George A. Romero is considered the father of the modern horror film. His first feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), redefined the genre, not only with its explicit violence, but also with a satirical view of American society that reflected the turmoil of the times. Known for his intelligence, innovation and sensitivity as a filmmaker, in addition to his ability to scare, Romero made short films, industrials and commercials before co-writing, directing, filming and editing Night of the Living Dead.
The film, made on a budget of $114,000, is a stark parable of the American family consuming itself and still retains the power to shock and surprise. Romero made several other low-budget films in Pittsburgh before solidifying his reputation with two remarkable films: Martin (1978), a lyrical, poignant and deeply disturbing story of a lonely boy who is convinced he is a vampire, and Dawn of the Dead (1979), set in a suburban shopping mall where a band of struggling survivors is beset by zombies and their own personal demons.
A powerful, apocalyptic action film leavened with Romero’s signature pitch-black wit, the movie became one of the most profitable independent productions in film history. He continued to do interesting work throughout the 80s and 90s with Knightriders (1981), a heartfelt film based on Arthurian legend, in which Ed Harris plays the leader of a troupe that stages medieval fairs with knights jousting on motorcycles instead of horses; Creepshow (1982), a smart and boldly stylized film with a script by Stephen King and a cast of well-known actors; and 1985’s Day of the Dead, a progressive, eerily claustrophobic film, the third in Romero’s zombie saga. In 1988, Monkey Shines became Romero’s first studio-produced film and introduced him to Peter Grunwald, with whom he eventually formed Romero-Grunwald Productions. The film was hailed by Newsweek as a “white-knuckle triumph.” Two Evil Eyes (1990) was a collaboration with filmmaker Dario Argento, comprising two vignettes inspired by Edgar Allan Poe short stories. 1993’s The Dark Half starred Tim Hutton in a superb dual performance.
The film, like much of Romero’s work, was praised by critics and is considered among the most thoughtful of the many Stephen King adaptations. In 2000 Romero made Bruiser, a taught, frightening and highly original tale of revenge, which at the time was his most exciting, stylish and accomplished film. Land of the Dead was released by Universal Pictures in June 2005 and garnered exceptional critical acclaim in addition to becoming one of the most successful of Romero’s films at the box office. In the fall of 2006 Romero embarked on Diary of the Dead, his most personal film since Night of the Living Dead. He proudly describes it as one that “comes from my heart. It’s not a sequel or a remake. It’s a whole new beginning for the dead.”
HM.ca: Can you talk about the making of this project?
GEORGE ROMERO: What if I said no? Sure. I made a film just a few years ago called Land of the Dead. It was my fourth zombie film that I made. I was pretty satisfied with it and I know that some of my fans were not. When I looked at it, even though Universal really left me alone to make that movie the way I wanted to make it and it wound up being pretty much largely the film I wanted to make, when I turned around and looked at it, it seemed so big. It was Thunderdome or it was approaching Thunderdome and I didn’t know where to go from there. I had this sort of track going, the zombies were sort of learning and evolving but this movie was so big, I just couldn’t envision what to do next.
At the same time, actually before we shot Land of the Dead, I had this idea that I wanted to do something about emerging media. I thought, well, that’s a way to get back and do something really inexpensive and simple and see if I have the chops and the stamina to go back and make another little guerilla movie and relate back again to the origins of the thing. That’s where it came from. I had this idea that I could use film students out shooting a school project when zombies begin to walk, and they document it. I wanted to do the subjective camera thing. This is before I knew that anybody else was working on it. I didn’t know about DePalma, I didn’t know about Cloverfield or anything else. I thought we were going to be the first guys out there with one of these.
HM.ca: The style is built into the story of why they’re filming things, how we see things. How carefully did you construct that in the story?
GEORGE ROMERO: It wasn’t so much constructing the story as it was constructing the shots. People have said, “Boy, it must be nice to just be able to turn the camera on and shoot.” It was hell, man. We were shooting 360 around the room. We were doing eight page shots and it really needed to be choreographed down to the shoelaces. In that sense, it was tough. It was really, really tough. The DP did a great job making it seem very off handed but it wasn’t at all. It required more discipline than anything in Land of the Dead or anything else I’ve ever done.
HM.ca: Why did you use a DP instead of going Blair Witch and letting the actors do it?
