It was down to a mistake on the title of George Romero's classic 'Night of the Living Dead' that gave birth to modern zombie movies. In fact not just zombie movies but the entire zombie genre and the industry—comics, books, video games, TV, film—that surrounds it. It's a mistake that reads like a horror story for the film's creator.
What that mistake was is explained in the video 'Night of the Living Dead - Horrors of Copyright' by Kristian Williams (aka Kaptain Kristian). The video essayist has previously tackled subjects including David Fincher, Frank Ocean, South Park, and Ben Burtt's Star Wars sound effects. But this time it's about zombie movies.
In his latest video he points out that because of a lack of the copyright symbol on the title of George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead'—it was erroneously left off by a distribution company due to a name change and no one noticed—so the film entered the public domain and Romero lost intellectual property rights over his creation.
This was all down to the old copyright act of 1909, which meant you had to display the copyright symbol on the first public display of your work, or the word 'copyright' or its abbreviation, along with the year of publication, and the owner's name. Otherwise you would lose your copyright. Harsh indeed, but that's what the act stated.
'Night of the Living Dead' Enters The Public Domain
So unfortunately in this instance that was some pretty bad news for Romero but very good news for film culture and zombie movies. Because it meant that Romero's movie immediately entered the public domain—forever. The act was eventually changed in 1978 but that was six years too late for Romero.
But that lack of copyright symbol meant it was open for film theatres, UHF stations, and video stores to license for free. And so its ensuring ubiquity meant zombie movies became the dominant genre for low budget independent films. They provided a template for young and aspiring filmmakers to follow and expand on—add to this it was in the minority in being something in the public domain that was fresh and current, meant that it was a great influence on filmmakers along with being an exciting watch for audiences.
"If Romero's copyright mistake had been caught before distribution, he would not only have retained the rights to his film, but also have exclusive rights to the idea of the zombie as we know it today." notes Williams in the video. Meaning the zombie movies concept of a lumbering, rotting, flesh-eating undead human would have been owned by Romero.
The consequence of this on modern zombie movies and the zombie genre can be imagined by looking at Universal's 'Frankenstein.' The green-skinned, flat-topped iconic monster we know from the James Whale's 1931 movie has intellectual copyright. Which mean no one gets to make a film or any piece of content with the green-skinned Frankenstein, unless you're Universal. Or unless you want a very expensive lawsuit to settle with them.
How Romero's Bad News Changed Zombie Movies
So, if that was the same for Romero's zombies we would have no 'Evil Dead,' no 'The Walking Dead,' no 'Shaun of the Dead,' no "Thriller" music video, not even any 'Game of Thrones' wights. Which would be a terrible thing, not only for zombie movies, but for contemporary culture in general. And, as Williams notes, the best way you can thank the man who let this happen is by watching his movies, especially the three best zombie movies ever made. His trilogy, 'Night of the Living Dead,' 'Dawn of the Dead,' and 'Day of the Dead.'
The whole situation becomes even more pertinent now, after Romero sadly died earlier this year on 16 July 2017. Something that was a pure coincidence in relation to Williams working on this video, as he notes.
"I had been working on this video for weeks before Romero’s passing." he says in a comment under the YouTube video. "It sucks when your work suddenly becomes morbidly relevant and it sucks even worse losing a personal hero. I shot my first short film freshman year in high school on a sony sr10 handicam. Zombies in the woods. Every film kid starts with zombies."
Head to Kristian Williams' YouTube channel for more of his videos.