Few filmmakers can say that they have changed the face of modern cinema but George Romero is certainly one of them. Prior to his ground-breaking 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead, horror flicks didn’t kill their heroes, cynicism was only skin deep and politics were never dealt with quite so bluntly and efficiently. The film was also famous for – in the pre-Shaft era of American cinema – giving a black man a starring role and presenting him without any racial boundaries.
Romero continued his own unique form of independent moviemaking with a series of masterworks that includes his vampire fable Martin (1977), the Camelot throwback Knightriders (1981), compilation classic Creepshow (1982) and the underrated psycho-primate opus Monkey Shines (1988). Of course, there are also the zombie sequels, Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Day Of The Dead (1985) and Land Of The Dead (2005), each one of which shows an intelligence and wit that few other genre directors can lay claim to.
As SciFiNow anticipates Romero’s return to the silver screen with the upcoming Diary Of The Dead, we caught up with the master of splatter for the following exclusive interview…
Your next project, Diary Of The Dead, will once again see you dealing with zombies. Can I ask you why the living dead appeals to you so much? Why?
I don’t know (shrugs). Actually, I didn’t even think of them as zombies at first. I called them ‘flesh eaters’ back when I did Night Of The Living Dead and then somebody called them ‘zombies’ and I thought: “Oh, maybe they are.” But I think all horror and fantasy is metaphorical and the zombies usually represent something. You don’t have to look it at that way, of course – in fact, most of the audience probably just goes to enjoy the ride – but these films are wide open for interpretation. It is important to me that my films are like that. For example, I could never come up with the idea for The Ring or for a Freddy movie, that’s just not the way I think.
Indeed, your zombie movies have always aptly criticised, and reflected, the times that they were made. Night Of The Living Dead harks back to the Vietnam generation; Dawn Of The Dead shows us the rise of consumerism; and Day Of The Dead tackles the militia force of the Reagan years… But what happened to the Nineties?
Well I agree with you that these films are reflective of the times that they were released. They were little snap shots – ‘here’s what happening now’ – and I wanted to do the Nineties but I missed it. Basically, my partner and I got hung up in Hollywood development deals. For instance, we had a housekeeping deal at New Line for a while but it never led to a movie and, out of frustration, I fled and did a little independent thing called Bruiser, which nobody has ever seen (laughs). After that, I started to write the script for Land Of The Dead but it was originally about homeland problems. I was tackling homelessness, AIDS, the vanishing middle class… although the idea of a city protected by water was still in that early script. However, this was right before 9/11 and no one wanted to touch it after that – they wanted to make soft, fuzzy, lollipop movies. So I stuck it on the shelf and then a couple of years later I took it down and put in some references to what was happening in America. So the idea of an armoured vehicle going through a little village and mowing everybody down, and then wondering why they are pissed off at us, became more poignant. Yet that scene was actually in the original script – it just meant more after 9/11. One of the lines in Land Of The Dead was perhaps too on the nose – it’s when Dennis Hopper says, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” but it gets a laugh…
You are now working with bigger budgets and CGI effects. Can you compare this to your days of working alongside special effects legend Tom Savini?
As a filmmaker you have to appreciate that computers allow you to do things that you couldn’t think of doing before but, to be honest, I don’t like using them. I mean, I’m a Ray Harryhausen fan. I would prefer if we could still do it all mechanically, like that thing Savini did in Day Of The Dead where he pulled the guy’s head straight off. That was just fabulous and so seamless. He did it so well and you can see that it was a live shot. However, when something is done with CG, it is obviously CG. At least to me it is. Maybe general audiences don’t recognise it as readily as I do, but it bothers me. I’d rather be amazing and be like David Copperfield – “Here it is, live and in person, you figure it out” (laughs).
Did you always plan to do a sequel to, or at least a continuation of Night Of The Living Dead?
No. I didn’t want to do a sequel until I met the people that owned this shopping mall. I went on a tour of the place and this guy said: “There’s all these rooms above the mall and there’s all these civil defence supplies and you could live there for about a year.” That is how I got the idea for Dawn Of The Dead. This was the first of these big enclosed palaces in Pittsburgh and I thought: “This is just too good to pass up.” Then, by pure coincidence, I got a call from Dario Argento asking me if I wanted to do a sequel to Night. So I went to Rome and he stuck me in a little apartment, took me out for dinner once in a while, but mainly just kept saying: “You write, you write!” Within four weeks we had the script and Dario was producing it. So that was how that happened.
2004’s Dawn Of The Dead remake took in more money in its opening weekend than Land Of The Dead did during its entire American theatrical run. How did you feel about that?
Oh, of course that was disappointing. But to balance that out I think we were one of the best reviewed films of the summer. Of course, if we made more money it would have been great because you get a little piece of the action and it makes it easier to get the next job. In saying that, I think it did very well. You know, they didn’t spend much on it and, worldwide, it probably ended up doing about $60 or $70 million. So there weren’t any complaints, but the problem is that if you open it against Batman Begins and War Of The Worlds (which is what they did) then what chance do you have? I think it was a strategic error.
How did you honestly feel when they remade Dawn Of The Dead without any of the political aspects of your original? For instance, the remake even makes a hero out of a gun shop owner – surely the very antithesis of your own political commentary in the first film?
