Published at: May 26, 2010, 12:23 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
For whatever reason, pop culture has been overrun by the living dead. Zombies are everywhere: movies, video games, graphic novels even a reworked Jane Austen classic. For years, the genre catered strictly to horror fans (and gorehounds in particular); now, it's being used to sell computers.
None of this matters much to George A. Romero. Oh, sure, it makes it a little easier for the godfather of the genre to get his latest series of zombie films financed, but, given the low-budget range in which he's currently working, that money would probably be there regardless of what mainstream moviegoers are consuming. As he has done for most of his legendary career, Romero is making allegorical horror films for a niche audience that likes to gnaw on ideas as much as they enjoy watching the undead munch on human flesh. This is how he built his career, and, at the age of seventy, this appears to be the way he'd like to operate from here on out.
Romero's latest examination of society buckling under the stress of a zombie epidemic is SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, and while it picks up the new narrative thread introduced in 2007's DIARY OF THE DEAD, it thankfully eschews the verite approach of that picture in favor of a more classical aesthetic. Set largely on an island off the coast of Delaware, Romero's film concerns a rogue group of soldiers - the same ones who shook down the RV in DIARY - straying into the middle of a old-style family feud modeled after the conflict in William Wyler's THE BIG COUNTRY. This gives Romero license to play around with the conventions of the western, and he responds with a clever screenplay that features some of his most intriguing characters since DAY OF THE DEAD (which you may not love as much as I do, but it's okay; you're just wrong). SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is a gratifying return to form that leaves you eager for Romero's next installment in his second zombie cycle.
And, yes, provided it's as profitable as DIARY OF THE DEAD, Romero has every intention of continuing this series for another two films - one of which will be the first proper zombie noir. As for whether he intends to take a break from the living dead to attempt another idiosyncratic triumph like MARTIN or KNIGHTRIDERS, you'll just have to read the below interview, in which we also discuss his thoughts on current fascination with zombies, why he prefers them to lumber rather than run, and which of his '70s films he'd like to remake himself. It goes without saying that it was an honor to chat with the master, if only for sixteen minutes.
We do get a little spoiler-y at times, so beware.
Mr. Beaks: So you got to make a western!
George A. Romero: (Laughs) Yes.
Beaks: With a very deliberate nod to THE BIG COUNTRY. Is this something you'd been wanting to do?
Romero: No, no, no. It's sort of a long story. When I did DIARY OF THE DEAD, I thought it would be a one-off. I wanted to do something about emerging media, and take a break from the rest of the series - particularly after LAND OF THE DEAD, which was bigger and not as much fun to do. Not because it was studio, but from the pressure of the bigger budget and having to juggle schedules and stars. I was happy to go back and do something simple. I thought it would just be a single shot, like, "I'll have this series going over here, so I'll back up and do this story about the first night." I thought that was the only way it would work, that these kids are out on the first night, had this equipment with them, and decided to document this thing. But because it was so inexpensive to make, my trade-off on that film was "If I can do it for [2.5 million], will you give me creative control?" And they said, "Yes." So even thought it only had a limited release, it was so inexpensive to make that it made lots of money on worldwide DVD and TV. So they said, "Let's go again!"
I loved our partners at Artfire, so I said, "Let's use the same formula, and if we can keep it on a scale where you can afford to finance it yourselves and worry about selling it later, that's a great place to be." Basically, what I said was, "Tell you what: why don't we think about doing three. Because if we can do a film that goes out and does the same business as [DIARY], then you're going to want another one. So let's go into this thinking about three films." And I actually came back with three storylines all based on DIARY, and taking them off in their own direction. What I loved about this idea was that, for the first time, I'd be able to re-use characters, plotlines, and create a kind of mythology. I've never been able to do that with the other films because they're all owned by different people. So I was intrigued by that idea. And one of the storylines was this group of protagonists going to an island thinking that it would be a more controlled place, only to find themselves caught in a shooting war with these two feuding families. And it was only then that I started to think about THE BIG COUNTRY. I said, "Oh, shit! I remember Burl Ives and Charles Bickford."
Beaks: (Imitating Burl Ives) "I told you I'd do it, but you wouldn't believe me! Damn your soul, I told you!"
Romero: (Laughs, and does his own Ives) "Teach your grandmother to suck eggs!"
Beaks: That movie always used to be on TV when I was a kid. I kinda love it.
Romero: (Laughs) Well, I sat down with the DP, the production designer and everybody, and said, "Let's watch THE BIG COUNTRY." So we did. And then I thought, "It would make it even more fun for us if we could try to stylistically imitate it." So now I have this conceit that if I get to do the other two, I'll do them in different genre styles. We'll see. That's all complete speculation. It depends on how well this film does.
Beaks: What particular genres could you see zombies occupying?
Romero: Specifically, noir. I'd love to do something with that tone. But they'll never let me shoot it black-and-white, so I might have to pull a Darabont and shoot color, then print it in black-and-white later [ala THE MIST].
Beaks: You've returned to the idea of domesticating zombies in this film. You come at it from a slightly different angle, but it's very reminiscent of what you did with Bub in [DAY OF THE DEAD].
Romero: I had written a more elaborate version of DAY that they wouldn't finance; they wouldn't release it unrated if it cost that much money. So I chose to cut it down - and that script was closer to [SURVIVAL]. But it's a little different here. This guy is a bit of a religious right-er, and he's got these confused notions about keeping [the dead] with us. "Maybe they're not dead," and blah, blah, blah. I think you like the other character [Patrick O'Flynn, played by Kenneth Welsh] better; you sympathize with him more than you do Muldoon. But then he winds up being right about that one thing in the end. I liked that irony. And nobody knows it because they're too busy shooting at each other; no one's around to see the result.
