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Mon, February 11th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

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Jorge Khoury, Columnist

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A ZOMBIE VALENTINE - AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE A. ROMERO

by George Khoury and Special Guest Co-Writer John Reppion

[NOTE: The following article contains adult language.]

The legendary George A. Romero on set of "Diary of the Dead."
On February 15th of 2008, filmmaking icon George A. Romero brings back his trademark flavor of horror to theatres across the country with the release of his newest film, "Diary of the Dead." In "Diary," the director returns to his zombie roots and explores the outbreak of the undead in this new beginning set in the media/information obsessed society of the present day.

At age 68, Romero is someone who has nothing to prove to any of us – the quality and endurance of his films speaks for itself. His latest work is a shake-up of the genre that he defined and of his skills as a vital filmmaker. His new film is daring, experimental and one of the most aggressive stories to come to theatres in recent times. "Diary" is his first independently produced picture in twenty years, and it is brimming with new ideas and frights that come at you fast and furiously. In true George Romero fashion, the zombies are the last thing that you should be scared of.

In this interview conducted February 5th of 2008, we had the opportunity to have a conversation with Mr. Romero about his new film, insight into his prior works, and the drive to his distinguished career as one of the true masters of horror.

Story continues below

"Diary of the Dead" Photos by Steve Wilkie / Copyright of The Weinstein Company, 2008.
I'm sure you know that critics in the mainstream media will probably make the inevitable comparisons to "Cloverfield" in terms of the first person perspective employed in your new film. Was the timing of the release a coincidence, or a sort of blessing?

Oh, I don't know if it's a blessing or not. I mean, I have to tell you that I never knew anything about "Cloverfield," or what it was, or whatever. And I don't even know, I mean, I'm sure that The Weinstein Company did, but I don't think there was anything calculated about the release dates. And I haven't seen it. I don't know. Maybe it's this collective subconscious out there that all of a sudden this year there are a lot of films, "Redacted," "Cloverfield," our film, this thing, "Viewpoint," what's it called? "Vantage Point," y'know, seems to be also, isn't that also subjective cameras, people's "Rashomon" kind of thing?

Yeah.

But I just think, how can you miss this in the world? In a way, it's why I wanted to sort of hurry up and get it done. If you talk about it being a blessing, I actually wish that if we could have gotten this off the ground a little sooner, and sort of been the first guys out of the gate with it, I would have felt better about that. But I don't know. Everyone has their own sort of spit take on it, and that's the way it is. It just seems to be this is the year for movies about that.

Why were you reinventing your approach a bit with this particular picture? Why experiment with the narrative and sort of do guerilla-like filmmaking with a relatively unknown cast, after the last film?

Well, I really wanted to do that. I wanted to escape, man. I mean, I have no complaints about the way we were treated on "Land of the Dead." Universal was great. They really let me make the movie that I wanted to make - and no interference, basically. But it was grueling, man. It was really tough. It was a very, very ambitious film. More ambitious than the remake of "Dawn [of the Dead]," for example, in terms of production and the scale of the production! And we had two-thirds of the money that they had, so it was still guerrilla filmmaking, so it was 35 days of hell. It was just freezing weather, and everybody really, y'know, that old movie, trying to pull that cannon across Spain. And there was something about it that made me feel a little weird. I said, "Well, this is a franchise, if you can call it that, that grew out of a bunch of young guys making a film in Pittsburgh, and finishing it," and I wanted to really get back to the roots. So much so that, initially, I was willing to say, "Man, I'm just going to go DVD with this." I'm going to go down to - I actually wanted to go to a film school. There's a film school in Florida called Full Sail, where I've spoken a couple of times and taught a couple of classes. And I actually wanted to go to the school and do it completely under the radar, you know, try to find some dentist that would invest 500 grand and make the movie, and just go right to DVD. But I just really wanted a vacation. We talked about the idea to some people, and the people at Artfire Films convinced us to let them read the script. And we did, and they said, "No, no, no." Basically, they were willing to finance it independently and give us the controls that we wanted. So it really is the first time since "Night of the Living Dead" that I was able to completely make the film I wanted to make.

In "Diary," your lead character, Jason, he uses the Internet as a tool to spread the truth. Do you see the Internet as being a positive tool?

No. [laughs] Obviously, it has amazing advantages, and I think it's very nice to have sort of a rosy outlook on it. I mean, it scares the shit out of me, man. I mean, I just think that any lunatic can get out there, throw up a blog, and he'd have a million followers, you know?

