George A. Romero
Relives His Zombies Through the Diary of the Dead
by Brad Balfour
For independent filmmakers, George A. Romero is one of the great culture heroes. Back in the 1960s, this Pittsburgh resident (he went from NYC to Carnegie Mellon U.) reared himself up and decided he was going to make movies with no studio connections, film school education, or even a New York based advertising career. He just jury-rigged a crew, a cast, and sets found throughout the Pittsburgh environs and made his cheap genre film, Night of the Living Dead. That film not only became a cult classic but it kick-started the zombie phenomenon and influenced every generation of filmmakers since, whether in the horror realm or beyond.
From that historical moment, Romero has, throughout the years, remained relevant, updating his mythos to suit the times. He has made several films, such as Dawn of the Dead, that are almost equally as hailed as his debut release. Beyond that, he has made some other quirky but memorable low-budget fan favorites, such as Martin (about a vampire wanna-be).
At this year’s Sundance Film festival, Romero premiered his further examination of this mythos in the midnight program. Through the eyes of a more contemporary context of “gonzo,” dedicated DIY students capture the zombie infection, as if it had happened in our time rather than the 60s. So in rewinding back to the events of that seminal 1968 release, Romero re-imagines the night the zombies first arose, as witnessed by a group of student filmmakers caught up in the horror itself.
What made you decide to revisit your mythology in this way – to modernize it, to rethink the material? Were there things you wanted to address because there was an opportunity to do that?
Well, it wasn’t so much that. There were a whole bunch of reasons. I had done Land Of The Dead. I liked it well enough, but it seemed that it had lost touch with its roots. It seemed that it was approaching Thunderdome, and I thought, “Wow, this isn’t where we started,” and I just saw it having to get bigger later on.
Even though Universal basically allowed me to make that film the way that I wanted to make it, it was grueling and difficult, and I never thought that it should be going in that direction. All the zombie films that I have made have grown out of my observations of what is going on out in the world at the time, and I had this sense that I wanted to do something about this emerging media, this octopus called the “blogosphere” – which to me is full of dangers, wherein any lunatic can post anything.
If Hitler was around now, he wouldn’t have to go into the town square, he would just throw up a blog. If Jim Jones were here now, all of a sudden there would be a million people drinking Kool-Aid. So, that struck me as dangerous. Also this obsession that everyone is a reporter, you know? I mean, yeah, there’s a terrible tornado out there in Tennessee, and be careful folks, but go out there and get us some footage! [laughs]
It just struck me that we’re living in this age of constant media, and that anyone like Joe Blow in Oshkosh can write whatever. I mean, people who listen to Rush Limbaugh already know what he’s going to say and already agree. So, I think that the existence of these blogs is creating more tribalism than anything else.
Is that the reason why you now use the video footage to suggest the presence of the zombies instead of having the hundreds of zombies like you’ve had in the past? Instead of casting extras to play them, the video footage is used to suggest the number of zombies.
I wasn’t trying necessarily to suggest size. I used video footage from the last 10 years, using images from Getty Images and some of Hurricane Katrina here and there. I really did that to give the sense of media – that we’re all looking through this glass and have been for years. So, the guy in the film is obsessed with it to the point of forgetting about his own survival, misguidedly thinking that he can be of some help, and just shooting footage. Whatever drives him initially, I think he’s wrong.
I always like to use twists and ironies like that. It is a journalist’s job to just report and not get involved and not help. But who’s gonna sit around and watch little Afghan kids getting shot? It’s a real dichotomy. I don’t know, man, was it better when there were only three television networks? I mean, at least the stuff was being managed, bent a little maybe, and spun to an extent. The audience should take some responsibility, too. People are more than willing to look up from their beers and say, “Yeah, I’ll hear what he has to say.”
Where do you see yourself in today’s cinematic landscape? Are you worried about staying relevant?
You know, I’ve never particularly worried about that. In the very beginning I did. When people were initially writing about Night of the Living Dead and calling it “essential American cinema,” and how political it was – that was all by accident. We had cast a black actor in the lead of that film, never having been fully aware of the implications of that.
In those days, the news was all shot on film, they didn’t use videotape. So, there were film labs in cities the size of Pittsburgh and we had just finished the film. We had an answer print, threw it in the car and drove it to New York to see if anyone would want to show it. And that night in the car we heard on the radio that [Martin Luther King, Jr.] had been killed. Now, all of a sudden the whole ending of Night of the Living Dead takes on so much more resonance because of that.
