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George A. Romero Interview

So Romero scales back the epic sweep of his recent Land of the Dead, and steers clear of self-reflexive jokiness to return to the smaller scale and pointed social criticism of his earlier zombie films. At 67, he has essentially rebooted, or should I say, reanimated the franchise.

“My films are more about what's happening today,” Romero said, “and my view of what's happening today. The shopping mall inspired Dawn of the Dead; Day of the Dead was about mistrust, people holing up and completely losing trust for each other. Land is about the Bush Administration. And this one is about YouTube, about the explosion of the electronic medium.”

Typifying this YouTube generation is Jason Creed (Josh Close) and his small crew of college filmmakers.  They're making a no-budget horror film out in the Pennsylvania woods when they hear news that the dead are coming back to life.


“It's about a bunch of college kids, film students, that are out shooting a school project when the shit hits the fan, and they just keep shooting. They basically shoot a little documentary about what they see and it's all subjective camera. They start with one [camera] and find another, and they have a camera phone, and then the security cameras. A bit of a conceit but it was really fun to do.”

A similar conceit fueled The Blair Witch Project and the recent Cloverfield, but neither of those films was able to turn the gimmick into a successful stylistic choice. Now we'll have a chance to see what a horror vet who cites Orson Welles as his greatest influence can do with this approach.

Though set in the present day, Diary of the Dead takes us back to the start of the zombie uprising. The government appears to be feeding lies through the media, technology seems to be failing, and society is falling apart. So Jason decides to make a documentary called The Death of Death, employing his own footage as well as anything else he can grab off the Internet. Romero's film reflects the current generation's ease with media and technology, and the director's own skepticism about the government and mainstream media. Here's what Romero had to say about his film and the current state of horror filmmaking when I spoke with him earlier this month.

Zombie master George A. Romero (Weinstein Company)


BETH ACCOMANDO: Tell me about the opening shot with the newscaster and her cameraman. I thought it was very clever. It establishes the first person point of view and it's great the way the anchor blocks our view of the first zombies rising.

GEORGE A. ROMERO: Oh man I don't know what to say except that it seemed like a good idea at the time. It seemed like a good way to introduce the style and to introduce the whole thematic thing about media and that's of course while the mainstream is still functioning. It's the very first report of these things. And I wanted to have something that I could show again a couple of times later and show how they distorted it and changed it to clean it up. So it seemed like the way to go. You know you get these ideas in the shower. That's really where it came from. It fir the theme of the film and it gave me a device that I could sort of keep using throughout.

BA: And you're the cop that shows up in the re-edited version of that news footage.
GAR: Yeah I'm the guy that's lying about it. I represent the authority figure that's not telling the truth: “They weren't dead till I made them dead.” Part of the reason for doing this film was a throwback, I wanted to go back to a simpler way of doing things, something smaller and more controllable, literally where I had complete control and which I did for the first time since Night of the Living Dead. I used to always do a sort of cameo in the first eight of my films. So since we're flashing back in time, I'll do it again.

BA: So was this desire to have more control in part a reaction to having just done Land of the Dead,, which was a big studio film for you?
GAR: When we did Land of the Dead it was Universal and I was sort of terrified going in I figured, oiy, everybody warned me it's terrible working for Universal, they are the Blue Meanies in the Black Tower. And they were great! In the end they really wanted my film. And they let my partner and I make it, make the film we wanted to make, and they were great to work with but it was just a grueling experience making that movie. And still it was guerrilla filmmaking. Even though it was more money than I ever had on a zombie film it wasn't enough money to pull off something that ambitious. So it was just constantly every night compromises, geez we didn't get that shot so coming off the set we'd be up for another three hours figuring out what are we going to do tomorrow. It's just grueling. And there was something about it when it got all finished that even though I liked the film a lot, it was like approaching Thunderdome, it was getting a bit too big. I felt that it had outscaled it's origins in a certain sense. When we made the first film we were just a bunch of young people in Pittsburgh making a movie and I really wanted to get back to that. And I had this idea about doing something about all this emerging media, and I felt that the best way to do that was to go back to the very first night, and tell a parallel story of what happened on the first night of Night of the Living Dead. In fact use some of the news tracks from the original Night of the Living Dead in this film to indicate that it's meant to be the same night, the same event. So I felt that was a way to simplify my life and get back to the roots of the series.

