George A Romero interview
You started making fairly low-budget, guerrilla-style movies with practiaclly no resources but still having tremendous success. Land of the Dead is a studio movie so was there much of a difference in how you approached it.
Not much difference at all really. We weren’t rich. I mean this movie had half the budget of the Dawn of the Dead remake. Less than half, and it was much more ambitious. It was big. Big sets, the truck, all that stuff, so it was not that different, it was still sort of guerrilla filmmaking. I feel that, I don’t know, I have a bit of an advantage coming up having done commercials and industrials and little films with no money, so you know what you need to do and you try to figure out the shots. Figure out how to spend the money. That’s really what it’s all about. So it wasn’t that different. The big difference was it was the first time I had to deliver an R-Rated version for US MPAA, so I used some tricks there.
In the end we had the zombies walking in front of a green-screen so we could overprint them and put them on top of shots, for gore shots we could take out frames while walking someone in front, then take them off for the DVD. Some of the MPAA stuff is a bit ridiculous, because they won’t say, “Cut that scene!”, because they are afraid of being accused of censorship, but they’ll tell you to cut nine or ten frames out. So we were able to do that with these walk-bys that we shot. Then consciously we did a few things that were meant to escape the MPAA’s wrath. Like we did a scene in smoke were they pull a hand apart, and we did a scene in silhouette and shadow where a guys neck gets pulled off. So we did some things like that in order to squeak by the censors. It’s funny because people say this film is gorier than the others, but I don’t think it is. You can see exactly what’s going on, but if you count it frame by frame, I don’t think it is. Maybe it’s because it’s been a while, so people think, “My God. This guy’s nuts.”
I heard it wasn’t that easy to get the project off the ground. Was that a result of attitudes and public opinion changing after 9/11?
There was this conceit I had. Night of the Living Dead was the 60’s, Dawn was the 70’s, Day was the 80’s and I wanted to do the 90’s but I just missed it. My partner and I got hung up in Hollywood development deals, and we had a housekeeping deal at New Line for a while, where we made a movie and got involved in these development deals on films that never happened. Out of frustration I fled, and made a little film financed by Canal Plus called Bruiser, that no ones ever seen. So I missed the 90’s and, immediately after finishing Bruiser, I started to write a script for this. It was much more about homeland problems; homelessness, AIDS and the vanishing middle class, although a lot of the imagery was still there, the truck and the idea of a city protected by water was in that script, but when I finished it and sent it around it was literally right before 9-11 and nobody, at least in Hollywood, wanted to touch it. They wanted to make soft, fuzzy, lollipop movies. So I stuck it on the shelf.
A couple of years later I took it down and put in some obvious references to this ‘new normal’ in America now. But some of the things were there, but they’re more poignant now. The idea of an armoured vehicle going through a little village and mowing everybody down, and wondering why they’re pissed off at us, that scene was in the original script. I just means more now. The tower, we made it a taller, bigger building, and a few lines, one that is maybe too on the nose, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”. It always gets a laugh, so I don’t know, maybe it works.
Despite the MPAA restrictions, do you think audience tastes have changed, this seems more overt that the other films?
I think the audiences, my fans, expected this of me. I don’t think this is any more overt; I think Day of the Dead had the most graphic, really well-done effects that Tom Savini did. I think there are a few moments in Day of the Dead that are far more graphic and much more gory than anything in Land of the Dead. But I think they expected of me. I enjoy doing gory movies. I grew up on EC Comic books, I’m not bothered by it, I don’t cringe when I see gore scenes in someone else’s movie. I giggle, I don’t cringe.
Again it’s another conceit, it’s a slap in the face. If you see the original film version of MASH, the Robert Altman version, you’re laughing your ass off for 90 minutes and occasionally, splat, there’s this operating room scene where there’s blood all over the place, it’s just a slap in the face, a wake up call or something. I’ve sort of justified it that way, and maybe it is just a justification, but I’m also not bothered by it.
So your influences were Johnny Craig and Harvey Kurtzman and the EC comics?
Could you elaborate on EC comics, for those not familiar with them and the genre, and how they influenced you?
