George Romero is the undisputed godfather of zombie movies, having invented the modern form with his ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead (1968) and expanded and refined the mythology through subsequent sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). His output has not been confined solely to zombie movies, though he has stuck almost exclusively to horror genres; amongst his greatest films are the vampire tale Martin (1977) and the malicious ape picture Monkey Shines (1988). But his biggest budget feature to date was a return to the zombie story, Land of the Dead (2005) for Universal, followed closely by a return to his roots with the low-budget Diary of the Dead (2007) and the now his latest, Survival of the Dead.
In this new film, a group of minor characters from Diary find themselves caught up in a family feud on an island off the coast of Delaware, and last week Romero came to town to have a little chat about it.
How did you come up with the funding and the concept for another Dead film?
It’s a long-ish story: Diary of the Dead I made very quickly after Land of the Dead and I really wanted to go small again after that film. We found partners in a company called Artfire out here (in Los Angeles) and they’re willing to finance projects under a certain number, finance 100% and gamble, sell it later, which was great for me, and they were willing to give me creative control. So I thought Diary would maybe be a one-shot thing; I wanted to do it quickly because it’s about emerging media, citizen journalism and all that, and I wanted to do it before someone beat me to the punch – I didn’t know people were already working on similar ideas.
Even though it had a limited release, in North America anyway, it cost so little to make that worldwide, with video and TV and everything else, it wound up making a lot of money. So Artfire wanted to do another one quickly, and I was attracted for a couple of reasons: first of all I saw it as a new franchise which my partner and I would actually own a little piece of – the first four films are all controlled by different people; I can’t even get enough co-operation for them to put out a boxed set, so forget about trying to cross-collateralize, use characters – I’d love to take Bub or Big Daddy and show them when they were alive. I’ve always wanted to do that, so I saw this as an opportunity to do so.
How did you come up with the family feud aspect of Survival of the Dead in combination with the zombie and western elements?
I actually came up with three story ideas, based on taking minor characters from Diary, and I had this conceit about wouldn’t it be nice to do this little collage about what the world is like three months, four months, or five months in? And I said well, it’s not about the Bush administration, it’s not about consumerism, so I just wanted to go with a more generalized theme, which is the enmities that don’t die. War, in general, and anger and lack of civility – it seems like all of North America needs to take an anger management course. So that was the theme, and I had the idea about them going to an island, and there’s the Hatfields and McCoys and they get caught up in this feud that’s been going forever. I wanted this microcosm of what war is, these disagreements that can’t be resolved.
You can think of it as Ireland or the Middle East. I sort of went with Ireland because otherwise I’d have to have an Arab and a Jew. So I remembered the old William Wyler western The Big Country and I sat down with the DP and the production designer and everybody and we watched The Big Country and we said, let’s just make that our model, and that made it that much more fun for us. It’s just sort of a stylistic layer that gave us something more to shoot for and be interested in.
As you make more of these movies is it getting harder to make the zombies different, to kill them in different ways?
Not at all (laughs). I just love it. I could do this forever. And I’d like to do two more of them; I’ve got a little stockpile of ideas that I’ve never been able to do over the years, and now I can with CG, some of them, so that part of it’s fine. I grew up on DC comic books and those were always full of gags, bad puns, humor. So I love doing it, and it’s not stale for me, and we hope and we try, my collaborators and I, to keep them different stylistically, which as I say makes it that much more fun for us too.
Is it also easy to find new zombie stories to tell, new themes to explore?
It is. I mean there’s not too much of a zombie story here really, is there? The stories are really people stories. They’ve all been about the humans and how they respond or fail to respond, or respond stupidly. I don’t have a problem with that either; I can sort of leave the zombies in the closet until I’m ready for them, until I have the storyline, then I can say “OK boys, let’s go”. That part’s not a problem either. Thematically though, if we do two more I think I’ll just stick with the same thing, make it like one piece, about the same things: enmity, and the fact that people can’t pull together.
How will you handle any future Dead films? How will you keep audiences intrigued?
I’ll try to find other ways to make it more interesting, explore new rules, and figure out interesting ways to cross the storylines. And I have the characters picked out, I know who they would be, if this happens; this could all blow away if this film goes down the toilet. But I’d love to do that, even rather than chase down the other projects that we’re working on. I’m at a point where it would almost be like a vacation. If somebody said, we’re going to do two more, I would say, wow; it would be like the first time I ever had a steady job for at least a couple of years. So I would really enjoy it and I think it would actually clear my head rather than clutter it, because I’d be able to have a good time with it.
Do you employ the same zombies from film to film? Some of them look familiar.