BA: Your zombies films have always entailed a lot of social commentary so what was on your mind this time?
GAR:  It occurred to me and still occurs to me that what's happening with this new normal of the media is that everyone is becoming obsessed with the idea of being a reporter and we're invited to if something happens outside your window shoot it and we'll put it on the air. And this blogosphere which strikes me as being a bit dangerous, I mean there can be some lunatic out there advancing radical ideas which if they sound at all reasonable there's all of a sudden a million, two million followers. And it strikes me as dangerous in that it can create more tribalism when it's the last thing we need. I joke but I say if Jim Jones had thrown up a blog there be millions of people drinking Kool Aid. It bothers me. Plus the fact that people get sucked into it. They think oh I can be a reporter, I'll take footage of this tornado and I'll get it on the air and maybe I can help. And it's all sort of this feeling that maybe we can help, maybe we can become part of it, it's almost like a new kind of graffiti trying to establish a personal identity. And all of that strikes me as being a bit odd and a bit dangerous. And I wanted to do something about that so that's where it came from.

BA: Now the film displays a certain mistrust of the mainstream media, but are you also asking us to distrust your own characters as well? These young student filmmakers who post their videos on the web?
GAR: Oh absolutely! In fact in some ways it doesn't attack the mainstream media. Obviously the mainstream media is being manipulative. What's happening out in the blogosphere is that people think they are helping but it's little more than opinion, and it's completely uncontrolled. Maybe we're being manipulated and overly managed by the mainstream but that's almost forgivable. I don't know if people are ready to have a million bloggers out there advancing this idea or that point of view. I mean people listen to Limbaugh because they agree with what he says and what happens with all these blogs is that people who tune into them or become advocates of them, listen to them because they agree with what's being said. And that's what I'm talking about being dangerous it's absolutely unfettered, uncontrolled, unfettered information which in most cases isn't even information it's opinion. And that's the stuff that I feel is dangerous. It's very easy to join up with somebody that you think sounds reasonable but there might be some radical ideas in there. I'm sure Hitler sounded reasonable to people he spoke to at first.

BA: Talk about how you have a group of student filmmakers making this film, you seem to have some fun with that and deconstructing the whole horror genre.
GAR: Well I'm taking a few jabs at myself there and I couldn't help but make a few jokes about fast moving zombies, I can't resist a little bit of slapstick and humor here and there. So yeah I was taking a shot at it but it was also a breath of fresh air, there characters in the film reminded me of us when we were making Night of the Living Dead. So it was sort of reliving it, kind of nostalgic in a way. I just felt that was the way to do it. That was one of my initial ideas if I was going to do something about this what was the logical way to do it. Well these film students are out shooting a school project and they have a camera and so when the zombies begin to walk they just naturally, at least just the one of them at first but then many others, become obsessed with this idea. They just start documenting it. And think they are trying to help and possibly even save some lives. In the meantime, the situation far outruns everybody. It's really too late to do anything about it.

BA: A lot of films recently have used first camera but you made such clever use of the battery dying and the guy being plugged into the wall and not being able to move when he hears screaming, and making us stuck with him unable to see what's going on.
GAR: Well isn't that the way it would be? I mean that's happened to me shooting home movies and I can't get over to the birthday cake because I have to stay plugged in. Again those are all ideas that come to you in the shower. And I was collaborating with my partner Peter Grenwald and we had an old friend John Harrison, literally man even sort of the planning of this film sitting around the living room just like the old days, spit-balling ideas and having fun with it. That's really what we set out to do. And that's what we were able to do and it was great to have enough control to be able to do it. The only thing that when you're working for a studio or when you have a lot of layers of suits between you and the work is you see a sunset and you want to shoot it and you have to write a memo to be able to shoot it. We were able to do anything we wanted to do all the way through post-production. So it was really like going back to the old days.

BA: How do you feel about your film coming out on the heels of Cloverfield, a bigger studio film that uses some of the same first-person camera ideas in confronting a disaster. I mean people were calling that independent and experimental.
GAR: You know man I've never bneen concerned with that, I didn't know about it when we were making our film but it seems to be that there is a collective subconscious, we had Redacted, we have Cloverfield, there's Vantage Point, I think everyone is noticing, I think it's in the consciousness of filmmakers, this idea of I am a Camera. There's a million cameras out there. I don't know, I'm not a marketing guy. I just made a film that I wanted to make and it's from the heart and I can't relate it to Cloverfield, I almost don't care about it. People have said you can't compare it to Cloverfield, then other people have said well Cloverfield got it wrong and Romero got it right. I don't pay attention to that kind of stuff. There's no way to control it. So all you can do is hope for the best. And my stuff is my stuff. And it's always been sort of me and if there's anything that I can say I'm proud of is that I've never just sort of taken a job, if you know what I mean. This is an idea that I had and I hope people like it. Obviously on a certain level Cloverfield is this huge thing and we don't need to be competing with it. It's an idea that I had and happily a lot of people seem to be tuning into it and getting it. And that's enough for me.