I believe that we received a lot of undue credit, due to the fact that the black guy gets shot at the end of the film. That was written in the script long before the character was ever cast, be it a white actor or black actor. It was only the last few minutes of that film that we wanted it to look like newsreels. We were all ’60s people and we were angry that peace and love didn’t work. And the world looked like it was in a little worse shape: the Vietnam War, the riots in the streets, the frustration, etc. I just wanted the end of that film to look like newsreel footage.
What about Diary? You used the handheld camera a lot, and the subject matter of the blogosphere wasn’t that relevant just a few years ago…
Oh, yeah, I know. I’ve always liked to comment on the times. I think that films are snapshots of the time in which they are made. I like the idea that if you watch my films in the order in which they were made, they sort of chronicle the feelings and ideas of the times. I like that, and I am proud of that, to be able to do that working inside a genre that is considered to be frivolous. I hate pitching these ideas because I am always asked, “Well, where’s the story?” I mean, you can put 50 stories on this one theme. The whole movie is about mistrust, and you go from there.
What about aesthetically, in the way you shoot…?
With Diary, as far as the hand-held stuff is concerned, that was the only way to go. It is essentially about everyone becoming reporters. With movies like [Brian De Palma’s] Redacted and others like Cloverfieldand a few others that are out there, everyone seems to be aware of the camera upon us. “I am a camera,” you know?
But, on another level, you’re going from being timely to… You’re also classic with that zombie mythos that is apparent in every movie it seems like, from I Am Legend on back.
Well, I ripped off the first idea of dead coming back to life from [Richard Matheson’s novel] I Am Legend when I did Night of the Living Dead.
We’ll call Richard Matheson up and tell him [laughs].
Oh, I’ve told him. He knows! [laughs] He also knows that I never made any money from it. Otherwise, he said “I’d be after your ass!” [laughing]
I read I Am Legend years ago.
Well, we’re all just parasites. We’re all taking ideas off of others. [laughs] I can’t believe that I created some new – I didn’t call them zombies in the original film, you know? I didn’t even think of calling them zombies. Back then, zombies were those guys in the Caribbean doing wetwork, so I called them flesh eaters or ghouls, or whatever. And it’s only after people started to write about the film that they were referred to as zombies, and I thought, well, maybe they are! I don’t know. I guess that I created the dead neighbor. [laughs]
You’ve modernized all of that. What do you think of the classic horror experience? That’s one of the things that makes Diary work – you still know about creating fear and terror.
I love the gothic. I love old movies, period. I’m an old guy. I’m still very old-fashioned in my tastes and techniques – not only in horror, but in other kinds of films. I go to see a movie like Atonement and you know, it just doesn’t get to me. And then I’ll go home and turn on Turner Classic Movies and watch something like Brief Encounter and you’re sort of giggling at it and how corny it is, and by the end of the film there’s a tear in your eye. But it works.
I find that people today are trying to avoid that sort of emotion because they feel that it’s too silly, or too corny or whatever. I find that a lot of the emotions are blunted in contemporary films. But then again, that’s just me, but I’m older now and I remember the older movies and how they affected me.
What inspired you to start your career?
The desire to make a movie! Yeah, we started out with this [Ingmar] Bergman-esque film, sort of a coming-of-age film in the Middle Ages, and no one wanted anything to do with it. Then I read I Am Legendand adapted – well, actually ripped off – the first half and made it into Night of the Living Dead. It was just a desire to make a movie!
At this stage, was it important for you to get back into making movies with independent financing?
You know, that wasn’t the main thing. With my last film, Universal really left me alone. I basically did Diary because I wanted a vacation. I originally was going to make Diary as part of a film school project. I was going to make it at Full Sail, which is a film school in Orlando, Florida, that I have lectured at from time to time and taught a film class. I was going to go down there, man, and hit up a couple of dentists for about a quarter of a million dollars and make this film completely under the radar.
It was going to be a DVD release, if it got released at all. I wanted to go down there, literally, and do it as a student project and see what happens. I was going to roll the dice on that. And it’s really only because I wanted to reclaim whatever that energy was, you know, when I was first starting to work and doing it with friends and doing it for the love of it, because of what we wanted to do at the time. I just want to reclaim that.
Art Fire read the script and asked me how little I could do it for if it were to be released theatrically. We carefully picked over it and didn’t take a dollar more than we needed. That was the trade-off for getting control.
Is that why you used so many Canadian actors?
