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Q&A: George A. Romero


Introduction and transcript by Rob Vaux

The word "legend" gets bandied around a lot in Hollywood, but in George A. Romero's case, the moniker is fitting. Starting with 1968's Night of the Living Dead, he has helmed a series of zombie pictures that helped define the genre and now stand as some of the indisputable masterpieces of horror. His other notable films include Knightriders, Monkey Shines, Martin, and a pair of collaborations with his friend Stephen King, Creepshow and The Dark Half. The fifth entry in his zombie franchise, Diary of the Dead, opened this weekend; he recently sat down to discuss it with the press.

Question: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this project?

George A. Romero: What if I said no? (Laughter.)

I made a film just a few years ago called Land of the Dead. It was the fourth zombie film that I made. I was pretty satisfied with it, though I know some of my fans weren't. But when I looked at it -- even though Universal really left me alone to make it and it wound up being largely the film I wanted to make -- it seemed so big. It was Thunderdome, or approaching Thunderdome, and I didn't know where to go from there. I had this track going, where the zombies were sort of learning and evolving, but this movie was so big that I just couldn't envision what to do next. At the same time -- actually before we shot Land of the Dead -- I had the idea of doing something about emerging media. I thought it was a way to get back and do something really inexpensive and simple, and to see if I had the chops and the stamina to make another little guerilla movie. To relate back to the origins of the thing. I thought I could use film students out shooting a school project, and the zombies begin to walk, and they document it. I wanted to do the subjective camera thing -- and this is before I knew about anybody else doing it. I didn't know about De Palma [who directed Redacted] or Cloverfield or any of that. I thought we were going to be the first guys out there with it.

Q: How carefully did you have to construct those elements of the story: that subjective camerawork?

GR: It wasn't so much constructing the story as it was constructing the shots. People have said how nice it must have been just to turn the camera on and shoot. It was hell, man! We were shooting 360 degrees around the room. We were doing eight-page shots [each script page is about a minute of film time]. I mean it had to be choreographed down to its shoelaces. In that sense, it was 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.

Q: Why did you decide to use a DP and construct the shots rather than just go Blair Witch style and hand the cameras to the actors?

GR: (Smiles.) Well first of all, they don't shoot that good. Seriously, I wanted it to be theatrical. I think it sort of walks that line, maybe unsuccessfully, I'm not sure. It might be a little too arch and a little too theatrical. I did want it to be Blair Witch, but Blair Witch was dizzying to me and it didn't quite make sense. I wanted to explain a little more and I wanted to have some traditional elements, more Gothic elements in there. That requires a bit more staging and more carefully constructed plot and production elements. I guess that's also one of the things that's disappointing to me these days: that a lot of films sort of leave those values out. I went to see Atonement and I expected to need a tissue. Didn't happen. That same week, Turner Classic Movies showed Brief Encounter, and you laugh at the style and the technique and everything else for ninety minutes. 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 Diary of the Dead is an emotional film in that same way, but I like some of the old Gothic values. We were trying to sort of walk that line and put some of that in, and at the same time make it free and easy.

Q: Without going into too much detail, could you talk about the ending of Diary? Are you leaving the door open for another sequel?

GR: In Night of the Living Dead, everybody died, and when I set out to make Dawn of the Dead, in my original script, everybody died too. I said, "We're making a sequel here, it's gotta be the same." Then about halfway through the shoot on that film, I decided that we could leave the world upset -- we didn't have to restore order -- but we could save a couple of these characters. So I've always done that: Dawn, Day, Land, and now this one, it's always there. And everybody says, "Oh, it's wide open for another sequel." But the reason isn't to make a sequel. I just wanted to save a couple of those characters that I liked.

Q: You're so identified with zombie movies now. Are you happy with that, or does it haunt you sometimes?

