Interview by Brad Balfour
Trundling down a portion of Second Avenue came a line of bizarrely dressed and horribly made-up folks -- okay so maybe not so weird or horrible for NYC -- until they hit the Village East Cinemas where legendary director George A. Romero waited to greet his fans and devotees before screening the latest in his Dead saga -- Survival of the Dead.
For a few moments on a recent Sunday, the zombies invaded Manhattan. Well at least they ambled along from 23rd Street to the East Village theater. And I don't mean just addled club-goers getting home after the usual 4 am closing.
That gave a few of us worshipful journos a chance to wedge in some questions in between the groaned and grunted queries by audience members -- zombie-fied or otherwise.
Ever since he made the black & white Night of the Living Dead in 1968, New York-born Romero's name is mentioned in the same breath when the word "zombie" is thrown about. When the now 70-year-old went to Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, he started shooting short films and commercials but soon went on to produce and direct what became one of the most revered American horror films of all time (and was inducted into the National Film Registry in '99). Made for just over $100,000, Night returned its investment and was also hailed as a benchmark in indie flimmaking.
Romero's next films such as 1973's The Crazies and 1977's Martin weren't as acclaimed as Night of the Living Dead, but offered social commentary while still being horror-related. Like almost all of his films, they were shot in, or around Pittsburgh.
In '78, Romero returned to zombies with one that topped his first. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), four people who escape the zombie outbreak lock themselves up inside a mall before they become victims of themselves. Shot on a $1.5 million budget, the film earned over $40 million and in '03, was named one of Entertainment Weekly's top cult films. It also marked Romero's first work with brilliant make-up and effects artist Tom Savini.
After that, the two teamed up on others including 1981's Knightriders starring an up-and-coming Ed Harris. Then came Creepshow (1982), which marked the first, but not the last, time Romero adapted a story by famed novelist Stephen King.
To be the one voice who exemplifies this genre is accomplishment enough, but this summer, Romero has a new zombie film available, and it takes off from where his last film Diary of the Dead left off. Summer means horror films and for reanimated dead fans that means at least one by Romero.
Q: What do attribute to the longevity of the series?
GR: If I could figure that out, I would know why I'm still here. I don't know. Zombies have become idiomatic. Videogames [even] more than films have done that. For some
unknown reason my stuff has a shelf life. I think that I've always tried to have a little theme underneath and maybe the stuff looks quaint.
It's like looking at an old movie like A Gentleman's Agreement -- it's like wow, "They were actually talking about something," and it becomes a bit quaint. I don't know. I should ask you; I'm not the guy to ask. I'm just happy that it's happened.
Q: What was the inspiration that made you wake up and say, "Zombies?"
GR: You mean way at the beginning?
Q: Day one.
GR: I've never thought of them as zombies; I never called them zombies. When I made Night of the Living Dead, I called them flesh-eaters. To me, zombies were those boys in the Caribbean doing Bela Lugosi's wet work for him [in White Zombie (1932)]. I never thought of them as zombies.
It was only when people started to write about them and said these are zombies that I thought maybe they are. All I did was make them the neighbors; take the voodoo and mysterioso out of it and make them the neighbors and I don't know what happened after that. The neighbors are scary enough when they're not dead. Maybe that's what made it click.
Q: Are you producing or developing videogames? If you do that would be amazing for anyone who's played Left for Dead or Resident Evil.
GR: In the past usually people come to us and say they just want to buy my name or the brand or whatever and "stay home. You don't know about videogames." It's true; I don't. I'm not a gamer.
I just did a talk show as part of the tour for this film where we looked at Left for Dead 2 and zombies are like tarantulas; on the ceiling, up the walls, crazy, running. I understand that mentality that it has to be like Tetris; faster, faster, faster, faster.
My zombies don't do that. My zombies are still slugging along just like the rest of us are. So I'm not sure that I get the mentality. I was talking to a game company executive and asked is it possible to do a slower, more intellectual game? And he actually said "I'm not sure." But we're talking to people about it - we're still talking to people about it - and I would love to be involved with a game, I'd love to write the story of a game, but I won't do it if it has to be...
Q: Are you ever going to switch over from slow to fast zombies?
Q: What is it about slow zombies that you like over fast zombies?
GR: Because that's the way they would be; they're dead. Like in the first film the sheriff says, "They're dead; they're all messed up." If they ran their ankles would snap so by me they move slow.
