Please note: The following interview includes spoilers for the film Survival of the Dead.
I’ve begun to meet and/or interact with famous people of the movie business more and more in my still-young capacity as a film journalist, but no prospective encounter had excited me more than the chance to join several other writers in a roundtable interview with George A. Romero. In the circles of film fandom from whence I come, he’s less a man than a King…. a King of the Dead, the legendary horror-geek icon who invented and perfected the zombie genre with Night of The Living Dead, Dawn of The Dead and Day of The Dead; along with offbeat non-zombie entries like Martin, Knightriders or The Crazies.
Romero is now in his 70s, but in recent years has experienced a flurry of renewed exposure. A remake of Dawn spurred interest for his return to the genre in Land of The Dead, and then a low-budget guerilla-style entry called Diary of The Dead.
Diary, a hand-held horror flick satirizing the relationship of the old and new media, sounds like the work of a fresh-faced neophyte filmmaker, not a man born in 1940. But to meet him in person, it all makes sense: Romero has the gray ponytail and wistful “yeah, man…” demeanor of the archetypal aging hippie, but his eyes, words and body language are those of a man who is – creatively – young and spry. Any student of horror films can tell you that he hasn’t had the easiest time getting his unique films produced, and an even harder time maintaining creative control of them. But now, seemingly invigorated both by recent success and the freedom afforded by the budget filmmaking tools of modern indie moviemaking, Romero appears almost rebooted creatively. His enthusiasm is like that of someone rediscovering the joy of movies, excited by all the possibilities before him.
One of those possibilities is his newest zombie entry, Survival of The Dead, the first in a (hoped for) series of spin-offs following minor characters from Diary – in this case a rogue team of soldiers whose journey through the early days of the Zombie Apocalypse take them to an isolated island community, where the long-running feud between two extended families has been reignited by disagreement over what do with the Living Dead: One side wants to exterminate them, the other wishes to try and keep their “loved ones” with them, and perhaps train them to eat something other than people.
MovieBob: The two warring communities [in the film] are both largely Irish. Is there some significance to that?
George Romero: I didn’t mean any particular significance there except, if you do a movie about feuds or that kind of long-standing conflict, y’know, Ireland comes to mind. I thought it made more sense than to have, say, an Arab and a Jew [big laugh from the table] So I just went with that.
MB: The last shot of Survival of the Dead [a standoff in front of a full moon] is one of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen in a movie this year. Did you plan on that kind of iconic shot, or did that happen?
GR: [excited] I’ve got to tell you how this happened. The DP shot time lapse footage of the moon rising. We were shooting with the Red Camera [ultra high-tech digital camera] and when he got that, we’d be been talking about this final shot with the two guys… with the moon over the horizon. And we did it first as a graphic for the back of the director chairs, and then we said, “Why don’t we just make that the last fuckin’ shot of the film?”
MB: You have a reputation, since the original Night of the Living Dead, as kind of the father of the modern socially-conscious genre film. I’d be curious to know, looking back, do you think things have gotten any better since then for movies that have zombies or aliens or whatever, but also have something on their mind?
GR: I don’t know, man… I sure don’t see a hell of a lot of it! It’s the biggest disappointment: Why don’t people use this as allegory or metaphor? Why not? It’s one of the reasons to do fantasy is to talk about about something that’s real, and I don’t see a lot of people… when you say “better or worse,” I think we’ve lost touch with that.
MB: Did you get to see District 9, the South African film?
GR: I haven’t, but I know what it’s about and, yeah, that sounds like it’s doing it. Yeah.
MB: Are we every going to see George Romero without “The Dead?”
GR: Hah! Beats me! My friend and I have one script that’s non-horror, and one that’s horror but not zombies. We’ll see. At my age, man… y’know, my partner and I, we spent eight years in Hollywood developing projects – The Mummy, Goosebumps, shit like that – that never happened. And I just ran away from that, it was so frustrating. We made a lot of dough – writing and writing and re-writing, but we never made a flick! So I fled.
I wound up writing Bruiser, we financed through a French company… Canal Plus before they got swallowed, and that’s how we found Canada [where Romero currently resides and frequently works from.] The same guy who shot Bruiser shot this. I’m with this wonderful “family,” y’know, we make what we want and we have fun. I don’t know if I want to go back and spend a year… I’m too old for that! [laughs]
The remaining selection of questions were either asked by others at the roundtable, or came up as part of more conversational moments. The questions have been summarized, Mr. Romero’s comments appear as he spoke them.
Why are zombies in Survival called “Deadheads”?
I dunno, man… I guess maybe I’m a bit resentful of how popular zombies have become. I’ve always called them something else, in [“Land of The Dead”] I called them “Stenches.” Zombie just sounds so ordinary.
What did he think of the remake of his film The Crazies?
It’s not the movie I would’ve made. I’m technically called the Executive Producer on that, which basically means “stay home.” I thought there’d maybe be some more involvement, but there wasn’t.
Does he keep a list of creative deaths he’s done on film?
I just get so tired of the headshots, y’know? Even though that’s the easiest way to deal with them. But, no, man, these ideas just come to me. Even when I’m not working on a film… call up the CGI guys and go “can we do this?” “How do we do this?” There’s a brain-melt in [Diary of The Dead] that I sat the guys down and said “Can we track that?” Because we can’t lock it down – it’s handheld. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s one in [Land of The Dead]… we were running out of money… it’s a guy who looks like his head is off, but it’s hanging down his back? I never got it totally right. I think Tom Savini [his FX man on prior films] could’ve done it.
His feelings on fast vs. slow zombies?
I forgive them if they’re not dead. So… 28 Days Later, I guess is okay. Because it’s a disease.
Has he ever thought of making a straight-up comedy?
I’d love to do it! I’ve pitched for years… basically I wanted to do Coyote and the Roadrunner but with one human and one zombie. It’d be just one gag after another. But I just can’t find the funding! [as if on-cue, the entire table of assembled journalists reach for their wallets, asking how much he’d need. Most of us probably aren’t kidding.]
George A. Romero’s Survival of The Dead opens in theaters on May 28 in the United States, and is now available On Demand in many areas.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.