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.” 
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?” 
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.
 Richard Matheson Interview, conducted by David Brown and John Scoleri.
A slightly edited version of this essay first appeared in Fantasm Presents #3: Night of the Living Dead - The Official Magazine, Fantasm Media, 2018.