They could spread rumors pretty easily.

It's all rumor, it's all opinion, or whatever. And it's all preaching to the converted. People that listen to Rush Limbaugh already think the way Rush Limbaugh thinks, and anybody that throws up a blog, the people that are going to go in there and suck onto it are people that are already going to have those ideas in their mind. Well, there can be a lot of radical ideas, and sometimes they can sound reasonable. I mean, I'm sure Hitler sounded very reasonable to the people he was talking to, at first. And it was all nationalism and pride, and it's very easy, man, to sell a bill of goods to the people out there. Unfortunately, people don't bother to educate themselves. They listen to people that sound right to them. And the danger, really, is in the populace, and it always has been, because people, I think, don't bother to get their act together, or don't bother to become discriminating listeners, and are very easily swayable.

There's a really good article in "Wired" that says pretty much the same kind of thing, that sci-fi and horror is the last viable form for philosophical writing, and one could say the same thing about science fiction movies and horror films, like the way you do them. What makes that the case? Did you always understand that you could show the truth if you gave it to thethrough these kinds of movies, that they'll listen maybe a little more to what you're saying?

Well, I think it's easier to tell the truth. Unless you want to be Michael Moore, and sort of distort it, and run the risk of people calling you a liar. He does his films, in calling them real documents, and he exaggerates, and he chooses his facts, and everything else. It's all personal opinion. In any situation, whether you're a painter, an orchestra conductor, a musical arranger, you're always going to introduce your own spin on it, right? But when you present it through a fictional format, I think it's easier for me to sort of, I don't know, be a bit more radical. Michael Moore tries to do it and he gets slapped down for it. I can express myself, or I can express certain kinds of views, and it's easier to get them across in a piece of fiction. I mean, people that really bother to think about it know that it's the writer, it's the creator, that is saying it. But when it comes out in a fictional format, a lot of people don't even pick up on it, don't even notice that it's there.

But they see it after a while. I liked a little incident in "Land of the Dead" where you had that guy mowing the grass that was an illegal immigrant (zombie). I thought, "Man, that's clever." [GR laughs] Like, most people just take those folks for granted.

Yeah, well, I mean, that's the other thing. But there you are. I mean, I'm half Latino, Leguizamo's Latino, and we have to call the guy, you know, he says, "That poor Mexican bastard." I don't know what identifies him as a Mexican bastard, but that's the way we decided to-

You're Latino? I always thought you were Italian (or of some European descent).

No, no. My dad was Cuban, my mom was Lithuanian. I'm a New York melting pot kid.

Strange. My father was from Dominican Republic, and his father was from Lebanon.

Oh, yeah?

He came here in the sixties as an immigrant. And so is my Mom. Her grandparents were Chinese, so they're really mixed.

Yeah. Well, same here, man. I mean, our whole family was just the typical New York family. I mean, they were from all over the place.

People didn't know what to make of you. [laughter] I thought that particular moment in "Land" was inspired, because nobody would get that. They see these people, and they just treat them like flies. [GR laughs] Are you amazed with the renaissance that zombies have had recently, with "28 Days Later" and some other films?

I am. You know, I don't think of the "28 Days" movies, or "28 Weeks", or I don't know what's next, "28 Years Later." But they're not zombies! I mean, I always say that. They're not! They've just caught some kind of bug. I mean, the films sort of borrow from the genre and treat it the same way. I can forgive them for running, because they're not that. The other stuff, man, I don't think it's film that's done it as much as video games. You know, there's been a couple of films. The "Dawn of the Dead" remake was a big hit. A couple of others. You can count them on one hand.

Yet it took forty years for you to get that legitimacy. Now people see these films as real movies, not just as midnight screening type of things.

I'm not sure about that. I mean, I still think they get -- they're the poor relations. The people that go out to see "The Queen" are not going to go out and see "Diary of the Dead."

"Diary of the Dead" Photos by Steve Wilkie / Copyright of The Weinstein Company, 2008.
But if they saw "Shaun of the Dead," they might want to know more about them.

Yes, that's true. "Shaun" is great. There's a movie called "Fido" which is a gas. I don't know if you know that.

You liked that? A lot of people and critics treated that pretty badly when it came out.

