Romero Returns from the Dead
by Paul Fischer
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George A. Romero is an iconic master of a genre he really helped to master. Four decades on, Romero is back with another zombie movie. Thiis one revolves around a group of young film students who run into real-life zombies while filming a horror movie of their own. One would think the filmmaker was always interested in horror from the get go, but as Paul Fischer discovered when chatting to Romero, his earliest love was far from the world he would later inhabit.
Paul Fischer: So tell me why, after four decades, do you have this burning desire to return to Dead territory?
George A. Romero: Well, you know, it’s not a burning desire. And the fact is, I’ve never left. I mean, I’ve been doing it ever since, basically. The other films were just—a decade or more apart and this time I had an idea. We were shooting the fourth film and I was, like, very concerned that it was getting a little too big, and I just really wanted to sort of get back to the roots. So that’s where this film came from. I had the idea before we shot Land of the Dead, actually, to do something about the blogosphere, this emerging media. And after we finished Land of the Dead, I looked at it, and I said, “Man, this just has no relationship to where it all started,” which was a bunch of young amateurs in Pittsburgh making a little movie. I just wanted to get back to that, and so it all sort of fell into place. I mean, a whole series of events that made it happen. I literally wanted to go and shoot it at a film school, way under the radar, get a couple hundred grand from doctors and dentists and go shoot a little movie unnoticed.
PF: But you’re George A. Romero. You don’t do things unnoticed.
GAR: Why not? [laughs] You mean I’m not allowed?
PF: I don’t think so.
GAR: I think so. I was ready to go, man. I was ready to go. I had the deal made with the school and everything else, and then somebody said, “No, let’s…”—you know, I just wanted to control it. I really wanted to get back to the roots and do something that I could completely control.
PF: How daunting was it for you to retain that control again? And what do you think you want to do that was completely different, and stylistically, from what had come before?
GAR: Well, stylistically, I had this idea to do it all subjective camera. And I thought, “What a unique idea!” I didn’t know that meantime, there were people plotting things like Redacted and Cloverfield and all that. I had no idea. I thought we were gonna be the first. It was great—I mean, people have said, “Wow. Must have been great to just turn the camera on and shoot it.” In fact, it required more discipline than anything I’ve ever done, because we were shooting eight pages at a time, and the camera was seeing 360 around the room. So it required way more planning and choreography than basically, anything that I’ve ever done, even though it looks free and easy, it was not.
PF: It’s all digital, I presume.
GAR: Well, we shot—yes. Yeah. But it’s all real.
PF: No, no, no. I don’t mean the effects. I mean the camera.
GAR: Yes. Exactly, yeah. We wanted to make the shots. And I’m telling you, man, it was a circus. I mean, when you see in 360, we had guys with lights ducking under the lens, and people getting out of the way. I mean, it was literally, the ratio of setups to shoot was, you know, usually six hours to set it up, 20 minutes to shoot it.
PF: How do you sort of go about casting a picture like this? And especially when you’re dealing with this kind of technology, and this film acting. I mean, is it tough?
GAR: Not so. It was basically auditions. One of the actors I knew from the Stratford Shakespeare Company in Ontario. One of them was actually in Land of the Dead. The others were all auditioned, and the real key was, can you remember, can you put two lines back to back? I mean, I’ve worked with, like, you know, big experienced movie stars, who say, “Oh, okay, I’m supposed to say, ‘Hi, Charlie.’ What’s my next line?” I mean, they could never do this. These young actors were theatre people and they could have said, “Okay, we’re gonna do the whole movie, top to bottom.” And they would have, I think, been able to do it. We were shooting eight-page scenes, man. Never dropped a shot because an actor blew a line. The only stuff that we ever lost was because the camera guy caught the stunt guy running across the room, or caught the edge of a light. Or—you know, it was all us. It wasn’t them.
PF: How do you think the genre has evolved since you really were the forerunner of it? I mean, do you think it’s evolved hugely?
GAR: I wish it had. [laughs] I don’t see any real progress, do you? I mean, I don’t know, it seems to have been reduced to its worst common denominator, or something. I don’t get this torture porn stuff. I just don’t get it. I don’t see it—I think there’s kind of a soul missing, and there has been from the soul has been missing from the genre. Not only this genre, but everything. I mean, I went to see Atonement, you know, and I brought along tissues, expecting to come out with a tear in my eye. Not. And the same week, Turner Classic Movies ran Brief Encounter, and it’s one of those films, you can laugh at it—you laugh at the style and somewhere in your mind saying, “God, this is so corny and old.” Yet at the end of 90 minutes of doing that, there is a tear in your eye. Something works! And I think that kind of soul is just missing from films today.
