I don’t remember the first time I saw Dawn of the Dead. It’s probable that I saw it after I had become familiar with the gore via Tom Savini’s video tapes (I was a burgeoning FX artist at the time, working with my friend Joel Israel to create a little shop of horrors in Kew Gardens, Queens), but even having all the juicy stuff spoiled didn’t change things for me: Dawn still ranks as one of my all-time favorite films. It may be my very favorite movie, depending on the day of the week, but it’s definitely always right up in the top three. It’s a movie that changed the way I watched movies -especially horror movies – allowing me to understand that the blood and scares sometimes had deeper meaning.
I had been in the same room as George Romero, the man behind the very concept of zombies as we know them, but I had never actually interviewed him before. When I heard that he was going to be at Sundance showing his latest film, Diary of the Dead, I didn’t even hesitate to get on the phone with the publicists at the Weinstein Company. I needed to sit down with Romero one on one. This bucket list of mine needed another item ticked off.
Romero’s a huge guy, and he’s obviously a lot older than he was when he was pushing the boundaries of cinema violence, but he’s still incredibly vital. He looks older than he did back in the day, but the energy you get from him is exactly the same energy you’ll get from him in the classic film Document of the Dead(and the same huge ass glasses); even as he approaches 70 you don’t scoff at his talk of making Diary sequels or working on other movies. George Romero still has a lot left in him.
Diary of the Dead opens this weekend. Support the living dead!
There’s a lot about Diary of the Dead that’s very different from your other work. One thing that jumps out at me is that this is the first Dead film – and one of the few movies you’ve ever made – that focuses on younger people. The previous Dead films have all had working class people in their 30s. This is a very different perspective; why did you decide to go with that?
I liked the idea of them being film students because it all just came together in my head somehow. I wanted them to be film students shooting a school project when the dead begin to walk. They had their camera, they had their gear, so they could document what was going on around them. That was what I really wanted to talk about, this whole new media explosion and the dangers of it and how people get wrapped up in it. People are easily recruited by CNN to be reporters on their own – which is not necessarily a complaint about media. I think it’s been misinterpreted that way – it’s more a concern about who is out there talking to us? It could be a lunatic out there and because of the way things are structured these days, all of sudden they could have a million followers. If Hitler was alive today, forget it.
He could have put a viral video on YouTube and every high school kid would be friends with his MySpace page.
Exactly. It underlies what it’s all about. There’s a sequel planned in which I’d like to go much further. I think it could go further; I left this as a smaller story and it’s forced to end where it ends. I am hoping there is a sequel, because I have more to say about this.
Another thing that’s different about Diary is obviously the way it’s shot. The interesting thing about that is that as a filmmaker you’re walking a line – you want to keep the believability of the conceit, but on the other hand you have a story to tell. You want to get onscreen everything you need to get onscreen. How do you walk that line?
It was very convenient having them studying to be film professionals. I tried to carefully explain that the lead female character edited the film so that it can have more of a traditional cinematic storytelling because it’s been edited. Again, it’s a device and I threw it up there and we’ll see if it works.
When you’re making this film do you err on the side of the device or on the side of storytelling?
On the side of the device, most definitely. In fact a lot of the storytelling, a lot of the narration we were changing until the last week before Toronto. I kept saying ‘This is wrong, she should address this, say something about that.’ We were picking news footage, getting images, all that stuff right up until the end. The very original script that we used to shoot the film has none of that narration. We had 20 days to film, a very limited budget. That was the price of freedom. The script, we were careful to make sure we just scripted the main action involving the principal characters, always knowing that when we got it on the editing table we would become that character and figure out how to edit it, figure out what we wanted to say. Literally the editor, Michael Doherty, my girlfriend and I were sitting in an editing room with the Avid recording temporary tracks, trying temporary music, just playing with it until we could see what it’s personality would be.
You use a lot of digital blood in this film, which is another big change from the gallons of practical blood you’ve used in the past. I have to imagine that makes it easier for you…
Much, much easier. You don’t have to wait for the effect to work. We needed to march on; as I say we had 20 days and it was a really tight squeeze. If you’re waiting for a squib to go off and it goes off and messes up the walls and you’ve got to repaint the wall… there was no time to take chances on that. It’s definitely much easier. The process of shooting the film is easier when you can say, ‘We’ll fix it in post.’ Of course there were some effects that actors wouldn’t allow us to do, practically. Like melt a guy’s head halfway down. Most actors refuse.
There’s something about digital blood versus having a guy whose fake body is stuffed with pig entrails. Is there a difference for the actors, is it harder to get them in the moment?
I don’t find that so much. I imagine if you were doing a big green screen epic, where you had to stand there and play a scene against nothing but green and somebody tells you ‘The universe is falling apart out there and you’re standing on the edge of a space ship,’ I imagine that would be a lot harder. This was not difficult at all. You pull the trigger on the gun, don’t worry because the gun flash will be digital – we don’t want to worry about that because half the time the gun flash registers and half the time it doesn’t – so it was just point a gun, the zombie falls. You had that amount of believability, you went through the action. It isn’t like playing against nothing and they’ll add a dinosaur later.