Q: Would you outrun the zombies?
GR: Yeah. The whole point is you can easily get away, just nobody addresses the problem and humans screw themselves up. With my movies that's what it's about; it's about humanity making the wrong movies.
Q: Would have any advice besides run to survive a zombie?
GR: You've got to talk to Max Brooks [who has written a series of zombie books such as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War]. Max believes this is really going to happen one day; I don't. With me it's pure allegory.
Q: How would you fare in a zombie apocalypse?
GR: What I need to tell you first of all, is that it's probably not going to happen. If you want to know what weapon to buy, call Max. He's the guy to tell you. I think Max halfway believes that it might happen. He's a buddy of mine and we hang out and we argue about this all the time.
I don't know. Come on! Find a tank; a tank is the best thing. Get inside a tank, you'll have a big gun, and you're safe in a big thing of metal. It's like give me a break over here. It's not going to happen. I promise you it won't happen. Or else, worse shit will happen before it does.
Q: What allegory are you trying to tell with this film?
GR: It's about the same theme that I've been beating on forever. It's war, it's like enmities that don't die, people, even faced with huge game-changing event still shooting at each other instead of addressing the problem.
Q: Do you think that society's listening to what you're saying in your films?
GR: No. Society doesn't listen to anything. Society has not listened to shit from the beginning of time.
Q: To be that one voice, is that why you make these films?
GR: It's fun to be silly and make fun of people because people are just not learning. We haven't learned squat; we're still fucking fighting abortion and homosexuality and everything. We're still fucking fighting, it's like ridiculous. Give me a break; I thought we were past that.
Q: You seem married to the horror genre. What is it about it that works for you?
GR: I love it, man. I grew up on EC Comics -- like Vault of Horror or Crypt of Terror -- and have a chance not only to work in the genre but be able to express my opinion. I've got a better gig than Michael Moore I think. I don't have to be real, I don't have to lie.
Q: What is your favorite horror movie?
GR: When you're a kid, it's like the stuff that impresses you the most or that scares you the most. I was 12 years old and I saw The Thing and it just scared the shit out of me. So that remains my favorite horror movie.
Q: Would you ever consider wrapping up the whole zombie thing, like reversing the curse?
GR: No. It's too much fun. I won't do it and the zombies won't take over because my stories are about the humans. I like being where we are with it; just leave it alone and let it be.
Q: You change the rules a bit in this new one.
Q: How important is the comical aspect of your zombie movies?
GR: Oh man, like I said, I grew up on EC Comics; they were all bad jokes and puns. It was a giggle while you barf. So to me it's almost essential. These last two films that I did I had creative control and I was able to just do what I wanted to do with them, so humor was an important part of both. This one is really, there are some real loony tune moments in this one. It has to be part of it.
Q: What's your favorite zombie kill?
GR: I don't know; It's not a kill. Tom Savini did this thing with the guy with a real actor with his head down in a table and the guy's body was a real actor's body from here down, just some tendrils connecting him to her like a pulsing brain. It's not a kill but it's I thought a wonderful makeup and a really cool thing. I don't know, kill, I don' know. There's one in this movie with a fire extinguisher that I really love.
Q: For someone who hasn't seen your movies would you prefer them to start with Night of the Living Dead or Diary of the Dead?
GR: I'd prefer them to start with Knightriders and Martin because those are films that were really from the heart. I like to think that these films are thoughtful but they're not me.
To some extent they're commercial films but I'm trying to do something with them, but they're not me. Knightriders is the most me. Martin is my favorite film of mine, so anybody that wants to see something that I did I would prefer they watch those first and then watch these.
Q: Which zombie one should they start off with though?
GR: Day of the Dead.
Q: Have you ever thought about redoing the original Day of the Dead the way you wanted to do it in the original script?
GR: No. It's over. I've been able to use some of it; I used a little bit of it in Land of the Dead and a little bit of it in this film, actually. But no; that's over. That's a script I did for the original Day of the Dead and the company that was financing the movie didn't want to finance it because it was too much money.
Actually it was a decision that we made -- my partner at the time and I -- because we wanted to release it without rating it. The [distributor] said "Okay, do it without rating it" but, we said, "Forget it, they won't [really] do that." So I decided to cut it down and do it without rating it. And the old script, I know people have it, it's on the internet, [and] people are digging it up, but I've used ideas from it so I don't think I'll ever go back to it.
