Instead of "Plastics," the older guy in "The Graduate" should have whispered this career advice: "Cannibal zombies. " George A. Romero created horror's most...
Instead of “Plastics,” the older guy in “The Graduate” should have whispered this career advice: “Cannibal zombies.”
George A. Romero created horror’s most popular subgenre 40 years ago with “Night of the Living Dead,” and if you think of him as just a cult director, you should have seen his rock-star appearance at last summer’s San Diego Comic Con — the world’s largest pop culture event — where thousands of shouting fans packed a huge auditorium standing-room-only to honor him and hear about “Diary of the Dead.”
I chewed the fat with the mirthful Romero on the eve of the relaunch of his saga (told through a film student’s first-person video lens). Now 68 and recently moved from his longtime home of Pittsburgh to Toronto, he phoned amid an L.A. promotional gauntlet.
Q: I was always disappointed you didn’t find more promotional tie-ins for your movies — red wine, chunky pasta sauce …
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Q: Jerky? Come on!
A: Well, Bosco syrup, you see. I mean, it was hard for me to come to it, because when we made the first film it was black and white, so we were able to use chocolate syrup, because that was what people decided tasted the best! And who knew about product tie-ins or anything back then? And then, when I sort of grew up and the movies got a little bigger, manufacturers didn’t want to necessarily be associated with me, so they bailed out.
Q: Did you see the home-video motif in “Cloverfield” and think, “Ahhhh, crap!”
A: Well, I did initially when I heard about “Cloverfield.” I mean, when we started to make this film, we didn’t know about “Cloverfield,” we didn’t know about “Redacted,” we didn’t know about any of these other films that are out there now, and we thought we were going to be the vanguard, you know the first guys out there with something about this alternate media stuff. And all of a sudden these other films beat us to the marketplace. So we can’t say that we’re first anymore, but at least we can say we’re part of a trend!
Q: “Diary of the Dead” seems like guerrilla filmmaking — done very fast and cheap.
A: That’s exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, after “Land of the Dead” (2005), I felt, “Boy, this is getting so big, where do we go next?” “Beyond the Planet of the Apes?” or “Beyond Thunderdome?” I didn’t know exactly what to do, and I really wanted to go back to the roots. I thought it had lost its connection, it had lost any sense of relationship to the origin of the series, which was “Night of the Living Dead,” which was a bunch of us amateur filmmakers making a guerrilla movie in Pittsburg, improbably.
Q: Your previous “Dead” flicks all made pretty overt statements — consumerism in “Dawn” and so forth. My question: Is there anything zombies couldn’t be a metaphor for?
A: Nope. (Pause. Laughter.) And it’s not the zombies, you see. The zombies could be any disaster. If you look at the stories, the stories are about the human characters and how they fail to deal with the disaster, or deal with it improbably, or deal with it stupidly. And that to me is what the movies, all of them, are about. You could just throw zombies into anything —
Q: The subprime mortgage crisis: Throw some zombies in there —
A: Throw that in there, that’s right! They’re repossessing everybody’s house! (Laughs.)
Q: Now you’re riffing on media — obsession and inundation with it. Help me boil this down.
A: It runs two ways. First of all, everybody wants to be a reporter. There’s a line in the film, “When there were three networks, there were three lies.” Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America, probably could have been elected president, and only because of the strength of the media. So that box, whatever form it takes — in the old days it was the console TV, now it’s on your computer, it’s on your cellphone, whatever — it has a power, it has a magnetism. And it seems a lot of people — and I blame the audience for this — that they don’t do any homework. They’re not willing to find out what they think. They’d rather look up from their beer and see somebody saying something, and they say, “Oh yeah, I’m with that.”
The other side of that coin is that people are all of a sudden being invited to become part of this. Everybody’s a reporter now. Everybody’s got a camera. So right in the middle of Super Tuesday, when the hurricanes hit Arkansas and the other states, CNN interrupts — “We interrupt this political debate to tell you that if you see a hurricane outside your window, please get a shot of it and we’ll put it on the air.” Everybody’s being invited to send in I-Reports of whatever they see. And it’s a new kind of identity, it’s maybe the new graffiti.
Q: Having said all that highfalutin stuff, I liked your use of cardiac paddles to make a zombie’s eyes pop out.
A: (Laughs.) You know that (expletive) comes to you in the shower, man. The hardest thing when you’re making a zombie movie is, “How am I going to kill these zombies? I need a clever way to knock these guys off.” And so really, halfway through the shoot, I was in the shower and said, “Oh, how about this? Zap!”
Q: There’s been a gazillion zombie movies since you created the genre. Do you like any of ’em?
A: Well, I love “Shaun of the Dead.” There’s a movie called “Fido,” which I think is a gas — Billy Connolly, I think that was great. And I have to say the Lucio Fulci stuff, some of the Italian things, I mean, I thought they were really high-spirited and a lot of fun. I didn’t think they mattered a lot in any way, but they were great fun to watch. Basically I’m an EC comic book guy, man. You can show me anything that’s high-spirited horror and I’ll be there giggling.
The remake of “Dawn” made a lot of money; “Shaun of the Dead” was very popular. As far as I’m concerned, “28 Days Later,” “28 Weeks Later,” those were not really zombie films because they’re not dead, they’re still alive.
Q: And you don’t like ’em running.
A: And I don’t like ’em running! But I forgive ’em in “28 Days” because they’re not dead. But dead people can’t run! It’s like “White Guys Can’t Jump,” right? Dead people can’t run. Period.
Q: What other things do you want to do before you die? And by the way, you know headline writers are gonna go to town when that day finally comes.
