Another Night, Another Dawn, Another Day...

A Look at the Original Screenplays to Romero's Zombie Trilogy

by John Scoleri

Although inspired by Richard Matheson's classic novel, I Am Legend, George Romero based his zombie trilogy on a story idea he had developed that consisted of three phases. The first of which had the people in the farmhouse attacked by ghouls and all killed. The second had the posse roaming the countryside hunting the ghouls down, and the third involved the legions of the dead taking up arms and fighting back, eventually reversing roles with the humans.

While Romero strayed from this basic outline, he thematically stuck to it, especially in the early drafts of the screenplays. But the transformations that each film went through were substantial in all cases. Night of the Livingd Dead was altered slightly during filming; Dawn of the Dead went through its greatest changes in post-production editing; and Day of the Dead went through a massive overhaul during pre-production, leaving very little of the original concept on the screen.

This article's purpose is to point out some of the changes that occurred during various stages of production on George Romero's zombie trilogy.

 

Night of the Living Dead was co-written by George Romero and John Russo. Romero had written the first half of the film, up to where Tom and Harry come up from the basement, in short story form. When he was named director, his partner, John Russo, took over screenwriting responsibilities, first adapting Romero's portion in screenplay format, then completing the film. This was done with input by various other members of the production, including Romero, Russell Streiner, Marilyn Eastman and Karl Hardman.

In his book, The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook, Russo mentions several changes that were made throughout the writing and filming of Night.

The character of Tom was originally conceived as the older caretaker of the cemetery. Only after the handsome young nightclub singer Keith Wayne was hired did they decide to add a girlfriend to give the audience an empathetic young couple.

One element from the film that wasn't in the original screenplay was the scene in Washington D.C. with the reporters interviewing the government officials. This helped broaden the film's inherently limited scope by showing that this was in fact going on all over. Also of note in this scene, filmed by producer Russell "Johnny" Streiner, is George Romero's appearance as a reporter.

The biggest change from the original script, one that was also instituted during filming, was the decision to kill off all the main characters (A decision Romero would find himself making again with Dawn of the Dead). As originally written, Barbara was to have made it into the cellar with Ben. The next morning, Ben goes upstairs and is shot, only when the posse enter the house they find Barbara in the basement. Just as they're about to shoot her, the recognize that she's still alive by the presence of a tear on her cheek.

The film was to end with the final line of the sheriff (in reference to Ben):

McClelland

IT'S TOO BAD...AN ACCIDENT...THE ONLY ONE WE HAD, THE WHOLE NIGHT

One has to wonder about the effect this would have had on the film's impact. The final irony of Ben, the sole survivor, being killed at the hands of the posse is all the more powerful in that they never knew the mistake they had made. Only we viewers did.

Another ending which is often mentioned, although it was never seriously considered, was put forth by producer Karl Hardman. He suggested that after the posse had cleared out the farmhouse and moved on, the little girl (played by his daughter Kyra) would walk into the picture, indicating that they had missed a ghoul. Whether it was an indication for a sequel or perhaps just the shock value, it was not used, and the film ends on a somewhat positive (albeit somber) note, with the posse apparently having the situation under control.

 

As we would eventually find out, in Dawn of the Dead, the situation is no longer under control. A lot of what goes on in DAWN has to do with the zombies assuming a controlling role over the living.

While the die hard fan may be aware three versions of Dawn of the Dead exist, very few have actually seen all three. Two played in the U.S., the theatrical release version readily available on video and one rarely seen from 16mm source material. The third version came about as part of the financing deal on Dawn of the Dead. In return for providing financing, Italian horror director Dario Argento was to score and retain final cut on the European release. This version, known as Zombie, is recognizable for it's use of the entire Goblin score, of which only a handful of cues exist in the domestic versions.

Even beyond the scope of the additional footage that was shot are some of the ideas in the original screenplay. Key differences between the screenplay and each edition of the film will be covered here. For the sake of this piece, a familiarity with the domestic, 126m release of Dawn of the Dead is assumed.