Yes, of course. Getting a Canadian production together, there are tax credits and tax breaks. And we just auditioned these people. They were theatrical performers at Stratford in Canada, and I thought that they were wonderful, really great actors.
One of the first lines of the film is “Dead things don’t move fast.” I love that line. When you think about it, it’s sort of a comment on 28 Days Later and the fast-moving zombies. Now, with all of the remakes that they’re making from such series as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, what is your take on modern horror today?
I have no particular liking or disliking for any of it. I don’t understand the torture porn stuff. I mean, if somebody could offer me a succinct explanation as to where all of this cruelty comes from… There’s a movie called American Nightmare, which is about some of us who were working in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it’s that kind of political and activist anchor that came out in the types of movies that were being made at the time. But it was sort of explained that those movies were about the destruction of the family unit, or mistrust or whatever, or they have some sort of political base. This torture porn stuff, man – I personally don’t understand something that is relentlessly cruel which doesn’t seem to point to anything else, so I’m not into that.
Is there some correlation between what you talked about in your film – with the YouTubes and MySpaces, you can see anything online now. Has horror had to go beyond what it was before this generation, and is that what folks like Eli Roth represent?
Are you talking in terms of gore?
Exactly. You can go on the Internet and pretty much see anything you want, pretty graphic stuff. Do you feel that Hostel, High Tension and movies like that have to “up the ante” to give the audience what they want?
Yeah, possibly. Definitely could be. I said before, I’m an old-fashioned guy. I say, “Tell me a story while you’re all to that level and overcome the story.”
You had trouble getting an even an R rating for Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Do you think that Dawn of the Dead would have skated through were it made today?
We didn’t have any trouble at all with my Dawn of the Dead.” The distributor decided to release it unrated so we never had any arguments with the MPAA because it was never submitted. The distributor was willing to release it without a rating. So I sort of skated through that period. But Land of the Dead” had to be an R. So, I used some smoke and mirrors to keep it less gruesome. But I’ve never had to duke it out.
An old film that I made, called Martin, we had to make some cuts for the MPAA. Ludicrous. Just ludicrous. The scene where he cuts the girl’s arm with a razor blade, they really nitpicked. They looked at it and said that it was 23 frames. “Make it 17 frames.” I mean, come on, like you don’t know what’s happening? You go to save the sensitivity of young kids who go to see it by trimming a few frames?
You talked about anger. What is it that makes you angry? That is one thing I will say about this film, you really took out it out on the military.
I’ve always been after them, always after those boys. You know what really makes me angry is that people just keep going on – I mean, it’s unbelievable, man. When people keep re-litigating things: “Let’s re-litigate Roe vs. Wade!” I mean, come on, give me a break. We’ve already been through that! Nobody seems to learn. People still send in their last dime to these phony televangelists.
You had more than one scene where you really took to task the military in a certain light. Was there a certain agenda there? Or was it just the fact?
I have used those same themes pretty consistently throughout my career and throughout all five of the films. I wasn’t making any particular point. In fact, I probably would’ve done it differently by making there be no National Guards here at home. Because they’re all over there in Iraq!
Do you think that the human race is worth saving?
Well, that’s my biggest frustration… wondering, are we worth saving? Jason, the character in the film, thought that he could help by documenting all of the carnage. And I do believe that he was seriously misguided. He lost sight of his own survival and the survival of everyone in his own crew. To me, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction that the female character makes in wondering if we’re worth saving or not.
You talked about the violence in contemporary horror films, and even in this new film of yours. How would you compare to the violence in your previous zombie movies –was the violence and gore toned down for this film?
Yeah, well, you know, it’s probably pound for pound the same. It’s just that this time I’m shooting it from across the room. Greg Nicotero was shooting second unit stuff on Land of the Dead and the tendency is to go in for product shots. Diary was all shot from across the room, and it goes quickly and this time around the audience is just observing it from a further distance away. That was a conscious choice on my part.
I decided that these kids were not going to go in for a close-up. And I found when we started to look at dailies, that it was much more effective for me to see it back from a distance in a single shot. We did have to do several cuts later which were justified when they found a second camera. And we did it that way to keep the film grounded in reality, so to speak – to make it seem like this is what it is really like to be these kids, if they found these cameras and if they shot the way they did.
Since that was the idea, did the actors and actresses have any improvisational input?
It was always wide open for them to do that. Some of the actors threw in their own lines here and there, but there was nothing major. These were theater people and they were pretty disciplined. There were instances where there couldn’t be room for improvisation. You know, there’s an eight-page shot where Deborah goes into her house and runs all over the place. The camera has to follow her pretty much all over the house, into the garage, back into the house up the stairs, etc. and this’ll have been done in a single shot. So everybody needs to know where they need to be.