It was in the days before the Comics Code, when I was buying comic books as a kid, there was EC Comic books, there was Mad magazine, and there was also Tales from the Crypt.That whole series of EC horror comics, like The Vault Keeper, I loved that stuff. They were sort of morality tales, they were horror stories, but bottom line they were always moral. When we did Creepshow, which Steve King modelled after those books, he wrote a tag line saying, “A Laurel comic is a moral comic”. The bottom line was that the bad guys always got their come-uppance, and peppered here and there was some social satire and social criticism. Beautifully drawn by the great artists that drew for Mad, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis and those guys. They were beautiful and I grew up on that. Then all of a sudden they [the Comics Code] said, “Wait a minute! Forbidden!”
In your zombie movies you happily admit you’ve been ripping off Matheson’s I Am Legend.
I happily did in the beginning. The first film was a rip off I Am Legend – unabashedly – except they were vampires and I needed something else. So I went with ghouls. I didn’t call them zombies. I never called them zombies. I didn’t even think of them in that way. I thought of them as ghouls, flesh eaters, and our original title was Night of the Flesh Eaters. The word zombie never even popped into my head. Zombies, in those days, were those voodoo guys.
So how did the zombie thing come about? You are inextricably linked with the zombie genre. You mention zombie and people immediately think of George A Romero. How did that come about?
I think it was the second film really. When Night of the Living Dead first started to get noticed as something more than a penny dreadful, some people that wrote about them called them zombies. That sort of woke me up and I thought, geez, maybe they are. I get credit for reinventing the zombie but I didn’t even realise I was doing it. I don’t know if I deserve credit for that or not. In my mind they were ghouls. Ghouls are really the forgotten monster – The Mad Ghoul, those old Universal flicks.
Have the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead, given you a boost, in the sense of, “Let’s give Romero another chance”? Do you find that ironic?
I have to embrace it. I don’t feel any anger. My ex-partner had the right to do the Dawn remake. He told me he was doing it and I said, “Fine”. I didn’t have a problem with that. I don’t think I would have had a problem getting this film financed, anyway. Initially, when I first took it back off the shelf, after 9/11, Fox wanted it right away because they were in negotiation for 28 Days Later, I don’t think it had opened yet, they were about to open it and wanted to develop their own franchise. The problem was we ended up in negotiation with Fox for over a year. They basically wanted to own the franchise. They wanted to call the film Night of the Living Dead. It was ridiculous, typical studio stuff. We were resisting, resisting, resisting, and in the end that is what really helped us. When Mark Canton, one of the producers of this film, was serendipitously having lunch with my agent and asked, “What’s going on with that project?” My agent said, “That deal hasn’t closed yet.” So Mark said, “I want it, and I’ll have a deal in weeks”. And he did. From that day it was five weeks and we were off and running. That’s what happened with that.
I think I could have always financed it. I wasn’t resisting. I had written a script. By the time I’d got it finished 9/11 happened and nobody wanted to touch it. I wanted to change it to reflect that. Again, it was better served having it come a couple of years later because I could be a bit more reflective. I’m a guy that lives in Pittsburgh. I’m not a Hollywood guy. What the public doesn’t realise is that I’m working all the time, but often the projects don’t happen. That longish period before Bruiser, I made more money than I’d ever made in my life, writing scripts, rewriting, this, that. It’s a very frustrating process because all of a sudden there’s three million bucks against a property and you can’t make it. It becomes cast dependent and they don’t know if I’m a big enough guy. It’s frustrating. You develop something, it might even be your own material and then somebody writes it and rewrites it, or I rewrite it. We had a project called Before I Wake, which went to New Line, went to MGM, went to Fox. At Fox it was with Chris Columbus’s company, 1492, and at that time he was a 500-pound gorilla. He basically said, “Anything I want to make gets made.” So he requested a few rewrites, and we did them. It already had a lot of money against it at these other studios, then all of a sudden it needed an A-list cast because there was so much money against it.
You spend a lot of time writing. Weren’t you going to write The Mummy?
