WWC XTRA: Picking the Brains of a "Living Dead" Legend with Avatar Press

While the living dead may not think much about their futures, it was very much the subject of the day at the Avatar Press panel on Sunday at Wizard World Chicago. Avatar Editor-in-Chief William Christiansen was joined on stage by John Russo, co-writer of 1968's "Night of the Living Dead." Russo has penned three series for Avatar including "Night of the Living Dead," "Escape of the Living Dead," and "Plague of the Living Dead."

Much of the discussion centered on the upcoming 40th anniversary celebration of the original "Night of the Living Dead" film. Christiansen announced that Avatar will sponsoring a worldwide tour commemorating the original film, featuring Russo, co-writer/director George A. Romero, and several key members of the production. Presently about 80% of the tour schedule is set up, and the official announcement of the cities and dates will be coming in October, just in time for Halloween. Russo and Avatar will also be launching a new series to coincide with the event.

When the celebration kicks off in February 2008, fans can expect to see a line of fully merchandised products including T-shirts, hats, and even action figures designed in the same style as the 1970s MEKO toys. Work is also in progress on a definitive edition of the film featuring an in depth documentary that goes so far as to interview extras. According to Russo, "It's real comprehensive."

Russo fondly recalled his path to creating the modern zombie legend. "I was the person that saw every movie that came into town; every horror film," he said. Romero recounted watching people coming out of the film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," noting, "People were coming out of the eight o'clock show with stunned looks on their faces." He knew he wanted to create a film that would have the similar effect, but keeping the interest of moviegoers at heart. "Our goal from the beginning has been fan-oriented. The fans come first."

It was Russo's commitment to the fans and the genre that drew Christiansen to call him to develop a "Living Dead" comics series for Avatar. Coincidentally, Russo was already working on a new zombie screenplay. The two hit it off, and a deal soon followed. Christiansen said, "To be able to work with people like George (Romero) and John is just a trip." One of the first successes in their collaboration was "Escape of the Living Dead," based upon Russo's currently un-produced film script. It was collected in a trade paperback edition, selling so successfully that it is being re-released in November with five additional issues under the new title, "Escape of the Living Dead: Resurrected." Russo expressed his enthusiasm for continuing a career writing zombies noting, "I still love doing it! Even if I was in an aluminum walker, I can still write."

When asked his thoughts on the current state of horror films, Russo referenced the "Saw" series, claiming, "I'm not a big fan of all this gore. I think it's too much." Russo further explained that he tends to stay away from other people's horror and suspense movies and novels to make sure he's not too heavily influenced by other works. To date, Russo has written 15 novels in the horror suspense genre.

Russo does see a future for the zombie genre he fathered nearly 40 years ago. He's continuing to work to secure financing to shoot the "Escape" film and even wants to hold an informal "Living Dead" picnic, allowing both fans and creators to come together to share stories and memories. When asked his thoughts on an ongoing zombie television series, he replied plainly, "It should be done."

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