Guide of the Dead - An RT Romero Retrospective

As Diary hits cinemas, we take a look at Romero's zombie opus.

by | March 7, 2008 | Comments

George A Romero
Hey, Man! Its Not Just a Horror Movie...

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How George A. Romero covered capitalism, consumer culture, human nature, politics and blogging through the eyes of thousands of zombies…

WORDS: Chris Hewitt PORTRAIT: Larry Busacca DESIGN: Joe Utichi

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Night of the Living Dead

The Story...

When the dead start returning to life with a hunger for human flesh, a disparate band of survivors hole up in a Pittsburgh farmhouse, bicker amongst themselves, and try to stop themselves from winding up on an undead menu as a unique three-course set meal. Coffee not included.

Hey, Man! It's Not Just a Horror Movie...

Far from it. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead, according to film historian Robin Wood, represent capitalists, feasting on the flesh of society’s outsiders. But as would rapidly become the pattern in Romero‘s films, the zombies aren’t really the villains. Instead humans are, with Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) openly fighting with the film’s black hero, Ben (Duane Jones), and even trying to kill him. At the end, Ben is the sole survivor, but is shot in the head by a patrol crew who ‘mistake’ him for a zombie. The subtle implication is that, had Ben been white, he would still have been alive.

Night of the Living Dead
The Black Guy is...

The hero. By making his hero an African-American, particularly one who’s reasoned and intelligent, Romero was overtly addressing the racial politics that were engulfing America at the time. It would become a trend in his movies.

The Female Lead is...

Barbara, played by Judith O’Dea. A far cry from the ass-kickers of later Romero episodes, Barbara spends most of the movie in a catatonic trance, traumatised by the fate she’s just seen befall her brother.

Night of the Living Dead
Gore Factor...

Minimal in this movie, although scenes of ghouls feasting on flesh and Karen Cooper trowelling her mom to death are dripping with black goo that, legend has it, was actually chocolate sauce. At this point in time, Romero hadn’t yet met a young man named Tom Savini and the gore is surprisingly restrained.

Best Line

It’s hard to top “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”, spoken by Barbara’s brother, Johnny. Referenced in the likes of Shaun of the Dead, it’s also a paranoid classic to rival Kevin McCarthy‘s “They’re here!” in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, itself a cracking political allegory.

Night of the Living Dead

Did You Know?

The movie was originally called Night Of The Flesh Eaters.

According to Romero...

“I was brought up on Tales Of Hoffman and movies like Othello and Macbeth. Those were the visual influences — hard shadow, hard light, obvious sources. I tried to make it look like newsreel. I used a handheld Arriflex and I felt so free!”

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Dawn of the Dead

The Story...

The zombie epidemic is threatening to engulf the world, forcing a disparate band of survivors to hole up in a Pittsburgh shopping mall, which they turn into their own private paradise. But, with zombies and roving biker gangs trying to get in, their idyll may not remain uninterrupted for long.

Hey, Man! It's Not Just a Horror Movie...

Dawn of the Dead is an overt attack on American consumer culture — not only do the zombies return to a shopping mall, which is described as the place that made them happiest, but it turns our four protagonists into zombies, deadening their souls. In fact, so gripped with avarice are two of the group — Steven and Roger — that they perish while trying to protect what they’ve built, as if material goods are worth a tinker’s cuss in Romero’s apocalyptic world. Once again, as when a biker gang invades the group’s little world and starts pulling it down around them, destroying stores for no good reason, you’re reminded that Romero is, more often than not, on the side of the zombies. Traitor.

Dawn of the Dead
The Black Guy is...

The hero. Ken Foree‘s effortlessly cool, iconic Peter is perhaps the most memorable character in each of the five Dead films. A big bear of a man, Peter’s a born action hero, but he’s not without his compassionate moments, and his genuine affection for his compadre, Roger, hits home in the film’s most affecting sequence, when he is forced to blow his newly-zombified buddy’s brains out.

The Female Lead is...