I thought it was a gas. I just thought it was terrific. And I love "Shaun" and those guys. We hang out with those guys whenever we're on the same side of the ocean. And they came out to be zombies in "Land of the Dead," actually, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

Yeah, I saw that on the DVD for "Land." They were like real fanboys. [laughs]

Yeah. And Simon does a voice track in "Diary of the Dead."

I completely missed him. I missed most of the cameos. I didn't really notice them. You're so into the film and waiting for that jump…

Right, yeah. I know, they're pretty subtle. But I was very thankful that they all said yes, and they all came out to do it, and it was great.

What inspired the idea of doing that first-person narrative thing? Was it all the reality TV that you see?

Yeah, man. What is newsworthy, right? Who determines that? Is it Britney Spears, or is it the fact that there are 500,000 trailers that never got delivered to New Orleans? And what gets more coverage? And the thing is, like, CNN says, "Hey, man, if you see a cat stuck in a tree outside your window, shoot it! We'll put it on the air." Everybody's a reporter, y'know? And so that's really what it was about, and it's about the idea of getting sucked into the idea of thinking that you can be a force, and thinking that you can help, and thinking that you might even be able to save lives. And the first guy gets obsessed with that idea, and I think that there are a lot of people out there that are just being told, in fact, that that's the case. I mean, literally, go out and shoot, whatever's happening in your neighborhood, shoot it. "Bring it in, we'll put it on the air, and we'll send you a CNN coffee mug!"

Did you have any reservations about that approach when you saw some of the early handheld footage?

No. You know what? And, actually, a couple of people have talked to me about this, and they said, "God, it seems so loose and freewheeling, it must have just been a gas." To make it look loose and freewheeling required more discipline than was required on any individual shot in "Land of the Dead," or in "Dark Half," or in any of the sort of bigger films that I've done, because we were shooting 360 degrees, man. I mean, there's a shot where they walk into Debra's house and they go in through the front door, through the living room, through the dining room, into the garage, back out of the garage. The camera was looking completely 360 degrees. There was no place to hide lights. And, I mean, we never blew any takes. And the thing is, we were shooting five, six, seven-page scenes. The actors were fabulous. We couldn't have done it if they didn't know the script and if they weren't able to bang it out like that. Most of the time, if we blew a take, it would be because, oops, I caught that light, I just saw a corner of that light, or, oops, I saw the stunt guy ducking under the lens, because as the lens would swing around, people would duck under it and go to the other side of the room. It must have been like the old "Ernie Kovacs Show" or something. Not primitive, I mean, it required more setup time than anything we've ever done, and it had to be more carefully plotted out, in a way, in order to be able to give it that sort of loose, free style, and be able to point the camera one way and then do a whole 360 with it, or a 180.

It's real strange. After I saw the movie, I didn't know what it was I felt. I was feeling a little queasy. The experience of watching it felt more like a ride.

Oh, you mean queasy just from the motion?

Yes, from the motion.

Oh, you're talking about motion sickness. [laughs] Okay. I didn't know exactly what you meant.

That's also part of it. The way you shot it made it more like an interactive kind of thing. You're sort of like in there with them.

Yeah. Well, that's what we were going for. And I have to tell you, actually, the first couple of shots are, even to me, a little rocky. If it's on a really big screen, ERRRNHH! You make movies on a small screen and you don't get a sense of that when you're working on a small screen. There are all these advocates that say, "You're not really seeing the movie unless you see it on a big screen." Well, there's no filmmaker that has ever seen a movie while he's making it, he or she, on anything bigger than a TV screen. And we used to work on, Christ, me and David Lean on a movieola, the tiny little screens.

Well, nobody shot bigger than Lean.

Yeah.

Did the actual actors shoot much of the film?

Only a few shots. There was always a surrogate, because it was just too difficult. It was too difficult to avoid the lights, it was too difficult to -- you know, we needed focus pullers, we needed all the traditional stuff. It looks free and easy, but it's not. We needed all the regular values of a good DP and his crew. We needed the focus pullers, the whole complement of people had to be there, so it was a little too hard for actors. There are a few shots, like when, for example, when Jason [the lead character played by Josh Close] finds himself in the mirror, he was actually shooting that, because there was no other way to do it. [laughs]

"Diary of the Dead" Photos by Steve Wilkie / Copyright of The Weinstein Company, 2008.
In this movie I think you're a little bit more fair and balanced toward the zombie, towards the plight of the zombie, showing the people to be more inhumane. Where does that come from, within you? Are you dissatisfied with something about society? I mean, you just mentioned some of those things before, like the media and other things. Is there a lot of stuff that is kind of just letting you down?