Beaks: So now that we know zombies have a taste for horse flesh, are we heading in a direction... I mean, would you go so far as to try to turn them back? I'm not saying they'll revert to wholesale human, but might there be a way to further engage their brain?
Romero: I really don't want to go that far. All of these films are about the people; they're not really about the zombies. So I would like to just have that be one of many things that was missed, that people failed to recognize; if I had my druthers, I'd rather leave it as a possibility that no one sees. But I'd certainly use it throughout this series if we get to make the others.
Beaks: SURVIVAL is your fifth journey into this world, and, once again, there's the humor to go along with the despair. In the way that your characters persevere even though there's nothing to be done about this zombie problem, these films are kind of beginning to get like WAITING FOR GODOT. (Romero laughs) It's just this loop. "We can't go on/We must go on." They know they're doomed, but yet there's hope that there is...
Romero: Someplace. Yes. "There's a place for us!" Where's Leonard Bernstein when you need him? (Laughs) That's sort of where I ended LAND - appropriately enough, because when I did LAND I didn't know it was going to be the end of that channel. Now we sort of have this new franchise - which is great. It's the first time my partner and I have an ownership position in this, so that's terrific. It seems like the whole world is doing zombies now, but we never got a piece of the action.
Beaks: How do you feel about this zombie phenomenon? Now we have Jane Austen zombies, and Beatles zombies...
Romero: I heard about The Beatles. I don't know. What's that? A HARD DAY'S NIGHT? They should just do it CG: re-do A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and zombie-up The Beatles with CG.
I don't know, man. My zombies are my zombies. First of all, they're dead. They're not infected by some "rage bug". Zack, in the DAWN remake, just said, "Let 'em run!" I think the influence there is video games. I think zombies have been popularized much more by video games and graphic novels than film. ZOMBIELAND is the only one that was a blockbuster. I don't think anything popped $75 million before that. It hasn't been the films that have made this a pop cultural phenomenon; it's been the video games and all of this other stuff. And from the video games, unfortunately... I just did this interview about LEFT 4 DEAD 2; the speed and the way they're crawling on the walls, it's like BLADE. It drives me crazy, but I think that filmmakers think that's what you have to do to please that [audience]. So we've got fast zombies, and almost in order to justify that, it's "Let's make it a 'rage' thing, or a virus." They're not dead. I don't get that whole evolution. Even the remake of THE CRAZIES was like a zombie film; it was like 28 DAYS LATER. I don't get it, and I don't like it. I prefer these plodding, lumbering guys from whom you can easily escape unless you fuck yourself up somehow and are too stupid to do the right thing. That's just more fun for me.
Beaks: I think that all mirrors this need for more visual stimulation. People think you need to have so much going on within the frame to hold the audience's interest, so it only makes sense that zombies would be subject to that.
Romero: Seeing clips from this game, it's just this unbelievable barrage. Of course, now these games are played by four or five people in different cities. "You take that one, I'll take this one!" (Laughs) I don't have the reflexes for that. I wouldn't survive ten seconds. The irritating thing is that so much has been done with it, and, in this game for instance, there's a shopping mall. It's like, "Huh, wonder where they got that idea."
Beaks: But all of these fast-paced zombie movies are still, to some degree, playing with your iconography. They are paying homage.
Romero: I guess you have to look at it that way. It's nice. I don't care in a certain sense. Every once in a while, it gets irritating. I had written a script for RESIDENT EVIL that I liked, and that Capcom liked, but then [Constantin Film] just said, "That's not what we want to do." The guy who runs Constantin had never played a video game. Go figure. It just didn't work out. But other than that, I'm just happy to have my own zombies. They're in the truck outside, and we'll bring 'em out whenever I need them. I'm sort of using them for my own purposes. I feel like I've got this little niche going on over here, and the rest of the world is speeding along somewhere else.
Beaks: Getting away from zombies, do you have another KNIGHTRIDERS or MARTIN that you'd like to make?
Romero: I have one little film that I'd really like to make. You know, at my age I don't know how much energy I have. I certainly don't want to come [to Hollywood] and pitch something for a year-and-a-half, and then have it blow up. I have to pick my shots. I do have a little film, a non-horror thing that I'd like to do; it's a little story that I'd like to do. I don't know if I'll ever get to do it. And I have another horror thing that's non-zombie; that's something else that has a higher probability of happening if we break away from this. But we may not. If this movie does well, I think I'm really going to push hard to do the other two as one production, and then I'll separate them after birth. (Laughs) I'm just waiting to see what shoe drops in the next couple of months. I'll take a little vacation, and see what happens.
Beaks: Of your films that have not been remade, the one I'm a little worried about is MARTIN. It's such a special film. Do you know if there's anything going on with that?
Romero: I know that [producer Richard P. Rubenstein] is trying to get a remake done on that. To me, that would bother me more. MARTIN and KNIGHTRIDERS: I've heard rumors about both. Those are sort of peculiarly mine, and you can't have that party without me. That's how I feel. But, on the other hand, so what? I made it already, and I don't want to revisit it.
There is one of my films that I'd like to remake myself, which is SEASON OF THE WITCH. I really think it would be stronger today, made for a strong woman out in the world being oppressed. Do it with better actors and a bigger budget, with a filmmaker who knows a little more what he's doing than he did then. (Laughs) That's the only one I would really consider. And a year ago, I started to write a script. But I laid it down in favor of all of this stuff. You have to pick your shots.
I hope he continues to pick them this wisely.
George A. Romero's SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD opens theatrically this Friday, May 28th, in limited release. It's currently available on VOD.
P.S. How 'bout some bonus Romero? Here's my pal Joe Lynch (director of WRONG TURN 2 and all-around horror aficionado) interviewing Romero on G4's ATTACK OF THE SHOW!