George fucking Romero. Seventy years old and still in the indie trenches, with a master plan to make at least two more zombie films – as well as some other movies along the way. His latest, Survival of the Dead, is one part classic Romero zombie social epic and one part weird Western. I think it’s his best movie since Day of the Dead, and it’s available right now on Pay Per View, XBox and a bunch of other legit digital streaming services. It’s also opening in select theaters around the country.
Fifteen minutes with Romero isn’t enough time. I barely had a chance to broach the big, obvious subjects, let alone go into the smaller details of his amazing and long career. Still, it was an honor and a thrill to have a conversation with a man who is inarguably one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century.
It’s no secret that this film was influenced on some level by Big Country, the William Wyler movie. Is that something you had always wanted to do, to go into the Western genre?
Not particularly, no. This whole thing has a curious history. I thought Diary of the Dead was going to be a one shot; I have these zombie films over here that I’ve been doing for a while, and then I wanted to do something about emerging media, about citizen journalism. I knew I had to do it quick. I wanted to do it inexpensively so I could have control, and below a certain budget I can have creative control. We hooked up with our partners at Artfire and they financed that film and I thought it was going to be a one shot. Like Night of the Living Dead – I didn’t think I’d still be doing [zombies.] I didn’t have rules in mind, nothing, when I made Night. I didn’t have this conceit about doing them every ten years. It wasn’t until Dawn that I realized ‘I can make these movies be about something’ and have fun with the zombies at the same time.
All of a sudden Diary, because it was so inexpensive to produce, ended up making lots of money. Artfire and everybody said ‘Let’s go again.’ Then I got the idea to do something that I’ve never been able to do, because the first four films each one of them is owned and controlled by somebody else. I couldn’t cross-collateralize, I couldn’t repeat characters, I couldn’t use themes. So I said what if we contemplate making three more films, all based out of Diary, taking characters out of Diary and following them, and I could create this collage of what the world is like. I could have ideas cross and I could have characters cross, which was something I’d really like to do. I don’t know whether that’s going to happen or not.
The first one I picked was The Sarge, and I said let’s send him to an island where he thinks it’s going to be safer but they end up in a shooting war with these feuding clans. I had all of that before I said ‘Oh shit!’ and remembered The Big Country. I said, ‘It would make it more fun for us if we really just tried to make it look like that, look like Wyler, go widescreen, don’t mute the colors.’ That’s where it came from; it’s a frivolous idea but hopefully it works. It gives it a different flavor. One of the problems with having control is that you’re always questioning yourself – am I going too far here? Are some of the gags too Looney Tunes? But I sure have fun doing that.
You talk about having ideas for three more – do you see yourself playing with other genres in those two?
I’d love to.
Are there any genres you love that you might like to play with?
I’d love to a real noir thing, but nobody would ever let me shoot it in black and white.
Well, Frank Darabont has that version of The Mist in black and white.
He redid it in black and white. That’s about as close as I think I could get. But I think you can get beautiful – we shot this with the Red camera, and I know that with the information that’s in there you could get a really beautiful black and white. I could do it as an afterthought. Instead of special added footage, it’s special deleted color!
You mention wondering if some of the gags are too Looney Tunes; going from Night to this, over all those decades, has the way you approach cinematic violence changed? Do you look at it differently than you did as a young turk?
I don’t think so. That’s a tough question, but I don’t think I do. It’s always a fight to make it look realistic but comic book enough so that it’s not utterly offensive. That’s the line that you try to walk. But zombies, man, they’re like the coyote of horror creatures. It’s okay to damage them, you can do whatever you want to them!
You don’t use as much CGI in this as you did in Diary, but there is still quite a bit. You’ve ended up with CGI because it enables to work faster, right?
