As a child of the ’80s, I often wondered why horror movie characters were always watching Night of the Living Dead. Sure, it’s a classic, but even at an early age, I found myself asking, Why is this always-on television? Now older (and only somewhat wiser), I know the real (and awful) reason why George A. Romero’s classic became the film-within-the-film choice. Sadly, the Walter Reade Organization neglected to file a copyright on the film prints and, along with a multitude of other mistakes, allowed the film to go into the public domain immediately. The success and legacy of Night of the Living Dead easily make it the most popular public-domain film of all time.
Not every public-domain film has the same tragic story as Romero’s Film does. Some are simply a product of the laws at the time. A quick Wikipedia search will give you this rather simple explanation for a complicated process. “All motion pictures made and exhibited before 1925 are indisputably in the public domain in the United States. This date will move forward one year, every year, meaning that films released in 1925 will enter the public domain in 2021, movies from 1926 in 2022, and so on”.
For one baffling reason or another, the films featured below have found themselves in the public domain. Hopefully, you tuned into the NOFS Silver Screams Classic Horror Marathon on New Year’s Day and have already enjoyed these horror classics. If, by some chance, you missed the marathon, these films can all be found streaming in various places. The public domain is littered with fantastic horror films. The ten films listed below represent a great jumping-on spot for Horror fans interested in exploring some of the best movies of yesteryear.
10. Dementia 13 (1963)
Francis Ford Coppola’s first film, Dementia 13, tells the story of Louise, a scheming widow, who devises a plan to get her hands on the inheritance, unaware that she has become the target of an ax-wielding murderer lurking on the family’s estate. It is unknown precisely what legal issue lead to Roger Corman’s Company allowing Dementia 13 to enter the public domain.
9. The Ghoul (1933)
Boris Karloff (who doesn’t speak after the opening scene) plays Egyptologist and professor Henry Morlant, who thinks an ancient jewel will give him powers of rejuvenation if it is offered up to the god Anubis. The Ghoul is famous for being the first British horror film to have sound, and for being the “lost film”, with the complete version not discovered until the late ‘80s. The Ghoul entered the public domain when the copyright was failed to be renewed.
8. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Taking liberties with the “horror” definition of the list, but no public domain Top 10 would be complete without Ed Woods masterpiece of bad cinema, featuring Aliens invading the earth by resurrecting the dead. Plan 9 From Outer Space has had a rocky path to the public domain. While no copyright was initially filed, it was eventually copyrighted, but then saw that copyright declared invalid for a multitude of reasons.
7. Spider Baby (1968)
This is the film that gave us Sid Haig. Spider Baby not only features Captain Spaulding himself in a breakout role, but the film also features Lon Chaney Jr playing Bruno, who is left to take care of three inbred siblings. Twisted, weird, and ahead of its time, Spider Baby is a true cult classic. The film was not copyrighted upon its original release and has since been rediscovered and restored by Director Jack Hill.
6. Häxan (1922)
We’ve hit the portion of the countdown were any of these fantastic films could have been number one. Häxan is equal parts educational and terrifying. It is broken into four parts, showing a fictional account of the evolution of witchcraft. Häxan enter through public domain after failure of the film’s original distribution company to renew the film’s copyright.
5 House on Haunted Hill (1959)
William Castle’s horror masterpiece features Vincent Price as a millionaire who offers $10,000 to five people who agree to be locked in a large, spooky, rented house overnight with him and his wife. House on Haunted Hill entered the public domain after failure of the film’s original distribution company to renew the film’s copyright.
4. Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu—a name that ninety-eight years later is nearly as recognizable as its source material. For those unfamiliar, Nosferatu is a vague retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, even in its vagueness the similarities were still numerous enough that the Stoker estate sued (and won) to have all copies of the film destroyed. Thankfully, the destruction order on this film was not followed and it currently resides in the public domain in the U.S. but remains copyrighted in other countries. I highly recommend checking out the version that uses Type O Negative songs as the score.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Technically speaking, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is still one of the most impressive films of all time, especially when you consider that at the time of its release filmmaking was still in its infancy. With a twisting plot (that I won’t mention here) and gorgeous visuals, I cannot recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari enough. If you have not experienced this hundred-year-old masterpiece, now is the perfect time. Like the majority of foreign films from this time period, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is public domain in the U.S., but the film still remains under copyright in Germany.
2. Carnival of Souls (1962)
One of my favorite movies of all time, Carnival of Souls is a surreal experience that any David Lynch fan should watch immediately. Carnival of Souls is the story of Mary Henry, who after an accident, finds herself drawn to an abandoned carnival while being stalked by a mysterious stranger. To say more would only spoil the surprises. Carnival of Souls entered the public domain when prints of the film failed to include a copyright upon release, automatically placing it in the public domain in the U.S.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Since I have already spoken at length about this genre-defining classic, I’ll just say if you or someone you know has yet to watch Night of the Living Dead go watch it immediately. If you have already watched it, or any of the other films listed, and want to support upcoming filmmakers and the legacy of George A. Romero you can donate to his foundation here https://www.georgearomerofoundation.org/