Master of the Living Dead

Night of the Living DeadFew would be likely to question the fact that George A. Romero revolutionised the horror film universe when, in 1968 as a student filmmaker in Pittsburgh, he made Night of the Living Dead. What he achieved in that “moment” of cinematic epiphany was three-fold.

Most obviously he created a scary and confronting horror film, one that continues to work on a visceral level today. But more to the point he pushed the envelope so hard that expectations regarding what horror cinema could achieve were changed radically, and the horror film was dragged kicking and moaning into the modern world.

Thirdly, of course, Romero created a new horror icon — one that is, if anything, even more virulent today than ever before: the apocalyptic, cannibalistically inclined zombie. Though he has made many films that don’t feature zombies and they all display his mastery of the genre, it is the cannibal living dead that tend to define him in the horror film connoisseur’s mind.

I met the Grand Master of the Living Dead last July in Melbourne, where he was attending the Melbourne Film Festival to introduce Australia to his then-latest Dead opus, Diary of the Dead. We met in a small lounge bar just before he was due at a scheduled MIFF event, “In Conversation with Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan”, guest curator and programmer of the Venice Film Festival.

The polished-wood, earth-coloured environment had something of the ambiance of “an opium den”, as Romero commented wryly. With his easy, unpretentious manner, familiar greying beard, white shirt and “military-style”, sleeveless jacket, he seemed more like a long-term acquaintance than a legendary figure I’d just met for the first time.

I comment on the current proliferation of cannibal zombie films (at least 50 in 2007 alone, by my count). He laughs easily. “I have one in my pocket and two more back in my room. Every student filmmaker that I meet, every time I go to a horror convention — when someone says ‘I’ve made a movie’ — it’s always a zombie movie. I know there are a lot of them in general release, but, at least in North America, only the remake of my own film, Dawn, and Shaun of the Dead, were particularly successful at the box-office. And of course 28 Days Later… did okay. But they were the only [zombie] films that made money. Usually it’s the films that make money that spawn the sequels and set trends. The phenomenon isn’t really in the mainstream.”

He paused then went on, “What is out there and more of an influence, particularly on young people, are video games, and there are dozens of video games with zombies. I think it’s the games that have made these creatures idiomatic.”

I remark that he was the one who created the modern form of the walking dead, turning something relatively harmless in an insatiable terror.

“Well, see I didn’t even call them zombies in Night of the Living Dead. To me, zombies were those boys in the Caribbean that were doing Lugosi’s wetwork for him.” He chuckled. “It was only when people started to write about the film, and called them zombies, that in the second film I used The Word. They’re the neighbours, you know… dead neighbours.”

In his more recent Land of the Dead, in fact, he refers to them as “stenches”.

He laughs. “Each film I have to come up with a different term.”

“What are they in Diary of the Dead?”

“It’s a different group of people on that first night and they haven’t gotten around to having a nickname for the zombies yet.”

Robert Hood and George Romero in Melbourne 2008
The author and the supreme zombie creator, George Romero

The new film is a masterful addition to Romero’s self-created mythos, taut, breathless and typically smart — but also much smaller in scope. It is out of the sequence that runs from Night (1968), to Dawn of the Dead (1978), through Day of the Dead (1985), then, after a longer break, to Land of the Dead in 2005. These films follow human society as it attempts to cope with first apocalypse and then the development of a nascent Dead society. The last ends with the destruction of Fiddler’s Green, an unethical and self-serving enclave of privileged Western society — and its end is brought about through human aggression via zombies acting together for the first time. The surviving human protagonists depart northward in an armoured vehicle called Dead Reckoning, hoping to find yet-another oasis in an isolated spot far away from both ravenous zombies and even-more ravenous humanity. A sequel could easily have followed on from this — and I had, I admit, been expecting it. But Diary, which appeared not the usual decade from the previous film but a mere few years after it, does not represent such a continuation.

“God, where do you go after that [Land]?” Romero asks in a thoughtful tone. “Universal [Pictures] was great. They let me make the film I wanted to make, but I just thought that it had gotten so big and smelled of Hollywood a little bit. Not that it was a bad experience in that way. It’s just that there are constraints when you work in the mainstream. You have to meet a certain standard, you have to be competitive, visually, have enough action, answer to others.”

I comment on how remarkable it is that despite the mainstream environment in which Land of the Dead was made he’d still managed to critically evaluate the establishment and big business in a way that mainstream films usually aren’t allowed to.

