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.
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.” 
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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?” 
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.
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
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.
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.”
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...”
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.’
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.”
that a similar statement would aptly describe a 28 year-old George Romero upon
the 1968 release of Night of the Living
 Richard Matheson Interview,
conducted by David Brown and John Scoleri.