GEORGE ROMERO: First of all, they don’t shoot that good. No, I wanted it to be theatrical. The one thing about this is I think it walks that line, maybe unsuccessfully, I’m not sure. It might be a little too arch and a little too theatrical, but I didn’t want it to be Blair Witch. Blair Witch was dizzying to me and it didn’t quite make sense, so I wanted to explain a little more and I wanted it to have some traditional elements, more gothic elements in it which requires a bit more staging and a bit more just carefully constructed plot. Not only plot elements but production elements. And I guess that’s also one of the things that really is disappointing to me, that a lot of films these days sort of leave those values out.
I went to see Atonement and I expected to need a tissue. It didn’t happen. That same week, Turner Classic Movies showed Brief Encounter. You laugh at the style, you laugh at the techniques and everything else for 90 minutes, and then at the end of the film, there’s a tear in your eye. I find that films are hollow that way today. People are afraid of that. Not that this film is an emotional film in that same way, but I like some of the old sort of gothic values. We were trying to walk that line and put some of that in, at the same time make it feel free and easy.
HM.ca: Are you developing a sequel to Diary of the Dead? The film leaves the door open for a sequel like your other movies?
GEORGE ROMERO: It had nothing to do with that. This ending had nothing to do with that. Actually, ever since Dawn of the Dead, I mean, Night of the Living Dead, everybody died. When I set out to make Dawn, in fact my original script everybody died. I said, I’ve got to make a sequel here. I decided sort of halfway through the shoot on that film that I could leave the world upset. I don’t have to restore order in the world but I could save a couple of these characters. So I’ve always done that. Dawn, Day, Land and now this film, it’s always there. Everybody always says, Oh, it’s wide open for a sequel. That’s not the reason. The reason isn’t to make a sequel. It’s just I wanted to save a couple of those people that I liked.
HM.ca: You are so identified with zombie movies, are you happy or does it haunt you?
GEORGE ROMERO: Of course it haunts you. I’d love to be able to go in and pitch another kind of film and be taken seriously, but I’m generally not taken seriously. If I were to walk in there with a little romantic comedy, they’d say, What? So that’s a bit frustrating because you don’t grow up wanting to be a horror filmmaker. You grow up wanting to be a filmmaker and I wish I had a wider range. And I tried early on to do several films that were not genre and nine people saw them, so I don’t have the credentials in that regard. There’s a bit of frustration there but on the other side of that coin, and far outweighing it is the fact that I’ve been able to use genre fantasy horror and be able to talk a little bit about- – express my opinion, talk a little bit about society, do a little bit of satire and that’s been great, man. A lot of people don’t have that platform. So I don’t know. I joke and say maybe I’m the Michael Moore of horror but it’s wonderful to have that ability. It’s sort of my niche. I can go in and do what I want to do.
HM.ca: How difficult is it to balance social commentary and straight out zombies?
GEORGE ROMERO: I don’t think it’s difficult. I think you just have to set out to do it. A lot of these films, the ideas for them have come from the world. Once you know, okay, I’m going to make a movie about this, you can glue zombies on it easily. So it’s not that difficult. It’s not difficult at all. You just have to have that idea. I think a lot of people don’t. I go to conventions and universities and talk to young filmmakers. Everybody’s making a zombie movie, but all it is is because it’s easy to get the neighbors to come out and put ketchup on them. You don’t need a rubber suit, you don’t need a monster effect. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance behind most of it. It’s just splatter. That’s all it is. I think you have to go a little deeper. I always tell these young filmmakers, “Get an idea. Get an idea. Forget story.” Everybody mistakes that for story. I’m a terrible pitchman. If I’m pitching something out here to an executive, they always want to know what the story is and I say, “It’s not the story. I could give you 50 stories. Okay, the guy’s black, maybe not, maybe he’s white, maybe it’s a woman.” You could do it 50 different ways. It has to be about something. But you walk in there and you try to pitch that and say, “Okay, this is about mistrust.” You get a lot of head nods, “All right, so what’s the story?”
HM.ca: Have you perfected the head injury and how do you come up with new ones?
GEORGE ROMERO: I had one early on in life.
HM.ca: You never make it redundant.
GEORGE ROMERO: Boy, a lot of it seems that way to me. It’s all ideas that come to you in the shower, man. I don’t even know what else to say about it but that is the challenge. Every time you set out to do one of these, well, how am I going to kill these guys? How am I going to get rid of that brain? I don’t know. Anyone with ideas, please write ‘em down. If I have to do another one, I don’t know, man. I’m sort of running out of stuff.