My ex-partner (Richard Rubinstein) remade Dawn Of The Dead and I knew that he was doing it, but I wouldn’t have done it. The Night Of The Living Dead remake that I worked on was done to try and re-establish the copyright over the name [as the film is in the public domain] and I wanted to get the director, Tom Savini, a feature credit. I went to see the Dawn remake, Richard asked me to go and look at it. I wasn’t the first guy in line (smiles) and I doubt that they were thinking much past the commerciality of it… But it was much better than I expected it was going to be. I think they did a pretty good job with it, but it was an action film – it was more of a videogame than anything else. And my zombies don’t run! Man, they would snap their ankles if they tried to run! My joke is that my guys would take out library cards before they’d join a health club. I don’t care though – honestly, I don’t care what they do (laughs). It is amazing to me that all of this stuff is being remade.
One project that you were associated with for a long time was Diamond Dead, the Rocky Horror-style musical/comedy/zombie film that was due to star Asia Argento. What happened there?
Oh I thought she [Asia] was perfect for the lead in that. I sent her the script and she loved it… I’d still love for that film to happen and I hope that somehow we can get it resurrected. But the producer was in LA, and then he moved back to Australia, and everybody split up and there has been no real concentrated effort to get it going again. For a while Ridley Scott was involved, and I was ready to roll, but then it all just drifted apart. That happens so often and it is the most frustrating thing – when the projects that you love blow apart and it is out of your control.
Didn’t you almost do Resident Evil and The Mummy at one point?
Yes, and I did several drafts for these films, always assuming I was going to get to do them. It can be frustrating when they won’t trust you with a big hit because your last movie didn’t do $100 million. At the same time as The Mummy I had a horror project called Before I Wake, which was at New Line and then we took it to MGM. That project actually killed The Mummy because I had 12 days left on my contract and MGM said, “We are definitely making Before I Wake.” At the same time Universal green lighted The Mummy. It was a ‘go’ picture and nothing like the film they eventually made… it was much more old-fashioned. But MGM wouldn’t let me out.
Were The Mummy and Resident Evil your biggest frustrations?
Actually my three biggest frustrations were The Stand, Pet Sematary and Resident Evil. I worked on The Stand for two years, Pet Sematary for a year and a half and Resident Evil for at least a year. When I first started working on The Stand with Stephen King he didn’t want it to be done for TV because he said that would castrate it. But, as a theatrical feature, he insisted that it be three hours plus in length and no one wanted to do that. So we never got a deal and it sat on the shelf forever. At that time Steve was very insistent about getting his own way and if he couldn’t get his way he would just pull the plug and say, “Forget about it.” A couple of years later they made The Stand for television and by that time Steve had relented. It’s a very frustrating business. If you don’t have a $100 million blockbuster under your belt then they don’t want to know your name, and that’s not what I shoot for, that’s not the kind of person I am. I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining, because I’ve had a tremendous run but it’s just that you get frustrated when they won’t trust you with a project unless you’ve had a big hit.
Let’s go back in time for a second. One of my favourite films of yours is also one of your least-seen: 1981’s Knightriders. Was that a difficult project to get off the ground?
What happened there was that we made Dawn Of The Dead without US distribution. Dario Argento brought in the Italian money and the American money was private so we didn’t have US distribution. It did very well in Germany, Italy and a couple of other markets. When it came to the States, everyone wanted to look at it because it had done so well in Europe. But everybody wanted to cut it, so what we did was we rented a theatre in Manhattan for one night, took a little ad out in the paper and said that we were going to show the movie. We invited a couple of small distributors to come along and this guy showed up from a company called United Film Distributors. He was walking out of the theatre into the lobby and he said: “I will distribute this movie and I will not cut it. It will go out unrated.” So then, when Dawn Of The Dead was successful for him, he said: “I want to make three more movies with you. I want the sequel to this and then I want two others.” So at this time I was working with Stephen King on Creepshow, which became an automatic green light, and by then he had two that he felt were going to be very successful so I was able to get Knightriders done. It was the usual trade-off deal.
We’re so glad Creepshow is getting a special edition DVD release. What drew you to this project? It has a much more mainstream feel than your other movies from the Seventies and Eighties…
The appeal was that I grew up with EC Comics! In the days before the Comics Code, when I was just a kid, there was this whole series that EC released – Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror and all of that stuff – and I loved it all. Sure, they were horror stories but they were also morality tales. So when we did Creepshow, which Stephen King modelled after these great old comic books, the bottom line was that the bad guys always got their comeuppance, but he also peppered the script with some social commentary. It was a dream project.
And we just recently saw Creepshow 3, some low budget, straight-to-DVD monstrosity. What is up with that?
I heard that! I heard about Creepshow 3. Now that actually amazes me because I didn’t think that Steve (King) would allow that. My ex-partner has the rights to it, but Steve was involved in the Creepshow films too and I’m surprised that he allowed that to happen – it blows me away. I wish that he had called me. I would love to have done another Creepshow movie.
It is quite ironic that people are making money from even the lesser known of your old films. For instance, The Crazies is now being remade…
I know about the new version of The Crazies but I’m not really involved with it. I just get my fee for being an executive producer on it and that means that they don’t have to talk to me about anything.