“For some reason I get away with it,” he says. I suspect it is because the studio execs knew that the sort of satirical commentary Romero puts in his films was in part what would sell Land of the Dead to its core audience. If so, it was admirably astute of them. “Well, in this case it was Universal that let me get away with it,” he adds. “They were in the right frame of mind. I think I owe Land of the Dead to the Bush administration. And possibly Ben Laden.”

“Were you happy with it?”

“Yes, I was happy with the way it turned out. I mean, it was ambitious. And we weren’t really wealthy when we made that film. But the thing is, I’m more of an outsider and I prefer to work small. I was happy with Land, but I just didn’t know where to go next.

“There is a kind of progression to the first four films as zombie society is developing. I wouldn’t want to say that the zombies are getting smarter but they’re remembering more and organising a little bit, learning to use weapons, or at least following the example of Big Daddy. Really, I didn’t know where to go from there. It was already a bit Beyond Thunderdome — the post-apocalyptic look and all that. It had become too big.”

I ask if the scale of Land is what inspired him to do the smaller-scale Diary of the Dead.

He nods.  “I decided I wanted to go back to the roots. In all of the zombie films since the second — not so much the first — I’ve had the idea that I’ll take something from real life and try to do a snapshot of what’s happening in North America right now. So in this film I wanted to do something about emerging media, about the internet and the blogsphere. You know, everyone’s a journalist these days. Particularly young people. So the impetus came from that. The characters are film students, they have the equipment and they’re there on that first night when the dead start waking up. That’s why it had to go back to the beginning. They wouldn’t have been in a position to document the event in this way years down the track.”

Has he always worked from an idea like this?

“I’ve always had the idea first and then it’s pretty easy to glue zombies on it. It’s a lot easier to glue zombies on it than to write a serious treatise about it.”

I comment on the impact that the Living Dead films have had in terms of their success in encapsulating the socio-political currents of the time.

“That became the thing that I wanted to do in these films. I missed the 90s, but that was the intent. I found a place where I could at least show my feelings about society, express my opinion, have a little fun with social and political satire.”

And it is that that makes his films more “serious” than the use of zombies might otherwise suggest; Romero’s films have done much to “acclimatise” genre commentary to the idea that horror can and perhaps should resonate beyond surface narrative. It is the way he informs his films with metaphysical and social meaning that drives them, whether or not the audience consciously thinks about it. I comment that for me, the zombies never seem “glued on” as a result. In part the power of the films comes from the way the zombies carry the social commentary. The metaphor seems integrated, not incidental.

“I mean that the films are always about the people,” he explains. “All of them, even the first one before I really knew what I was doing. To me, the zombies could be Hurricane Katrina, you know. They’re just something that changes everything for the people concerned.”

Yet they are clearly a very special “something”. Overcome with fannish enthusiasm, I interject to tell him that my favourite of his zombie films — in contradiction to most critics — is Day of the Dead, and precisely by reason of its complex combination of “serious” commentary and out-and-out gore.

He grins. “Great. I’m glad you like it. It happens to be my favourite of the bunch so far. I like the new one, I think, though I haven’t seen it yet. I need to be a few years away from a new film to take a really good look at it.”

I remark that I like Day for its claustrophobic darkness, too. “It’s so unremitting, so bleak. You get to the end and, well, it’s all over really.”

“Its music makes it a bit easier to take,” he laughs. “But seriously I didn’t know at the time whether it would be over or not. I thought in fact it might be the end.”

“It was interesting that you took the Bub character and developed the implications of that a little further in Land,” I say. Taking that approach might not have worked, but Romero’s mastery lies in the fact that he made it work in a convincing way. Under someone else’s guidance, it could have gone too far toward making the zombies the heroes — but Big Daddy is never the hero. He’s just more sympathetic.

“Bub in Day is still my favourite guy,” Romero admits. “It’s mostly performance. [Sherman] Howard’s performance is wonderful. He really pulled that off. Anyway I’m glad you feel that way. So many people fall into the trap — you know, make them fast, make them more threatening somehow. But they’re threatening enough. They don’t need to be any more threatening.”

Indeed for me a large part of the power of the zombie as an iconic figure lies in their unnatural nature — dead yet still moving and voracious — not in the mere physical threat that the Dawn remake, for example, emphasises.

“In Diary I take a few zings at the fast zombie idea,” Romero admits. “I couldn’t resist. There’s a sort of running gag — no pun intended!” [Laughs] “Also it just doesn’t frighten me. It’s like the Pittsburgh Steelers running at you. It’s just danger, not something unnatural. You could do it with rats, you could do it with snakes.”

