George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the most popular horror films ever, but an unfortunate error accidentally made it public domain. With Night of the Living Dead, Romero created the zombie as we know it today, a walking corpse with little intelligence that craves the flesh of the living. Without Night of the Living Dead, there would be no The Walking Dead, Zombieland, or hundreds of other zombie movies and TV shows. When it comes to zombies, Romero is the godfather.
Romero would of course go on to direct five other zombie films, although most had no explicit connection to each other. Many would argue his greatest was Night‘s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, although Day of the Dead also has its diehard fans. While Romero might’ve preferred he not just be known as the guy who makes zombie movies, most of them are so good it’s easy to see why he’s so closely identified with the sub-genre.
Unfortunately, despite Night of the Living Dead‘s massive success, Romero never really got the respect from Hollywood he truly deserved, if only because his independent spirit made him reluctant to compromise his creative visions to fit studio mandates. Romero also never achieved the massive fortune he rightfully earned by co-writing and directing Night of the Living Dead, due to a ridiculous error by the film’s initial distributor.
Night of the Living Dead today exists within the public domain, meaning copies of the film are free to watch and share. That’s why the film has had dozens of home video releases by different companies, as all they had to do is acquire a copy of the film, and then they could freely release it without cutting any kind of deal with Romero or his collaborators. Night of the Living Dead being public domain is the fault of the film’s distributor, who didn’t put the required copyright notice on the theatrical prints. This error occurred after the film’s title was changed from its original moniker Night of the Flesh Eaters. Prints with that title contained the copyright notice, but when new prints were created using the title Night of the Living Dead, the copyright notice was forgotten.
As the late, great George Romero lamented publicly on more than one occasion, Night of the Living Dead‘s copyright snafu ended up costing him untold amounts of money in both the short and long term. Night of the Living Dead made over $30 million at the box office, a massive sum for the late 1960s that Romero saw little of. Romero also didn’t make any money off of most of the aforementioned home video releases, outside of some by more reputable companies that saw fit to involve Romero in their products. Night of the Living Dead also saw multiple theatrical re-releases. Somewhat ironically though, it’s Night of the Living Dead‘s freely available nature that helped it become the revered classic it is today, as easy access and constant TV airings ensured that more and more people saw the film.
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