That’s right. And this project, Before I Wake, killed The Mummy, because I was under contract to MGM. There were literally twelve days left to run on the contract and MGM said, “No, we’re going to make this movie. This movie is happening. Forget about it.” They wouldn’t let me off the contract. Universal had green-lit The Mummy. It was a go picture. Mine was not at all like The Mummy they eventually made. It was much more old-fashioned. But they had green-lit it and MGM didn’t let us out.
Have you thought about letting other people extend your zombie universe and write new stories? I know Stephen King and others have done some already.
I don’t think about that. My work is my work. The first question Stephen [King] gets asked is, “What do you think about Hollywood ruining your books?” and he says, “They’re not ruined. Here they are, right here on the shelf. Nobody ruined them. They’re not touched.” I guess that’s really the way I feel. I don’t really look too much at other zombie or horror films. I’m not a student that way. I’m sort of doing my own thing, and I don’t particularly care what goes on around it. That’s just my attitude. Maybe it’s not a very scholarly attitude, but that’s my attitude.
How do you feel about people deconstructing your movies, imbuing them with political motifs that may not have been there? Are you trying to make political statements or simply horror movies?
I think of the movies more as reflective of the times in which they were made. They’re little snapshots. Here’s what’s happening now. I’m not trying to answer questions, but I love the idea that it’s a reflection of what’s going on. It’s important to me. Even when I wrote the first version of the latest film, before 9/11, what it was about, in my mind, was about ignoring the problem. That’s what it seemed to me we were doing in America, was ignoring these problems. So that’s what it was about. Some of that holds over into the new film. OK, so now we’re threatened. We thought we were protected by water. You know, “We’ve got all these soldiers, keep on doing what you’re doing. Stay down there in the taverns and I’ll give you some vices. Don’t come over here near me, up here in the Haliburton office.” I knew to that extent its intention. I don’t try to put it right in the centre, but it’s important to me. When I first went in to pitch the original version of this I said, “It’s about ignoring the problem.” “Yeah, but what’s the story?” I could do fifty stories. What do you need a story – there’s zombies, there’s humans, it’s about ignoring the problem. Nobody gets it. You can’t pitch it that way. So what I always end up doing is writing the script instead of trying to talk somebody through it.
Still on politics; one of your lead actors, Dennis Hopper, who got talked into the movie because he plays golf with Mark Canton, is very pro Bush and you are not. That must have made an interesting work environment.
It was. I remember at Cannes we were throwing pies at each other. Openly. He’s very cool about it. He doesn’t proselytise, he just says, “that’s where I’m at, but not him”, pointing at me. I didn’t know Dennis before this film. I met him through Mark. He came in and read the script, and liked it. He wanted to play the character. He said, “Usually, when they want me to play the villain, they want me to go hysterical and they want me to go over the top and be histrionic”. He said, “This guy is Donald Rumsfeldt.” That was the first thing that he said to me. So I said, “Dennis, we’re gonna get along.”
How important is it for you to have a strong female character?
In Night of the Living Dead, the girl was running around and broke her heel, fell down and did all the stupid things girls do in horror movies. But I apologised for that in the remake, in the Savini Dawn. When I wrote that script, I made her strong and have tried to stay with that. Back then, during Night, I just sort of fell into that pattern where the woman is the weak one, catatonic, falling down, unable to do anything, and I’ve felt bad about it ever since. The other thing is, Duane, in Night of the Living Dead, the lead guy, was just the best actor from among our friends, and the script wasn’t written with any description of race. When we decided to use Duane we did talk about changing the script, but we decided not to. If there’s any credit deserved for that, it’s because we didn’t change the script. It was intentional from the pop, but I’m now wondering if we shouldn’t have. I think we might have missed a bet there. I think we should have acknowledged it, had some argument or addressed it somehow. Nonetheless, that happened. Then it became a conceit, I hate to use that word, but that’s why we make movies, right? So I used an Afro-American lead in the second film, and then the third film. This time I sort of switched allegiances and made Big Daddy the Afro-American guy, hoping that people might notice. “Look at this. Maybe this guy is OK.”
Did you choose the main female lead because she was the right one or because you had some connection with Dario Argento?
