Long Live The Night: John Russo talks "Escape of the Living Dead"

In 1968, a little movie called "Night of the Living Dead" hit movie theaters and forever changed the world of horror. The film was an instant classic and ingrained itself heavily into American pop culture and the affect the film had on the genre can still be felt today. Much of that has to do with the story, a true horror classic that pulls no punches and absolutely no one gets a happy, Hollywood ending. Almost 40 years later the film is still relevant, with an ending that packs a wallop.

The film was co-written by John A. Russo and George A. Romero. Since then both men went their separate ways, with Romero following-up "Night of the Living Dead" with films like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Russo also kept active in the field, seeing his book "Return of the Living Dead" made into a film in 1985 (far different than the original story, as we'll explain later). Russo's not done with zombies, thought, not by a long shot. This October sees the release of the first of a five issue series from Avatar Press called "Escape of the Living Dead," based on a story by Russo that's been adapted by writer Mike Wolfer with art by Indian artist Dheeraj Verma. CBR News spoke with Russo to find out more about the story he's cooked up.

First off we should explain the rights situation with "Night of the Living Dead." Russo & Romero jointly own the copyright to "Night of the Living Dead," but each went their own way following the completion of that film. When Romero made "Dawn of the Dead" he had a deal with United Film Distributing that required Russo to sign off on. Russo was happy to help, so they did an agreement which gave Romero the right to do "Dawn of the Dead" and to call it a sequel. At the same time Russo was allowed to turn his novel "Return of the Living Dead" into a film, but that wouldn't officially be called a sequel. "George needed that because the deal with United Film's might have been killed if they couldn't call it a sequel," Russo told CBR News late last week. "He got his money before we did, which made it a bit harder for us to get our money." Now, how does this all apply to the upcoming "Escape of the Living Dead" comic? Much like the other films, they all reference a common thread that at some point there was a zombie uprising, but none of the films are really direct sequels to the original. "Escape of the Living Dead" fits into that same place, referencing a previous zombie uprising, but with a story that stands all on its own.

The story in "Escape of the Living dead" begins with some law enforcement officials who break into a compound in the wilds of West Virginia. "There are laboratories set-up where some scientists have kept some of the zombies and they're experimenting on them to find out why they don't die," Russo explained. "So, when they break into the place, there's pretty much chaos, people get devoured, shots ring our and some of the cops get killed. The person who went for the rifle turns out to be the headman, Dr. Melrose, and they kill him, but before he dies he says something to the effect of 'They didn't really win.'"

The story revolves around our heroine Sally Brinkman, whom Russo says could be the "Sigourney Weave of zombie films," a reference to Weaver's starring role in the "Alien" films. "Sally's a divorcee living with her parents on a farm and her father runs a roadhouse," explained Russo. "While the father is taking inventory, the girl and her mother, Marsha, are off horse back riding. In the mean time, there's a van on the highway with the logo 'Melrose Electronics.' These neo-nazi guys on motorcycles and pick-up trucks decide to hijack the truck and sell the electronic gear inside to help finance their activities. They put sugar in the gas tank of this truck when it's parked at this diner. They follow it until the truck breaks down and kill the driver and other guy in the cab. When they open the back of the truck, they think they're going to scoop up this truck full of electronics, but instead zombies come out and go after them. That's the escape of the living dead. They're being transported from one laboratory to another, but they don't make it and end up loose in the countryside. Of course, the first place they attack is the roadhouse and the mother and daughter, when they come back from horse back riding, they get attacked.

"Escape of the Living Dead."

Joining John Russo in bringing "Escape of the Living Dead" to comics is writer Mike Wolfer, who has been charged with the task of adapting Russo's screenplay to comics. We caught up with Wolfer and asked him to share a bit about his own history with horror, as well as what it means to be working with a horror visionary like Russo.

