Google “Night of the Living Dead” and multiple articles and videos pop up detailing the history behind that renowned horror film filmed in Western Pennsylvania.

Same with George Romero, the late filmmaker and its co-creator who had so many Pittsburgh ties.  

Romero’s longtime friends and his co-creators of the tale of flesh-eating ghouls believe there’s still more to learn about him and how that 1968 film, shot on an incredibly low budget, came together. John Russo and Russ Streiner have created “a labor of love”:  “Monster Flick: The Undead Story of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead,” a five-part miniseries proposal that details “the intimate and often hilarious details about everything that went on.”

The two 84-year-olds have been working away on it after first writing a movie screenplay, Streiner said, with scripts for the first two episodes and part of the third completed. They have the blessing of Romero’s widow, Suzanne Romero, and now need a distribution company to move it along to production.

Russo said the three met here when they were 18 years old, and their lives remained intertwined until Romero died from lung cancer in 2017, although their business partnership ended in 1971. That leaves “me and Russ as the only two people alive who know all the nitty gritty and the intimate and often hilarious details about everything that went on” during the filming of “Night of the Living Dead.”

Streiner called the miniseries more of a biopic and the story leading up to that horror film. “The process of us all getting together, sticking together, and making ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is quite a story in itself,” he said. “ ‘Night of the Living Dead’ now has a 55-year history of distribution. I can tell you modestly that it is as popular now as it has ever been.”

That may be partly why the Library of Congress added it to its Film Registry in 1999, right beside “The Ten Commandments,” “Laura” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Annually it adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant motion pictures designed to reflect the full breadth and diversity of America’s film heritage, thus increasing public awareness of the richness of American cinema and the need for its preservation.

The two men envision actors portraying the three friends with an interviewer quizzing Russo and Streiner. The resources they have — footage from their famous film, photographs, and their early experimental films and ad footage — will be intermixed. “The principal weight of the storytelling will be carried by the young actors playing us,” Streiner said. “John and I will appear on film as the interlocutors tying it all together.”

Russ Streiner, left, and John Russo at the 2023 Pittsburgh Film Office Lights! Glamour! Action! annual fundraising event. (Courtesy of Russ Streiner)

Opening it up as a biopic, Streiner said, is permitting them “to bring breathing room to the story and develop the characters and really tell the story. How people who had trouble balancing our checkbook could create a movie that goes down in … movie history.”

Russo and Streiner are working on this through the same writing process that has worked for them for decades as screenwriters and producers. “I will write up what I think is a reasonable draft, send it to John, and he makes suggestions and I accept them, [then] it gets incorporated into the script,” he said. “We are kind of our own fact-checking system.”

The late Rudy Ricci, a Clairton native, met Romero in 1957 at then-Carnegie Tech when they registered for classes in 1957. Streiner, who noted on his website that he has wanted to be an actor since he was 8, and Ricci had roles as GI soldiers in the play “Make a Million” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and shared a dressing room.

Romero came to see the play dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac. It seemed that he “was vulnerable to whatever was the latest movie that he saw and fell in love with the characters.” So he wore a long black cape with a red lining and brandished a cane as a sword, spouting lines from that film and making quite an entrance, Streiner said.

Russo and Ricci had known each other since grade school in Clairton, and Russo started hanging out with Streiner and Romero. Romero headed to Clairton often, where Streiner said the Bronx native learned to drive. 

Russo said they would never know what Romero would do. Once he dressed up as Marlon Brando’s character, the revolutionary Emiliano, in “Viva Zapata!” and another time decked himself out in aluminum foil after he adored “some sci-fi movie.” That one scared a Dairy Queen waitress, he said, who slammed shut the window when they tried to give her their order.

Romero asked Streiner to be in one of his first films. They shot “Expostulations” with a 16-millimeter Bolex camera and no soundtrack. Russo served as a grip on that film, he said, and that experience gave him “the film bug.”

Streiner and Romero formed The Latent Image in 1961, a commercial and industrial film production company, located on the South Side, that created TV commercials, educational films, and government and business pictures, even short films for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Russo helped out on breaks from his studies at West Virginia University and later his Army service. They all started working together while Russo taught at St. Clare Elementary School, Shaw Avenue Elementary and the junior high, all in Clairton, as his day job.

Some of the stories, better left to full explanation in the miniseries, involve a monkey that lived with Streiner and Romero in that storefront, as well as an owl recuperating from a broken wing. The antics inside 1829 E. Carson St., which is now the patio section of a restaurant, always drew a crowd outside the place’s front window.

Working in the ad business and reaping minimal returns, according to Streiner’s website, frustrated the two Latent Image partners. So in 1967 they persuaded some partners to pool their resources and make a feature film, the first, they say, to ever to be filmed entirely in Pittsburgh and its surrounding environs. Ten investors in a new company called Image 10 — mainly partners, friends and family — each contributed $600; with a $6,000 seed budget in place, production could begin, as Romero explained in a 2013 video. Latent Image also partnered with Karl Hardman and Associates to produce the film and create Image 10, Streiner said.

The group pitched ideas around comedic aliens and teenagers, but the monster flick idea had the most promise, Streiner recalled. Romero had been reading “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, published in 1954. The plot: After the outbreak of a pandemic the year before, in 1976 everyone else on the planet has been turned into a vampire. One survivor is left. During the day, when the creatures are comatose, he seeks them out and kills them with a wooden stake or drags them out into killing sunlight.