Gaylen Ross‘s Fran, and she’s several steps up from the appallingly one-dimensional Barbara, showing Romero’s marked dedication to fleshing out his female protagonists. Initially, she seems to be very much the token girlfriend as Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), Steven (David Emge) and Peter run around the mall, but gradually she becomes more assertive. In the end, it’s her determination to learn to pilot the group’s helicopter that saves her and Peter from a fate worse than death. OK, scratch that — just death. But as fates go, it’s still pretty nasty.

Dawn of the Dead
Gore Factor...

High, and in bright Technicolor red, too. By this point, Romero had hooked up with Tom Savini (who also plays the leader of the biker gang), and the special effects guru runs wild here, splattering the place with bright red blood and some of the best headshots in movie history. Check out the impromptu Jackson Pollock that explodes onto a wall near the movie’s end – or, of course, the infamous helicopter gag when rotor blades (actually animated and hand-drawn onto the frame) whip off the top of a zombie’s brain. Interestingly, Greg Nicotero, Romero’s go-to guy for FX these days, was inspired to get into the business by a flesh-biting gag in the first 20 minutes of the movie.

Best Line

Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause, please, for the iconic, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” In early drafts, this line actually read, “When there’s no more room in the last carriage, please wait. A new train will arrive in two minutes.”

Dawn of the Dead

Did You Know?

This is the first Romero zombie film in which the Z-word is actually uttered.

According to Romero...

“When I made the first film I was always concerned about this idea, the reason to do this stuff is to upset the applecart and what everyone seems to do is restore the order at the end of these things, which is what I never want to do. At the end of Dawn in the script, I had everybody die and I realised that I was doing it because it was a sequel. I realised I could save a couple of these individuals without restoring the world!”

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Day of the Dead

The Story...

OK, everything’s fucked, to put it mildly. With zombies now outnumbering humans by 400,000 to 1, mankind is at the bottom of the food chain and things are looking bleaker than a Scottish winter. Needless to say, a disparate band of survivors hole up in an underground military complex and bicker, argue and generally fight amongst themselves in Romero’s bleakest vision yet.

Hey, Man! It's Not Just a Horror Movie...

Day of the Dead, Romero’s ’80s entry in his Dead franchise is the most overt attack on human nature yet. Save for a handful of sympathetic characters, Romero populates his film with appalling villains, from leering and mocking grunts, to the utterly black-hearted Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato, who appears briefly as a different character in Dawn of the Dead), who is already unhinged when we meet him and rapidly heads south from there into gibberdom. In this, when the zombies attack, it’s generally a relief, while famously Romero works hard to humanise, for the first time, a major zombie character, in the shape of Howard Sherman‘s sympathetic and likeable Bub.

Day of the Dead
The Black Guy is...

The secondary protagonist, with Terry Alexander’s John a laidback Haitian helicopter pilot who is content to sit out the simmering civil war tearing the group apart, until fate — and zombies — force his hand. It’s a departure from the ass-kicking Peter of Dawn, but Terry is a more cerebral character.

The Female Lead is...

The hero – and the strongest female character in Romero’s canon. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is a scientist trying to keep it together in the face of extreme provocation: her colleagues, particularly Richard Liberty‘s demented Dr. Logan, are ineffective fruitcakes. Her army ‘protectors’ either want to kill her or rape her. And her boyfriend, Miguel, is a soldier who makes Captain Rhodes look sane. Sympathetic and three-dimensional, Sarah isn’t a saint by any means, but she’s more proactive than any of Romero’s previous heroines.

Day of the Dead
Gore Factor...

Off the chart, with Savini coming up with grotesque new gags that forced Romero to reduce his vision for the film, after his financiers offered him a larger budget in return for an R-rating. Refusing to compromise, Romero rewrote his massive script for Day, plumping for a smaller budget but more gore. And boy, are we glad, particularly in the iconic moment when Pilato is ripped apart by zombies, yelling “choke on ’emmmmmm!” as zombies drag his entrails across the floor.

