From the moment Night Of The Living Dead was released in 1968, George Romero has been stalked by zombies. In the 40 years since his debut film became a cult sensation, Romero has made wrenching, visionary films about paranoia, like the 1973 disaster thriller The Crazies; the perils of delusion, as in the melancholy 1977 vampire melodrama Martin; and the reality of fading ideals, as in the one-of-a-kind 1981 biker picture Knightriders. But the demands of fans and the marketplace keep bringing Romero back to the post-apocalyptic world he created in the late '60s, where cynical, venal humans fight off the advancing hordes of the undead. Fortunately for filmgoers, Romero pours as much of himself into his zombie movies as he does into the more offbeat projects. His latest, Diary Of The Dead, returns to the first days of the zombie plague—now reset to the present day—and follows a group of film students as they digitally capture the ensuing mayhem. Unlike other recent "found footage" films like Cloverfield and Redacted, Romero uses his conceit to explore how recording an event can distance the recorder from what's happening. Romero recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his inspiration for Diary, his plans for more installments, and how he feels about creating the template for an entire horror industry.
The A.V. Club: When you made Land Of The Dead in 2005, that was your first venture back into the zombie world in 20 years. Now Diary Of The Dead is coming right on the heels of Land. Why do another zombie film so soon?
George Romero: Oddly, that's a complicated question. Land Of The Dead was a grueling film to make. I just felt that the whole franchise had gotten too big, and was sort of approaching Thunderdome. It had nothing to do with the roots that it grew from, which was just a bunch of young people making a movie in Pittsburgh. Partly, I was longing to go back to that simple, all-in-control, working-with-friends environment. Also, I did have an idea, and that idea had come even before we started to shoot Land Of The Dead. I was stunned by the effect of all this emerging media, and how everybody was getting sucked in not only as viewers, but as reporters. It says on CNN that if you see something outside your window, shoot it and they'll put it on the air. I wanted to write something about that. I've never done any of the other zombie films without that sort of inspiration. In fact, I've always resisted doing a zombie movie for the sake of doing a zombie movie.
So I had the idea, and the idea was very suitable for going back to "the first night." There's a couple of collections of short stories called Book Of The Dead, written by horror fiction writers of note, including guys like Stephen King, all writing stories about what was happening to people on that first night of Night Of The Living Dead. And I said: "Well, I could do that, too." My idea was to have these film students out shooting a school project, and then the shit hits the fan, so they go out to document it. And that has to be the "first night," because if it were three years in, they wouldn't be attending classes any more. That was it. It all came together and seemed right.
AVC: You mentioned Book Of The Dead, which is part of the whole zombie industry that's sprung up over the past decade or so, most of which seem to use the rules of Night Of The Living Dead as their foundation.
GR: Not all of them! Not the films! People called 28 Days and 28 Weeks zombie movies, and they're not! It's some sort of virus; they're not dead. The Dawn Of The Dead remake was a big success, but there have only been a couple of other zombie films. Shaun Of The Dead was also very popular, but that was sort of a spoof or homage, whatever you want to call it. I loved that film.
AVC: There are books and comics, too.
GR: It's been mostly comics, and most influentially, video games that have made this creature popular. Everybody knows the rules, even though some break those rules. Some people are really making vampire movies. The point is, it's become this new sort of monster, and it's idiomatic. I expect a zombie to show up on Sesame Street soon, teaching kids to count. And you can sorta glue onto it anything you want to talk about. Unfortunately, people don't seem to be using it as metaphor as much as they could. It's all just sort of action. Whack 'em, sack 'em…more like video games. The Dawn remake was more like a videogame to me, much more than anything I ever made.
AVC: Are you generally flattered by the zombie explosion?
GR: [Laughs.] No-ho! Neither flattered nor insulted. I'm not a student of the genre. My stuff is my stuff. I do it for my own reasons, using my own peculiar set of guidelines. I'm not a student of the genre. I don't care what anybody else does. Everybody asks Stephen King how he feels about Hollywood ruining his books, and the first thing he says is, "The books aren't ruined. Here they are, on the shelf behind me." And I sorta feel the same way. My stuff is my stuff. Sometimes it's not as successful as some of the other stuff. [Laughs.] But it's my stuff.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that you'll only make a new film when you have some theme you want to explore. Do you have to work to fit those themes into a horror story, or does the story emerge naturally?
