When filmmakers, critics and scholars call George Romero the ‘Father of the Zombie Film’, this is far more than a mere adoration of the classic director’s enormous legacy on cinema, there is an inherent truth to this statement. Romero was as much a father to the zombie as Mary Shelley was to the iconic Frankenstein’s monster, planting the seed for the slow-walking, brain-eating ghouls to virally spread across horror cinema. But it’s all thanks to one crucial mistake when making Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Now a labyrinth of red-tape and tick-boxes, the world of copyright was once far more rudimentary, requiring far fewer necessities to gain protection, making it an unforgiving practise if things went wrong. Fatefully, things did go wrong for George Romero and the rest of the production crew on Night of the Living Dead, when the original theatrical distributor ‘the Walter Reade Organisation’ failed to place a copyright indication on the titles of the film prints. In the brutal landscape of 1960s copyright, this meant that the film now immediately, and eternally would go into the hands of the public domain.
The mistake slipped through the fingers of the distribution company, removing the copyright indication from the film’s introduction when the title was changed from the original, ‘Night of the Flesh Eaters’ to Night of the Living Dead, forgetting to add the claim back in. As a result, the film was in the hands of the public, meaning that it could be showcased anywhere and everywhere for free, individuals could even brand their own copies of the film to sell and profit from.
Though, more importantly, it put George Romero’s self-made monster, the zombie, into the hands of the general public too.
“Zombies were, to me, still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wetwork for [Bela] Lugosi. I thought I was creating a completely new monster, the neighbours suddenly turned into flesh eaters, ‘ghouls’, that’s what I called them,” stated George Romero long after the film’s release. Despite being called ‘ghouls’ in the film, Romero’s monsters were soon attributed to ‘zombies’, and if the original copyright for Night of the Living Dead was properly submitted, the director would’ve been the sole owner of the creatures.
This means that without Romero’s mistake, we may never have experienced Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, John Landis’ iconic ‘Thriller’ music video, or even the white walkers of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The copyright, or lack thereof, of Romero’s original film, therefore played a significant role in the development of the modern zombie horror, providing filmmakers with a template from which to use and develop their own ideas.
So, if you’ve never seen the horror classic, indulge in one of cinema’s greatest ever mistakes and watch the full film on Youtube below.