PF: Do you think that the horror genre needs to be re-imagined completely from scratch?
GAR: Oh, man, how can you? I don’t know. I don’t know. Re-imagine? I mean, you can’t sort of—
PF: Or reinvented in some way? Do you think it’s just too repetitious?
GAR: Yes, but what do you do? I think you fall back on the old. I mean, I don’t know. I think you fall back on the old values, which are, again, have been thrown out with the bath water. I just think that people aren’t relying on the old tricks that—that still do work. I mean, that—things that go bump in the night. When all of a sudden you get a film like Signs, you know, and people are terrified by it, or a film like The Others. You get—you know, films that sort of have those old sort of gothic values in them seem to work. I mean, my own kids say to me, “Oh, man, Signs, that was the scariest thing I ever saw.” I said to my daughter, “Did you notice the resemblance between that and Night of the Living Dead, maybe?” Couple of people stuck in a farmhouse? I mean, I don’t know. It’s the old values that still work, and I think people spend too much time denying it, and missing the mark.
PF: What did you think of Shaun of the Dead?
GAR: I loved it. I loved it. I mean, I just flipped for it. I thought it was a gas. There’s a movie called Fido that I thought was—fabulous. I love that shit, man. I mean, I have never—I have no complaints about—you know, you can spoof me, spoof the genre, do whatever you want. If you want it to—you know, have some affection and some real craftsmanship to it, or something.
PF: Who influenced you when you were starting out?
GAR: [laughs] Not horror! It was basically—well, my man was Michael Powell.
PF: Oh, really?
GAR: The movie that made me want to make movies was The Tales of Hoffman.
PF: Oh my god!
GAR: You can believe this or no.
PF: No, I cannot believe that.
GAR: I mean, I had an aunt and uncle who took me to see that downtown. I was bored to tears. I wanted to go see Tarzan and the Mermaids, or whatever the hell it was. And they said, “No, you’re gonna go see this!” And it was my first turn-on to sort of classical music. I think I was 12 years old. And—and it’s a fantasy film, of course. And I just—I thought Robert Helpmann was the greatest Dracula that I ever saw and there’s all of those elements in it. And it was transparent the way he approached, the way Michael approached it. It was obvious what he was doing. It was obvious that he was over-printing, and that he was double-exposing. He was running the film backwards and I had been at the time sort of screwing around with my uncle’s old eight millimeter camera, he was the gadget guy at the time. So I knew how some of it had I could see it. I could see how it was done, in some way. And so it made it accessible, and it made me think, “Well, shit. Maybe I can do that.” I mean, I think if I was growing up and I saw Jurassic Park, I would say, “How the hell did they do those dinosaurs?” It was just right place at the right time. I could see what was happening there.
PF: So how on earth did you decide to venture into the world of zombies and horror in the first place? I mean, what was it about that genre that ultimately drew you?
GAR: I grew up on DC Comic books, you know? I mean, when I was allowed to go to the movies alone for the first time, right around that same age, you know, I went—that’s what I went to see. That’s basically what was at the RKO Castle Hill at the time. It was all garbage ’50s “Be afraid of the bomb” movies and they were actually reruns of the old classic Universal monsters of film-land. So I saw, at around the same age that I saw Hoffman, I saw—you know, Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Invisible Man. Big screen. I mean, you know, how many people alive have seen those movie big screen? And I just fell in love with it and the experience and everything else. And then came 3D, and I just was gobbled up by the genre. I always thought that that was the way to go. And I think probably the first time I thought it was—I don’t know, in a way relevant, was The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then all of a sudden here’s one of these movies that was about something. I don’t know. I just got enamored of the idea that you can use, or you should use fantasy as metaphor somehow.
PF: Yes. In fact, your zombie pictures deal with being on the outside of society’s mainstream, and being on the periphery of society. I was wondering if you saw yourself in some way as some of these characters in your movies. Do you see yourself as being an outsider?
