Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Night of the Living Dead: Born of I Am Legend


By John Scoleri
 

As early as 1974, in his preface to John Russo’s novelization, George A. Romero acknowledged Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend as an inspiration for Night of the Living Dead. While this fact has since been referenced countless times in articles and interviews, the story of how Romero became acquainted with the novel has largely remained untold. The person responsible for introducing Romero to Matheson’s novel was his friend and colleague, Richard Ricci.

But before we get to that, a little history on I Am Legend and its author is in order.

Richard Matheson was just 24 years old when his first short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in the third issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the summer of 1950. While the story garnered much attention and acclaim, it would be Matheson’s third novel, I Am Legend, which would have the greatest impact on generations to come (in a storied career that included such classic novels, stories, teleplays and screenplays as The Shrinking Man, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Hell House, Duel, The Night Stalker and Somewhere in Time).

The idea for I Am Legend came to Matheson around age 16 when he first saw Dracula with Bela Lugosi. He thought, “if one vampire was scary, a world filled with vampires would be very scary.” [1]

The short novel was written in 1952, while Matheson and his wife were living in Gardena, California. Their house on Cimarron Street became the home of his protagonist, Robert Neville. The book tells the tale of the last living human in a world overtaken by vampires. Neville endures nightly assaults from the undead in his boarded up home. By day, he makes his way through the surrounding neighborhoods, searching for and exterminating the vampires while they sleep. He also spends many of his waking hours struggling to identify and understand the scientific cause of the phenomenon.

Published in 1954 by Gold Medal as a paperback original, I Am Legend was the first science-fiction novel from the publisher predominantly known for hard-boiled fiction. Award-winning mystery writer William Campbell Gault’s quote on the cover promised, “This may be the most terrifying novel you will ever read.”

An early review in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction heralded the novel as:

… an extraordinary book which … investigate(s) an ancient legend in terms of modern knowledge of psychology and physiology, and turn the stuff of supernatural terror into strict (and still terrifying!) science fiction. Matheson has added a new variant on the Last Man theme, too, in this tale of the last normal human survivor in a world of bloodsucking nightmares, and has given striking vigor to his invention by a forceful style of storytelling which derives from the best hard-boiled crime novels. As a hard-hitting thriller or as fresh imaginative speculation, this is a book you can't miss.

I Am Legend has inspired some of the horror genre’s greatest talents, from Stephen King and Dean Koontz to Brian Lumley and Dan Simmons. It has remained in print around the world for almost 65 years, and in 2012, the Horror Writers Association voted I Am Legend the Vampire Novel of the Century. So who would have thought a young college student would play one of the most pivotal roles in the book’s history?

While Richard Ricci can’t recall precisely when he first read the book, he does remember the time of his life when he first experienced Matheson’s tale.

“I would have been in college, maybe 1959 or 60. My life was dark and desperate. It was hugely satisfying to escape into another’s struggle, even darker than my own. Duane Jones (a college friend of Ricci’s who would later go on to play the lead role of Ben in Night of the Living Dead) was not around any more keeping me steady, and I had not yet met George, so I wasn’t thinking cinema then. I was thinking survival. I Am Legend is a lot about a man surviving a hell on earth. I could dig it.”

Ricci, who would go on to be one of the original Image Ten investors, was the cousin of George Romero’s college friend Rudy Ricci. When George and Richard met, the two men connected immediately. They worked together on the never completed (and sadly now lost) film Expostulations. Their shared dreams of making films were interrupted when Ricci left Pittsburgh to serve in the U.S. Navy in 1962.

Before reporting for duty, Ricci did two things that would have a profound impact on George Romero’s future. The first was paying six months rent on the Latent Image’s facilities to ensure George and his colleagues would have a chance at success. The second was giving Romero two books to read and consider as a potential sources for films they might make together upon Ricci’s return. One title is lost to the ages. The other: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

“I thought George would respond to a story of a man alone struggling against a non-functional and hostile society. That’s certainly the way life felt to us there in the mid-sixties. Endless war. Fire in the streets. Cops beating students.  Gunfire bringing down our leaders. Things out of control.”

Those familiar with both the novel and film can appreciate the tonal similarities, as well as the uniqueness of each story. On the surface, the premise is similar. A societal upheaval has occurred, with the reanimated dead in search of flesh and blood. Romero’s ghouls were not the germ-infected or undead vampires of Matheson’s novel. And while it is generally true that zombies of the voodoo variety were the only ones commonly referenced at this point in time, it’s worth pointing out that the television spots and trailers for the first official adaptation of Matheson’s novel (1964’s The Last Man on Earth) would refer to the creatures as zombies as well as vampires, four years before Night of the Living Dead would arrive on the scene.