With the purchase in 1971 of my first issue of Famous Monsters Of Filmland, my life-long research into the world of horror began. Utilizing magazines and after-school viewings of Dialing-For-Dollars movies, I retained every bit of horror knowledge that my 8 year-old mind could contain, but one movie eluded my "seen it" list. A movie that was, let's face it, notorious. The two-color revival posters that graced the foyer of the local theater heralding the movie's midnight showings were ghastly and had I been old enough to buy a ticket, I still wouldn't be able to muster the courage to attend. Word-of-mouth on the playground had done its job to make me too damn scared to see "Night Of The Living Dead." Me. The 4th grade horror movie connoisseur.

Now, it's 1971 again, terror grips the Pennsylvania countryside, there's not a high-powered weapon in sight and the living are being murdered and devoured by the dead... And I'm right in the middle of it. Ten terror-filled years passed before the sequel to "Night Of The Living Dead" again shocked movie-goers and now, at last, we'll see the course of events that led to the destruction of modern civilization and the genesis of the reign of the undead.

It's a supreme honor to work from John Russo's original screenplay for "Escape Of The Living Dead." In adapting John's words into the format of a comic book script, I've provided written elaboration to visualize each scene as would a story-board artist. In doing so, I've been given the opportunity to enhance the power of John's descriptions by supplying artist Dheeraj Verma with visual pacing, camera angles, character and set designs... All of the small details that are usually left to a director's discretion. And Dheeraj has done a fantastic job of bringing the project to life with a shocking realism that leaves nothing to the imagination. This is classic horror with a modern sensibility.

"Escape Of The Living Dead" is really scary. It's also a lot of fun because the story is set in 1971, which gives it a unique, retro feel that sets it apart from nearly every other zombie movie I can think of. We're being incredibly faithful to the era, from lead-zombie Deadhead's beer tab headband to the automobiles and clothing of that time period. We even received invaluable assistance from the actual Allegheny County Sheriff's Office, who provided us with archive photos of police vehicles and uniforms that were in use in the early 1970s. An officer told me over the phone that when the Sheriff heard what we were working on, he instructed the officer to give me whatever I wanted. To receive help like that from a law enforcement agency is pretty impressive, but when you consider the reputation and legacy of John Russo and "Night Of The Living Dead," it's not at all surprising.

"The mother is killed, but the girl escapes on horseback," continued Russo. " In the mean time, these neonazis have some pals looking for them. They get to the roadhouse where they capture the girl and her father, taking the girl with them eventually and leaving the father to die. He's hobbled, but manages to cut himself loose and the question becomes will he be able to rescue the daughter and what will happen to her?"

So, time wise where exactly does "Escape of the Living Dead" take place compared to "Night of the Living Dead?" Russo explained that "Escape" doesn't directly reference any of the other stories and really could take place either right after "Night of the Living Dead" or even simultaneously. "You just know that it happens sometime after a zombie uprising, otherwise there wouldn't be zombies in this clinic," explained Russo. "I didn't want to particularly date it, but Avatar decided it would be good to do it as a period piece. So, the comic book takes place in the early '70s and the featured zombie is going to be like a flower child zombie with beads and bell-bottoms and all that stuff."

Where "Night of the Living Dead" takes place in mostly the same house throughout the film, Russo said that "Escape of the Living Dead" isn't quite so sedentary. "It has a lot of twists and turns and, if I may say so myself, a lot of clever things will happen that you wouldn't even think of happening," said Russo. "There are many conflicting elements of dangers, from the zombies, to the neo nazis, etc. It's a rather complex plot."

Russo wrote "Escape of the Living Dead" five years ago, right before he Executive Produced "Children of the Living Dead." "I wanted to do this rather than the horrible 'Children of the Living Dead' that got made at that time, but [Executive Producer] Joe Wolf wanted to do his daughter's script ['Children of the Dead' was written by Karen L. Wolf], so we ended up doing that, which was a mess." As for the possibility of an "Escape of the Living Dead" film, Russo said they're close to a deal, with a possible $8 - $10 million budget for production. The story may not be exactly the same as the upcoming comic, with it possibly taking place in a more contemporary setting compared to the '70s setting in the comic, but that will all depend on what the producers of the film want to do. "The script can be done either way and doesn't loose anything," said Russo.