A: Well, I will threaten to come back! (Laughs.)
Q: What are you still itching to do?
A: You mean career-wise? I don’t know, man. I mean, I’d like to keep working. If I have to tell you, the two things I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve actually pitched one of them several times, is a real, literal translation of Stoker’s “Dracula,” which has never been done — even though people have claimed to have done it, it’s never been done. And the other one, and this is just a childhood fantasy, I’d like to make Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes” the way it was written, not the way it’s ever been done.
Q: You’ve been a huge influence on me, because this is the sound I make when I walk into the office every day: (Pained zombie moan.)
A: (Laughs hard.) That’s just you didn’t get enough sleep!
Web Extra: More of Mark Rahner’s Q&A with George A. Romero
Q: And yet the proliferation of video cameras and YouTube takes control of information out of the hands of the rich and powerful.
A: It does, except, man, at least then it was being managed. I mean, now it’s all of a sudden everybody’s talking to everybody. Everybody’s out there. You can throw up a blog whoever you are, and that’s dangerous. Is it truth? It doesn’t make things more truthful, it just means there’s more (expletive) out there, and it’s most often not even information. It’s opinion, viewpoint. Anyone with a radical idea, if you can make it sound halfway reasonable, it’s going to all of a sudden have a million followers. So I wonder if it’s more dangerous. We’re not ready for that!
Q: You told Tom Snyder a great anecdote in the ’70s about a woman who accused you of selling trash disguised as art. Your response was something like, “Lady, it’s not disguised.”
A: It’s not disguised, man! It’s not! It’s pop culture, and I’m right out there saying, “Hey, man — ” I don’t sort of hold myself up as any kind of guru or anything else, man. I’ve done these things, they’re sort of snapshots of the decades in which they were made, and I don’t call them art. Other people call it art. I just call it: Hey, man, I’m using this exploitation genre to be able to say something. I have this peculiar position of being able to speak my mind and make observations even within the genre. The thing that disappoints me most about people that work in horror and fantasy is that they don’t bother to do that. They don’t bother with metaphor, with allegory, with anything else. To me it’s almost the only reason to do it. Nursery rhymes were political when they were first written! To me that’s what it’s about, it’s about using it to say something more than just what the story is.
Q: Did you ever imagine when “Dawn of the Dead” was facing an X rating (in 1978) that you’d see material like “C.S.I.” on network TV?
A: No, no, of course not. “Dawn” and “Day,” we were lucky enough to find a distributor who was willing and in fact wanted to put them out without a rating because he thought that would make him the most money.
Q: My point is, you could probably show most of that on network TV now.
A: You probably could. I think you’re absolutely right. Well, I don’t know. “Dawn” is pretty raunchy But it was much more alarming then than it would be now.
Q: You’re not an outlaw anymore if “Night of the Living Dead” is in the Library of Congress. How did that induction make you feel?
A: (Laughs long and fiendishly.) Hee-heeee. Of course it makes you feel great. You go, “Wow, man, I’m suddenly being recognized by people I never even thought would watch this movie.” And I still don’t know why. I think when I made that first film, I didn’t know how to make movies, the craftsmanship is terrible, all I see are the errors in it that I made. Not that I’d ever want to do it again, but by me it’s about learning to make movies.
I mean, John Ford made over 200 movies, he had all the tricks in his pocket. I’m working on number 17; I don’t have any of those tricks. And even then, Ford was never recognized — he’s sort of the van Gogh of movies, right? He was successful and he had a great career, but he wasn’t called a genius until way later when people started to analyze his stuff, and all this stuff about the independent American West and this and that
I guess what I’m saying is that in my mind, my movies are horror movies. I’m happy to be able to say that there is some sort of a subtext in all of them. I care about it. But basically they’re meant to be received as horror-fantasy films, and if you want to talk about them as something else, great. Wait ’til I’m gone and you can say anything you want.
Q: I’m trying to think of pop culture that your zombies haven’t infected: “Resident Evil” is one of the most popular video-game series, you’ve done comic books … please tell me you’re not doing a damn Broadway musical.
A: I am not, no. I have thought about it. I actually have thought about it, but it wouldn’t have been Broadway, it would have been way, way off somewhere. People have pitched it to me and all that. But no, no, no, no, man, I don’t want to do that. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m happy to be able to keep doing it.
Q: You seem like a down-to-earth guy. Have zombies made you a stinking rich man?
A: Not at all. And I don’t even know if I wish — I don’t necessarily even wish that. No, they have not. We lost our copyright on “Night of the Living Dead.” That’s the big one that got away. And everything else I basically wound up doing on contract or for somebody else. So no. Not at all. I’m comfortable. I have a job. So it’s really like that. I suppose I’m more advantaged than the guy doing checkout at Loblaws, but no, no, not at all.
I really like sort of being down on the street and hanging out — and having enough. It’s great; I don’t have to worry to go out to dinner. I guess you could say that I’m, I don’t know, not even use the term “well off,” but have more than enough money to get through life comfortably. I don’t want to be that rich guy, man. I think you lose touch.
Q: You sign your autographs with “Stay scared!” What scares you?
A: Reality. Always, that’s what scared me. Even as a kid I was never afraid of (expletive) jumping out of the shadows. I was more afraid of the bomb and stuff like that. I can actually remember blackouts. I lived in this development in New York, and we used to have to black out the windows, and that was frightening. And then, John Cameron Swayze told me personally on that tube that the Russians had the bomb, so I expected it to drop at any moment, and that’s the (expletive) that scares me.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org