GR: 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. I mean, if I were to walk in there with a little romantic comedy, they'd say, "What?!" So that's a bit frustrating. You don't grow up wanting to be a horror filmmaker, you grow up wanting to be a filmmaker. I wish that I had a wider range. And I tried, early on, to do films that were non-genre, and about nine people saw them, so I don't have the credentials in that regard.

But on the other side of that coin, and far outweighing the frustration, is the ability to use the genre of fantasy and horror as a way of expressing my opinion. To talk about society. To do a little bit of satire. And that's been great, man. A lot of people don't have that platform. I joke and say maybe I'm the Michael Moore of horror, but it's wonderful to have that ability.

Q: Is it hard to strike that balance between gore/horror and subtler social commentary?

GR: I don't think it's difficult, I think you just have to set out to do it. The ideas for a lot of these films have come from the world. And once you've decided to make a movie about a given topic or notion, you just glue zombies on it. You just have to have that core idea. I don't think a lot of people do. I go to conventions and universities and talk to a lot of young filmmakers, and everybody's making a zombie movie. But they're just doing it because it's easy to get the neighbors to come out and put ketchup on them -- you don't need a rubber suit or effects or anything. There doesn't seem to be a lot of substance behind most of it. It's just splatter. You have to go a little deeper than that. I always tell these young filmmakers, "Get an idea." Forget story.

And everybody mistakes idea for story. I'm a terrible pitchman. Whenever I come out to L.A. and pitch something to an executive, they always want to know what the story is. Well, you can do the story fifty different ways: the hero's black, he's white, he's a woman, you pick 'em. But it has to be about something, and they never want to hear that. You say, "This is about mistrust," and you get a lot of head nods. "All right," they say. "So what's the story?"

Q: You've done so many zombie deaths over the years and so many different ways to whacking the little buggers on the head to stop them. How do you keep coming up with new shticks for that?

GR: It always seems a little redundant to me. A lot of them are just ideas that come to you in the shower. But that is the challenge every time to set out to do one of these films. How are we gonna kill these guys? Anyone with ideas, write them down and send them to me. I might do another one and I always feel like I'm running out of stuff.

Q: What about Diamond Dead? Is that ever going to happen?

GR: I would love to do Diamond Dead. I loved the old script, we had an Australian producer, we had Ridley Scott behind it. It looked like it was really going to happen, but nobody got it. Nobody. It's like Phantom of the Paradise, that old De Palma movie, which I loved. It was about this dead rock band. And... nobody got it. So it sort of blew away.

But right before I came out here, I got a call from this guy who said they had a new script, and he really wanted me to read it. I said I would, but I'm not home right now, so I haven't read it yet. Maybe -- maybe -- it'll come back. I don't know. You never know. Shit goes out on the Internet, rumors and stories about projects, and I never know where they come from. Some of them you work on. This one. Other stuff. But the rest... it's just hearsay.

Steve King wrote this book called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I loved it, but again, man, you couldn't sell it for beanstalk beans. It's about a little girl, and they all said, "How can you get a star in there?" Then all of a sudden, Dakota Fanning appears on the scene. Dakota actually said... it's a funny story. I went in to take the meeting at Ben Frank's, which is Dakota's favorite place, and I met with her. Her mother and her agent sat outside! I go in and I'm sitting at this table with this little girl, and telling people I'm not some kind of creep! And I took this very serious meeting with her. She liked the story. She was mostly concerned about getting bitten by all those mosquitoes. I said, "Oh no, we can fake that shit." Even then, though, it wasn't enough to get it financed. Nobody wanted to risk it on a little girl, even Dakota Fanning. So that movie's never been made, and may never be made. Maybe once Steve stops writing or gets hit by another van or something, and they need another Steve King thing.

Q: Do you ever see yourself returning to comic books, like you did with Toe Tags?