A 140m version (on 16mm from Cinema 5) of Dawn of the Dead exists that includes several sequences in the original screenplay cut from the domestic theatrical release (NOW AVAILABLE ON LASERDISC, LETTERBOXED, FROM ELITE ENTERTAINMENT). The film does not contain the final audio mix that is in the released version, but it is not variant enough to warrant extensive coverage here. This version is the truest to Romero's original script, although even it went through some major changes from the screenplay. The European version contains several dialogue sequences cut from other versions ofthe film, and while it contains scenes cut from the 126m version, it also is missing certain scenes that appeared in the 126m version. The scenes described below are in both variant versions unless otherwise noted.

In the beginning of the film, in the European release only, is a line that helps clarify what Fran says in the domestic release of the film.

Dusty

I THINK FOSTER'S RIGHT, WE'RE LOSING IT...

Fran

YEAH, BUT NOT TO THE ENEMY, WE'RE BLOWING IT OURSELVES...

For some reason, the line was cut to just "We're blowing it ourselves" domestically. The line 'not to the enemy' is ironic, as Romero is continually showing us that in fact we are the enemy.

The next difference, in the 140m version, comes as the SWAT team surrounds the tenement building. In a light sequence before things go crazy, Roger mimics his captain as he talks to Martinez through the bullhorn. Prior to each of his captain's sentences, he correctly anticipates what will be said.

Roger

THERE ARE NO CHARGES AGAINST YOU OR ANY OF YOUR PEOPLE...

Captain

THERE ARE NO CHARGES AGAINST YOU OR ANY OF YOUR PEOPLE...

Roger

YET...

Once inside the tenement, we get a better sense that Peter had gone into the basement after shooting Wooley so as to avoid retribution. Fortunately, Roger did not come to the basement seeking retribution and their friendship was born.

After the two men enter the locked area of the basement where the tenants had left their dead, Peter shoots the corpses, one by one, until he runs out of bullets. As a zombie approaches, Roger steps in and shoots it, as in the domestic release. In a scene cut from the 126m version, Roger picks up where Peter left off, shooting several more zombies before the army officer pops his head into the room. If you look closely in the 126m version, you'll see Roger empty his gun, though you only saw him fire a single shot!

The first major scene cut from the theatrical release takes place on the police dock, when Fran and Stephen are waiting for Roger to arrive. In the 126m version, it seems as if Stephen kills the radio operator, as we cut to the police dock on the sound of a gunshot, and the image we're presented with is that of the dead operator. This is better explained in the script and in the 140m version.

While Fran is fueling up the chopper, Stephen investigates the guard house, where he finds the operator, already dead. It turns out he was the victim of a group of renegade cops who themselves are running away in a boat. There is a confrontation that is interrupted by the arrival of Roger and Peter. Rather than kill each other, they call a truce, of sorts.

Officer 3

IT'D BE CRAZY TO START SHOOTIN' ONE ANOTHER, NOW WOULDN'T IT?

Roger

SURE WOULD...

They go about their business, each running away to an unknown destination. As seen in the 126m version, the remainder of the scene on the police dock is a somewhat lighthearted discussion of cigarettes and destinations.

In the European release, the scene contains all the extra footage that does not include the renegade cops. Even the friendly banter from the 126m version is excised, though most likely because Argento thought foreign audiences wouldn't appreciate the humor. It does, however, show more clearly that Stephen did not kill the radio operator.

It's worthy noting that the main police officer in the sequence was played by Joe Pilato, who went on to star as Rhodes in Day of the Dead. Perhaps his getting cut almost completely from Dawn was a blessing in disguise.

The next difference, in the European release only, is one that is the most difficult to explain. For some reason, Dario Argento, the Italian gore-meister himself, cut the scene where the zombie gets his head chopped off by the helicopter rotor. This exclusion is very surprising to most fans when they see this version of the film for the first time.

