Gavin Schmitt Interviews John Russo
John Russo is an American screenwriter and film director most commonly associated with the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead”. (affiliate link) As a screenwriter, his credits include “Night of the Living Dead”, “The Majorettes”, “Midnight”, and “Santa Claws”. The latter two, he also directed. He has performed small roles as an actor, most notably the first zombie who is stabbed in the head in “Night of the Living Dead”, as well as cameos in “There’s Always Vanilla” and “House of Frankenstein”.
I had the good pleasure to chat with John in the summer of 2011.
GS: You came from a Pennsylvania background, as did many of the people associated with the living dead… how much did Pennsylvania influence the films, or how much have the films impacted Pennsylvania?
JR: Well, the location was Pennsylvania, and many of the towns mentioned on the TV were PA towns. The attitudes were small-town and rural PA attitudes, especially on the part of the sheriff and his posse.
GS: I recently spoke to Judith O’Dea, and she expressed frustration at NOTLD (1968) going into public domain and thus cutting into profits. I expect you are probably even more annoyed?
JR: Judith has not had to do any of the forty-two years of work done by me and Russ Streiner to fight legal battles and preserve the copyright, an issue we feel is not yet dead. I share her frustration and then some.
GS: You were an uncredited music producer for “There’s Always Vanilla” (1971). What does that mean in layman’s terms?
JR: I suggested the Mary Ann Faithful songs for the score and I brought Steve Gorn and the group Barefoot in Athens into the movie and got them to do that wonderful flute arrangement of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Plus their original rock songs.
GS: Likewise, this was Romero’s attempt at a civilian (non-horror) picture and is probably his least appreciated. Where did he go wrong? (Or have the viewers/critics failed to see his vision?)
JR: This is actually a well-made movie that really captures the feeling of life in the sixties. But it suffered from ego problems caused by people outside of our main group. George Romero, Russ Streiner and I were on the same page throughout, but the film suffered from the insufferable self-serving attitudes of certain other people.
GS: Regarding “The Booby Hatch” (1976), “Do you think that love can be packaged and sold like TV dinners or frozen mashed potatoes?”
JR: No, it cannot. Sex can be sold but not love.
GS: Russ Streiner co-produced “Booby Hatch”, and has been a friend of yours for years. We still see both of you together at conventions frequently. What do you have in common that makes you such close associates?
JR: We are on the same wavelength about many, many things, including political and cultural issues. Russ is very bright and talented, and a wonderful person to be associated with and to work with.
GS: I asked John Amplas about “Midnight” (1982) and why it doesn’t seem to be as well-known as other horror films of the time. This is a Russo-Savini-Amplas film… do you think it’s overlooked, and if yes, why?
JR: Well, MIDNIGHT was made on a very low budget, but the story works well, in the movie and particularly in the novel, where lack of money was not an issue. Tom Savini did not do much in the movie; he created some makeup and FX but left early on the act in KNIGHTRIDERS. John Amplas did a good job with the acting. The movie has been a so-called “cult movie” over the years, and I am in the process of raising money through Hurrican Film Partners LLC to remake it the right way.
GS: “Heartstopper” (1991) again had our good friend Tom Savini, but also Moon Unit Zappa! Where the heck did you find her??
JR: The producer wanted Moon Zappa and Michael J. Pollard and hired them. Pollard was a flake. Moon was very cooperative, but probably not the best choice for the part. I wanted Robin Walsh who is an excellent actress and played “Cynthia” in MIDNIGHT — her very first movie.
GS: There’s a rumor that you inspired Quentin Tarantino to complete his first film. Any truth to that?
JR: Quentin told me, when we met at the LAND OF THE DEAD premiere in Pittsburgh that he made a movie that he didn’t complete, then he read my books and took notes and made charts, and that’s what guided him through his first complete movie. Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith’s partner, told me the same thing.
GS: I would be doing a great disservice to readers if I did not ask about the current status of “Escape of the Living Dead”. Few details have come out on this one.
JR: This weekend (July 16th) I will be going to a meeting in West Virginia with producers Joe Majestic and David Ball, to discuss financing and a distribution deal that David has lined up.
GS: At one point Tony Todd and Gunnar Hansen were speculated to be starring — is this still the plan?
JR: As it stands now, Tony Todd, Gunnar Hansen, Kristina Klebe, Kane Hodder, Cerina Vincent and Tom Savini are still in the cast.
GS: That’s going to be awesome. Thank you so much, John!
JR: Thank you!