I noticed there were a few cameo appearances in Diary…
When we started shooting, the main objective was to get all of the principal action in the can. And right down to the final moments of working on the audio in the editing room, we needed to have audio people yelling and screaming. At that time it was just myself and two of the people in the editing room, and I knew that we needed more than just our three voices played over and over again! So I called Stephen King, and got a bunch of other people such as Wes Craven, Simon Peyton, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Savini, etc. It was great, because we were able to do them all over the phone, because their voices were being broadcasted over the radio in the film, and fidelity wasn’t a concern.
I understand that some of the script was actually from an aborted Resident Evil script you wrote. Is that true? At least it seems some of the ideas were used here.
I don’t know where that came from. I was hired to do a Resident Evil script. I loved it, and I think that Capcom loved it. I was working for the LA executives for a company called Constantine and with the Capcom people. We all came up with a script that we all liked a lot. At Constantine, there was one guy, the chairman who runs it, and he made Das Boot and House of the Spirits and he had never seen or played video games. So, after about a year and a half of working on this thing, he simply said no.
So, no ideas were taken from that.
No, no. They own that script. There may be similarities, because both films deal with the type of contagion.
Your movies themselves are just like your zombies; they seem to live forever. What do you think is the secret to the popularity of your films?
I don’t know, I wish I could tell you, and I would keep trying to do it. I think if there’s anything I can say – I never took a job, if you know what I mean. I never did something just because it was a job. And I really think that people notice that. I’m never just going through the motions. I have genuine passion for what I do. I think people like the fact that I’m doing for me and it’s something that I want to do, and not just working for the Company, if you know what I mean. I think I also have a maverick reputation because of that. I think that maybe it has more to do with that than with the films themselves.
In Night of the Living Dead, you made TV out to be a savior of sorts. In Dawn of the Dead, you demonstrated how TV couldn’t be trusted in terms of the news getting out to people. In Diary, there seems to be a total cynicism about the technology. Has the nature of television changed, or is it because now it’s all about selling, commercials, and getting ratings? Do you think that due to the bombardment of all this information it isn’t necessarily truthful?
I think that it’s more that than anything else, the bombardment of information, the reading of so much of this information which isn’t information at all. A lot of it is misinformation, and sometimes even somebody’s viewpoint or opinion. In Night of the Living Dead, I never thought of the TV as so much their savior, as it was just their connection to the real world. In Diary…, trying to make the contrast that the mainstream is being controlled by somebody; but the blogosphere has no end in sight. That doesn’t necessarily make it better as a result; it’s just a lot of random thoughts and a lot of noise.
Will your next film be a continuation of the zombie theme? Do you plan to follow up this film with something similar?
I don’t know. If there’s a sequel to this film, it will be a direct sequel for the first time. Other films that I have made are not direct – you know, the characters aren’t the same, but the phenomenon goes on where the zombies are sort of evolving in the first one. I could see doing a parallel development here if there is another one. There is talk right now of doing a sequel.
Where do you see the zombie theme going from this point?
I don’t know. I don’t care. (laughs) To me, the zombies are – I love playing with the idea of developing some… not intelligence, but developing some more motor skills. Basically working with memory and being able to function.
Or reasoning perhaps?
Well, I don’t know about reasoning, but at least being able to function. But other than that, the zombies are just The Disaster, they don’t particularly represent anything. They could be a hurricane. They could be an avalanche, or whatever. They are just The Disaster that is out there, you know? My films are about how the people cope with it, or how they fail to cope with it. And that to me is the most interesting aspect of it. The zombies are just always out there [mock fright and laugh]… “There’s this storm outside!”
Are there other offbeat avenues we are going to see from you other than the living dead films?
There are a couple of other projects that I would like to see happen. There’s a project called Diamond Dead which I really loved. Now it might be back. You just never know. There was a project I was working on with Ed Harris called The Assassination. We were supposed to make it with Anthony Quinn, but he died just before we started to shoot it.
You talked about your love of the old films. Is there anything in the last 20 or 30 years that really influenced you?
Nothing that overshadows the old stuff. The older stuff is the stuff that I really look at the most. Jaws I watch for the editing, The Exorcist I watch for the whole package, it’s just brilliant. But nothing that I’ve seen recently released [has the impact] of the old stuff.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 14, 2008.