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Actors from 'Night of the Living Dead' speak at convention panel

Zombie Mondays

One of the greatest pleasures of attending Walker Stalker Boston on July 30 (at least for me) was the chance to meet Russ Steiner and Judith O'Dea -- better known as the ill-fated siblings Johnny and Barbara from the original black-and-white version of 'Night of the Living Dead.' The two actors spoke at a panel during the event, which took place at the Westin Boston Waterfront and the moderators practically gushed when introducing them.

The moderators referred to the classic film, which was shot in 1967 and released the following year, as THE film that started it all. Steiner and O'Dea mentioned during the discussion that in two years the film's director, George A. Romero, and others associated with the production were planning something big -- details are forthcoming as of this writing.

O'Dea, who admitted to hating horror films at first after seeing the Vincent Price classic 'House of Wax' as a youth, admitted that the genre has grown on her in part as the result of the gracious horror fans she has met over the years. She also praised Romero's artistic talents, referring to little flourishes in the film such as the panic-stricken Barbara coming across a music box while seeking refuge.

Steiner discussed his background working with Romero at the small Pittsburgh-based company The Latent Image, where they produced television commercials and industrial movies.

"We knew that we wanted to make feature films but we wanted to keep food on the table," he said.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania funded a film by the company intended to highlight the beauty of the state in Autumn. This resulted in the filmmakers having access to a 35 mm camera in 1967. Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, who horror fans may recall as the bickering couple from the film, were known by Romero and Steiner through their audio production company.

Hardman had previously worked with O'Dea at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. He contacted her while she was seeking work in Hollywood, she said.

She referred to the production as "one of the most exciting adventures that I have ever had."

Steiner praised her performance and the general chemistry of "the Living Dead family." He recalled how the success of the October 1 premiere of the film compelled the owners of Pittsburgh's Associated Theaters chain to release it in all 13 of their venues.

Midnight screenings in other parts of the country, positive word of mouth and a release in Europe clinched the film's classic status.

"Tenacity is important in aspiring filmmakers," advised Steiner.

O'Dea reflected on how the film's popularity has inspired not only sequels and remakes but stage versions -- including an opera.

Regarding the film's perceived racial undertones due to the casting of African American actor Duane Jones, O'Dea and Steiner admitted that it was not intended. Jones got the part simply because he was a good actor, they said.

Steiner said later that the Pittsburgh Film Office, of which he is chairman, is striving to promote ethnic diversity in the state's film industry.

When asked to describe his obnoxious character in one word, Steiner (after asking if there were children present) said "a----le."

"Barbara concurs," said O'Dea impishly. She described her own character as strong (at least in the end).

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