GR: You know what…I'm not trying to preach, or ask questions. Well, maybe ask questions, but certainly not answer any questions. I'm really trying to shoot snapshots. I made the first film, then all of a sudden people started to write about it like it was an essential American movie. And a lot of that was accidental. We cast an African-American actor because he was the best actor from among our friends. And when we finished the film, literally as we were driving it to New York in the trunk of a car, that was the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. So the movie became a reflection of the times. There's a certain anger in the movie already, but a lot of why that film gets applause is because Wayne is a black guy. In the script, his race is never mentioned. In my mind, when I wrote that initial scene, he was a white guy. And he would've been shot by the police even if he was a white guy. But because he happened to be an African-American, that made it much stronger, particularly after the assassination. We shouldn't take all the credit for that. A lot of it was an accident.
But even though I always felt that maybe a little too much was being said about it, I was also influenced by what was being said. Time comes to make a second film, I resisted, didn't have an idea, couldn't think of anything. Then I socially met these people who'd developed a shopping mall in Pittsburgh, and I thought to myself: "Oh, there's a load of things that I can take potshots at here, in this temple to consumerism." I felt the sequel had to live up to these huge expectations. Like, I gotta use a black guy. A lot of the decisions I initially made there were basically me thinking "I gotta live up to the expectations." It wasn't until about halfway through the production that I realized that I should just fly by the seat of my pants like I did the first time.
I actually had all the people die in the Dawn Of The Dead script. One of the things that's always bothered me about horror is that the only reason to do it is to upset the applecart, and it seems like everybody very deliberately restores order. They shoot the giant spider and it's all over. Halfway through that film, I realized I didn't have to restore order just to have a couple of people survive. And number two, I realized I should just let it ride. So, I threw in a lot more humor and had a little fun with it. Initially, when I set out to do Dawn Of The Dead, my motives weren't innocent, because I didn't think I could ever achieve that kind of intuitive innocence of the first film, when I just said, "Whatever, I don't really give a shit if anybody sees this movie." I've never achieved that again. But I realized while making Dawn that I have this sort of platform, where if I feel like saying something about what's going on in the world, I can bring back the zombies and do it again. That's how I developed this franchise, or whatever it is.
AVC: Even outside the franchise, though, you've used genre filmmaking to say something personal, particularly in Martin and Knightriders.
GR: Those are actually my favorite movies. [Laughs.] Martin is my favorite film of mine, and Knightriders a close second. It's very easy to tell the truth in fiction, and particularly in fantasy. The Grimms' fairy tales were political when they were first written. To me, it's a good way to use the genre… and so few people do it. So I'm perfectly content. I have this thing going now, and if I feel like talking about something, I can use zombies and talk about it. And it's fine. I think in some ways, it actually gets the point across more. It would be very hard to write a serious drama and say some of these things. You can be much more abstract and allusive with horror, and it's very forgiving to the author. You don't necessarily have to take an absolutely positive position. You can just write whatever.
AVC: You're already working on a sequel to Diary, correct?
GR: Yup! [Laughs.] Seems that way. You know, you never know. Nothing's ever real until it's real. But there's a lot of talk about doing a sequel already. I don't know. I think I would just continue the previous theme, and for the first time make it a real sequel. Start with, "And last week, here's what happened…" But there's also a lot I didn't have time to talk about last time, about media and about the dangers of it. I have a whole notebook of ideas that I could use. Diary Of The Dead is a fun ride, but there's a lot more to say.
AVC: Does the new filmmaking technology make it easier for you to make movies, or was it easier back when you had your Pittsburgh crew, working low to the ground?
