Ever wonder how the most popular zombie film of all time, Night of the Living Dead ended up in U.S. public domain? Well, it happened after the original theatrical distributor, Walter Reade Organization, failed to replace a necessary copyight notice on the title card of the print of the film, after changing the movie’s title from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead.(1)
According to U.S. copyright laws, any work made or published before 1923 automatically enters the public domain. According to the 1909 Copyright Act, all creative works needed to have a sufficient copyright notice. That’s why most works are accompanied by the following symbol © and a year.(2) The act has since been updated, but at the time of its release, Night of the living Dead needed to follow this simple rule.
As a result of the distribution company’s error, George A. Romero immediately lost the rights to his film, and subsequently, millions of dollars in lost revenue, advertising and merchandising. In fact, up until Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies were about mind-controlled humans through manipulation, sorcery or voodoo. Romero was actually the first to create an undead flesh-eating creature that preys on the living. So, we can pretty much speculate that if Romero had retained the rights to Night of the Living Dead, every zombie book, film, TV and video game would have been controlled by George A. Romero.
Romero often expressed that losing the rights to his first feature film was one of his biggest regrets. The famed horror director passed away in 2017, after watching his creation grow into a monsterous sub-genre of horror. Strangely enough, Night of the Living Dead falling into public domain helped make zombies more popular, inspired creativity across the globe, helped spawn several horror franchises, and even launched the careers of some of today’s best horror directors. The entire zombie industry owes a debt of gratitude for its existence to this man. Maybe the universe knew the power to control zombies was too big a task for one human being.
It all worked out for George A. Romero too. As zombie popularity grew, Romero earned more opportunities to make movies, created projects, wrote books and comics, and even capitalized on his own notoriety as the “king of the zombie films.” In 1999, Night of the Living Dead was added to the U.S. National Film Registry for its historical and cultural significance.