HM.ca: What about Diamond Dead?
GEORGE ROMERO: Diamond Dead, I would love to make that movie. I love the old script. It was an Australian producer. We had Ridley Scott behind it. It looked like it was really going to happen and nobody got it. We pitched it with Ridley and everybody said, “What is this?” It’s like Phantom of the Paradise if you remember that movie, the old De Palma thing which I love. They didn’t get this. It’s about a dead rock band. Nobody got it. So it sort of blew away. Right before I came out here on this trip, I got a call from this guy who said, “We have a new script and I’d really like you to read it.” I haven’t read it yet, he said he would e-mail it to me but I’m not home right now, so. Maybe it’ll come back, I don’t know. You never know, man. I can’t tell you, there’s so much shit that goes down on the internet. “Oh, George is doing this. Steve King, Buick 8, boom, all these projects.” Some of them you work on. I did, there was this- – Steve wrote a book called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I loved it. Again, you couldn’t sell it for beanstalk beans because it’s about a little girl. They said, “Well, how do you put a star in here? It’s a little girl.”
Then all of a sudden Dakota Fanning appears on the scene and then wow, man. Dakota actually said, or her mother or whoever it was, actually no. I went in to take the meeting at Ben Franks which is Dakota’s favorite place. I met with her. Her mother and her agent went and they sat outside. I go in and I’m sitting at this table with this little girl going, “Guys, I’m not!” And took this very sort of serious meeting with her and she liked it. She was mostly concerned “Do I really have to get bitten by those mosquitoes.” No, no, we can fake that shit. Even then, it wasn’t enough to get it financed. When I say relatively big budget, meaning 20-22, something like that in order to do all the effects, nobody wanted to risk it on a little girl. So that movie’s never been made, may never be made. Maybe once Steve stopped writing or gets hit by another van or something and they need a Steve King thing.
HM.ca: Do you ever see yourself returning to comic books like Toe Tags?
GEORGE ROMERO: Well, I’d love to write another comic book. I told those guys, “Man, just call me up again and I’ll do it again.” I actually was hoping that that would turn into a movie but again, it’s just too big. I did a comic book, in case some of you don’t know, I wrote a comic book and the wonderful illustrator, Bernie Wrightson did the covers and Tommy Castillo did the stories. You don’t have to worry about how am I going to shoot this. You mean somebody’s just going to draw this? I don’t have to sweat that stuff. So that was fast. Unfortunately, I made it too big to convert it into [a movie]. I had cities in devastation and this guy with a pet elephant, not the kind of shit you can do very easy on film. I loved doing it, would love to do another one. I would love to do another one. I actually have a couple of ideas. I sent them into Shrek. This guy’s name is Shrek. Just ain’t been invited yet.
HM.ca: What do you think of the spoofs like Shaun of the Dead?
GEORGE ROMERO: Well, Shaun, man, I just flipped for Shaun. And it was funny because those guys, when it was going to get North American distribution, I was living in Florida or had a place in Florida at the time and I was living on this little island called Sanibel with one little theater where the projector had a 40 watt bulb. I get this message from these guys, I didn’t know who they were. Some cat named Edgar Wright. “I made this movie, I hope you like it.” So next thing I know, some cat from Universal shows up, like the guy with the bomb suitcase. Fucking print is chained to him and he says, “I’m going to show you this movie at the local theater. We arranged it.” So this funky little drunkard comes down to open up the theater doors and turn on the projector.
I see this movie a little too dark but hilarious and it’s just me in the theater and this cat from Universal back there just waiting to get the print back. And I flipped for it. It came with their phone numbers and I called them up immediately right after I saw it and I said, “Guys!” And they just said, “Oh, we just wanted to know that you weren’t going to slap us down.” I said, “How could anybody slap you down for this? This was just so loving.” We’re still buddies. They came out to be zombies in Land, both Edgar and Simon. Simon does a voice in Diary of the Dead. He does one of those voice tracks and we’re still good buds. Happy to know them. They are the cleverest really. They’re really cool. They could be the new Monty Python. They could take over. I don’t think that’s what they’re shooting for though. Simon is the new Scotty.