GR: Film is a very expensive medium. With workprinting and if you need to do any sort of optical work, it was very, very expensive for us. It's a lot easier now, and you have a lot more control. First of all, in the old days, if you wanted to show someone getting shot on film, all you could do was place an effect in the original take. And if you wanted to brighten somebody's face and leave the rest of the room dark, that was a very expensive process. Now it's like being in a dark room. You can go in and add a shadow, or you can do whatever you want to do. So therefore you can shoot it quicker! You can shoot with basically flat light and fix it later. And you're out of there. The most expensive part of the process is being on set. Like, shooting a zombie in the head. You put a squib on him, the squib blows off, stains the wall. But you didn't get the shot. Now you gotta clean the wall, put another squib on the guy, fix his makeup, and all of a sudden you're 45 minutes behind. Much easier to have the hero point the gun, the zombie falls, you add the gun flash and splatter in post, and you got it. You're off the set. That's the main thing: getting off the set. That was essential on Diary Of The Dead, because we shot this film in 20 days. So it was a hell of a lot easier to use digital.
AVC: You're no longer a Pittsburgh resident, are you?
GR: No, I'm not. I still own a place there, but I've been living in Toronto for the past three and a half years.
AVC: You're so closely identified with Pittsburgh. Why did you leave?
GR: What happened in Pittsburgh was, for a while there, it looked like it was going to become a production center. The city was talking about building stages and stuff, because man, there were a couple of $400 million years. Everybody was shooting in Pittsburgh. Silence Of The Lambs… I mean, big movies were coming there to shoot. I came up there with a bunch of media people I grew up with and learned with, a bunch of friends, and we all started on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood together, because that was the only game in town. Then we made some films. But what really kicked Pittsburgh off was a movie called Flashdance that shot there, and made Hollywood discover Pittsburgh. Beautiful city, tremendously diverse. I mean, you could make it look like the 1800s, like Mrs. Soffel, or you could make it double New York. And you get 15 minutes out of town and you're in the mountains or in farm country. So there were a lot of advantages to shooting there, and it was very friendly to producers.
But all of a sudden it dried up! I was used to working with friends and a sort of family of colleagues, and everybody moved away in order to get work. So that was one of the reasons I left. And then the first film that we shot in Canada, Bruiser, we had a limited budget, but in Canada, we were able to get 20 percent extra on the dollar. So we went to shoot there, and I just fell in love with it. Fell in love with the crews, and just loved working there. So when we did Land Of The Dead, we went back, firmed up some relationships with people that we'd worked with before, and it was terrific. Again, sort of having a family of people that you really enjoy working with. It's no longer as economic, because I think the Canadian dollar is now stronger than ours—or at least it was a few days ago—so there aren't those advantages. But I just love working there.
AVC: At any point in your career, were you seduced to move to Hollywood and be part of that system?
GR: Yes, I'm telling you, the biggest black hole in my life was when all of a sudden we were getting courted by everybody. New Line gave us a housekeeping deal, and we developed some stuff for them, but they never made a movie. MGM bought a script, and then Fox bought it from them, and in the meantime, we were doing scripts for Universal and Fox. And nothing. No film was ever made. It was seven years or something out of our lives, and nobody made a movie. We made more money than we'd ever made, ever! But nobody was making any movies with us. And that was the frustration. That's why we went and made this little film called Bruiser, in Toronto, financed by a French company. Because it was just the most frustrating time in my life. Nothing was ever getting made. We were always hot, we were always on the pages of Variety. "Hey! Romero hired to do Goosebumps!" Not. It didn't happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: If Night Of The Living Dead hadn't been a hit, do you think you'd still be making horror films?
GR: Oh man, yeah. I grew up on EC Comics. When I was first old enough to go to movies alone with my quarter, which is what they cost in those days, they were re-running the Famous Monsters Of Filmland shows. I saw Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man. I saw all those guys on the big screen at RKO in the Bronx. I just always loved that stuff. I loved other stuff too. That's the thing. That wasn't all I wanted to be. I ate a few vegetables here and there. But I always loved horror. You know, the old EC comic books, the ones that got banned by the Comics Code, were very moral. There was always something to take home from one of those stories, always something to think about. And I think a combination of that and growing up with the threat of an atom bomb hitting New York and all that shit… I don't know, maybe that's a lethal combination.