When Peter and Roger, after arriving at the mall, decide to investigate their new surroundings, we have the next difference. In the 126m version, they find the mall office, locate keys, walkie talkies, and then head out into the mall. An additional scene exists in the 140m version which has them enter the mall itself, look around, and decide that the best way to go through the mall would be to use the big department stores. Then the scene cuts back to the office, where they match store keys against the mall map, as seen in the 126m version.

When they make it to J.C. Penney, Roger drags a zombie through the door so that Peter can close it. In the 126m version, we cut to Fran and Stephen at the sound of the gunshot when Roger kills this zombie. In this version, we see the shot of the zombie being killed.

In the European cut, Roger sees the gun shop from the ceiling access panels and gets excited, but Peter makes him continue on his way back to their hideout. Once back, we're treated to a little more dialogue between the men after the initial mall raid. Stephen, feeling rather cocky all of a sudden, begins to lecture about how people should react to what's going on. Peter straightens him out. He asks what Stephen would do if Fran was killed by one of them.

Peter

YOU BE ABLE TO CHOP HER HEAD OFF? THEY GOT A BIG ADVANTAGE OVER US, BROTHER. THEY DON'T THINK. AND THAT BUNCH OUT THERE? THAT'S JUST A HANDFUL AND EVERY DAY THERE'LL BE MORE.

The scene is important in setting up the different characters. Peter, the most rational; Roger, somewhat flighty; and Stephen, a lost cause if there ever was one.

In the 140m version, there is more to the scene with Fran and Stephen after the group finds out about her pregnancy. Fran warns Stephen not to get hypnotized by the mall. While he and the others see it as a paradise, she sees it as a prison.

In another surprising edit in the European release, the moving of the first truck to barricade the mall is cut completely. The scene starts with Peter and Roger working on the second truck.

An extra scene is present in both versions after Roger is bitten. Fran, from the roof, shoots the responsible zombie in the head, as he munches away at a piece of Roger's leg.

The next shot trimmed from the theatrical release is of a zombie's hand being snapped off when Peter is locking up the main doors of the mall before they clear it out. We heard it, but never saw it, in the regular release version.

In the 140m version, there are several additional shopping shots that fall between the marriage proposal scene and the shot of Fran and Stephen in bed together. A particularly interesting one shows Fran's growing disgust with Stephen. He takes her picture as she walks by and she angrily snaps at him.

Fran

GREAT. WHEN YOU'RE FINISHED WITH THE ROLL WE'LL DROP IT OFF AT THE DRUGSTORE!

Both versions contain additional scenes of bikers after their introduction, as well as additional zombies mulling outside the mall.

Missing from the European version is the scene where Peter discards his newly acquired worldly goods and once again dons his SWAT uniform.

Additional shots of zombies getting killed are included in both versions, as is a scene where Tom Savini's character is atop a zombie inside the mall, cutting it's head off with a sword.

After the lights go off in the mall, there's a really nice shot of Fran upstairs in the glow of candles, with the muffled sound of gunfire coming from the mall below. The scene, cut from the domestic release, is not of major importance, but it is a nice addition to the extended versions.

The last additions are eleven more zombies gnawing on bones during the main feast at the end of the film. These sequences, though brief, are surely icing on the cake to zombie fans everywhere.

In addition to these variant scenes that exist, several sequences exist only in the screenplay, but offer interesting glimpses into the way the film varied from development to production.

At one point, scientists on the television would offer a possible solution that, while unused in Dawn, would return again in Romero's original screenplay for Day if the Dead.

Scientist

THE CORPSES OF THE RECENTLY DEAD SHOULD BE DELIVERED OVER TO THE AUTHORITIES FOR COLLECTION IN REFRIGERATED VANS...THEY SHOULD BE DECAPITATED TO PREVENT REVIVAL THIS COLLECTION COULD BE...STORED...RATIONED...FOR DISTRIBUTION AMONG THE INFECTED SOCIETY...

At one point in the script, in a scene that is not in any version of the film, the three leads find themselves in the office of the mall president, who has shot himself in the head. One might speculate that this had been removed from the film so as not to offend the mall personnel which so graciously allowed the filming to take place.