Best Line

The aforementioned “Choke on ’emmmmmm!”

Day of the Dead

Did You Know?

Damon Albarn’s cartoon band, Gorillaz, sampled John Harrison‘s theme for M1 A1, a song on their debut album.

According to Romero...

“I love Howard Sherman in that movie. Some of the stuff he did, I was just in awe. The moment when he picks up Salem’s Lot — wow!”

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Land of the Dead

The Story...

Those pesky zombies are still stumbling around and biting anything they can get their manky hands on. However, small pockets of survivors have finally got their shit together, and built well-protected enclaves, boasting some semblance of a social hierarchy. No prizes, though, for guessing that, at some point, zombies are going to get in and get their chomp on…

Hey, Man! It's Not Just a Horror Movie...

No, indeed. Romero waited over a decade to make a fourth zombie movie and, when Land of the Dead came, it was loaded with political and social comment, from the thinly-disguised pokes at the Bush administration (Dennis Hopper‘s character might as well be called Rumsfeld) to jabs at the War on Terror (largely fought here, it’s suggested, by just ignoring the problem and hoping it’ll go away) to digs at the class structure of American society, where the rich white man prospers and everyone else can go hang.

Land of the Dead
The Black Guy is...

A zombie! But it’s ok, it’s a hero zombie. Continuing the evolution of the zombies from shambling ghouls to sympathetic characters, Romero gives us Big Daddy, a giant ex-mechanic (played by Eugene Clark) who galvanises his zombie hordes into an army that storms the enclave and reclaims the land for themselves. A land… of the dead. Hey – just like the title! Although not as likeable as Bub, it’s clear that we’re still meant to cheer when Big Daddy – even more terrifying than the fat British wrestler with whom he shares a name – blows Hopper to kingdom come.

The Female Lead is...

In another departure from tradition, not the female lead. Instead, Asia Argento‘s Slack — a hooker with a heart of gold, as they say — turns up about a third of the way in and doesn’t get to do much more than exchange quips with the film’s human hero, Riley (Simon Baker) and fire a gun now and again. Still, it’s nice to renew the Argento-Romero connection.

Land of the Dead
Gore Factor...

Although the film merely garnered a 15 certificate in the UK, the effects, by Greg Nicotero’s KNB, are startling, icky and often hilarious. Nicotero, in fact, was the film’s second unit director, with his team known as The Splatter Unit on set. Our personal favourite? The belly button gag — gets an ‘ooh!’ every time. Remember, kids – piercing just gives zombies more stuff to grab.

Best Line

“I always wanted to see how the other half lives.” — John Leguizamo‘s social climbing mercenary, Cholo, after being bitten.

Land of the Dead

Did You Know?

Not only do Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright — the Shaun Of The Dead creative team — appear as zombies (which you probably did know), but they’re up front on the poster as well, flanking Big Daddy.

According to Romero...

“Big Daddy’s much more severe than Bub. He has to be a leader. And what happens in this film is that others imitate him. And yeah, I think people did say, ‘There’s something more to this movie.’ Well, I’ve been trying to tell you that, guys, for the last 30 years!”

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Diary of the Dead

And so we’re up to date as Diary of the Dead arrives in cinemas. In addition to telling RT about his movies past, we sat down with George A. Romero to learn about Diary and the future of the Dead franchise…

So, you don’t make a zombie film in the 90s, and now it’s two in three years. Are you making up for lost time?

George A. Romero: [laughs] No! I missed the 90s because I was swallowed up in development hell there. I had development deals, made a lot of dough, never made any movies. And basically, I fled and did a little film called Bruiser. I’ve just scrammed and that’s why I missed it.

I had had the idea for Land Of The Dead back then, but I reworked it. Actually, it was — I think — probably thankful that that’s the way it worked out. Post-9/11, it was a much stronger film, I think. That’s what happened with that. When I finished that film, I took a look at it. I was happy with the way it turned out. There was a lot of talk about a sequel and I thought, where the hell am I going to go from here? First of all, I didn’t have an idea and I didn’t want to get involved. I had completely lost touch with the origins of this thing. I wanted to see if I had the chops and the stamina to go back and do a little guerrilla film. Initially I wanted to do something about this emerging media, and I had a little sketch of the script. I was basically ready to go and take a vacation and do it at a film school where I had taught a couple of classes, just to have some control and to do something small.