Of course, but I always wanted to work with her [Asia]. I was talking to her about another project that almost happened, called Diamond Dead. Some of the people who had written Rocky Horror – Richard Hartley had written the score. It was a spoofy movie about a dead rock band. So I called Asia, because I thought she was perfect for the lead in that, and I said, “Would you like to do it?” I sent her the script and she loved it, so we started to talk. Then all of a sudden this Mark Canton thing happened, and I called her back and she said, “Is the movie happening?” and I said, “No, but there’s another one.” So it happened like that. I’ve known her ever since she was little, through Dario, and I think she’s great and I just really wanted to work with her. So I’m glad she said, yes.
In your early films you had the habit of borrowing cars and wrecking them. Is that still part of the technique?
Obviously, sometimes you have to do something to correct a problem. In the original Night of the Living Dead we had borrowed one of the producer’s, Rus Streiner, who is actually Johnny, who goes to the cemetery right in the beginning, with his sister, and it was his mother’s car we were using for that. We shot a couple of scenes with it, and then his mother hit a tree with it, or something, but dented the door, so we couldn’t shoot it from that angle. So I said, “Wait a minute, maybe we can use that.” When she runs down the hill, she runs into a tree, and the crease is there. We took advantage of that situation.
What about when you took advantage of a famous car company, when you wrecked all those cars in the shopping mall?
We didn’t actually wreck any. We just drove them around in there. I don’t think we wrecked any, or maybe it happened when I wasn’t looking.
There’s a story surrounding Dawn of the Dead that you sent a telegram to Tom Savini saying, think of ways to kill people.
It wasn’t a telegram, it was a phone call.
Were you expected to come up with more gore for this latest episode?
It was pretty much left to me, and a lot of the things were in the script. The headless priest, where the head flops over, that was one we just couldn’t pull off. We tried three times and we couldn’t make it work with puppets. It just always looked like puppets. But with CG, it looks like CG to me, and it looks obviously like CG, but it was the only way we could pull the effect off. The idea works well enough that you get passed it. But that was in the script, and many of those things were in the script. But I did say to [Greg] Nicotero, the same thing that I said to Tom, “Can you come up with anything?” When you start working on something like this and you start puzzling in the shower and thinking, what can you do. Then I just called Greg and said basically the same thing, “Can you think of different ways to kill people – to kill zombies?” He came up with a couple of pretty good ideas, but a couple never came off. It was just too difficult to do it mechanically and we found that several just didn’t work. There are a couple that are in the DVD, when it comes out, that are failed attempts, just to say, “Look we tried to do this but it didn’t quite work.”
Do you prefer working with practicals (mechanical models) or with CGI?
You know, as a filmmaker you have to appreciate that computers allow you do to things you couldn’t think of doing if you are doing a smaller picture, like in the old days. But I don’t like using it. I’m a huge Ray Harryhausen fan. I would have much preferred it if we could have done it all mechanically, and be amazing mechanically. Like in Day of the Dead, that thing Savini did pulling that guys head out. That was just fabulous, seamless, the way he did it. I love being amazing that way. You can see it is a live shot, a real shot. You can see the difference. This shot I was talking about with the head, it’s CG and obviously CG, to me. Maybe general audiences don’t recognise it as readily as we do. It bothers me. I’d rather be amazing. I’d rather be David Copperfield – “Here it is live and in person. You figure it out.” I much prefer trying to do it that way, and we tried, and Greg tried his damnedest. There was just a couple of things we couldn’t do.
You’ve been causing sleepless nights for moviegoers for decades. Which movies scared you? Was it the Universal horror movies in the thirties?
I’m old enough that I saw the Universal films – but not that old! – I didn’t see them in the thirties but on re-release. Not on TV but re-issues on the big screen. The Thing, that was scary to me. The things that scared me the most? I was an Hispanic kid in the Bronx getting beat up by the Italian guys, the golden guineas, that scared me. You know, I remember blackouts at the end of the Second World War, and that scared me. Then I remember John Cameron Swayze telling me, personally, out of that little boob tube that the Russians had the bomb. That scared me. It was the real shit that was going on around me that scared me. I wasn’t afraid of the dark!!