Combustible Celluloid

Interview: George A. Romero

Photo by Danielle Taormina-Keenan

Soul Survivor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

May 13, 2010—Though he is mainly affiliated with zombies, George A. Romero is a living legend. The 70 year-old filmmaker maintains a kind of independent status, not particularly affiliated with Hollywood, and still representing Pittsburgh whenever possible. He has his own distinct style, which runs through all his films, and he always manages something more with his films than just gore and scares. At least two of his films belong on the list of the greatest movies ever made, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and several more are on the list of underrated and overlooked classics, including, but not limited to the quasi-vampire film Martin (1977).

One would think that Romero's more recent films, including his new Survival of the Dead, reveal a downfall in his work, but it's always a mistake to assume this, especially since the early films have had plenty of time to simmer, and the new films have not. (The same assumption is usually made about Orson Welles.) While the response to Survival so far has not been exactly enthusiastic, I like it very much. It's a fun combination of totally loopy and intermittently brilliant, employing a bizarre cross-section of genres (Westerns, sea pictures, "feud" films, cartoons, etc.). ("I love playing with those things. They're all ideas that come to you in the shower. You wind up somehow being able to wind 'em all together," Romero says.) And even if I hadn't liked it, don't think I would pass up a chance to sit down with a living legend.

Romero is known for his zombie films, but his real fans would remind us that these movies are clever social satires as well as horror films. Like most satire, for Romero, the films start with anger, but eventually move toward a healthier outlet. He says that even Night of the Living Dead started in a place of anger. "We were all 1960s guys who were all pissed off that peace and love hadn't quite worked the way we hoped. So it starts there, but... I don't know... I've thought that all six of them were basically social satires. This one is too. This one's a little peculiar."

He goes on to explain that he liked the way the zombie films were going, that they were each a snapshot of a decade. But Land of the Dead was made for a big studio, for a relatively bigger budget, and Romero began to feel uncomfortable. "I felt that I had let go of the reigns or something, and I wanted to go back to the roots. And I had this idea... I wanted to do something about emerging media and citizen journalism. So I said, I'm going to do this really little film. Do a sidebar and go back to the first night. And I thought it [Diary of the Dead] would be a one-off, just a sidebar. And we met our financing partners at Artfire. They were great. They were willing to give me final cut and creative control, which I haven't had since way back -- if I stay within a certain budget range. We made Diary for under $3 million, and because of that, even though it had a limited release, it went out and made a lot of money. And so everybody said, 'We've got to do that again!'"

From there, Romero had the idea to spin Survival of the Dead out of some of the minor characters in Diary of the Dead, and then continue that with more films. "They can meet up with each other and themes can cross and story points can cross," he says. "I just fell in love with that idea, and I've never been able to do that because the first four films are all free standing." Unfortunately, the fate of the future films depends entirely on the performance of this film. "So we'll see," Romero says. "But I'd love to do it. I took what I thought of as a more universal theme. It's not necessarily about what's happening today."

Even though the films are connected via a character thread, Romero has decided to give them each different looks. While Diary of the Dead was shot on a video camera and meant to look like a homemade internet video, Survival of the Dead has a more classical look. "So once I had the beginnings of the story, I thought of an old William Wyler Western called The Big Country. And I made all the department heads watch The Big Country. And I said, 'Let's go widescreen and not mute the colors and do it that way.'"

Despite the big screen look and feel, the film is a low-budget wonder, and Romero credits digital video and CGI for his quick shooting schedule. "I love it, man," he says. "You can do so much. It makes it so flexible. It makes the whole job a bit easier. You don't even have to light. If you don't have time to get the lighting perfect you can do it later. You can put shadows in. You can do anything you want. It's incredible. It makes it so you can do a film under 5 or under 4, and get off the set. You gotta do these in 21 days. This went 24 or 25, all because of weather. We got clobbered. The conditions were terrible. So I really appreciate that."

Romero seems to realize that the digital zombie effects can never replace the real thing, but the swap is worth it for greater creative control. "I love mechanical effects, prosthetic effects, like the kind that [Tom] Savini and [Gregory] Nicotero do. It's more interactive. It's easier for the actors to react more if they're actually pulling stuff off their face. But again, it's just a time saver. Even squibs. If a squib goes wrong, the blood squirts the wrong way, you gotta clean it up, and you lose 45 minutes. The whole object when you're running and gunning, is to just get off the set."

Romero is clearly still having fun with zombies, but the question must come up: wouldn't he be interested in making non-horror films? Perhaps he has been pigeonholed, as Chaplin was making comedies. Fans just don't want to see him making anything else. But at the same time, Romero seems to have found a certain freedom in the zombie films; after the requisite scenes of moaning and brain-eating, he seems to be able to do virtually anything he wants.

"I sort of painted myself into a corner, not necessarily with the genre stuff," he says. "But just because I don't want to take a job. Honestly, that's what it is. So I've always generated my own material. Except Creepshow. Steve King wrote Creepshow, and the very second film I made after Night of the Living Dead [There's Always Vanilla] was written by a friend of mine. It was one of those films that never got any kind of reasonable distribution. I've never gotten a job through my agent. I've never been sent a script that I go "Wow! I'd love to do this." It never really happened. I think it's a sense of auteurism or something that I have, that has kept me from doing other things -- in some cases from doing things that probably would have made a lot of money. But I don't care. I've been having a good time, and I'm still around. As far as the genre stuff, if we get to make these two films, I'll be delighted. It's almost like a vacation. It's fun. It really is fun. Particularly when you have enough control that you can play around and do what you want. So I'll take it. In a New York minute."

Partial George A. Romero Filmography:
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There's Always Vanilla (1971)
Season of the Witch (1972)
The Crazies (1973)
Martin (1977)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Knightriders (1981)
Creepshow (1982)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Monkey Shines (1988)
Two Evil Eyes (1990) (segment "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar")
The Dark Half (1993)
Bruiser (2000)
Land of the Dead (2005)
Diary of the Dead (2008)
Survival of the Dead (2010)

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