George Romero has found a way to reinvent his zombie movies for every age. The original Night of the Living Dead was a simple story of survivors holed up in a house. Dawn of the Dead gave them a bigger space, an entire mall. In Day of the Dead, scientists began studying and trying to train the undead. In Land of the Dead, the zombie society began to overpower the humans.
Now Romero has gone back to the beginning. Diary of the Dead stars a cast of unknowns as film students shooting footage the night of the first outbreak. Their chronicle paints a portrait of how different factions of our culture handle a disaster of supernatural proportions.
Despite his graying beard and pony tail, Romero still knows how to do zombies in the modern world. He’s still quite the showman too. His answers to each question have a beginning, middle and end, classic story structure, and he peppers in casual profanity to “keep it real.” Most importantly, he puts on his spooky voice for key words like “blogosphere” and “production value.”
You used to do one of these films every decade. How did you end up doing two within two years?
George A. Romero: I loved the idea that I could wait for something to happen out in the world and then talk about it. It seemed to need to be years apart in order for the culture to change a little bit, for it to look a little different and all that. But, when we were shooting Land, I suddenly was taken with the idea that God, this is so big and I don’t know where to go. I don’t know if I want to follow that line. There were those four films that were sort of going in a certain direction. I said, “Where do you go next? Beyond Thunderdome?” I didn’t want to do that.
At the same time, before we even shot Land of the Dead, I had this idea that I wanted to do something about the blogosphere, about this new media. I thought I’ve got to do this quick. I also wanted to leave. After Land, I said, “Outta here, I want to go back to my roots. I want to do something small and see if I have the chops or the stamina to do it.” I had this idea and I had it actually sketched out in a rough draft of the script. The moment we finished Land, I sort of refined the script a little bit. I was going to run away, literally run away. I wanted to do it at a film school where I taught a couple of classes way under the radar for a couple hundred grand. Do it with students. The guys at Artfire saw the script and said, “No, no, let’s go theatrical with it. How little can you do it for?” Peter and I sat down and did the lowest budget that we could conceive. In order to do it union and legitimately, all of a sudden it’s not 200 anymore, it’s two million because of all of that. So we came in under four and the guys at Artfire said okay, and they gave me the controls, so I said sure. That’s where it came from. I also felt that I needed to do it quickly because somebody was sure going to do something about it soon. God damn, who knew that Brian [De Palma] was shooting Redacted and Cloverfield was happening? We didn’t know. We thought we were going to be the first guys. Didn’t work out that way.
Is it good to know that Cloverfield made it cool to do the first person perspective, handheld camera sort of document style?
GR: I don’t know. I can’t think of it that way. Is it good to know? I don’t know if it’s good or not. I don’t know. I think there’s a collective subconscious and I think that that’s where these films are coming from. All the world’s a camera now and it seems like it’s a reasonable way to do things. Maybe reality TV has turned into reality movies. I don’t know. It seems an obvious way to go now, even though I thought when we first started to work on this and I first did the script, I thought it was a clever way to go, never seeing that there’s probably going to be a lot of people thinking the same way. It happens so often. There is a collective subconscious out there. So I’m happy with my film. I haven’t seen Cloverfield. I know what it’s about of course but I almost don’t care. I’m happy with what we did.
The big difference is that the characters in your film are filmmakers, so it’s a filmmaker’s aesthetic. The point of Cloverfield was it was untrained people doing the best they could.
GR: Well, there is [a filmmaker’s aesthetic] and we were sort of aware of that. We left the film alone. We said, “We’ll shoot the principal action and then we can finish it later. Then we can throw anything in there, because these kids are going to finish this film and do a presentation, the best presentation that they can.” So we said we can do the same thing and we did. We left all the narration, all the newscaster voices, all that shit came later in post. That was the great thing about having control over it because we could just sit around and bulls**t and try things on for size, until we finally came up with what we thought was a good, appropriate set of tracks for it. It was great to just have the freedom and not have somebody breathing over your shoulder.
How did you get Jason’s reflection in the monitors?
GR: He had to shoot it. Obviously he had to shoot it himself, but it was like a Madden football play. The DP was shooting it up to a point and right before Joshua Close went in front of the mirror, sort of handed off the camera and Joshua took it and shot that shot.
