Advertising Feature

CT Horrorfest: Night of the Living Dead stars reflect on movie’s legacy

Russ Streiner and Judith O'Dea will appear at this September's event in Naugatuck

Russ Streiner and Judith O'Dea appeared at the recent "Haunters against Hate" fest on July 9. The famous pair of cinema siblings Johnny and Barbara from Night of the Living Dead will appear at the CT Horrorfest upcoming in Naugatuck. Visit for tickets and additional guests. 

Russ Streiner and Judith O'Dea appeared at the recent "Haunters against Hate" fest on July 9. The famous pair of cinema siblings Johnny and Barbara from Night of the Living Dead will appear at the CT Horrorfest upcoming in Naugatuck. Visit for tickets and additional guests. 

Judith O’Dea/Judith O'Dea

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” - Psycho

“It was the boogeyman.” - Halloween

“The power of Christ compels you!” - The Exorcist

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” - Night of the Living Dead

There are some horror movies that can be identified by one line to their ardent admirers. Some go beyond simply scary and end up making long-term cultural impact, while being genre changing.

Whether one is a fan of the frightful or not, 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” directed by the legendary George Romero, is one of those few that has been elevated to iconic stature.

With the last line above, the film’s opening scene taps into our collected childhood dread — what’s under the bed? What is moving behind the cracked closet door? 

Spoken by Russ Streiner, one of the film’s producers and playing the role of Johnny, the teasing and complaining brother to Judith O’Dea’s erstwhile and dutiful Barbara, it is more foreboding than the context implies.

Streiner and O’Dea reflected on the film’s making and impact in advance of their appearance at this year’s CT HorrorFest, the increasingly popular and star-studded annual event happening on Sept. 16 and 17 at The Naugatuck Convention Center. In addition to O’Dea and Streiner, many others have signed on, including the director and stars of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” The Haunting of Bly Manor,” Mike Flanagan, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Annabeth Gish, and Alex Essoe, and more. For a full list of guests, visit 

The haunting opening of the starkly shot “Night of the Living Dead,” made more bleak by its black and white footage, and somber musical soundtrack, follows Barbara and Johnny’s rambling car heading to an annual pilgrimage to place flowers on their father’s grave.

Johnny is complaining about the length of the trip, the waste of money on flowers each year, and his impatience for Barbara’s quiet prayers. 

Then he recalls a moment when they were children and he scared Barbara — noting how terrified she was, as children can be, of the cemetery. 

“You’re still afraid,” he teases, with a sinister smirk.

Despite her protests, Johnny launches into his effected “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” as a man walks toward them from a distance. Johnny’s teasing proves truer than either one of them would like and sets off a terrifying chain of events as it appears the dead are actually coming back to life. And they are looking for victims. 

When asked about how O’Dea felt about taking the role when she initially read the sometimes-shocking script, Streiner noted with amusement that it was still being written while the film’s shooting began.

“Jack (Russo) was still writing it at the time. There was the basic script but once the scene was Barbara getting to the house it was being written somewhat piecemeal,” Streiner said. 

“It was highly unprofessional,” he said, “But it was out of necessity that way, and as we know in retrospect, it worked.”

While many have analyzed its deeper meanings since, the film essentially was created out of a drive to do exactly what it did — terrify the audience. 

“Back in the late 1960’s, we found the movies that were supposed to scare you weren’t very scary. The goal was how can we grab people’s attention, make them think a little bit and scare the hell out of them. That’s what motivated the story,” Streiner said.

Since then, others have speculated on further meanings, including comments on racial injustice and capitalism. While Streiner said that it was the 1960s and obviously the team behind the movie was impacted by the climate, the script was not written with a political agenda — “though I am sure that some of it seeped out in the writing.”

The lead role of Ben was not originally slated for Duane Jones, nor was it specifically scripted to go to a Black actor, according to O’Dea and Streiner. 

However, the actor happened to be visiting friends in Pittsburgh and auditioned for the role. 

“And it was magic,” O’Dea said.

Streiner agreed. 

“We had met him through a mutual friend. And when he auditioned it was a unanimous decision. Even the original actor who was supposed to play Ben agreed,” Streiner said. 

Much of the beginning of the movie revolves around Ben and Barbara attempting to fortify themselves in an abandoned farmhouse. Barbara, now traumatized after leaving her murdered brother behind and bravely escaping to the farmhouse by sheer self-survival, has become nearly catatonic despite Ben’s attempts to communicate. 

“We were two relatively young actors in our 20’s,” O’Dea said. “We wanted as much realism and believability. The lovely thing was we just seemed to blend. He had such a gentleness to him, and I related very well.”