GR: I'd love to write another comic book. I told those guys, "Just call me up and I'll do it again." I actually was hoping that would turn into a movie, but again, it's just too big. For those who don't know, I wrote this comic book, and these wonderful illustrators drew it. Bernie Wrightson did the covers and Tommy Castillo did the interiors. As movie fodder it's great. Those guys did the hard stuff: you don't have to worry about how to shoot it! Somebody just drew it! Unfortunately, I made it too big to convert into a movie. I had devastated cities and this guy with a pet elephant. Not the kind of shit you can do very easily on film. But I loved doing it and would love to do another one. I sent them a few ideas. We'll see.

Q: Your films have certainly spawned a lot of imitators. Any of them you're particularly fond of?

GR: Well Shaun of the Dead, man... I just flipped for Shaun. It's funny. I was living in Florida at the time, on this little island with one little theater whose projector had, like, a 40-watt bulb. I get this message from some guy named Edgar Wright. He said, kind of sheepishly, "We made this movie, I hope you like it, would it be okay to show it to you?" Next thing I know, this cat from Universal shows up with a bomb suitcase chained to his wrist. It's a print of the film and he's arranged to show it in the local theater. So this funky little drunkard comes down to open up the theater and run the projector, and the image is a little dark and it's just me in the theater, but man it was hilarious. It came with their phone numbers, Edgar's and Simon [Pegg]'s. I called them up immediately, right after I saw it. They said, "We just wanted to be sure you weren't going to slap us down." I said, "How could anybody slap you down for this? It's just so loving." We're still buddies. They both came down to be zombies in Land. Simon does a voice in Diary. Happy to know them, they are the cleverest guys in the world. They could be the new Monty Python, though I don't think that's quite what they're shooting for. Simon is the new Scotty!

Q: Well you thanked them in the credits for Diary, along with Wes Craven and some other horror notables...

GR: Yeah, they all did voice tracks. We shot the principle action for the film, and said, "If we can get this shit in the can, then we can finish it." I mean, the characters are going to finish it. One of the kids -- we weren't sure who at the time -- was going to finish it and make it presentable. Well we could finish it the same way. We shot the principle action, which was scripted, and then worried about all the other stuff later: the narration, the news footage, the stock footage, all of that. We came back afterwards and -- as a result of having so much freedom on this film -- I was just able to go back and screw around with it in post. Me, the producer, the editor... just recording a million different tracks and trying them on for size. We picked a few that worked and they ended up in the film, but all the voices on those tracks were just us. Me and Peter [Grunwald] and Michael [Doherty]. We had to get some other voices.

So we just called up some of our buds. The first guy I called was Steve King. I sent him an e-mail of the script -- of this preacher's sermon -- and he read it over the phone (we could do it all over the phone, we didn't need any fidelity). Then he said, "Hey I wrote this other thing; do you want me to do it?" And we said sure, and he rattled it out, and of course it was a hell of a lot funnier than the script we sent him, so that was what we ended up using.

I wound up just calling all these buddies up and asking them to do a voice track for us. That's what all those special thank-yous are for: Guillermo Del Toro, and Quentin Tarantino, and Tom Savini, and Simon Pegg, and the others. They all do those news voices. It was great to have them come out and lend their support to it.

Q: You never actually use the word "zombies" in this film. Is this a world where zombie lore doesn't exist? Do these character know about zombies?

GR: They don't. When I did the first film, I didn't call them zombies. I called them ghouls or flesh-eaters. I didn't think they were zombies. Back then, zombies to me were still those boys in the Caribbean doing the wetwork for Lugosi. I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. Frankly, I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard 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... and hey, if you're gonna do something about revolution, you should start from the beginning. Richard starts his book with one man left and everybody else in the world as a vampire. I thought, "Hey man, we could start at the beginning, tweak it up a little bit." And I couldn't use vampires because he did, but I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that would really get at the heart of all this shit we deal with. So I thought, "What if the dead stopped staying dead?" Again, just one of those ideas that comes to you.

