, but we all know they’re a little overplayed in the culture currently. It might seem crude now, with The Walking Dead and everything we’ve seen since, but there’s a power to it and the struggle the characters have in this single location during a single night — it’s a very potent way of framing the story.
You’ve previously discussed, in a book about the film, how Night of the Living Dead represented the bridge between old American horror and new American horror.
When I saw Night of the Living Dead on TV, there was something more violent and despairing and it was all very real-world and it pushed the other films into the background. Here was something that was very vital and shocking. We all know the ending isn’t a happy one. This was all very different and in my brain, it ushered in a new type of horror film. There was a freedom to be despairing, and as a teenager it spoke to me. Historically, you have The Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, all those hardcore horror films were made later, but Night of the Living Dead was the fulcrum — still in black-and-white and the monsters are still of a fantasy kind. Texas Chainsaw and all those slasher movies that came afterwards, there’s a harshness there that doesn’t have any room for fantasy and monsters.

Producer Larry Fessenden

In several key aspects, Night of the Living Dead is a pretty radical, revolutionary and transgressive movie — not just the gory cannibalism and presentation of the complete collapse of society, but the scene of a daughter murdering and then eating her mother. One generation consumes the other.
It really was. Here was something that didn’t have gothic trappings and was shocking. The characters were combating this relentless horror and making decisions that cost them their lives. It’s a more modern view or way of storytelling.
Night of the Living Dead really captured an ugly moment in modern American history. What are your thoughts on its historical context?
I think that it captured a sense of despair, in a way that was not present in movies of the time. There were Roger Corman and Vincent Price movies and your typical Hollywood grandiose affairs. There was a fantasy element to a lot of horror, at that time. Night of the Living Dead brought realism and a sense of gritty despair about what was happening — political assassinations were rampant in our country, the war in Vietnam and the racism. All those things seemed to be reflected. And, at the same time, it sort of rose above it. The hero is black and yet there is no discussion of race. It’s a post-racial movie.

Apparently the original screenplay featured a white trucker. However, Duane Jones was cast in the role of Ben. Romero didn’t alter the script…
It was by accident. I think a lot of the charms of the film are it doesn’t telegraph these choices and was clearly made by the seat-of-the-pants with the agenda to scare and shock. But it’s clear that Romero stepped into the culture [of the time].

 There’s an extraordinary moment in Night of the Living Dead, where Ben slaps Barbara. Together with the fact some people back then might’ve felt uneasy about an African-American being alone in a house with a middle-class white lady, the fact he hits her is a powerful statement, in terms of subtext and meaning. It’s a seminal moment. Do you agree or disagree?
I think it’s absolutely true. One of the charms of Birth of the Living Dead is that it explores some of these moments. Let’s face it, because it’s a horror film it’s not going to be canonised in the same way as another film because of how it moved the conversation forward. But the reality is that it’s an unusual moment in the film and should be analysed. In the Sidney Poitier film, In the Heat of the Night, he does slap a white guy at a certain moment, and that is talked about as a seminal moment in race relations. However, for Duane Jones to slap this comatose woman in the middle of a zombie movie is equally shocking, and I’d say somewhat deserved… she needed something. A guy slapping a woman was probably quite harsh even for 1968… but for it to be a black guy. As Rob uncovered in the film, Duane was uncomfortable with the scene but it’s what the script required and what the story needed. Barbara is in shock from the death of her brother and she needed some waking up.

There’s a real racial tension running through the later scenes. It’s never spoken about, but I feel with the character Harry Cooper, that it’s brewing just underneath.
I think that tension is there. As the viewer you are aware and observing this story and you are aware of the unusual things unfolding. Not only are the dead alive but a black guy is being treated as an equal. A shocking turn of events! It’s a revelation. But the tension definitely exists.

 As well as being forward-thinking, in terms of the hero figure, Night of the Living Dead is strikingly shot. There’s a rather annoying myth that Romero and his team were a bunch of amateurs.
I agree. Let’s be clear: they’d been shooting commercials for years and were truly ambitious filmmakers. It’s what we depict in Birth of the Living Dead. Romero had high aspirations and was a fan of Ingmar Bergman. I think they had cinematic ambition and had a lot of experience with film. They chose black-and-white film stock because of expense, but once again [what turned out to be] epic choices were really out of necessity. When you watch the film, in terms of the way it’s shot, there’s a lot of handheld and a lot of cantilevered angles, crash zooms and it’s really quite stylish. The wide-shots are creepy — the fields with these slow-moving zombies. There’s something deeply creepy about these creatures coming towards you, slumbering and in no real hurry, but they’re inexorably going to arrive and start eating you.
What were your thoughts on the 90s remake by Tom Savini?
I saw it in the theatre at the time and I own it. I put it in from time to time, but I’ve never reabsorbed it. I remember thinking it had a similar creepiness, but I don’t have much to say about it and can’t remember it all that well. As you’re probably aware, they did it in their endless pursuit of regaining the copyright.

Do you think American horror cinema will ever produce a movie likeNight of the Living Dead again?
Honestly, no. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an iconic movie — the creepiness, etc. — but it doesn’t have a supernatural element, so I’m not as charmed by it. There’s something remarkable about what Romero did creating … it’s an amazing pop image, the zombie. He invented this zombie concept and it’s no overstatement to say everything that followed was born of this film.