With regard to the ending of Dawn, Romero found himself with a similar predicament to that he faced with the end of Night of the Living Dead. In this case, the screenplay has Peter shooting himself in the head, and Fran standing up into the helicopter blade. Romero filmed both endings (although no one knows where the footage is for the variant ending, if it still exists). Perhaps he felt that killing the last two characters would be too dark, or, after Night, maybe he felt that the impact of having all the characters die would be seen as a cheap shot&emdash;playing the same trick on an audience twice. In any case, unless the unseen footage appears someday, on a deluxe laserdisc edition, we'll only have a Dawn with a hopeful outlook, an outlook that is shared by the final installment of his zombie trilogy, Day of the Dead.

 

Day of the Dead was to be Romero's magnum opus&emdash;the completion of his zombie trilogy that he had started years earlier. Unfortunately, Romero's original concept required a budget that was unattainable to an independent film, unless he could guarantee an R rating. Of course, the concept would never pass for an R, and Romero was forced to choose between sacrificing his artistic integrity and making a big budget, literally gutless film, or reducing the scope of his film to fit the budget available to him.

The original screenplay is almost completely different than the version that was filmed. Characters in the film were often composites of several characters in the screenplay. Since certain sequences from the screenplay were used in the finished film, it would be impossibile for Romero to go back and film this original version the way it was written.

The character breakdown is as follows: Sarah in the film is derived from Sarah of the screenplay, part of a rag-tag group searching for a safe haven; and Mary, a doctor in charge of teaching the zombies to behave.

Miguel in the film is based on Miguel, one of Sarah's group, whose arm is amputated after being bitten, and Toby, a soldier who lives with Mary in the underground compound.

Rhodes in the film is an odd combination of characters. He's part Gasparilla, the self imposed ruler of the island (where the story takes place) and chief bureaucrat, and Rhodes, a sadistic soldier.

Logan, or Frankenstein, in the film, is also an odd combination. He's part Logan, the mad scientist, and part Mary, the zombie behavioralist who's prize students include a very good learner named Bub.

In the film, John and Bill are almost identical to their screenplay counterparts, aside from the fact that John doesn't pilot a helicopter (there is none), and Bill isn't a radio operator.

Day of the Dead was to begin with the opening title:

FIVE YEARS...

SINCE THE DEAD FIRST WALKED

This is the first indication Romero has given as to how long it had taken for the zombie infestation to completely decimate society as we know it. The screenplay, as is the finished film, opens in Florida, although the screenplay goes as far as to list the date as 1987

The opening sequence has a group of stragglers-Sarah, Miguel, Chico, Tony, and Maria (not to be confused with Mary) -searching docks for fuel for their boat. They are ambushed by a group of renegade humans, and a gun battle ensues. The commotion draws the attention of nearby zombies, who add to the confusion. In the melee, Tony is critically wounded and Miguel is bitten in the arm. Sarah, much like later on in the filmed version, cuts off Miguels arm and cauterizes the wound in an attempt to halt the spread of infection. The attackers are all killed.

Back on the dock, the zombies feed, as Romero so eloquently describes:

ONE CREATURE HAS FOUND MIGUEL'S SEVERED FOREARM. IT PULLS A BIG CHUNK OFF THE THING WITH ITS TEETH. IT CHEWS FOR A TIME, ITS DROOL TURNING RED. THEN IT SPITS OUT MIGUEL'S WRISTWATCH AS THOUGH IT WAS A BOTHERSOME BIT OF BONE.

On the boat, Tony dies from his wound. Miguel wants to destroy him, but Maria intercedes, sure that Tony's prayers not to return will be answered. That night, as Miguel watches, Tony's corpse attacks Maria. She is killed before Sarah and Chico can destroy what was once Tony.

They soon arrive on an uncharted island. In the jungle, they stumble across a platoon of soldiers wearing vests with orange circles. In addition, there are also three soldiers wearing red helmets and vests. They are noticeably different than the rest, and we soon realize that they are domesticated zombies, under human control.