How did you find the cast of unknowns?
GR: Auditions. Completely auditions. One of them I knew from Stratford, a Shakespeare company in Ontario. One of them was actually in a film that we had done. Shawn Roberts is in Land of the Dead in a very small role, the first guy that dies in Land. I just loved him, he was great to work with and we said, “Let’s go with Shawn.” We talked about giving him the same name but then we thought, “Well, maybe that’s too much of a connection.” He’s there. Other than that, it was all auditions. Lots of auditions.
Now that you’ve done these quickly, can we expect another one quickly? Will we have to wait 20 years?
GR: It beats the s**t out of me. 20 years, I won’t be around, so you don’t have to worry about that. Maybe I’ll come back. No, man, I don’t know. There’s a hell of a lot of talk about a sequel and shooting quickly, maybe this coming summer even. You just never know. Maybe that’ll be a reality. If it happens, it’ll be the first time I’ve ever done a direct sequel: take the same characters, take the same situation and move it on from there, move it to the next square. There’s a lot more that I’d like to say about this emerging media. We’ll see.
Do you think they might run into the mall or the science lab?
GR: No, I don’t think so. No. It’s simultaneous, so they could, but that’s not the way I would want to go with it. The biggest thing that we didn’t touch on was the idea that somebody, anybody, any lunatic could throw up a blog and all of a sudden he’s got 50 people following him. We didn’t really touch on that so much and that’s a direction that I’d like to go with, the idea of people developing tribes just by preaching to the converted. People that tune into Rush Limbaugh know what he’s going to say and already agree. That’s what happens I think with these columnists.
It’s interesting, the blogs and videos they find in Diary are actually helpful. People who have fought zombies share the information about how to destroy their brains.
GR: Not so much the blogs. They get that information from police radio broadcasts. That’s really where that info comes from. Mainstream media is sort of denying it, and then when it comes down to the blogs, that’s what I mean. We haven’t gone into that because they’re the ones who are sending it out without a lot of information. There’s also something there. All they know is what happened to them and yet they’re trying to put out this film and the main character, Jason, is so obsessed with doing it that he loses sight of reality, loses sight of his own survival and winds up perishing because of that. I don’t think they get a lot of accurate information, certainly not off the net.
Was the scene where electrocuting the zombie doesn’t work an answer to the Return of the Living Dead spinoff franchise, that claimed electricity would kill them for good?
GR: No. Not at all. It was an idea that came to me in the shower. Wouldn’t that be cool if she tries this and it oughta’ fry her but it doesn’t, so she comes back.
You start to explore how other cultures are responding to this. We see video from Japan and they even go through Amish country. What other cultures would you like to explore in this scenario?
GR: I don’t know but it’s a good idea. I really haven’t thought much about that. We were just trying to show that it’s worldwide. That’s all.
Since each film takes a different approach, what are the must-have elements in one of your zombie movies?
GR: Zombies! No, in fact, I could do away with the zombies. I don’t give a s**t. The stories have nothing to do with the zombies. The zombies might be a hurricane. They might be any disaster that comes along, but zombies are my ticket to ride in a certain way.
But all the films have scenes where they barricade, where they gather supplies, where they start in-fighting.
GR: That recurs because it’s human argument, right? It’s people not knowing exactly what to do and just getting caught up in arguing about ridiculous stuff instead of trying to really directly address the problem. I don’t think it’s so much that. The zombies are the ticket to ride. These are zombie movies so you have to have zombies. You have to figure out a cool way to get rid of the zombies, to kill them off, lose the brain somehow. That’s really the only element. The rest of it is they’re stories. They’re stories about people.
Does Diary even focus more on the human story and less on the zombie element than the other films?
GR: I don’t know that it necessarily does. Probably certainly not less than Night, but the story’s more obvious and the zombie sequences, particularly the gore sequences, go by very quickly because they’re shot subjectively by these people that are sort of standing back a little bit. Whereas the tendency when you’re doing it objectively is to go in for close up and do product shots on the gore. That just tends to stretch it out. I think pound for pound, it’s equal at least to, maybe not all of the films. Maybe Dawn and Day went a little further but it’s just that it goes by so quickly I think, because we’re just looking at it from over here. We’re not going in and studying it and taking five minutes to kill that zombie off.