As for the opening cemetery scene, Streiner said it was scripted closely but he did put his theatrical, threatening spin on the famous line. 

The terror happens fairly quickly in “Night of the Living Dead,” another goal of the team working on it, and Romero’s film making doesn’t let up on it for the rest of the movie. 

“Most horror movies at the time took a while to get to the terrifying thing they are facing. Ours it was right at the front — you are scooped up and propelled along and you don’t have to wait 20 or 30 minutes,” Streiner said. 

O’Dea, in particular, is spectacularly, vulnerably convincing in her terror, which is balanced with moments of bravery and heroism. When asked if she was ever truly frightened while filming, she did not hesitate, describing a scene that is a combination of fear, heartbreak, and self-sacrifice. 

As one of the additional characters, Helen Cooper, is fighting off the zombies, O’Dea snaps out of her silence to save the woman — only to be reunited face to face with her brother — now one of those the cast called “ghoulies” at the time. 

“Oh, my goodness, yes! Let me give you a perfect example. My brother Johnny appears in the door jam and pulls me out with the rest of the ghouls. That was truly one of the most frightening scenes, all those hands grabbing you,” O’Dea said.

“You are definitely caught up in the horror,” she said. 

O’Dea had Vincent Price, appropriately, to thank for the wellspring of that convincing fear.

“A movie I saw when I was very young was “House of Wax,” in 1952. That film frightened me so deeply when the wax cover came off his burned face. I am frightened so deeply to this day. My mother had to sit with me to help me get to sleep. I oftentimes would draw on that fear making the movie,” she said. 

When the stars were asked if they thought “Night of the Living Dead” — the fountain of nearly all zombie movies — would be as iconic as it is, the two responded simultaneously: “No!”

However, they both gave a specific nod to the tools George Romero used that helped put the movie on the timeless map of horror films. 

“He was the leader in chief,” Streiner said. 

O’Dea noted that Romero would often be in precarious positions to get the jarring angles he wanted to capture, sometimes laying on the ground on occasion, to his own peril. O’Dea said a scene where she grasps onto a gas pump was shot over the kneeling director, which nearly hit him when it was knocked to the ground.

Romero brilliantly used general library music, a minimalist style that gave the movie a film noir vibe. Streiner added that the filmmaker’s tactics unsettled audiences in subtle ways, which they might not even notice.

“From the beginning, the audience loses things, a little at a time, losing Johnny, who they thought was a lead, or as small as Barbara losing her shoes trying to escape the cemetery, to losing the car keys, to the electricity going off, no telephone service,” he said. 

“This overwhelming claustrophobia leads to the film’s success,” he said. 

In the end, both O’Dea and Streiner said Romero was critical to the film’s success.

“When you are working with someone that good, you turn him loose in the editing room and stay out of their way,” he said. 

Asked about Barbara being one of the earliest examples of what horror movie fans call a “Final Girl,” who is the one woman, often virtuous and brave, who outlasts the evil in horror movies, like Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween,” or Neve Campbell in “Scream,” O’Dea says she sometimes doesn’t think the character gets a fair shake. 

“For decades, often, we’ve talked to so many wonderful fans who tell me that Barbara wasn’t strong. They say, ‘We like to see strong women today,’” O’Dea said.

“Barbara’s strength is that she understood what was going on and went into herself to build up that strength. She was trying to grab hold of herself. There was strength in her catatonia. And in the end, she did drag Helen Cooper away from the door and sacrificed herself,” she said. 

O’Dea joked that fans should wonder how they would react to something so heinous when commenting on Barbara’s reaction.

“I mean the dead are coming back to life, you need some processing time,” she said, laughing. 

As far that interacting with fans such as at the upcoming CT Horrorfest, Streiner and O’Dea say they truly feel they are fortunate to do so.

“We appreciate that teenagers are still coming up to the table saying they were impressed with the movie. There are very few movies that get this kind of fan attention for this long,” Streiner said. 

O’Dea continued to credit Romero’s ability, insight and creativity.

“When he edited that film, it was really his baby. Without him, I don’t know that we’d still be doing this,” she said. 

Streiner also pointed out that a good amount of the film’s success was its ability to be an independent one. 

“It was financed with our own money. I don’t think we would have this much success without maintaining creative control. It was up to us to preserve our initial investment of $115,000,” Streiner said.

“I think it worked out well,” he said, with a chuckle. 

Streiner even continues to be amused by fans asking him to recite his iconic line, made obvious by this writer asking the same and being obliged. 

“They’re coming to get you, Susan.”