Ricci saw opportunities in the book that George was able to incorporate into his story.

“It lent itself to the low budget, quick production, small location, contemporary film we could afford to make. Its visuals were easy to see and make real.  Ghouls from the grave are easier than monsters from outer space. Ghouls were people!

“Night is really about one man‘s struggle—Duane Jones, Ben, is the story of that movie. George added characters … but it still feels like one man’s story and it manages to collapse the whole story of the book into one night.  Both lead characters die at the end, both killed by the forces of a dominant and barbaric, ruthless society.”

The similarities between the book and film were not lost on Matheson: “I ran across his film on TV one night and thought, When did they makemy novel into a film again?” [2]

In later years, Romero would often go so far as to say he ‘ripped-off’ Matheson’s novel. But anyone familiar with the film and the book realize that’s an oversimplification.

Matheson’s novel focuses on themes of loneliness, isolation, and ultimately self-realization, whereas Night of the Living Dead deals with the breakdown of society, and how a small group fails to come together in a time of crisis. While the television reports provide cursory information about the mysterious radiation from the returning Venus Probe that appears to have caused the dead to rise, our protagonists do not have the time or inclination to worry about what’s causing the phenomenon, or figuring out how to reverse it.

One of the key aspects of Matheson’s novel that seems to have resonated with Romero was the notion that the threat was not an alien one, but one that came from within. The creatures banging on the doors and windows were not strangers, or beings of unknown origin. They were neighbors, friends, and perhaps most frighteningly of all—family members.

Several scenes in the film share the overall feeling of the book. Countless ghouls clawing at the doors and windows of the house. Johnny’s return at the film’s climax, before he drags his sister Barbra into the sea of ghouls. These are just some of the moments when Night of the Living Dead comes closest to Matheson’s novel. But so much of the film, including its diverse cast of characters, is uniquely its own.

Ricci reiterates what has often been said about the making of Night of the Living Dead; that it was the combined effort of a team of people working together towards a common goal, but with an established leader taking the point.

“The film was made with a lot of input. The co-writer credit could have been shared by a lot of other people. George’s mastery was that he was able to absorb the input of the actors and others, and still weave a solid, fast-moving story.”

Ricci believes there are several reasons why the film continues to resonate with viewers.

“There are lessons to be learned from it, similar to the way we learn from the great Greek myths. We see ourselves in this movie. We are certainly the ghouls wounded by the lack of real feeling and real physicality within our society—starved for genuine, nourishing interaction. We didn’t get it in life, so we’re going to track you down in death and EAT you to get it. Can’t get closer than that!

“And we are also the people in the house, trapped by fears of dying and unable to unite in a way that overcomes our ego-minds and our perceived need to be right. We fight and argue when we should be co-operating. Tom is the only character who gets it right. Too damn bad that the truck caught fire...”

In retrospect, there’s no denying the impact that the book had on the film. As a result of Romero’s acknowledgement of this inspiration, many readers were introduced to Richard Matheson’s novel. And thanks to their unique takes on a similar premise, both are still regarded as classics. All these decades later, and for decades to come, they will continue to inspire new generations. And it may have never happened if not for Richard Ricci’s fortuitous introduction.

“I don’t think there would have been a Night of the Living Dead if we—and I guess I mean, if I—hadn’t read I Am Legend. George did not read that many books then. He trusted me to advance concepts, and the concept is basically from I Am Legend. And we have a saying in the media world—‘Concept is King.’

But Lordy, he did a great job. Even Richard Matheson said that our zombie portrayal was the one film that came closest to his original book.”

* * *

The back cover of the 1954 first edition of I Am Legend made a bold prediction about then 28 year-old Richard Matheson.

“Read this novel. Watch this young writer. You may be in at the birth of a giant.”


How appropriate that a similar statement would aptly describe a 28 year-old George Romero upon the 1968 release of Night of the Living Dead.



[1] Richard Matheson Interview, conducted by David Brown and John Scoleri.
[2] Ibid.

A slightly edited version of this essay first appeared in Fantasm Presents #3: Night of the Living Dead - The Official Magazine, Fantasm Media, 2018.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Folio Society editions of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend

This morning The Folio Society announced the release of two editions of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.


The Folio Society editions feature an introduction by author Joe Hill, and are illustrated by Dave McKean, most famous for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and also responsible for illustrating the Donald Grant edition of Stephen King's Wizard and Glass.



A collector's edition retailing for $59.95 is housed in a die-cut slipcase.

A limited edition retailing for $395 features a unique binding and also includes an exclusive print signed by Dave McKean. There is a limit of one per customer on this 295-copy edition.