“Well, they did do it with snakes in Snakes on a Plane. Did you see the zombie version, Flight of the Living Dead? Zombies on a plane?”

“They sent me the script, of course, to see if I wanted to do it. I said no, man.”

I ask what zombie films by other people have impressed him.

“I love Shaun [of the Dead],” he says. “I just love it. A bunch of my old buddies from Shaun came out to do voiceovers in Diary. It was very flattering that they were willing to.”

I ask him about the possibility of Diary 2 [which, of course, is now in post-production].

“There is a definite possibility … unfortunately,” he shrugs. “It’s one of those situations where they have the right to do it, and if I don’t want to be involved, they can do it anyway. So I’ve written a script, though I don’t know if it’s actually going to happen. I like the script a lot, but it would be the first time that I’ve done what’s really an extension of a particular film and not a new idea that grows out of the concept.”

I remark that the others do have some continuity.

He laughs. “If you don’t look too closely. This one is an actual extension — same characters, that sort of thing. Literally it’s part 2. I said it has to be like that if I have to do it quickly — unless they nuke DC or something … and I have something else to draw on.”

He considers for a moment. “But there is an aspect to the media theme that I didn’t go into in Diary. One of my biggest fears about the blogsphere is that I don’t think it works to widen people’s understanding or bring people together. People only seek out the opinions of those they already agree with. It creates tribes. There’s no discourse.”

This scepticism about contemporary media appears in the earlier films, too, particularly Dawn of the Dead, which begins as the news service becomes increasingly meaningless and chaotic, existing not to help but simply to find some continuity for itself. It turns into talking heads opinionating, cannibalising itself, until finally it falls silent altogether.

In Diary of the Dead, too, the media serves to confuse and isolate. Even worse, its command over “spin” allows it to reinterpret what has happened and confuse the truth. By the same token it is only the main character’s desire to upload what he records more or less as it happens that offers some sense of hope and purpose. Yet in the end this hope may be as false and as destructively pointless as the violence of the redneck hunters…

Romero downs a quick gin-and-tonic, having received the signal that he has to go to his next appointment. Outside it is cold and drizzly; an appropriate atmosphere in which to await the apocalypse.

I take the opportunity to ask him which of his non-zombie films he’d like people to be more familiar with. What’s his favourite amongst them?

“My favourite is a film called Martin,” he says with enthusiasm. “It’s a take on vampirism, about a youth who probably isn’t a vampire. And Knightriders. Those are my two favs. In many ways they’re the most personal.”

He is about to say more when our attention is drawn toward the doorway where some sort of kafuffle is taking place.

Someone screams.

A spray of blood decorates the wall. The milling crowd parts and the first of a group of shuffling figures pushes through, hands clutching for any exposed flesh. Half his face is hanging off, cheekbone glittering under a veneer of gore. Behind him, more ghouls force their way in through the doorway, moaning and growling. Naturally they move with arthritic awkwardness.

“Oh, good,” Romero says, “They’re here!’ He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a gun. “Let’s go!” he yells and aims for the head…

Okay, I made that last bit up. But hey! It was that kind of night and a screening of Dawn of the Dead was a mere hour or so away.

  • This interview was written for, and first published in, Black Magazine #2 (Nov. 2008). Many thanks to the editors of that excellent Dark Culture magazine and the George himself, who was an absolute gentleman and very generous with his time.
This entry was posted in Film, Interviews, Zombies. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Master of the Living Dead

  1. chuck mckenzie says:

    I loved this interview (it was the highlight of that issue of Black, IMO) – and Rob, you achieved a lovely balance between being a professional, serious and thoughtful interviewer, and being a shambling fanboy. 🙂 Great stuff, and I can’t think of anyone who ‘deserved’ to do the interview more.

    Now, if you can just get the chance to interview the Big G, you can die completely fulfilled (no, Fin Fang Foom doesn’t count!).

  2. Backbrain says:

    Thanks, Chuck.

    Actually, I’ve interviewed the Big G several times. Once on radio at the 2004 Academy Awards after party:

    Also on the subject of his preparations for filming “Godzilla Final Wars”:

    And in 2003 I interviewed both Kong and the Big G on the eve of their title fight:

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  4. chuck mckenzie says:

    Are you sure it was really him? I understand he occasionally likes to do a Saddam Hussein – has doubles wandering around to take the pressure off.

  5. Backbrain says:

    Well, his agent — the Smog Monster — seemed sincere… and he did have a tattoo of the Toho logo on his bum.

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