If trading cards are the ultimate Night of the Living Dead collectible, I'd also argue that Night of the Living Dead is the ultimate non-sports trading card. And it's because of the autographs. Stay with me...
The non-sports trading card scene was introduced to the subject of horror movies as early as the 1960s, with Nu Cards' Horror Monster Series and Topps' Monster Laffs, followed by You'll Die Laughing and Shocking Laffs in the 1970s.
What these cards had in common is that they depicted numerous early horror and contemporary B-horror movies in a satirical format. It seems that comedy was the only safe way to deliver horror trading cards to kid consumers of the era. Following blowback from the ban on Topps' famous 1962 sci-fi horror set, Mars Attacks, printers weren't taking any more chances.
It wasn't until the 1980s that individual horror flicks got their own dedicated, non-satirical card sets with a return to depictions of violence. Topps continued to lead the charge with Gremlins, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jaws, among others. As big, established trading card companies dominated the hobby, smaller card printers began coming along with innovative ideas.
Interestingly, the same company that printed the first Mars Attacks reissue cards, Rosem Enterprises, was also the first to print Night of the Living Dead trading cards in 1987. These cards were unlicensed, however, and unremarkable in technical quality, but they were part of this first wave of proper horror movie trading card sets.
Contributing to the momentum, in 1988, on the 20th anniversary of the film, Imagine Inc. released their official Night of the Living Dead 68-card set, using original camera negatives that brought the monochromatic gore into clear focus. Designed by Dawn of the Dead's "Scope Zombie," Bob Michelucci, the set featured not only stills from the movie, but also fun behind-the-scenes images that would become iconic in and of themselves. The 1988 Imagine card set is the first appearance of the now-famous close-up portrait of little girl ghoul, Karen Cooper.
Critically, the 1988 Imagine Night of the Living Dead trading cards were among, if not the first non-sports trading card set to feature authenticated autograph cards. The original three were offered as an upgrade to the complete base card set, and included signatures by John A. Russo (writer), Russell Streiner (Johnny) and director of doom himself, George A. Romero.
In 1990, Imagine released a parallel red border set of Night of the Living Dead trading cards. Then, in 1993, their full-color 8-card set, available in autographed or clean versions, was a smash hit and the last Night of the Living Dead trading card set they'd ever release.
The three original Imagine Night of the Living Dead trading card sets became available with additional autographs from the surviving principle cast in 1993. Fan favorites joined the fun, such as Bill Hinzman (cemetery ghoul), Judith O'Dea (Barbra), Judith Ridley (Judy), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper), and the beloved trowel-wielding murderous daughter, Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper). Sadly, Keith Wayne, who played Tom, passed away in 1995, leaving his two signed Imagine cards (the '88 green border and '93 On Location) the only chance most fans will have of owning his signature.
By the mid 1990s, autograph cards had quickly become not only accepted, but expected as the bigger printers caught on to the trend that Imagine ignited. Today, and for the last decade or more, it's practically unheard of to release a trading card set that doesn't contain autographed chase cards.
As print became easier, cheaper, and more widespread, the market was flooded with micro start-up trading card businesses depicting every topic under the sun, and all forms of print took a hit in value as a result. This is when chase and particularly autograph cards turned out to be the saviors of the hobby. While common cards became even more so, autograph cards attracted newcomers.
Where large, delicate 8x10s used to be the main vehicle of the entertainment autograph, trends in pricing show that small and sturdy trading card autographs hold and often increase in value as 8x10 glossies are on the decline. Just search eBay for "autograph," "highest price," and "sold items." It's easy to see that the trading card is the most prized form of autographed item.
Now, I'm not saying anyone's going to get rich off their Night of the Living Dead trading card collection. And sure, horror classics such as Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even Plan 9 From Outer Space turn up in compilation sets routinely. But Night of the Living Dead already had four dedicated sets by 1993 and ushered in the autograph trend that continues without signs of slowing. It seemed that Night of the Living Dead cards came, saw, rejuvenated the hobby, and then disappeared.
It wasn't until 2009 that a little 2-card set was released exclusively for attendants of the Living Dead Festival that took place that year. Designed by Night of the Living Dead historian Jim Cirronella, the cards featured space to be hard-signed by the cast and crew members in person. Two more low number, low distribution cards were released by Cirronella in 2012 and 2013. These small sets, consisting almost entirely of rare autograph cards, again proved the value of autographed trading cards to jump-start a quietly simmering interest.
The Living Dead Festival card trickle became a fire hose when, in 2012, British printer Unstoppable Cards released a licensed, modern trading card set that flaunted all the bells and whistles that the early Imagine cards set into motion. This set, designed by Steve Kirkham, contained 36 common cards, 6 promo cards, 9 poster cards, 9 autograph cards, countless sketch cards, and even printing plates.
Meanwhile, just as other classic horror films had been depicted as singles in other sets for years, Night of the Living Dead continued to make appearances in series by Monsterwax, Necroscope, Bregent, Robert Aragon and others.
In 2018, Living Dead Media printed a playing card set, reproduction lobby card set, and 4K screening ticket cards to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film. Fantasm Media also included randomly inserted Night of the Living Dead trading cards, featuring images that haven't been on any other cards to date, in copies of their magazines. Night of the Living Dead is also a popular subject of one-off sketch cards and even outliers such as a vintage horror tarot card deck!
More than 50 years after being filmed, Night of the Living Dead is gaining momentum again after having brought a revolution to the collecting community. So, what do you think? Is Night of the Living Dead the ultimate non-sports trading card subject? Are trading cards the ultimate Night of the Living Dead collectible? Well, after about two decades of collecting, they're still my favorite!
Thanks for reading! "Stay Scared!"
To learn more about Johnny Martyr's unique insights on his extensive Night of the Living Dead trading card collection, be sure to visit his blog:
[Photo Credit: All photos by Johnny Martyr.]