Q: Why do you think zombies are having a renaissance right now?
GR: Beats the shit out of me. I don't know, what is it? Videogames. It's not movies, it's videogames. I think so. There's never been a huge movie hit; it's all videogames. That's what I think.
Q: Do you think about going back to making more psychological movies like Martin, in between the zombie movies?
GR: Yes, all the time. But I'm at an age right now where, Peter and I, we spent six years in Hollywood in development hell making lots of money and not making movies. It's like I'm at a point where I don't want to go and pitch something for two years and have it not happen. I can't afford that time.
And yeah we have ideas and plans, we have things we'd like to do, but as I say, I'm at the point where I need to take the thing that I like the most that's easiest to do and get it done. I don't know how long I'm going to be standing. Listen, I'm never going to quit; I'll be like John Houston man, I'll be with the breather and the wheelchair still trying to make a film. I can't answer you what's going to be next. There are things I'd love to do; who knows.
Q: What stories do you want to tell that aren't zombie related?
GR: I might be passed that; I told them already. I have a couple of things, my partner and I, we have a couple of scripts that we're working on. I don't know; it's a long story and I'm too tired to tell it right now.
I'd like to do a couple more of these and what I'd like to do is have a little set of these that all the characters would come out of Diary and have a little set and hang it up and go off and do something else.
Q: Would you use the internet as a medium to tell them in short story form?
GR: Maybe. I don't know. I'm very puzzled right now; I don't know what to do. You finish a movie and then all of a sudden you're still doing it and I'm still traveling with it. I'm just waiting to get off. I'm waiting for some time off and then maybe I can decide what to do.
Q: What about returning to comic books?
GR: I'd love to. I'm talking to some guys now. I'd love to do it.
Q: Would they be zombie related or something else?
GR: I'd love to do something else but usually that's what they want from me is zombies.
Q: What's next?
GR: I'm hoping a couple of drinks at a bar someplace. I don't know, man. If you're talking about movies, I don't know. We don't know; my partner, Peter [Grunwald] and I, we have a couple of projects that are non-zombie but we don't know. If it happens that this film does well and we're asked to do another; my idea is to do two more.
I wanted to do three; right from the puff I wanted to do three films with characters from Diary of the Dead, take them on their own adventures and be able to cross-collateralize characters, story points, stuff like that.
I would love it and it would be like a vacation. If this film does well enough and somebody says hey let's do more I would jump at it. Sort of like I'd have a job for the first time in my life; I know what I'm doing for the next three years.
I'd love to do it but we don't know what's going to happen with this. So far this film has performed pretty well with audiences and people seem to be digging it, so maybe it will happen. Otherwise, we have a couple of things that we're ready to do and really like.
I would love it if I could do a couple more of these because it's where I've lived. I love playing around with new zombies. By the way, thank you. I can't believe you guys go to this amount of trouble and energy and glue that goop on your face. Anyway, it's much appreciated by me and thank you; thanks for doing it.
Q: What do you think of the remakes that have been made of your various films? Are you happy with them?
GR: Not particularly. No.
Q: What do you think that they misunderstood or didn't get?
GR: I don't know. The remake of Dawn was more like a videogame than a movie. The first 20 minutes were really hot and then it lost its reason for being. The Crazies was the same thing. Crazies was a film of a certain time; we were pissed off about Nam. The new film might as well be 28 Days Later. Both directors did good jobs with Dawn and with Crazies, they're just not films I would have made.
Q: What are your favorite horror movies?
GR: When you're a kid it's like the stuff that impresses you the most or the stuff that scares you the most. I was 12 years old and I saw The Thing and it just scared the shit out of me. So that remains my favorite horror movie.
Q: Any directors working now that you're excited about?
GR: Well Guillermo del Toro's my man right now. He's a great guy. Such a sincere guy; he makes a commercial thing and then goes off and does what we wants to do. He's great.
And John Carpenter's doing a new movies, I have big hopes for Carpenter. I hope he's back in the ring. That's it pretty much.
Q: A lot of people consider you the grandfather of independent film in many ways. What do you think about that?
GR: Come on.
Q: Come on, you did one of the first real indie films.
GR: There are a lot of guys that have just figured out a way to do it without selling out or whatever. John Waters, man. He gets my vote.
Q: When you go, what do you want on your headstone? When you rise, what do you expect to see?
GR: I don't know man. If I manage to get back when that happens I'll just look for a camera.