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‘Night of the Living Dead’ — A peek into the making of a horror classic

October 3, 2018

They’re coming for you. The 50th anniversary showing of the horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” is set at the Byham Theater Oct. 6.

Gary Streiner said he felt cheated as the sound engineer on George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”

“I always had a personal complaint about being one of the people that were actively involved in making (the movie),” he said. “I always felt I got cheated out of being a fan of the film. I knew everything that was going to happen, so that was taken away from me.”

Now, a half-century after its debut, that same feeling has returned.

Streiner of Evans City is the event coordinator of the 50th anniversary showing of the horror classic at the Byham Theater Oct. 6.

“All the details are on my back and I’m kind of in the same position,” said Streiner. “There’s going to come a point in the not too distant future in which I’m going to be able to relax.”

The film debuted at the Byham in 1968 when the venue was known as the Fulton Theater.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust purchased the 1,300-seat venue in 1988, renovated it and reopened it in 1991 and then renamed it the Byham Theater in 1995, in recognition of a gift from William C. and Carolyn M. Byham.

Cast and crew members will walk the red carpet for the screening of the film’s new 4K state-of-the-art restoration from the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Foundation as part of the annual Living Dead Weekend.

An interactive segment with those from the film is planned about an hour before the showing.

“We’re going to bring people back to nostalgic moments of the film and nostalgic times of the film, and hopefully humanize it with dialogue between the cast members and some funny vignettes,” Streiner said.

Attendees may also get a lesson in ghoul walking as part of that segment.

Those who show up to the Byham will receive the official program of the 50th anniversary celebration with a special event cover.

The 48-page magazine features interviews with the cast and crew, people involved in the movie’s restoration, as well as various pictures from the set.

The Oct. 6 premiere is presented by the George A. Romero Foundation and Image Ten. It’s billed as a black tie affair with tickets starting at $50.

Streiner said he is excited to see the fans, and hopes they do not stress about a dress code.

“I’m thrilled to death,” Streiner said. “This is not something that happens very often. Not just this event, but a film like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ and I’m very proud that Pittsburgh is a part of this. How many films actually get to have a 50th anniversary party? Maybe they’re happening more than I know about, but I think this is very special.”

Romero, who died July 16, 2017, of lung cancer, is credited with incorporating conformity, racism, mall culture, militarism, class differences and other social ills into his films.

His second zombie classic, “Dawn of the Dead,” shot at the Monroeville Mall, debuted in 1978.

The Library of Congress in 1999 inducted “Night of the Living Dead” into the National Registry of Films.

Its grainy and gritty reputation comes from the many bootleg versions of the movie, according to Streiner.

“When the original film prints were made off of the negatives, they were pretty good looking,” he said. “They were fresh and clean. These people were doing VHF copies that were five generations away from anything. Every time you go a generation you build up all this contrasts and all this other crap ... (It’s been copied) because it’s a good film.”

Filming began with a $35,000 budget, which later ballooned to $114,000 due to deferments.

Cast and crew worked odd hours and in various conditions to create the work of art with shoestring finances.

“We just shot and filmed until we couldn’t shoot anymore with barely a break for a bologna sandwich,” Streiner said. “I know how we felt. I know how hard we worked just because we wanted to do something that was good. If this film would have been a Hollywood production, it would have never made it.

“It would have been a totally different film. We did everything we had to do. We used everything we had to use judiciously. That’s part of the intrigue of the film. There’s a certain amount of believability in the characters.”

The rights of the film fell into the public domain within a few years of its release in large part due to legal squabbles between Romero’s Image Ten production company and the Continental Pictures distribution.

Streiner said the distributor failed to add the proper copyright to the film. Its names prior to “Night of the Living Dead” were “Night of the Flesh Eaters” and “Night of Anubis.”

“Whenever those title changes were made the circle c, (the copyright symbol), was neglected and not put on the print and it went into public domain,” Streiner said.

He said the restoration, which was completed in 2016, brings the film back to its original vision with upgraded sound and visuals.

“Our mission was to make the film look like it was in 1968,” he said. “We could have cleaned it up a whole lot more than we did. The people who did the restoration were artists. They were not technicians and they understood the artistry.”

It’s available on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection.

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