As this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest Horror films ever committed to celluloid, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I’ve had that seminal zombie flick ever-present on my synapses. Ruminating on it, it occurred to me that while I was aware that the film had passed into the public domain—this means the movie has no copyright on it, that it essentially belongs to everyone and this no one can make any monetary claims on it—I didn’t know how, exactly, it had achieved this status. I decided to look into it. Turns out, it’s all because somebody screwed up. Like, royally screwed up.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was originally going to be called NIGHT OF THE FLESH EATERS. Aside from being grammatically incorrect—“flesh-eaters” ought to be hyphenated—this ersatz title carries none of the melodic punch of the title they ended up going with, the one with which we are all familiar. I’m glad they changed it. But at that time in the US, copyright laws required a written copyright notice to be placed on film prints. The movie’s distributor did in fact have this disclaimer on their film. Only they put it on the ORIGINAL title frame but nobody remembered to put it in place once they changed the title. Oopsies! That’s how the most legendary and infamous of all zombie movies, the veritable godfather of zombie movies, ended up in the public domain. And now you know.