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South Neighborhoods
'Living Dead' co-writer talks about growing up in Clairton

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

By Jonathan Barnes

Things have changed a lot in Clairton since John "Jack" Russo grew up there half a century ago. But the desire of Clairton kids to dream big hasn't changed.

Russo, who co-wrote "Night of the Living Dead" with George Romero and wrote 15 novels and four nonfiction books, spoke Saturday to Clairton Public Library's Junior Friends of the Library.

"There used to be three movie theaters in this town. But I never thought of doing a movie -- I thought that was done in Hollywood," he said.

Russo, 62, also has written 23 screenplays, 15 of which were made into movies. He explained how "Night of the Living Dead" evolved from a space alien film into a zombie movie. "People aren't very scared of zombies, they don't do much. Once in a while they push somebody into a wall," he said, drawing a few giggles. "I think what made it different is that we made our zombies flesh-eating zombies."

Russo donated to the library a few copies of two of his books: "Scare Tactics -- The Art, Craft and Trade Secrets of Writing, Producing and Directing Chillers and Thrillers," and "The Complete 'Night of The Living Dead' Filmbook."

To keep costs of the movie down, Russo and Romero limited the zombies to the recently dead. "The zombie who gets the tire iron in the head, that was me," he said. "A lot of people from Clairton played in that movie."

Following Russo's short talk, the children were treated to a snippet of his new movie, "Saloonatics," shot in Clairton. Then they got to see "Night of The Living Dead." But before he let them bask in the glow of his movies, Russo tried to impart a last morsel of knowledge.

He told about 15 sometimes-fidgety youngsters that at the time of the filming of "Living Dead," he and his partners put all the money and energy they had into their creative ventures, sometimes going without sleep for three days and, when they did manage to get some, sleeping on the floor of the production studio.

The experience taught him how to handle life's struggles better.

"You can't allow yourself to get discouraged and be bitter," Russo said. "You take the lessons that you learned and build on them."

The goal of the Junior Friends, library volunteer Kathleen Miller said, is to build life and reading skills and self-respect in Clairton children. "I'm really tough on them, but I'd rather see them here than out on the street," she told a visitor.

"Just like Mr. Jack said," she told the kids after Russo spoke, "you can be a star if you just try harder and don't give up."

Jonathan Barnes is a free-lance writer.

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