GAR: Of course I do! [laughs] But you don’t think that deeply, man. And maybe it’s there. Maybe it’s subliminal. Maybe it’s unconscious. I don’t know. I mean, the film which maybe is a bit too obvious that I think is the most autobiographical in a certain sense is a little film I made called Knightriders. That, to me, is my sort of movie that is most about me. These other films, yes. Okay. Sure. I mean, I do think of myself as an outsider, and proud to be there. And I’ve never lived here, and I should say—I was gonna say there, but I happen to be in Los Angeles right now, so I have to say “here.” Never lived here. I don’t particular care what’s going on. I—I try not to be influenced by style, by whatever. I mean, I know people that live here, and—you know, they’re influenced by everything. From—“Oh, the new film stock!” You know, to the new digital camera. To—you know, and everything comes out with a degree of sameness. And there’s sort of no adventuresome experimentation going on. And so I’ve always preferred to sort of live out in the middle somewhere.
PF: You get labeled the iconic label that seems to be attached to you, that you are this maverick, this icon of—of cinematic horror. Are you comfortable with the label?
GAR: Well, I’ll never get the Christian vote. [laughs] Let’s put it that way. You know, I can’t think of myself as an icon. I can’t even think of myself as an insolent in that way. You don’t think of yourself that way, man. I mean, I’ve always just sort of done whatever seemed like a good idea at the time, and I can’t possibly imagine that I’m sort of included in the sort of filmmaking annals in that way. You know? I am still learning. I mean, that’s really what keeps me going, and that’s really what was the most fun about this film, in that while it looks free and loose and easy, it required discipline. It required a bit of knowledge about how to move the eye, and how—I think it’s really only the last three or four films I’ve made where I have any sort of control over that.
PF: Do you enjoy playing with this new technology?
GAR: You know what? Enjoy? No. I don’t—again, I don’t particularly care. ‘Cause it’s all storytelling, right? I don’t care what we’re shooting on. I could care less. The great thing about it was, the whole object, particularly when you have a low budget, and you have to get off the set—like, we have to shoot this in 20 days. The whole object is getting off the set. So the greatest thing about being able to shoot this digitally was, forget about it. We can change it later, fix it in post. It’s—you know, that’s the whole thing. And so we don’t have to worry about timing it. It’s like, you have a dark room, and you can do anything you want with the shot later. So you can shoot it bald, you can shoot it raw, shoot it flat, fix it later. And that was great. And effects, you know. Instead of having to wait around for a squib to fail and stain the wall and scrub the wall and reset the zombie, you can just have the actor hold up the gun, the zombie falls, paint in the gun flash, paint in the splatter, and you’re outta here. And that, to me, is a big advantage of being able to work this way.
PF: I understand that you’re already contemplating a sequel to Diary.
GAR: Yeah. Well, others certainly are, and they’re talking to me about it and I’m trying to develop an idea for it. I guess it—in this case, it would be a direct sequel for the first time. Take the same characters, pick them up where they left off, and move on.
PF: And so you’d shoot—
GAR: You’re gonna ask, am I gonna shoot it subjective again? I don’t—is that what you were gonna ask?
GAR: I don’t know. I don’t know. It might be cool to sort of jump back, maybe even repeat a couple of the other scenes that already happened, and shoot `em objectively. A little Rashômon action. I don’t know. [laughs] But, you know, unfortunately, that’s Vantage Point, right?
PF: [laughs] How soon do the Weinstein Brothers want you to start work on this?
GAR: Probably yesterday. No, I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t know. I’m still on strike until at least tomorrow.
PF: Oh, that’s right. I forgot you’re a writer, too. So, what’s the news on that whole thing?
GAR: The sort of wisdom on the street seems to think that they’re gonna unanimously vote it in, and that it might be as soon as tomorrow.
PF: Have you written a script yet?
GAR: I have a notebook on it, and I’ve been screwing around with it. But I—I don’t really have what—anything that you could actually call “a script.” But I have—I have a lot of ideas.
PF: Is there life for you beyond zombies? [laughs]
GAR: Yes. My girlfriend and my cat and my menu—my cooking—cookbooks embody it. [laughs]
PF: Are you doing a new cookbook?
GAR: No, I’m not writing one, I just am buying them and trying them out. But my life other than zombies is pretty regular sort of silly life.
PF: I take it you don’t want to make a non-zombie movie.
GAR: I’d love to. I would love to. Just call me up, I’ll be there. [laughs] But no one does call me, up, you know.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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