This is your second R rated Dead film. You went in and did it cheap for the freedom; is the gore that we’re seeing of this your final cut, or are we going to see a harder version of this?
There is no harder version right now. What you see on screen is what we shot. Again, we were very limited as far as budget goes. And half the times those things… I’ve seen editions of Dawn of the Dead with ‘all new footage!’ – who shot it? I didn’t! So no, there’s nothing sort of sitting in the vault. I’ve seen situations where people have come back and said, ‘Shoot a couple of shots, we’ll put them in as extras.’ I can’t tell you that won’t happen, because you just never know, but what’s up there is what you shot.
So your extra features…
There’s a wonderful guy named Mike Felsher who did a Creepshow extra edition, and he shot more than we shot [on Diary]. In fact he did interviews with all the principal actors staying in character, and we used one of those at the end of the film, Jason’s sort of confessional at the end, it was something just shot for the EPK. It was too good to pass up, so we had to put it in the movie. There’s a wonderful film about the making of the film that will go with [the DVD], and that’s about the only – there won’t be any more additional gore shots.
You’re talking about doing a sequel. While this is a rebooted Dead world, a fresh start from all the previous ones, all the other Dead sequels didn’t really have carry over characters. Will we see characters carry over, or is it going to be a traditional non-connected Dead sequel?
In this case, yes. In this case, definitely. Those people that are locked in that room will come out. It will definitely be a follow through, a direct sequel in that way. The other ones never were, and that was partly contractual because different people owned each of the individual films. As far as ratings, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were unrated, and the distributors were brave enough to put them out unrated when the only unrated movies were Richard Pryor, for God’s sake. They probably would have cut back to be R. Night of the Living Dead was before there was an MPAA. I’ve been lucky enough that they’re willing to let [Diary] be an R – thankfully the genre stuff that has been out there since Land of the Dead has been pretty hardass, so they’re willing to do this as an R. There was always a lot of fear ‘It’s got to be PG-13.’
This must have been the most similar to Night in terms of making it.
Absolutely. I was completely left alone, didn’t have to answer to anybody. I was working with friends; I had made my last three films in Toronto and I had made this sort of family of associates and people I work with all the time. That makes it a lot easier; start-up costs are hard on relationships. You meet a DP on the first day of shooting, how do you communicate? You haven’t looked at any movies together! It’s great working with family – you can really short hand everything, and nobody is second guessing anybody. That part of it was terrific. The actors were sensational; I hadn’t worked with any of them before but they were all Toronto-based actors with theater experience. We couldn’t have made this movie without that – we were shooting 8 pages takes in a single shot. They needed to remember their lines. I’ve worked with some big name film actors who say, ‘OK, what are we shooting now? All I have to say ‘Hey Charlie, how are you?’ What’s the next line?’
The story is that Day of the Dead was originally a much bigger picture that got cut down because of budget.
That’s true. I painted a much bigger picture – the company that released that film had released Dawn of the Dead and wanted to do another one. They were willing to release it unrated, but there were penalties for releasing an unrated film. It was treated like an X-rated film – you can’t advertise in newspapers, you can’t advertise on prime time TV, so they said ‘We’re not willing to risk.’ The budget for that script came in at 7 – which is not a lot of bread – but they were still not willing to take the risk on it, so I cut it back.
Is there a chance that vision could ever see the light of day, maybe as a graphic novel or something where budget isn’t an issue?
Probably not, because I used a lot of the ideas in Land of the Dead. Land of the Dead takes it to that next level, where I wanted that to be aboveground, and I ended up making Day of the Dead what happens underground with this little group of people. There was a B story about what was going on up top that was similar to what I used in Land of the Dead. And I don’t know where to keep going with that. It’s grueling to have to do it that big, and I don’t care so much for ‘We have to have the big effects, we have to have action sequences’ – I don’t care to have that be one of the mandates.
Where do you go from there is a good question. This is a genre that you invented, and it’s taken off in ways nobody could have imagined. Is the future going smaller, going more personal in the stories?
It’s starting is what I think it is. Now I have a new opportunity to go off in another direction. There were two big short story collections called Book of the Dead and Book of the Dead II, and it was all horror writers who used Night of the Living Dead and told their stories about what happened that first night, and I’m doing the same thing. Hopefully I can keep it small and not have to get that big. I loved doing Land of the Dead, and I always have to say this because it’s the truth, but Universal let me make that movie. I was terrified of those boys in the Black Tower, but they were great. They let me make the film the way I wanted to make it. But it’s just too hard, and it’s not what I set out to do with this. I’d much rather keep it small, stay at the two dollar betting window.