It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Even the neighborhood we're discussing here, which happens to be a cluster of nondescript warehouses in Pittsburgh, PA. In this neighborhood we find the offices for a small film production company specializing in industrial shorts and television commercials. The company is called Latent Image, Inc.
Latent Image was started in 1961 by a small group of friends and aspiring filmmakers. They set up shop, plugged in the phone and waited for it to ring. A long silence followed.
Eventually, the group started getting gigs. At first they were unglamorous, entry-level assignments like filming weddings, etc., but a gig is a gig and things lead to things. One of the things that these things lead to was a local TV commercial for Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium, then a commercial for Calgon detergent that took the form of an inventive, micro-budget parody of the film Fantastic Voyage.
Around this time, Pittsburgh Public Television was looking for filmed pieces for its crown jewel, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Word had gotten around that the guys at Latent Image were doing inventive, quality work on a budget. The man tapped for the trip to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was one of Latent Image's founding members, an ambitious young director named George Romero.
The resulting piece was called Mr. Rogers Gets A Tonsillectomy, and told the very real story of, well, Mr. Rogers getting a tonsillectomy. Romero joked that it was the scariest movie he ever made, because HE was so scared making it.
In a 2010 interview with SF Gate's Peter Hartlaub, Romero said of the show's star, Fred Rogers, "It was my first job, man. Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film." Romero added, "He was a beautiful guy. He was the sweetest man I ever knew. What you see is what you get. That was Fred."
Things lead to things, and soon Romero and the Latent Image team, people like Russ Streiner, Rudy Ricci and John Russo, were producing short video pieces for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood with titles like, "Things That Feel Soft" and "How Lightbulbs Are Manufactured."
Karl Hardman, Duane Jones and Marylin Eastman in George Romero's 1968 classic, Night Of The Living Dead.
Oddly, the men from Latent image wanted to do more. They wanted to make a movie. A real movie. According to Joe Kane's excellent book on the subject, ("Night Of The Living Dead," Citadel Press), John Russo had the beginnings of an idea for just such a movie. The story would start with a little boy getting lost in the woods and stumbling some ghoulish doings. Romero took Russo's concept and expanded upon it, flipping one key element. In Russo's original outline. "Ghoulish people or aliens," are feeding off human corpses. In Romero's version, the corpses are feeding off the people. I like to think that maybe this was an idea left over from How Lightbulbs Are Manufactured that didn't make the final cut.
Made under the working title Monster Flick, the film was shot in fits and starts over a seven month period. Romero and company wisely turned every production limitation into an advantage. For the most part, the movie was shot on a single 35mm camera (again, thank you Joe Kane). The camera used, an Arriflex, was incredibly light and allowed Romero to give the film a zoomy, hand-held feel. It was also decided the film be shot in black and white. Although well on its way out the door by 1967, black and white film stock was cheaper, and it would be easier to hide the limitations of low-budget make-up and sets.
Although made out of economic necessity, the decision paid off in unexpected ways. The resulting hand-held, high contrast, black and white images gave the movie a surreal, dreamy quality. It looked like a nightmare. At the same time, it evoked the grainy images of the real horror show going on in Viet Nam at the time, images then being beamed into America's living rooms on a nightly basis. This catapulted Romero's "monster flick" up and away from the late night drive-in fare it was intended to be and made it something altogether different. It was social commentary. Romero's ghouls (they are never called zombies in the film) were now a stand-in, a Rorschach inkblot for whatever social ill the viewer wishes to apply. Many thought the film was a comment on the dehumanizing effects of war and the numbing of the American conscience by the endless TV exposure to the images of its horror. Others saw it as a dark satire on the seeming futility of America's Civil Rights struggle. This latter theory was largely the result of a happy accident that occurred during casting.
The lead role in the film is that of Ben, depicted in the script as a gruff truck driver with a limited vocabulary and less patience. The role was originally intended for Latent Image partner Rudy Ricci, but during casting an actor named Duane Jones auditioned for the part. Everyone, including Ricci, thought Jones was excellent and he was cast. But Duane Jones was no truck driver. He was sharp, well educated and spoke several languages, so he and Romero gave Ben's dialogue an upgrade. Jones was also Black, but Romero made no move to make that in any way a part of the story. While this was not the first time a Black actor had been cast in a major role in an American film where his race was not integral to the story, it was the first time that actor was not named Sidney Poitier.
Monster Flick was completed and, with its spiffy new title, Night Of The Living Dead, went on to make history. And there it sits, on George Romero's resume right next to Mr. Rogers Gets A Tonsillectomy. And what of the director's old boss? Did Mr. Rogers ever see the film?
In a 2016 interview with Mental Floss magazine, Romero told Stacey Conradt, "He came and loved it. He was always a huge supporter over the years." According to Romero, Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, called Dawn Of The Dead, the film's 1978 sequel, "a lot of fun."