BA: Now when you made Night of the Living Dead back in the 60s did you ever think that you'd be able to return to that material repeatedly to find something new?
GAR:Never. I never thought I would do another one. I resisted doing another one for ten years. What happened with Night of the Living Dead initially was it went out and played drive-ins and neighborhood theaters and in six months it was gone. But it actually returned some money. It cost us about $115 grand and returned $500,000 to $600,000. We thought okay, that was a nice exercise. And we actually made some bread. I was working on my third film when suddenly the French discovered Night of the Living Dead. And began calling it “essential American cinema.” I'm going, oiy, I didn't know how to make a movie. All I saw where the mistakes in it. And then I almost froze up, if I'm going to do a sequel or another one I'm going to have to be as socially conscious and it became an obsession. So I waited until I got an idea, the second film was made at a shopping mall. And I met the people who had developed this first big indoor temple to consumerism in western Pennsylvania and it gave me the idea. Then I was trying to be as conscious as I could but I realized I was doing it without innocence. And halfway through that production I sort of shifted gears and said wait a minute, I can really have fun with this and try to make it reflective of the times, and to make it a comment that doesn't sort of take over the thrill ride part of the film. That's when I developed this sort of conceit and I waited consciously another ten years to do Day of the Dead. And waited until I could reflect again on something different about the times, and the same with Land. This one came quicker but I felt I got the idea while we were shooting Land of the Dead. And I wanted to do something about this blogosphere. I was actually concerned that people were going to start to do the same thing and actually it turns out that several people were doing the same thing. So we did it but it grew out of the idea it didn't come from someone saying 'Hey make another one, we can make money on it.' It wasn't like that at all. The idea came first.

BA: Now at the Comic-Con you said that you had a “balls-out comedy” that you were thinking about as your next zombie film, is that still true?
GAR: Yes it's still a possibility, I love it, it literally is a balls-out comedy. It's a completely slapstick idea. Again it would be fun for me, it would almost like me going on vacation. I'd love to do it, again completely different. It would have nothing to do with any of the other films. It's like Fido or Shaun of the Dead. It's sort of a sidebar to my zombie films, it just happens to be a film with a zombie in it. A single zombie. I hope someone sees the merit in it and lets me do it.

BA: You said you used audio from the original Night of the Living Dead in Diary. Talk about the audio because it's quite layered.
GAR: Yeah it's pretty layered and that's where I was able to get my little messages, my little elbows and asides in the radio and TV broadcast that they are downloading. I had a bunch of buddies that came out to do voice tracks for that. It was really gratifying. I called these guys up and said I need all these news voices do you want to do one and everybody said yes. Steve King did one. Tarantino, Wes Craven, Guillermo Del Toro. I mean all my old buddies came out and said, sure man. It was fun and there is much of the message is in there and in this narration which we held off on writing any of it. Our main objective when we were on the set was to get the main action done that involved principle characters. And we were saying to ourselves that these were film students and after they have everything in the can somebody is going to go and finish this and we can do the same thing. And that's exactly what we did. We had all the principle action in the can and then we came home and started to work on it. I was changing some of those audio tracks until the last couple of days before the film premiered. We were able to work with it like clay. Move the sculpture a little this way a little that way. That was also the result of having the freedom to do that.

BA: And your film still delivers on the gore which is quite fun.
GAR: I enjoy it but I was also getting a bit tired of that too, I felt initially that I needed to do it because people wanted it and I also felt that it was kind of a slap in the face. It's sort of like the operating room sequences in M*A*S*H, where you are watching this comedy and laughing your head off, and all of a sudden there's this operating scene, and it just slaps you. It says guys there's something to think about here, this is war. That was my sort of rationale for doing it but again with Land of the Dead when you are shooting an objective film with objective cameras the tendency is to go in and do what I call product shots on the gore. When we were doing this film I said wait, I think it may be more effective and a little more realistic - because these kids aren't going to go in and do close ups on the gore --  they are going to shoot it from across the room. And I felt that when we started to look at dailies, I though wow this is even more effective than going in for a close up. So it's there and maybe pound for pound it's as much as there is in Land because Land was also R rated. But it's like if you were shooting a home movie, it comes and it goes quickly and it's only viewed from a certain perspective which is way over here across the room and maybe you could zoom in but not that much. It was meant to be through the eyes of the individual cameraman and I felt it was more effective than going in for all those close ups.

BA: I wanted to ask, what do you think of today's horror films? Do you like any of them?
GAR: (laughs) Enjoy them? No. I can say that without qualification. I don't understand them. I don't understand this torture porn. I don't get it, I wish someone could give me a reason. I mean it's an angry time so these films are angry. Angry at what? I mean I don't find any political statement in them. I mean when we were angry in the 60s, we were angry at the police, at the military, we were angry at institutions. It strikes me that just being angry isn't enough of a reason to make a cruel film. I've always tried to not make my films cruel, I mean they may be angry but I try to not make them cruel. I try to lighten the load with some humor and all that. I mean being angry is one thing. Dr. Strangelove is angry movie but it's hilarious. So I don't know, I guess I'm more of a traditionalist in that sense.