After a horn is sounded, numerous additional zombies appear out of the jungle wearing white and blue uniforms. It's feeding time. It is here that we first meet captain Rhodes and one of his men, Toby. Before long, the soldiers discover the newcomers to the island. Miguel kills several soldiers before getting shot himself, Chico is shot and taken captive, and Sarah flees into the jungle.

Rhodes orders Toby to decapitate the heads of the dead soldiers and put their bodies into refrigerators, to be later used as a source of food. Toby does, but not before putting Chico out of his misery by shooting him in the head&emdash;a deed that angers his commanding officer.

As we find out, Rhodes of the screenplay is even more sadistic than Rhodes in the film. At one point, he shoves a grenade into a zombies mouth, and watches gleefully as its head explodes.

In the meantime, Sarah runs into John, Bill McDermott, and Spider&emdash;a deaf mute. John tells Sarah she's on Gasparilla's island. The one time governor of Florida rules the island, the soldiers and upper class living in an underground bunker; the refuse living just within the gates that keep the zombies out. All humans, we find, wear the orange circles, as the zombies have been taught not to attack anyone wearing the symbol.

We see their training inside the compound, where on video screens they watch the negative effects involved with harming someone wearing an orange circle.

It is here where we meet Mary, the lead scientist who's training corpses. She finds Rhodes interrupting one of her experiments; he's offering severed heads to her prized students, the 'red-coats.' By feeding them human flesh, he's disrupting her experiments in getting them to eat alligator meat.

We also discover that Mary and Toby live together, and because of this Rhodes gives Toby special treatment, such as having him arrested for disobeying orders. His punishment-&emdash;serving time in 'Stalag 17.' This is where John and the others live.

Back in the compound's shooting range, 'Bub' and the other red-coats practice their marksmanship.

In 'Stalag 17,' Toby meets John and Sarah, and together they plan to escape in Sarah's boat. Their plan is to blow up the island's munitions dump with nitro-glycerine. Logan, the mad doctor amongst the outcasts, surgically implants vials of nitro into Spider's abdomen, so that she can sneak it into the compound.

They succeed, but in doing so, all the gates in the compound are opened, including those keeping the zombies out. Thus the feast begins.

While Rhodes and his men fight off the invading dead, John and the others meet up with Mary and the children of the compound. Rhodes is bitten by a zombie but struggles on. He soon comes face to face with Bub, who, being fully armed, blows him away.

Outside, on their way to the boat, Sarah and the others come across Miguel's body. Dead, but not revived. Sarah is shocked by this as he had been dead for days without returning.

Spider makes it to the ammo dump and is torn apart by the zombies, who inadvertantly cause the nitro-glycerine to drop and explode, blowing up the whole armory with it.

Bub offers Rhodes a final salute as the walls come tumbling down upon him.

Later, on the beach of a different island, John and Sarah watch over one of their fallen comrades. He too, has yet to return.

Sarah

HOW LONG DO WE HAVE TO WATCH HIM?

John

FOREVER, DARLIN'. FOREVER. 'TIL HE TURNS TO DUST AND BLOWS AWAY ON THE WIND...

And on this note of possible resolution, the screenplay ends. The zombie terror over, a new society beginning.

As you can now see, enough of Romero's characters and ideas were modified for use in the filmed version of Day of the Dead, so the film as it was originally written will most likely never be filmed. But the idea of domesticated zombies was only touched upon with Bub. In his original story, Romero envisioned an army of the dead chasing down human victims. So perhaps, somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, a Twilight of the Dead exists. If so, we'll all surely line up to see it, but if not, we'll always have the unsurpassed zombie trilogy George Romero has given us.

Excerpts from the Night of the Living Dead Screenplay by George Romero and John Russo © Image Ten, Inc.

Excerpts from the Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead Screenplays by George Romero © Laurel Entertainment, Inc.

© 1996-7 John David Scoleri. This article, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in The Scream Factory Presents: Night of the Living Dead 25th Anniversary Tribute. Portions also appeared in The Zombie Chronicles.

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