Inspired, Romero started writing a script. “The script had a lot of loose ends,” Streiner said. “When he and John started to collaborate, those loose ends tied up pretty nicely. John came up with the premise of the recently dead [instead of vampires] before they were buried. We didn’t have the money to have them come up out of the ground.”

And all that flesh eating, gory and scary even in black and white?  “One of our investors happened to own a butcher shop. That way we had some animal parts to pull off the effect,” Streiner said.

As the time for filming approached, no one had been cast yet in the role of Johnny. So Streiner stepped in. “To be honest, it was kind of by default. We were getting closer and closer to production. We didn’t have a Johnny. So John said, ‘You be Johnny,’ and that was it,” he said.

Russ Streiner stepped in to play Johnny in “Night of the Living Dead” at the last minute. (Courtesy of Image 10)

Russo had a part, too, as a Washington military reporter, and the cast list on the Internet Movie Database includes many of their buddies and local celebrities, such as the late Bill Cardille.  

The working title was “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” It turned out another company already had dibs on that name, and it sent a cease-and-desist order. Romero suggested “Night of the Anubis,” one of the Egyptian gods of the dead, instead. It made them laugh, Streiner said, as it was so esoteric and so like him. The now famous title came to life, so to speak, after that.

One problem: When the new horror movie makers secured a distributor, it hired a lab to change the title on the final print. Unfortunately, it left off the copyright information, which became an issue. “We didn’t see a print with that title until the print showed up at the Fulton Theater, and we realized we have a premiere with 1,300 Pittsburghers coming to see our film with no copyright on it,” Streiner said. “The laws in those days, if you put out a film without a copyright on it, you have lost it forever.”

The film being in the public domain for some time enabled anyone to access it and make copies of it. Streiner said that “may be a backdoor approach as why it became so successful,” even though the creators could not benefit. About five or six years ago, he said, there was a total restoration of the film with new technical capability — both with the picture itself and its sound — and the copyright office has given that restoration its own copyright. Plus, Streiner notes, copyright laws have since changed.

Total cost of production: $115,000. In 1971 Streiner and Russo founded New American Films with Ricci, a venture that ended in 1976. They stayed friends with Romero, but their business relationship ended. “The business dispute was one thing, but the friendship was another thing,” Streiner said. “It went on until the time he died.” 

All this spurred Streiner to found the Pittsburgh Film Office in 1990, just as a remake in color of their famous film, directed by the legendary Tom Savini, finished production. The credits list Russo and Streiner as producers and Romero as executive producer. Streiner appeared in the remake, too, which Russo said cost $5 million.

“I maintain [the Film Office is] a carryover of the improbability of how we got started in the first place,” Streiner said, who remains on the Film Office board, serving as its chairman. “If we were able to make ‘Night of the Living Dead’ on a shoestring with no money, why then couldn’t other movies be made in Pittsburgh, and what could we do to make that happen?

“That was the germ of the idea that got the Film Office started, and I certainly had lots of help along the way. I started banging the drum, and I just haven’t quit.”

Streiner also has had a long career in advertising, working for HB Creamer, once a large agency in Pittsburgh, and then with his own production company. Image Ten still operates today and manages “Night of the Living Dead,” with Streiner as one of the directors.

Russo hasn’t slowed down either, with 15 feature films among his many movie credits and some projects in preproduction now. Those include writing “My Uncle John Is a Zombie,” filmed entirely in Clairton Park, and “Saloonatics,” starring Bruno Sammartino and featuring many of his hometown buddies. Now he wants to be sure this origin story is told correctly.

Some producers and their companies had been interested early on, Russo said, but they wanted to take over. So he and Streiner are searching for a distributor on their own.

“We are the only two people alive who knew the true story,” he explained. “We know all the stuff that happened from 1957 to 1968 that led up to ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ “

Further, “It is really probably one of the best lessons about filmmaking, the triumphs and tragedies, and of the entire entertainment business,” Russo said. “We’ve been through everything. We’ve taken every kind of rip-off — ‘Night of the Living Dead’ being one of the biggest rip-offs in movie history [due to its copyright issues] — and it just keeps going.

“It is such a valuable lesson, but a whole library and series of lessons about everything. Life in general and the endeavors that artists and aspiring filmmakers, writers, producers and [established] filmmakers go through. And it is highly entertaining. And it is highly charming.”

He’s made sure that history will be kept with archival donations from “Night of the Living Dead” and his other films to both WVU and the University of Pittsburgh.

Both Streiner and Russo spoke at Romero’s funeral in 2017, an emotional event for them.

“George Romero made his mark on the world, and it’s a poorer place without him,” Russo said. “And now we’ll have to cherish our memories.”

At their age, Streiner said, he and Russo are “in new territory” with this miniseries in a film business complicated by streaming services and post-pandemic economic pressures. But he is pleased at how it is all coming together.

“It is one thing [for Romero] to have a star on [Hollywood’s] Walk of Fame,” he said, “but it doesn’t tell who George Romero was. This [miniseries] is to paint the portrait of George Romero. … If we can tell that story, I think we can service history very well.”

If this article spurs you to watch “Night of the Living Dead,” you can find it via a number of sources. You can also check out the Night of the Living Dead Weekend — and meet John Russo in person — in Monroeville June 7-9.

Cast and crew of “Night of the Living Dead.” (Courtesy of Image 10)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at