Have you ever seen Night of the Flesh Eaters? Probably, though you probably know it as the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. Now ask yourself why have you seen it (besides it being a fun little romp about zombies) – because it has been pervasively shown on broadcast television and other media for decades. While we now view this film as a classic and all that air play is only respect to the genre defining classic, when it came out it was simply a B movie. The reason it received so much initial air time, however, probably had more to do with the formalities of copyright than the artistic vision of George A. Romero and John Russo.
Up until March 1, 1989, in order to maintain a copyright in a work a notice of copyright was required somewhere on the work – in films this usually consisted of a listing on the title card showing the copyright symbol, the year, and the owner’s name. When the film was sent to the film’s distributor it had a title card for “Night of the Flesh Eaters”, however it was decided at the last minute to change the name to “Night of the Living Dead” and the title card was changed – unfortunately no copyright was placed on the film and it was released to the public – under then current copyright law, this release caused the film to go into the public domain for free use, display, copy, and creation of derivatives without any payment to the film makers. While current copyright law no longer requires new works to have this notice (though it is still recommended), the unintentional release of the film to the public domain had an immediate impact on the pocket books of Romero and Russo, and resulted in a long term impact on American culture.
The broad distribution that resulted from local TV stations being able to show the film at no cost likely broadened the film’s appeal and thus created a bigger cult classic, which in-turn allowed Romero to cash-in on future sequels, as well as changing the mythology of the zombie from a voodoo ritual, to that of the brain dead flesh eaters we know and love today. So when you put on that zombie outfit for Halloween or sit down to watch the Walking Dead on AMC, remember to give a little thanks for the zombie copyright of Night of the Living Dead.