No, there’s one guy, sort of a white-haired older gent who is in Land and Diary and this, and we tried to dye his hair, make him look a little bit different. There’s a lot of production in Toronto but there’s only so many union extras. But there are hundreds of volunteers and in Canada the way the regulations are – I forgot what it’s like here (in Los Angeles) – if you have so many union extras – I think it’s 35 or 40 – then you can bring in your kids, you can use volunteers, as long as you’ve reached the quota of hiring a minimum number of union people. Every time I go up to shoot one of these things I just get hundreds of emails going “please, let me come in”. But you can’t direct fifty zombies; if I do this (zombie arm lurch) everybody does it, so I just say, do your best dead, and people are incredibly inventive.
I’ve seen the Zombie Walk in Toronto – they do it in a lot of cities, which is another thing that blows me away – but they’re so inventive, even with their wardrobe and their make-up and everything else, and they all have their own little characteristic walks, and it’s such fun to see what people come up with. Sometimes of course they go way over the top with it and you have to tell them, would you step into the back? You sort of know whether it’s something you can cut out, but if it’s in a group shot you just have to be careful; sometimes it blows a little bit. But people are tremendously creative if you just let them do their own thing, and it’s all different.
What’s the difference between using digital special effects and the old practical stuff?
I love to do it like that, the practical way. It’s much more interactive; the actor feels something. And it works better; the splatter is interactive. And if you want the CG splatter that’s expensive. Tom (Savini) did a fabulous job, in Day particularly; he really hit his stride with that one. And I’d much rather do that, but you can’t. I mean, I have to be off the set in twenty days if I’m working at this budget level. You just can’t take the time. We were able to stretch the box and everybody was willing to put in the extra hours and things like that in those days, so I could get forty days, fifty days, and we could play around with it and experiment.
A couple of them that we tried to do practically in Land of the Dead didn’t work so we wound up having to use CG anyway. The reset time just costs you too much; you have to get off the set. I much prefer to do it all mechanically. And of course (Gregory) Nicotero would too, and Tom, if anybody would let me hire Tom again. He’s started a school and he’s very interested in acting now. He works with Tarantino, Rodriguez and that group a lot and he’s sort of not that interested any more. But Universal wouldn’t let me hire him (for Land). I thought it was a great idea. And (John) Carpenter wanted to do the music for that film and Universal said, bleh, yesterday’s pizza. And his fans would’ve fucking gone nuts for it. Go figure.
Compared to the ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead and the popularity of Dawn, have people come around to Day of the Dead now?
Thankfully yes. In fact the liner notes in the jacket of the DVD are written by a guy who initially tore Day apart, and he writes in the jacket notes that it took him several years to come back to it and rediscover it. I’ve been incredibly lucky, man – my stuff has this shelf-life. I mean it’s all still around; I go to these horror movie conventions and I have seventeen-year-old fans and seventy-year-old fans. It’s trippy, you know? And there’s always new editions coming out. I don’t know where they get the supposedly “new” footage. I sure didn’t shoot it!
Have you approached Artfire about doing another TV show, either zombie-related or more closely like Tales from the Darkside?
We’ve talked about it. I would love to do another anthology show but everybody is shying away from anthologies. It’s weird to me. Tales from the Darkside came out great; Tom Allen was a great story editor and I had a great time doing it, at least the first year. But you can’t sell it today. Some of it’s production bucks – they don’t want to have to do a different set every week and different characters, and they don’t think that attracts advertising. When you think of the classics like Twilight Zone, that stuff was great, but it may have been just less expensive to do it. We were able to do Tales from the Darkside guerrilla. We shot here and New York and it was real guerrilla stuff. It was all union, but it was no frills.
Is there a sense that, as successful as you have been with zombie-themed projects, it limits the opportunity to explore other ideas that you have?
It certainly does, but also my partner and I were out here six and a half years and made all this money in development hell, and never made a movie. And it was big stuff – The Mummy, Goosebumps – big projects. And for one reason or another all of them blew up and I just got fed up. I said, forget it man, I’ll go back to the two-dollar betting window. So that’s what I did. I wrote this little script for a film called Bruiser; we financed it in France through Canal Plus, before they got swallowed up in merger hell, and that was one of the first films I did in Canada and met and worked with the same people that worked on this film. I love working with this group, this family of collaborators, so I think I’ll stick with at least this scale.
My partner and I have one non-horror project and we have one horror project that’s non-zombie and I can do them both on pretty low bucks and so why fight it? Particularly at my age. I don’t have time to come out here and pitch something for a year and a half and then have it blow up. And then have somebody else own it. Because I can’t retrieve the couple of those projects that I love because there’s so much money against them; with development and pre-production costs pretty soon there’s four million bucks against it. Nobody’s going to pay that kind of fee just to get the script out of hock, and it just blows away. It’s a real tragedy; so many wonderful scripts that I’ve seen that just go “pfft”. Nobody has enough green stamps to redeem them.
Survival of the Dead is available on VOD, Amazon, VUDU, Xbox LIVE and PlayStation, and opens in theaters on May 28th.