Oh, man, are you kidding me? I grew up in the Sixties. We thought the world had changed. We thought peace and love was going to bring about peace and love. No such luck.

Where does that come from within you, that you're not a conformist?

You know, it comes from fear, not so much the home. Neither of my parents were avidly into reading the newspaper or anything like that. My dad read a lot of fiction. But, no, man, it's personal experience. I mean, it's literally getting beat up by the Italians because they thought I was Latino, and I was half-Latino and that shit. And the bomb! That was the biggest influence in my life. All of a sudden, y'know, I mean, I remember blackouts. I can actually remember having to black out the apartments in this Met Life Parkchester development. And I remember "The Ed Sullivan Show" showing, well, if an atom bomb hits New York, and he would show this little movie. He'd show this first circle of absolute and total destruction, the second circle meant you would certainly die within, if you didn't get killed by collapsing buildings, you'd be dead from radiation within weeks. The third circle was a lot of people dying, some people surviving. And that's where we lived, in that third circle. And that's the shit that scared me.

[laughs] It sounds like you went to Catholic school also.

Oh, yeah! I did, I did, I did. That, too.

And the nuns scared the crap out of you.

Nuns, they used to pass out comic books, man, near the end of the Second World War, you know, comics books, in the last panel was the world blowing up, and on the way to getting there, it was either the Japanese running in, or the Russians running in, and raping your mother and killing your sister. Comic books! Propaganda comic books that these were actually passed out at St. Helens.

With "Diary" being released forty years after "Night of the Living Dead," and the outbreak being taken back to the source, to what extent is the new film a re-imagining of the original, from your point of view?

Y'know, it's not. It's very satisfying to think that it sort of goes back to that very first night, and it was very satisfying to make the film in this style, and make it with friends, and feel like it was a flashback. That's great. I also like the idea that it's a new beginning, with different problems in the world right now. The first film was more just about anger, and a lot of the politics that people read into the first film were accidental. I mean, we cast a black guy because he was the best actor from among our friends, and we took all kinds of credit for that. But what that film was addressing, and it's really the last fifteen or twenty minutes of that film that are really the angriest part of the film, and it was just about this, that, the failure of whatever that revolution was, and the fact that we were still shooting at each other, and there was this new war, "What's it called? Viet-something? Over there, there's some kind of a crazy new war." And there's rioting in the streets again. You know, it was a different time. So this is sort of starting over with the same story. It's a parallel development, but we've got different problems. There also is still a war over there.

So you're actually thinking of doing another one after this one?

Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of talk about a sequel. We'll see if it gets real or not. My partner and me pitched an idea when we were first approached with this, and I think it actually made the Internet, but I'm just trying to find a way to do it. And the strike needs to end before I can.

The idea of the evolution of the undead is something that you began in "Night" with the grave yard ghoul using a brick to smash the window of Barbra's car. So are the undead getting smarter now?

Well, in the first four films, I was sort of working on that, that they were getting smarter. And I'm probably going to use that if, let's say this film, let's say there is a sequel, and let's say there's even one after that. Well, what I will consider them to be is sort of a parallel series of films with the other films, starting on Day One again, and maybe going out another three years with different characters, and I would probably use that same theme of the zombies getting smarter, because you can only stub your toe so often before you get the hint that you shouldn't walk into that couch. So they just are gradually going to get smarter, and I might make it happen a little quicker. Actually, in the second film, in "Dawn of the Dead," there's a guy at the end who has a rifle and shows some signs of intelligence. In "Day of the Dead," Bub is the most intelligent zombie I've ever known. And everyone thinks that Big Daddy is the culmination of this, and I think Bub had a higher IQ. It's one of the themes that I'd like to work on, because the threat gets more, it's like a virus. It gets more threatening as it gets smarter.

You're obviously a massive source of inspiration to a generation of filmmakers and writers. To what extent do you feel responsible for the way the horror genre has moved on since 1968?

[laughs] I take no responsibility whatsoever! No, I don't feel that way. You can't think of yourself that way. I mean, you don't. I don't feel that way. I'm actually disappointed when I go to these conventions and twenty-five kids come up to me that have actually spent money, used up time and energy and everything, to make movies, and they're all fuckin' zombie movies. I said, "Man, try something else."

Special Thanks to Steven Tice and Eric-Nolen Weathington.

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