How do you come up with new ways to dispose of the brain?
GR: You take a shower. I don’t know, man, it just comes to you.
You don’t sing. You think of zombie kills.
GR: I do. Of course I do. I’m already just faced with the idea of possibly having to do another sequel, and knowing that someday I probably will do another zombie movie, already the first thing you start to do is figure out new ways to dispose of these guys. It’s tough to come up with stuff.
It’s always been interesting to me that the first film was Night of the LIVING Dead, but then it was always â€¦of the Dead. Aren’t they still living dead?
GR: Yes, they are. It’s not my fault. Don’t ask me. I don’t make up the titles. The funny thing is, my partner at the time when I made Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead didn’t want to get involved with any sort of litigation, so he shortened it to “of the dead.” Now anybody that wants to hire me to make a movie, it has to be “of the dead,” Something of the Dead.
You said you didn’t know where to go with the Land of the Dead thread, but Land suggested there might be uncontaminated areas he was heading off to. Wouldn’t that be a place to explore?
GR: That’s actually the way I’m sort of going. You want to just get somewhere where there’s at least less turmoil, someplace a little less civilized where at least if there is a conflict, it’s going to be smaller and maybe more controlled. But yeah, that’s obviously the way I was going and that’s what I was doing with Land because there was a hell of a lot of talk while we were shooting Land that we’ll do a sequel to this right away too. It’s the obvious thing to do. If I was one of those guys, I’d say, “Let’s go to the Yukon, man.”
Would you eventually revisit that timeline?
GR: I don’t think so. I don’t know where to go with it. I don’t know what to do with the zombies. I don’t want to do Beyond the Planet of the Apes. I don’t want a zombie society. I don’t want to go that far. I’ve had ideas in that direction but it’s not really what I want to do. I’m now happy that I’ve started over and I have a whole other thing that I can probably milk until I die and I never have to get to that point. I never have to end it because I don’t know exactly how to end it.
Could they maybe intersect at some point?
GR: Maybe, they could, and I’ve thought about that too but I doubt it. I think I just want to have this new line now and I’ll stick with that and not worry about what happens at the end. It’s so hard to end. What happens? Either the zombies take over or the humans win. I don’t like either of those and I don’t like some kind of d’etant. The end of Land is that sort of “let ’em be.” So I came close enough I guess to that idea of live and let live.
Would you ever explain the cause of this phenomenon, or always leave it a mystery?
GR: I hope not. I don’t care what the cause is. I’ve forever been trying to live down, in Night of the Living Dead, we shot actually three explanations. We wound up having to cut six minutes out of the film in order for the distributor to want to distribute it. We cut out a radio thing and a TV thing because we thought it’s just boring, we’re sitting in the house, same old thing. We left in the one that we shot in Washington, D.C. because we thought, “Production value, man. We actually went to D.C. and shot it with the capitol in the background.” So we left that in. Next thing you know, even every TV Guide blurb said, “A returning Venus probe causes the dead to come back to life.” Starting with the second film, I went with that sort of voodoo explanation, “When there’s no more room in hellâ€¦” I don’t care. I don’t give a f**k why it happened. That’s part of the whole thing to me is that there’s this change. The world has changed. Somebody has changed some kind of a rule and it’s different. The stories are about how people respond to it, don’t respond, respond incorrectly, stupidly, whatever. That’s really all that matters to me.
What zombie films from other filmmakers do you enjoy?
Have you seen Flight of the Living Dead?
GR: I haven’t, no. I haven’t seen it.
Those are all still recent. Are there any classic zombie movies besides yours?
GR: Oh, classic? Different zombies, man. That’s the Caribbean boys. Classic films, I don’t know. Carnival of Souls. Is that a zombie movie? I don’t know if it is.
How about the Italian ones?
GR: I love a couple of Fulci things. I just had a gas watching them. It’s not what I would do but I loved watching them. They were fun. And the oldies, man, I Walk With a Zombie, White Zombie and that stuff. Different zombies. They’re not the neighborhood zombies.
Which of your non-zombie films would you love for fans to rediscover?
GR: My two favorite films of mine are sort of semi-vampire; it’s not a vampire, it’s called Martin. And a film I made called Knightriders which is probably my most personal or autobiographical film in a way. So those two.
George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead is out in limited release today.