Diary of the Dead

And Diary is very small — much smaller than Land, which had a $15 million budget.

GR: Yeah, the people at Artfire read the script and said, “We’ll let you have the control if you can make it under four.” I had the idea, and it did grow. I wanted to go back to the beginning. There are a lot of other elements involved here. We lost the copyright on Night of the Living Dead. That’s basically a public domain film and all the other films are owned by somebody else and you have no action in it. So that was also a motivating factor.

I’m glad you mentioned Night, because I thought that Diary was much closer in tone to that movie, and Day Of The Dead, whereas Land and Dawn were poppier. Was that deliberate?

GR: I agree with you. I was trying to do that. I had a conversation early this morning about, “Well, what if they want to make a sequel to this?” Well, this is closer to Night, so maybe we need to do something that’s closer to Dawn. A pure comic book thing.

Are you going to do a sequel to this?

GR: I don’t know what to do. If I had to do a sequel right now, I’d finish the story and start it with the same characters, which is also something I’ve never done. I’m hoping that it’ll all blow away. I’m hoping that if Barack Obama gets elected, I’ll have something to talk about. More importantly, if he gets shot!

Diary of the Dead

I’m intrigued that you and Brian De Palma have made similar films at the same time, with this and…

GR: Redacted. I haven’t seen that and I haven’t seen Cloverfield. I guess there’s a collective subconscious. I don’t know because I haven’t seen those films but I don’t know that they’re exactly about the same kind of thing. I think it’s an influence and where does it come from? It seems to me that this is more of a response to reality television, than it is to this age of New Media. I don’t know if any of these films really speak to that. Redacted, I guess, is helmet cameras, right?

Yeah, and CCTV footage. But it’s interesting that two old stagers-

GR: We’re New Yorkers! [laughs]

OK… New Yorkers, would be drawn to this new form of expression. Were you attracted by the immediacy?

GR: It’s not so much the immediacy but the danger of it. Right in the middle of Super Tuesday in the America election process, they interrupt the election results to say, “We have reports of a tornado touching down in Arkansas. Anyone out there, if you can get a good picture, send it in, we’ll put it on the air and we’ll send you a mug! Be careful!” And people are out there waiting for something to happen. Everyone has a camera phone. The shootings at Virginia Tech, all the footage we had was footage from camera phones. It strikes me as quite dangerous. If Hitler was around, he would never even have to go into the town square. He could throw up a blog and forget about it.

Diary of the Dead

You’ve got a no-name cast this time around, but I detected a few famous voices playing newscasters, including Simon Pegg and Guillermo del Toro.

GR: What happened was, we shot the film in 20 days and then we went back and we had enough money to shoot three more days and that was it. All we could afford was to get the principal footage in the can. We knew we could come back and do the narration portions and the news stuff. There was some of that in the script but we said we can refine it later because it’s all just audio. We shot the film and we came back and we kept writing things and we kept writing dialogue and we would try it on for size. We were all recording – it was me, my editor and my girlfriend and we were sitting there with a finished film but it was all our own voices. So first I called Stephen King and he said, “Sure man, I’ll do it,” and I called some of my other buddies and I’m very grateful that they all said yes and were all willing and able. It’s a vote of confidence.

How did you decide who to single out?

GR: I called people whose work I respect and who I’ve been able to hang out with without having any altercations! [laughs] I tried to call Dario but I couldn’t reach him. [laughs] I don’t know… I guess with subtitles, but he may not have been distinguishable. Tom Savini is one of the voices. I wish that Tom would get back into the biz, so to speak. I think he’s more concerned about being an actor. He wants to be an actor now. He should get back into it.

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