HM.ca: There’s a special thanks to Simon and a number of other people – Wes Craven…
GEORGE ROMERO: Yeah. They all did voice tracks. What happened with this film is we shot the principal action, we shot the scripted action and basically said if we can get this shit in the can, then we have the movie and the characters are going to finish it, these kids, one of the kids, we weren’t even sure who yet was going to finish the movie and make it presentable. And we said, “We can do that too so let’s shoot the principal action which was scripted and then we’ll worry about all that other stuff – the narration, the news footage, you know, the stock footage, the newscasts.” This is a result of being able to have that kind of freedom. I was just able to go back and screw around with it with my producer, with the editor, and we were just screwing around and trying things out for size. We would record right into the Avid a million different little tracks and sound bytes and it was all just us. So in the end we picked some of these things and said “This works, this works, this works, and this works.” So we had a sound track except it was all us. It was all, you know, me and Peter and Michael and we said we gotta get some other voices. I mean this sounds funny, man. So at first I had the idea, I said, you know, we should just call up some of our buds. So the first guy I called was Steve King and I said we got this preacher thing. We sent him an email of the script and he read the script.
Over the phone we were able to do them all over the phone because they were all distorted anyway. They were all on radio. They didn’t have to have any fidelity. And he said okay and he did the script and he said, “But I wrote this other thing. Do you want me to do it?” And I said, “Sure, man.” [Laughs] And he just rattled out the thing that we actually used which of course is a hell of a lot funnier than what we had sent to him. Guillermo del Toro did the same thing. And I wound up just calling these old buddies up and saying would you do this voice and everybody said yeah. So all those special thanks to Tarantino, Savini, Simon Pegg, that’s it, they all do those news voices, Wes Craven. It was great because these are guys that I’ve known and it was great that they sort of came out and lent their support to this. That’s a nice touch.
HM.ca: In the film you never actually use the word “zombie.”
GEORGE ROMERO: No. They don’t know that they’re zombies.
HM.ca: Is this set in a world where the common law that we have of the zombie, the way we know it, does not exist? Have they never seen a zombie film?
GEORGE ROMERO: They haven’t. When I did the first film, I didn’t call them zombies. When I did Night of the Living Dead, I called them ghouls, flesh eaters. I didn’t think they were. Back then zombies were still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wet work for Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Matheson novel called I Am Legend which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I mean this is a 60s guy sitting there [pretends to take a toke, laughs] and I said if you’re going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning. Richard starts his book with one man left. Everybody in the world has become a vampire and I said, “No man, we gotta start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit.” And I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth shaking change, something that was forever, like this awful shit, something that was really at the heart of it. I said what if the dead stop staying dead. Again it’s just an idea that comes to you. And I just never thought of them as zombies in the first place. This film goes back theoretically to that first night. I mean I didn’t use the word until the second film and that’s only because people who were writing about the first film called them zombies and I said maybe they are in a way, but to me zombies were separate in the rainbow. I mean they were not even undead, they were just people that were … You blew this shit up with blowfish powder which would put someone in a state of suspended animation and then you get them to do your chores for you. I just thought it was completely different. Because this film goes back to that first night, nobody knows what to call them yet. By the time of The Land of the Dead, they had this slang already, stenches they called them. But I felt this is just too early for anybody to know what they were or to have any sort of identifying moniker for them. I used actually some of the old sound tracks from Night of the Living Dead. I might have said that before. I can’t remember what I said to who. They never called them zombies. It’s ghouls and flesh eaters. They’re dancing around. They didn’t know what to call them. “Those things!” which is always a good fall back position. [Laughs]
HM.ca: So much of the film is about communication and the media, what are your views aside from the zombie world on how we share information?
GEORGE ROMERO: Is it information or is it opinion and perspective and all that? I wish it was pure information. What the internet’s value is you have access to information. But you also have access to every lunatic that’s out there that wants to throw up a blog and anybody with a radical idea, if it sounds half way reasonable, is all of a sudden going to get millions of followers and that’s the thing that’s scary to me. If Hitler was alive today, he wouldn’t have to go into the town square ever. Throw up a blog. Bing, he’s got it. If he sounds half way reasonable, forget about it. People are so used to trusting what comes over that box whether it was the old console TV, now it’s the telephone, wherever it comes from.
I think people are so used to listening to that shit and they would rather have someone tell them how to think than do their homework and figure out what they really think about whatever the topic is and that to me is the scary thing. It’s always easy for people to be influenced. I guess if I were to indict anyone, it’s us, it’s us out here for not paying enough attention, not doing homework and just being willy nillies. It’s easier to look up from your beer and say ‘oh, you hear what that guy said? I happen to agree with that.’ Anybody who tunes into Rush Limbaugh already knows what he’s going to say and are already inclined to agree. So it winds up creating tribes. To me, tribalism and religion are basically the big reasons that we’re in trouble. Like patriotism, tribalism and religion.
