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 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.
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 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!"
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."