"Escape of the Living Dead" came to be at Avatar when Publisher William Christensen called Russo to inquire about doing a "Return of the Living Dead" comic. "We started talking about the rights problems with the original story, written by me, Russ Streiner and Rudy Ricci. I did the novel based on that story. When 'Return of the Living Dead' got made as a film, that story, which was more like the original stark horror, got changed into a comedy by Dan O'Bannon because they were saying that straight horror couldn't sell at that time. So, we were deliberating about the rights and what the issues would be to clear everything when I mentioned 'Escape of the Living Dead,' which wouldn't have any clearance problems. William read it and liked it a lot, as did the artist he showed it to, and within a week or two we had a deal. It's great, really, because most things just don't come together that fast. And they're doing a heck of a job with it."

As we mentioned previously, writer Mike Wolfer is adapting Russo's script and he's happy to let Wolfer do his job without any interference. "I'm smart enough to know that comics are a specialty in and of itself and I want the people that are the experts in that to do that job," said Russo. "I don't write comic books. That's not my thing. I write novels and screenplays. This is different than all that stuff. They're obviously a successful company and they're the ones who should guide the comic book."

As for his future in comics, Russo would love to see more of his work make it to the printed page as well as other mediums. "I have three more zombie scripts that are all different, one's a comedy, and I have another in development. I'd like to do my original 'Children of the Dead' as a stage play, but I wouldn't write the stage play because I'm not a playwright. I probably could do it, but I'd rather have someone who's used to writing stage plays write it. It's something I'd like to do because I think just about every high school in the nation, the one thing they'd probably like to do is a zombie play. It's fun to see your creations brought to the public in different ways. That's why I'm in this."

This isn't the first time Russo's visited the world of comics. In the '80s Fantaco published a "Night of the Living Dead" comic as well as "Night of the Living Dead London" by a young Clive Barker and Steve Niles. He also published a magazine in the '90s called "Scream Queens Illustrated" which had its own band, the "Slice Girls," a send-up of the then popular "Spice Girls." "They did a comic book, a poster book, a CD, a music video and things were really taking off in Europe," explained Russo. "But then the 'Spice Girls' didn't like it. Sure, you can do a parody, there's no law against that, but they started calling up radio stations and said that if they played our parody they'd withdraw millions of dollars of advertising money. So, the stations kind of tabled it. We were close to a deal with Elektra Records here in the States, but the guy who was fronting the deal, well, I think he turned out to be some sort of mobster because all of a sudden he was gone and his apartment was cleaned out. Nobody would talk about it. That's the entertainment business for you!"

While loosing the record deal may have been a disappointment, Russo explained those kind of stories happen all the time when dealing with the entertainment industry and shared another heart breaking story with us, this time involving legendary singer Frank Sinatra who was, at one point, very interested in financing the "Return of the Living Dead" feature film. "We met with the people in Frank's organization. They liked me and they gave one of the bodyguards, Tony Dino, a copy of the novel and then he and Joey Rizzo took it to Frank or his lawyer, Mickey Rudin, and then they decided to back it," explained Russo. "So, we were invited to Las Vegas for the opening of one of his shows. We were put up in the Sinatra wing, we had front row seats to the show and were invited to the opening night party. Except, the night of the opening was the same night when Frank's mother's plane went down in the mountains. So, the deal just evaporated at that point."

Finishing up with Russo, we spoke with him about the public's seemingly renewed interested in the horror genre. The past five years or so have seen a plethora of new horror films and the resurgence of the genre in comics has been well documented. But Russo maintains that the public never looses interest in the genre, just Hollywood. "People like to be scared. Hollywood forsakes the genre, the public doesn't," said Russo. "George Romero once said something to the affect that often times Hollywood doesn't realize what a tremendous audience there is for this stuff. They think they have to make horror films or science fiction films with huge budgets and end up loosing sight of the atavistic terror and storytelling that people want. It never goes away entirely because you can still tell a good horror story on a small budget, but it does go in cycles."

Detective Comics #996

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