Here's a great video in which McKean speaks about his work on the book, and provides a sneak peek at several of his illustrations.



If you are interested in the limited edition, I suggest acting quickly. In the few hours since the announcement was made, nearly half of the limited edition run has already sold out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

New Maps of Hell - Kingsley Amis on I Am Legend


New Maps of Hell is a critical analysis of science-fiction by author Kingsley Amis, originally published in 1960 by Harcourt, Brace & World. Reprinted in 1961 by Ballantine Books (cover art by Richard Powers).

Speaking of the boundary between fantasy and science-fiction stories, Amis noted:
“... although vampirism is one of the staples of nineteenth-century fantasy, Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND makes brilliantly ingenious and incidentally horrifying use of the myth for science-fiction purposes, whereby every traditional detail is explained along rational lines: the wooden stake through the heart for instance, which put paid to Dracula and so many of his playmates, is necessary in order to maintain the dissension of the wound—bullets and knives are no good for that job, and the microbe which causes vampirism is acrophobic.”
More than a decade later, Amis would write an introduction to Matheson's The Shrinking Man, first appearing in the hardcover edition from David Bruce & Watson (London, 1973) and later reprinted in the Gregg Press edition (1979).

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I Am Legend Reviewed - Galaxy 1955


I previously reprinted what I believe is the first published review of I Am Legend from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (November 1954). I'm back with another early review, this one from anthologist Groff Conklin, book critic for Galaxy Science Fiction. This ran in the January 1955 issue of that magazine.
For what I think is Gold Medal's first venture into the field of original science fantasies, it has chosen a weird and, I fear, rather slow-moving first novel* by a man heretofore known for his excellent short horror tales. 
I Am Legend tells of a disease that almost completely wipes out the human race, leaving behind only a handful of hideously changed creatures to attempt to revive civilization. 
It is "supernatural" science fiction, a horrid, violent, sometimes exciting but too often overdone tour de force.
*As most of Matheson's fans are already aware, I Am Legend was not Matheson's first novel. While it was his first genre novel, it was preceded by Someone is Bleeding and Fury on Sunday, both published by Lion books in 1953.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Additional Test Footage for Ridley Scott's I Am Legend

Followers of the blog will recall the video I posted last year of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff's practical concept work for Ridley Scott when he was developing the project.

The following video is also from the StudioADI YouTube channel, where you can check out the entire collection of Feature Film and Non-Feature Film Work from Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

I Am Legend Motion Comic

I Am Legend fan Marc Ihlow has created a motion comic using Elman Brown's artwork. Check it out:


Monday, June 24, 2013

Richard Matheson 1926-2013


Today I choose to celebrate the life and phenomenal body of work of the most influential writer in the world. Well, to this reader at least. And for anyone coming to this site, you probably share some affection for this amazingly gifted writer.

I have had the great honor of meeting many inspirational figures in my lifetime, and yet of them (ranging from George Lucas to Ralph McQuarrie to George Romero to Steve Jobs), none found me to be speechless. Only Richard Matheson. I must have fumbled out a few words as I held out my first edition paperback of I Am Legend, which he graciously signed to me (so somehow I must have gotten my name out). And on that evening in 1990, after he received the lifetime achievement award from the HWA (then Horror Writers of America, now Horror Writer's Association), I more comfortably walked over to congratulate him on this richly deserved honor, in my then 20 year-old estimation.
 
In 2007, I flew down to LA to attend what I imagined would likely be Richard Matheson's last book signing at Dark Delicacies, timed with the theatrical release of the latest version of I Am Legend. Though I had seen him a handful of times in the ensuing years, I wanted to take one final opportunity to say thanks. And I'm glad I did.

For Robert Neville and I Am Legend—a thousand times over. For Scott Carey and The Shrinking Man. For Richard Collier and Bid Time Return (which I read from at my wedding). For "Prey", and a hundred more truly amazing stories. For everything.

Matheson is a writer whose influence far surpasses his name recognition. Without even knowing it, millions have been touched by his gifts. Through The Twilight Zone. Duel. Somewhere in Time. The Legend of Hell House. What Dreams May Come. Any number of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The Incredible Shrinking Man. The Last Man on Earth. A Stir of Echoes. The Night Stalker. Trilogy of Terror. And through each of these, and those adaptations yet to come, he will be fondly remembered, and continue to live on.

Richard Matheson had a clear belief about what happens when one dies. He wrote about it in his novel What Dreams May Come, and in his non-fiction book, The Path. As he embarks on that great mysterious journey, I hope he finds it to be everything he imagined and more.

Night of the Living Dead: Born of I Am Legend

By John Scoleri   As early as 1974, in his preface to John Russo’s novelization, George A. Romero acknowledged...