Though its initial release was nearly half a century ago, George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead has had a tendency to rise from its grave every few years in the form of remakes, reboots, rip-offs, and homages. As it turns out, the reason this creative property refuses to stay down, and the reason zombie films have become their own sub-genre, is because of a simple production flub.
Just prior to the film’s release, the distribution company opted to change the name from Night Of The Flesh Eaters to Night Of The Living Dead but forgot to include the copyright notice on the film’s new title card. Before the Copyright Act of 1976, it was required to include the copyright information in the opening credits of your film otherwise it would be placed in the public domain and you would lose the copyright forever. This meant both the name and content of Night Of The Living Dead could be reused, repurposed, and reanimated by anybody that wanted it without a single cent going to Romero.
Having his film in the public domain may have resulted in a financial loss for Romero but was possibly the best thing that could have happened to his little zombie flick, since every movie house and drive-in in the country could get the rights to show the movie for free. An entire generation of filmmakers and horror-fanatics grew up seeing his new interpretation of the zombie myth portrayed on screen. Romero’s version of the sluggish, brain-hungry, yet creepily human zombie became the standard for what the undead were supposed to look like. Two of the most popular shows on television right now, The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones, still use undead creatures straight out of Romero’s playbook.
Perhaps the most interesting consequence of this copyright mistake is that, if Night Of The Living Dead hadn’t been placed in the public domain, George A. Romero would not only own the rights to that movie’s name and plot, but also to the very idea of zombies as we know them. If anybody wanted to make a movie with armies of flesh-hungry undead, they’d have to pay for the rights to use Romero’s concept. Of course, this isn’t tragic at all if you’re a fan of the endless onslaught of zombie content. Just remember you’ve got a lazy opening credits designer to thank for it.