I didn't even use the word "zombie" until the second film, and that's only because the people who were writing about the first film called them zombies. This film, Diary theoretically goes back to that first night. And because it goes back to the first night, nobody knows what to call them yet. By the time you get to Land, they have these slang terms for them. Stenches. But Diary is just too early to have any sort of identifying moniker for them.

Q: So much of the film is about communication and the media. What are your thoughts on how we share information?

GR: Is it information, or is it opinion and perspective? I wish it was pure information. The value of the Internet is having access to information. But you also have access to every lunatic who wants to throw up a blog. And anybody with a radical idea that sounds halfway reasonable is going to get millions of followers overnight. That's the thing that scares me. If Hitler were alive today, he wouldn't have to go out into the town square, ever. He'd just throw up a blog.

People are so used to trusting what comes over that box, whether it was the old console TV or the Internet. Wherever it comes from, people are too used to listening to that shit. And they would rather have someone tell them what to think than do their homework and figure out for themselves what they really think. It's so easy for people to be influenced. I guess if I were to indict anyone, it would be us. Us out here. For not paying enough attention. For not doing our homework. Anybody who tunes in to Rush Limbaugh already knows what he's going to say and they're already inclined to agree. It winds up creating tribes. For me, patriotism, tribalism, and religion are basically the big reasons why we're in so much trouble.

In the old days, there were three networks. Suddenly, Walter Cronkite is the most trusted man in America. Everybody believes what he says, and we're not even thinking about whether it was being spun. We were very willing to just go along with it and listen to it. And I think the same thing is happening today. The trouble is we're not going along with Cronkite, not with three guys anymore, but five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. And yeah, some of them might have the right idea. But a lot more of them don't. I don't know. I think I'd almost rather be unknowingly manipulated -- and at least have the information being managed -- than being subjected to this absolute confusion, which just turns into noise. I wish that it was truthful, but it's not, because people aren't truthful. They weren't truthful when they ran the three networks and not necessarily everyone is being truthful now.

Q: So in the movie, if you can't trust the news because it's being edited, and you can't necessarily trust the bloggers either...

GR: Who you gonna call? (Laughter.)

Q: But what the characters are filming is supposed to be the truth, reality. Are you saying that there really isn't a truth?

GR: I'm not sure there is. And I'm not trying to answer this question, I'm just trying to ask it. Obviously this character in the movie, this filmmaker, says things like, "Walk through that doorway again, I didn't get it." Is he distorting the reality? Of course! And everybody does it. His justification about getting this footage out there so it can save lives... is that really it? Or is he just trying to be a superstar? I mean this stuff on the Internet... it's replaced graffiti. I wish someone would do a study on that: to see if the paintings on highway walls, the incidents, have gone down because people have the Internet now. I don't know. I don't. That's just the way it strikes me: that people are out there, just 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 I'm sitting there, and I don't know who to listen to. I don't know if I want to listen to anyone. I'd rather just get some facts, but we don't have any facts. 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?

Q: The answer is yes.

GR: Well there you go folks. (Laughter.)

Q: You clearly have you opinions, and you've said that you want to explore them in your films, but you've also always said that the zombies are just the situation: that they're not a metaphor for something. So why are the zombies just zombies and the other ideas are issues to be explored?

GR: Because zombies are my ticket to ride, man! It's how I get a deal done! (Laughter.)

Frankly, I don't care what they are. I don't care where they came from. They could be any disaster: an earthquake, a hurricane, whatever. In my mind, they don't represent anything except a global change of some kind. The stories are about how people respond -- or fail to respond -- to it. That's really all they've ever represented to me. It's what I thought I Am Legend was about. There's this global change and there's one guy holding out. In a certain sense, he's wrong, but you also have to respect him for taking that position. But zombies in these movies are the catalyst for that: a global disaster that people don't know how to deal with. And that's what it's about. Because really, we don't know how to deal with any of this shit.

Article published 02.17.2008.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Diary of the Dead.

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