Log In

Reset Password

Zombiefest returns at Mahoning Drive-In

Zombiefest VIII, held over four consecutive days, will bring plenty of fright to Lehighton’s Mahoning Drive-In Theater on Seneca Road, just off Route 443, starting tonight.

Armed with an opening-night screening of the mother of all zombie flicks, 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” Zombiefest VIII will include an appearance by the film’s co-creator, John A. Russo.

Director George A. Romero, who passed away in 2017, co-wrote the screenplay with Russo.

Shot in western Pennsylvania, “Night of the Living Dead” stars, among others, Duane Jones as Ben, Judith O’Dea as Barbra and Russell Streiner as Johnny.

“It’s the film that started it all, and after 54 years, has lost none of its power to shock,” said Harry Guerro, co-founder/programmer for Exhumed Films and a programming partner with Mahoning Drive-In. “It’s as gripping as it ever was.”

Debuting in 2015 when the Mahoning reopened as an all-35mm drive-in, Zombiefest “has been one of the most popular events we do at the drive-in,“ Guerro said.

Both Zombiefest and September’s Camp Blood event draw around 600 people each night, according to Guerro. Gates open at 6 p.m. daily for Zombiefest VIII, with show times starting at sundown.

Producer/director/writer Brian Yuzna, known for his work on the “Re-Animator” film series, will also appear. Complete Zombiefest information is available at mahoningdit.com.

During his first visit to the drive-in, Russo - a writer, director, producer and actor - will meet fans.

Less scary than vampires

As a child growing up in Clairton, Russo found zombie films less scary than vampire and werewolf titles. He also was “not the kind of kid who dived under the seats when scary stuff happened,” he said. “I always told myself it was only a movie.”

Films that did stun Russo include 1960’s “Psycho” and later, when on break from his studies at West Virginia University, 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.“

Upon arriving to see the latter, Russo saw people leaving with “totally shocked expressions. When we were developing the script for ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ I said if we could come up with something where people were walking out of the theater with the same kind of stunned looks, we would really have something.”

Russo, after serving a two-year stint in the Army, joined friends Romero, Streiner and Rudy Ricci at their production company Latent Image. In their quest to make feature films, they tackled the horror genre.

“We watched a lot of Mexican horror films; they were so poorly made,” Russo said. “We could make it better, no matter how low the budget.”

To help fund “Night of the Living Dead,” 10 principal cast and crew members - including Russo, Romero, Streiner, Ricci, Marilyn Eastman and Karl Hardman - chipped in $600 each. In turn, they formed the production company Image Ten.

Writing about the dead

Early on, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” - which depicts vampires hunting the last man on earth - inspired the story of “Night of the Living Dead.” When starting to write the screenplay, Russo suggested the film start in a cemetery.

“People find cemeteries scary, even in Abbott and Costello movies,” he said. “They were scary and funny at the same time.”

In terms of plot, “Night of the Living Dead” - which spawned a “Dead” franchise, a 1990 remake and a 30th anniversary edition with modifications and new scenes - took a cue from a story Romero had started. In that tale, a brother and sister visit a grave, with somebody chasing them.

“It was 20 to 30 pages,“ Russo explained. “I said this is pretty good, has suspense, twists and turns. But who’s chasing this girl? He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I kept reading it, and said ‘it could be dead people. What are they after, you don’t say that either. Why don’t you use my flesh-eating idea.’ It’s the genre we basically invented.”

Russo and Romero “took that material, and after some writing sessions, I figured out what George wrote and I wrote the rest of the script.”

Prior to the film’s release, Russo and his colleagues knew they had a good flick.

As for the film’s supposed allegories, such as symbolizing race relations, “people imagine things,” Russo said. “George jumped on it, started powering that kind of thinking. I said, ‘George, when you make a successful movie, people are excited and interested to hear the truth. You don’t have to lie to them.’?”

In terms of the film’s legacy, “it’s really dead people after human flesh,” Russo said. “That idea changed everything. Zombies weren’t heavyweight fright material. Nobody cared much about them. They grabbed somebody, choked them, threw them against a wall. We created a new subgenre.

“We showed aspiring filmmakers how they might be able to put together a small amount of money and jump-start their careers. The way we raised money, did something effective on a low budget.”

Coming up

Following “Night of the Living Dead,” Zombiefest VIII will host a bonus digital screening of 2016’s “My Uncle John Is a Zombie!” with the film’s co-producer/actor Gary Lee Vincent attending. Russo wrote the screenplay, and also co-directed, played the title role, penned three songs and sang.

“It was a kick at this stage of my career,” mused Russo, whose filmography also includes, among others, “The Booby Hatch,” “Midnight” and “Heartstopper,” all adapted from his novels.

With Russo’s career enduring right alongside “Night of the Living Dead” - new Russo novels have hit the marketplace regularly in recent times - the author still has considerable admiration for the movie that kick-started his career.

“It’s probably the top horror film of all time. No other movie goes on for 50-plus years, not even mainstream movies. ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Citizen Kane,’ they show up on Turner Classic Movies, get reissued every now and then, but ‘Night of the Living Dead’ has never stopped playing.”

Duane Jones and Judith O'Dea as Ben and Barbra, respectively, in 1968's “Night of the Living Dead.” The film will screen during Zombiefest VIII at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater, Lehighton. IMAGE TEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO