In a nod to her iconic role in zombie history, Night of the Living Dead actress and ghoul godmother Judith O’Dea will be a guest of honor at this weekend’s inaugural Walker Stalker convention in downtown Atlanta. From the film’s creepy farmhouse locale to the hallow-eyed, flesh-eating zombie small fry, the independently produced 1968 black-and-white fright flick directed by George Romero shares quite a few strands of DNA with a certain hit AMC drama, the focal point of this weekend’s zombie fan convention.
Before she flies into Atlanta for a panel discussion Friday at 4 and a weekend of signing autographs and meeting fans, O’Dea, now 68, rang Atlanta magazine from her home in Arizona to discuss the ground-breaking horror film and why she can never entirely leave Barbra, her catatonic, trench coat-clad Night of the Living Dead heroine, buried.
Q: Here we are 45 years later and people are still clamoring to talk to you about this film, made for a reported $114,000. Does that ever make your jaw go slack?
A: (laughs): That’s a great way to describe it. It really does. I am constantly amazed and so very pleased. It’s a thrill. I didn’t realize decades and decades ago, I don’t think any of us did, that this would not only maintain its popularity but grow in popularity. We’re all very grateful.
Q: Is it true that by 1967, you had fled Pittsburgh for Hollywood and actually had to fly back to your former hometown to audition for the role of Barbra?
A: Indeed! It was just a twist of fate. It’s a real testament to that old adage about who you know making all the difference. [Castmates] Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman and I had done a great deal of voiceover work in Pittsburgh. Because of that, I came to mind when they decided to make the film.
Q: You shot Night of the Living Dead in chunks and you’ve said that Barbra was created largely on camera as you went. Can you discuss that?
A: We didn’t really have a working script in hand, maybe a few pages of dialogue on occasion, but it really was an evolution. Every single day, something new would happen and Barbra would become more of a reality in my mind.
Q: I love your description of the process: “I took Barbra one scene at a time.”
A: (laughs) There wasn’t much else you could do, to be honest. George would have in mind exactly what he wanted on a particular day, he would explain it to us and we would shoot it. It was a lovely sharing. We never knew what we would face on any particular day. You were always on your toes!
Q: And yet, for not having much of a script and all the ad-libbing, this film’s plot, from the opening car radio broadcast to Barbra’s brother, Johnny’s gloves, there are intricate clues spread like breadcrumbs throughout this film, aren’t there?
A: All the puzzle pieces fit. This is what’s truly exciting about how it was made. We were all aware of the details necessary to tell the story. George’s mind must be like a computer. He knew how he wanted the story to move and how not to get bogged down with unneeded details. It moves well even today. When I watch it now, I’m amazed to this day, the level of detail you mention moves the story very quickly. I love it.
Q: This weekend at Walker Stalker con, you’ll be sharing the stage with most of the cast of The Walking Dead here in Atlanta. From the desolate farmhouse to the slow, staggering gaits of the undead to the shock of seeing flesh-eating zombie children, the show has borrowed many of your film’s trademarks. Is it wild to contemplate that you all were creating a template for all this 45 years ago?
A: It amazes me. Often times, people will come up and ask, “How does it feel to be one of the people who created this whole zombie apocalypse genre?”, if you will. It’s hard to fathom. But we really were at the beginning of it. The chemistry, the times, it just happened. It was magic.
Q: Speaking of creating the template for 45 years of horror movies, when Barbra is running away from the zombie who has just killed her brother, she trips, she falls and her shoes go missing. Suddenly, every heroine in a horror movie from then on, has to fall, preferably over a well-placed log, while being chased. Do you take any credit and/or blame for that, ma’am?
A: (laughing) I don’t know if I should take the blame or the credit for that! I ended up falling twice. There was also a scene shot at the house where I slipped and fell and not on purpose. I was going so fast, I just lost my footing, skidded and down I went. It worked and George said, “We’re keeping that in!” Because I fell and lost my shoes, we had to make sure that was reflected throughout. It was just a natural thing that happened that came out of an unplanned event.
Q: Zombies aside, Night of the Living Dead was also ground-breaking for casting Duane Jones, [who died in 1988] an African-American actor in the lead role of the hero Ben. George Romero says the role of the angry truck driver was “colorless” and that Jones got the role simply because he was the best actor in the cast. But this film came out in 1968, the same year MLK was assassinated. Were any of you thinking about how this would play in the context of the civil rights movement and did you and Duane ever have a conversation about the impact of what you were filming?
A: We never had a conversation or two or three about that, Richard. It simply wasn’t on my radar. I was a 23-year-old actress who was thrilled to be in her first feature film. The fact that Duane was black never even entered my mind. I was brought up to be “colorless.” The role wasn’t written to be black or white. It was written for a male actor who could carry the picture. And for us, that man was Duane. It may have been more on George’s radar. Duane’s work and the impact he’s had has only grown over the decades. But I wasn’t as cognizant of what was going on at 23. Now I recognize the importance.
Q: Before his death, Duane Jones discussed his hesitancy about shooting the farmhouse scene with you which called for Ben to slap a hysterical Barbra after she strikes him. He went to George Romero and said, “You’re asking me to slap a white woman. Do you know what’s going to happen to me on the street when this thing comes out?” Do you recall that?
A: Yes. There were actually several more smacks in the script but Duane went to George and said, “I cannot do that. You’ll have to change it. This is what I’m willing to do.” Clearly, it was something that was on Duane’s radar, even if it wasn’t with the rest of the cast. Consequently, we changed that scene. I socked him once and he socked me once and that was it. In the script, it made perfect sense to me. Ben had to stop Barbra somehow and why not slap her? I never once stopped to consider that Duane could fall into danger because of it.
Q: The film’s ending is another trailblazing moment. [Spoiler Alert] No one in the cast gets out of this movie alive. Did that surprise you all as you were shooting?
A: It was new and different, wasn’t it?! Again, this wasn’t something I stopped to consider. I came in for my one or two weeks of filming and I didn’t see the end of the film until it premiered in Pittsburgh in ’68. I think it’s one of the landmarks of the film and why it has sustained for so long. It is monumental to me, especially now that I’m getting older and closer to the end of my life than the beginning. I realize the vulnerability of life. Just one trigger pull and it ends one man’s struggle. All through that film, he’s survived and the audience becomes attached to him and to all of us. And one by one, we’re gone. It’s so powerful. There were several different endings, one of which is where Barbra survives and the last shot is of a single tear coming down her cheek after Ben is killed. I think George screened it for people and they rejected that. I’m glad we kept it the way it was. It’s incredibly appropriate.
Q: Last question: Whatever became of Barbra’s trench coat?
A: (laughs) Oh, that trench coat. I carried that thing around with me for some years but I’ve been through so many moves, it finally bit the dust and ended up on a Goodwill shelf somewhere. Believe it or not, we went shopping for our own costumes. We had two identical sets of everything, due to all that running around and perspiring and what have you. At one point, I had two trench coats. I could kick myself now. Who knew?