I’d love to use prosthetic effects – there are a few in here, when [Dread Central’s Uncle] Creepy pulls that guy apart at the end, which is a completely practical gag. But we had to say “OK, you guys go over there, set it up, we’re going to be shooting over here, let us know when you’re ready.” That’s the big thing, obviously – time is money, that old saw, and you have to get off the set. Where we save the most time is just gunfire and squib work. No reset, no cleaning the walls if it doesn’t work. That saves a tremendous amount of time. But the other thing with CG, and where I’ve been enjoying it the most, is being able to do things that [Tom] Savini could never do. The acid head guy in Diary, and the fire extinguisher guy in this one. And the fire gag even though, you know, some of it don’t look wonderful. Again, it’s budgetary. We’re not working with Industrial Light and Magic. But it’s still great fun to be able to do that.
And digital too – it’s like having a dark room, man. You can save time on lighting, you don’t have to get it perfect. You can do it flat and mess with it later.
Is that what you’re doing? You’re running and gunning it?
Sometimes, when you have to. In a difficult scene where you need that one last shot.
Is this bringing you back to the earliest roots?
It’s the same process, it’s just different tools and different approaches. It’s finding ways to cut corners without taking value off the screen.
There’s this thing where post-Land people were talking about how your zombies have gotten smarter. But that’s something you’ve always been interested in, going all the way back to Night, where the little girl uses a trowel to kill her parents.
Night is a mess that way. They’re eating insects! I wasn’t thinking in terms of rules, I didn’t think of it in that way until Dawn. But even in Dawn there’s one zombie who walks around with a rifle the whole time and he grabs Peter’s gun, and you see him make a choice. I’ve always tried to do that. But I know, everyone says ‘With Big Daddy they’re really getting smart.’ But Bub is a genius!
Why does that interest you?
It makes them more like us, and it makes you realize they are us. I don’t think it’s intelligence, I think it’s memory. It’s remembered. When I audition zombies for lead zombie roles, I always ask them ‘Here’s a phone, you sort of recognize it, but you don’t quite remember what to do with it.’ I let them improv it. They’re like infants at a certain stage of development. It makes them cuter, in a way, or more sympathetic.
You talk about with Night you weren’t thinking about rules. Now that they’re so established, do you feel hemmed in by them? Do you want to break a couple of them just to do it?
Not necessarily break them, no? If I get to do this collection of three they will contain all the rules I care about and maybe some new ideas, like will they eat something other than me?
Which is where you go with this one.
But nobody knows, and I’ll have this thing where the audience knows but the characters don’t. I’m fascinated with the idea of making this epic six hour or seven hour statement. That would be fun.
AMC is doing a TV series version of the comic book The Walking Dead. Would you be interested in directing an episode?
I don’t know. I’ve got my own zombies to worry about.
Just yesterday I read about this movie in development where The Beatles become zombies – [Romero makes a disgusted face] – I know. But you invented this – the idea of what zombies are today is very different from the White Zombie version, and you invented this. Is it weird to be competing with bastardized versions of your creation?
We’re not competing. I don’t feel like I’m in a foot race or anything. I’ve always felt like my films are my films, and I’ve always had my own approach to it. I don’t even think of them as zombie movies. Zombies are the hurricane that happens and the stories are people stories. That’s why I never want to go beyond where I went in Land, in terms of an ending and having the zombies take over the world, because that’s not what it’s about for me. Here’s this game-changing thing happening, guys, and you’re fucking arguing about the basement. That’s what I enjoy the most and I never want to go past that. I’m having fun making them, and I’m grateful people are still buying them.
I like this one a lot, it comes back closest to Dawn and Day; it comes back closest to my 70s and 80s period attitude. But like you suggested, I’d like to try a couple more different styles.
Does the success of these movies give you more leeway to do non-zombie stuff. Lately I’ve been revisiting some of your earlier films, like Martin and Knightriders, and some of your best films have nothing to do with zombies. Are there other projects that are percolating?
My partner and I have a couple of projects. At my age I just don’t want to get into… we did our penance out here [in LA] for six and a half years, made more money than I ever made before or since and never made a movie. I don’t have time for that anymore. I have a little movie that’s non-horror, and I have a little horror movie that’s non-zombie and I’ll see. We’ll see what happens.