Obituary: Rudolph J. "Rudy" Ricci / Prolific writer was part of creative team behind 'Night of the Living Dead'

Feb. 14, 1940 - March 8, 2012

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Rudy Ricci walked out of a cemetery as a zombie in the 1968 horror film "Night of the Living Dead."

That isn't going to happen again. He has been cremated.

"He would love that," Mary Jane Ricci said laughing Thursday night, recalling her husband and his sense of humor. "He would find that amusing."

Rudolph J. "Rudy" Ricci of Clairton, a writer and filmmaker who was part of the idea mill behind the horror classic, died March 8 following a fall likely exacerbated by health problems. He was 72.

Born in McKeesport, Mr. Ricci was tormented at a young age by a defect in his right leg that, when weakened by a virus, would give him fevers, Ms. Ricci said. Still, he graduated from Clairton High School and studied acting at the Pittsburgh Playhouse theater school and at the University of Pittsburgh. He didn't pursue acting as a career, though, fearing he might have an attack on stage. Yet Ms. Ricci said it never kept him down.

"Rudy just loved life and he never let anything defeat him," she said. "I never saw anybody with such an outlook on life."

As a Pitt student, Mr. Ricci's writing blossomed, earning him awards from the Atlantic Monthly for his poetry and short stories. Along the way, he became friends with George A. Romero and Russell Streiner. They became part of the team behind "Night of the Living Dead."

The story that inspired countless zombies films for years to come was dreamed up and written in the Green Tree apartment Mr. Ricci shared with his wife, she said.

Ms. Ricci said they were the only ones in their coterie with an apartment, so it became a revolving door of actor and writer friends, a de facto idea chamber.

Before that film, the team would run around town on Saturday afternoons shooting "zany" vignettes, including one "about little people coming from Mars," Ms. Ricci said. The crew shot skits in Oakland, Schenley Park and even at Kennywood Park, where Ms. Ricci worked concessions.

Mr. Romero, who directed the cult classic, first met Mr. Ricci in the freshman registration line at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon, where Mr. Ricci took classes before moving to Pitt. The two started chatting, "And we've been chatting ever since," Mr. Romero said Thursday from his home in Toronto.

As a college freshman, Mr. Romero lived with Mr. Ricci's family in Clairton. Mr. Ricci taught his friend to drive, as the Bronx native didn't hold even a learner's permit.

"We just had a wonderful time. He and his family were very welcoming," Mr. Romero said.

Mr. Streiner, who later founded the company that produced "Night of Living Dead" with Mr. Romero, first met Mr. Ricci when the two shared a dressing room during a performance at Pittsburgh Playhouse. He remembered how Mr. Ricci could turn a phrase.

"His command of the language, coupled with how he thought about things, really made him a very rich and textual writer," he said.

Their relationship was "always supportive and sometimes very confrontational," but they remained lifelong friends and collaborated on various projects. Mr. Streiner will share excerpts of their colorful email exchanges in a eulogy Sunday.

In his later years, Mr. Ricci founded a company that produced local TV commercials and co-wrote the 1985 horror-comedy "Return of the Living Dead," among other projects. One of his screenplays won top prize from the Houston International Film Festival.

Before his death, Mr. Ricci shared with both men parts of a novel he was working on, a tribute to family and friends. Mr. Romero praised the novel, noting that one character resembles him.

"He was a wonderful writer ... and we had a good time working together," Mr. Romero said. "In those days, we didn't know that we would ever make films professionally. We just had the desire."

A memorial gathering is scheduled for Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the A.J. Bekavac Funeral Home in Clairton.


Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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