HM.ca: In the movie it seems positive though. It’s how people share information about how you destroy these things.
GEORGE ROMERO: But is it information? It’s not information. It’s an opinion or it’s a certain perspective on it. I mean in the old days there were three networks and all of a sudden Walter Cronkite is the most trusted man inAmerica. Everybody believes what he says, not even thinking. In those days we didn’t even know it was being spun. We were very willing to just sort of listen to it and go along with it. I think the same thing is happening today. The problem is we’re going along not with Cronkite, not with these three guys anymore, we’re going along with 500 of them, a thousand, thousands of people, Arianna Huffington. It’s bad enough I have to listen to her instead of Joe Blow from Cincinnati.
Listen, Joe Blow may have exactly the right idea but there are undoubtedly a lot of people out there who don’t. So I don’t know, man. Was it? I would almost and I don’t know about this, but I’d almost rather be unknowingly manipulated, at least if the information is being managed, than just be subjected to this absolute confusion which just turns into noise. It just bothers me that way. I mean I wish that it was truthful but it’s not because people are not truthful. They weren’t truthful when they ran the three networks and not necessarily everybody is being truthful now.
HM.ca: In Diary of the Dead you’re saying you can’t trust the news because the news footage is being edited and you can’t necessarily trust bloggers either, then you’re implying…
GEORGE ROMERO: Who ya gonna call? [Laughs]
HM.ca: …that there‘s no reliable source of news anywhere ever.
GEORGE ROMERO: I don’t think there is.
HM.ca: In Diary of the Dead there’s not really a distinction made between filmmaking and journalism. Are you saying that there really isn’t a difference at this point?
GEORGE ROMERO: No, I’m not sure there is. I’m not trying to answer this question. I’m trying to ask a question. Obviously he gets out there and all of a sudden he says, ‘Oh, walk through that door again. I didn’t get it.’ Is he distorting the reality? Of course! Everybody does and you don’t know, man. It’s all opinion. His argument about we might be able to save some lives here. Is he just trying to be a super star? I don’t know. I view a lot of this stuff, a lot of these blogs that are out there, a lot of this shit that’s on the internet, it’s replaced graffiti. I wish somebody would do a study to see if the incidence of paintings on highway walls has gone down since people have the internet now. “I don’t need to do that shit, man. I can make my name for myself right here.”
I don’t know! I don’t know. That’s the way it strikes me. It just feels that people are out there tooting their own horn or saying their own thing. Maybe some of them are really well motivated, maybe some of them are really trying to help cut through the garbage, but you know I’m sitting there and I don’t know who to listen to. I have no idea who to listen to. I’d rather not listen to any of it and try to get some facts. There’s no sort of library where you can go to just get pure facts and make up your own mind about it. Is the planet warming or not? What have we gotten from any media source about that? Don’t you think we should be able to figure that out and come up with a definite answer?
HM.ca: The answer is yes.
GEORGE ROMERO: Well there you go folks.
HM.ca: Well you clearly have opinions and you’ve said as a filmmaker that you want to explore them in the films, but you also always say that the zombies are just the situation and they’re not a metaphor for something, so why is that just that and the other ideas are to be explored in the film?
GEORGE ROMERO: Why is that? I mean zombies are my ticket to ride. It’s how I get a deal. [Laughs] I mean I don’t care what they are. I don’t care where they came from. They could be any disaster. They could be an earthquake, a hurricane, whatever. In my mind, they don’t represent anything to me except a global change of some kind. And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this and that’s really all they’ve ever represented to me. It’s what I thought in Richard’s book, in the original book I Am Legend, that’s what I thought that book was about. There’s this global change and there’s one guy holding out and saying “Wait a minute. I’m still a human.” He’s wrong. I mean, go ahead, join them, you’ll live forever. In a certain sense he’s wrong. On the other hand, you’ve got to respect them for taking that position. And zombies to me don’t represent anything in particular. They are a global disaster that people don’t know how to deal with and that’s what it’s about because we don’t know how to deal with any of this shit, man. [Laughs]
Editors Note: This is an older interview we did that was collecting dust in our archives and we have pushed it back to the front of our page because George Romero is always a fascinating man to listen to.
Support George Romero and go and purchase one of his movies this week. Whether its Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead all are fantastic movies that every horror fan should see.