Pittsburgh’s own ‘Barbra’ recalls filming of ‘Night of the Living Dead’
The month leading up to Halloween is always a special time for actress and Pittsburgh native Judith O’Dea.
Fifty-one years ago, she returned to her hometown for the premiere of “Night of the Living Dead,” which was filmed around Pittsburgh and nearby Evans City.
Starring in the 1968 horror classic as Barbra, she was one of several characters taking refuge in an isolated farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating ghouls.
O’Dea remembers identifying more as an audience member than one of the cast as she watched the film on the big screen for the first time at the Fulton (now Byham) Theatre.
“I looked at myself and began critiquing my performance,” recalls O’Dea, 74, from her home in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Then suddenly I found myself forgetting it was Judith O’Dea up there and became wrapped up in the storyline. That was a wonderful indication of a powerful story that could hold people’s attention.”
Half a century after its release, the film still has a strong cult following and will be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies Oct. 24. Take a nap and be prepared to be up all night long — it airs at 1 a.m.
Classic holds up
“I was recently at a horror film convention in Louisville and asked some of the young guys if the film holds up today,” O’Dea said, “and one replied, ‘Oh my God, yes!’ ”
Shot on a shoestring budget of just $114,000 by the late director George Romero, a graduate of the former Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1960, O’Dea says her final scene being dragged from the farmhouse still haunts her.
“In your mind it’s all pretend, but you get involved in the scene,” she says. “With all those ghoul hands grabbing at me, it was actually quite frightening and took me back to the fear I felt as a child when I saw Vincent Price’s face fall apart in the (1953) ‘House of Wax.’ That scared me so badly my folks had to take me from the theater. Whenever I’m called upon to be frightened in a role, I just think of that Vincent Price scene.”
Over the years, O’Dea has also learned to look beyond her film’s gory scenes and appreciate director Romero’s film-making talent.
“There’s a scene where I’m pressing the button on a musical box, which George was shooting from the floor up,” she explains. “He was shooting right through the box and for a fraction of a second, you see Barbra’s eyes, which I thought was a beautiful artistic shot. Then at the end when it alternates between still shots of the bodies and live-action, that was a great effective use of the camera.”
The film, says O’Dea, also broke other barriers in the industry.
“As an independent movie made outside Hollywood, it raised its own money, which I guess you could call one of the first Kickstarters for a film,” she says. “It was also filmed almost like a docudrama — unusual for the ’60s — and there’s no happy ending, because everybody died.”
Or did they?
Although there was a 25-year gap in O’Dea’s film credits after “Night of the Living Dead” while she was raising a family, starting her own business and doing mostly theater work, she’s been active in horror films since returning to the big screen.
She is patiently awaiting the release of “Night of the Living Dead: Genesis,” described by the tagline as chronicling the “Night of the Living Dead, as told through the eyes of Barbra.” Filming began back in 2013 and the project currently appears to still be in post-production.
“We filmed in West Virginia and it was the best site I’d ever been in and supposedly haunted,” says O’Dea. “I was asked back to play Barbra and did it because there was an interesting twist in the storyline. I also wanted to pay homage to George and the original film.”
So can we assume that Barbra, who is never actually seen being killed in the original, survived?
O’Dea, not surprisingly, is coy about revealing spoilers.
“Don’t assume anything!” she said.
Despite the tiny budget of the original, “Night of the Living Dead” has reportedly grossed millions worldwide since its release. But the filmmakers and cast saw little of that.
“It went out of copyright immediately and has been in the public domain for 49 years,” says O’Dea.
Originally to be released as “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” the title was changed when it was realized a similarly titled film existed but was accidentally released with the new title without copyright.
Restoration with copyright
“In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in conjunction with Martin Scorsese and the George Lucas Foundation, restored the film to an absolute pristine copy with copyright for the new version,” explains O’Dea. “Anyone who wants to use that version pays us royalties now.
“For example, I got an email from a woman working on a Halloween film at Universal Studios and they wanted to use 12 minutes of the film. I ended up signing a lovely contract! Here it is over 50 years later, and we at last have legal rights to our likenesses — isn’t that exciting?”
Another memorable scene from the film produced one of the classic lines in all horror films, said to O’Dea’s character by Russell Streiner (another Pittsburgh native) who plays her brother in the opening cemetery scene shot at the Evans City Cemetery.
“I don’t think a week goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbra!’ ” says O’Dea, laughing.
Has she grown weary of hearing the quote after all these years?
“How could I be tired of hearing something that has changed my life so considerably?” she asks. “I love it when fans repeat the line to me. I feel so lucky to have been a part of something that was so different and has lasted so long.”