Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero's first independent zombie film in over 20 years, follows a group of student filmmakers who, making a low-grade horror film in the woods, drive back to civilization ... only to find it isn't there anymore. We watch the film unfold as footage they shoot travelling through desolate and deadly buildings, neighborhoods, towns, cities -- coming to grips with the fact that the dead are walking and hungry and everything they knew is over. Shot outside of Toronto, where Romero now lives (but, as tradition demands, set near Pittsburgh), Diary of the Dead played both the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals; Scott Weinberg's review from Toronto can be found here, while Jette Kernion's review is here.
Writer-director George A. Romero spoke with Cinematical about his zombie film legacy that stretches back to 1968's Night of the Living Dead, his concerns about the possibilities and perils of user-generated media, which Presidential candidate he thinks would have the best handle on attacking armies of the dead, and the undying popularity of the undead he created. " (If) I created anything ... it was the "neighborhood zombie" ... the guy with Nikes and a sweatshirt. ... Neighbors are scary, and when they're dead they're a bit scarier. But once you have that, it's idiomatic ... I half expect the zombies to show up on Sesame Street hanging out with The Count. ..."
Cinematical: I've read several notes and quotes from you saying that Diary of the Dead essentially felt like a new beginning.
George A. Romero: For me, it was a new beginning; I made four zombie films before this, and they sort of tracked, they were along a single storyline, even though they were 10 years or more apart, each of them. And they were just getting too big. The last one (George A. Romero's Land of the Dead) was a studio-supported film, which, you know, I turned around and looked at it: They let me make the film I wanted to make, I loved working with Dennis Hopper and Leguizamo and people like that, but I felt the film and I had sort of lost connection with the origin of the series, which was a little guerrilla movie that a bunch of amateurs made in Pittsburgh all those years ago. And I wanted to go back to ... I wanted to see if I had the chops and the stamina to make a little guerilla movie. I happened to have an idea that I wanted to do something ... all of my zombie films have had this kind of socio-political satire underneath them, and I've always used them as snapshots of the time in which they were made.
I got an idea that I wanted to do something about emerging media, with the mainstream losing its power and Joe Blow from Oshkosh taking over on the blogosphere. And it all sort of fell into place. And I thought 'Well, I can make a little film, do it pretty inexpensively, about students who are out shooting a student film when the sh*t hits the fan, when zombies sit up and start walking around.' I said 'We can go back to the very first night, and we can try to pretend ' -- even though that was 1968 and this is now --- 'that this is the same first night, when this phenomenon first begins to happen.'
George A. Romero: There was a collection of stories called Book of the Dead, in which horror and science-fiction writers came together and wrote short stories about what was happening to other people on that first night (as depicted) in Night of the Living Dead -- in fact, there were two; there was Book of the Dead and Book of the Dead II. And I thought 'Well, I can do that; I'll go back to the first night myself." So that was it; it was a solution to both problems: Going back to myself as a film maker to do something more simple, and sort of starting the franchise over again in a way. Starting a new sort of parallel sort of track; I mean, if I make another film -- and there's a lot of talk about that now, making a sequel -- but if I make another one, I'll stay on this track instead of trying to figure out how to go Beyond the Planet of the Apes (laughs).
Cinematical: It's interesting, though: For Night of the Living Dead, you were essentially a kid running around in the woods, and now, for Diary of the Dead, you have a film about a bunch of kids running around in the woods; did it take you back, writing Diary of the Dead?
GR: Oh, completely! Completely! That was all about us! The other side of it is that even in the story, I was able to reminisce a little bit. I just talked to a reporter earlier today who said "You know what? They end up in a panic room -- and that's the same kind of trap you're in; you're stuck in this genre!" and they went that much further. So this film is already being analyzed much like Night of the Living Dead was. And I said to this guy "That never occurred to me. " It's a very interesting observation. (Laughs) It's incredible! All of these films have been analyzed, over-analyzed; as far as I'm concerned, the message is sort of there on the surface; when we made the first film, I think one of the principal reasons that film sort of got so talked about and so viewed as essential American cinema was that the lead actor was a Black guy. And that was accidental! I mean, Duane (Jones) was the best actor from among our friends. And that became "Oh, man, this movie's really about new racial conflicts ..." and it was completely accidental. I mean we finished that film -- in those days, cities the size of Pittsburgh had film laboratories -- we finished the film, we had an answer print, and we threw it in the trunk of a car and drove it to New York to see if anyone wanted to show it, and that night, with that film in the trunk of the car, we heard on the car radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. And to some great extent that accident of timing is responsible, I think, largely for Night of The Living's Dead's success. Not to take away from the work that everyone put into it to make the movie and everything else, but if you had to name a single element that made that film endure, it's that. I don't believe that we deserve credit for it, but anyway.
Cinematical: There's also that great Bob Dylan line that when you put enough knives and forks on the table, you've got to cut something.
GR: That's pretty much it -- but there's also the infinite number of monkeys.
Cinematical: The one interesting thing in Diary of the Dead is that the film talks about emerging media, the blogosphere, the idea that anyone can be a reporter -- but it also seems suspicious of it at the same time. Do you find that as you move forward in your career it gets easier and easier to question everyone, including the revolutionaries who are trying to save you?
GR: Absolutely it does. I actually worry -- I mean, if you really want to bring it down to brass tacks, here's Barack Obama on this surge. Why? Because he's got the Black vote and he's got the youth vote, and you could still say that's naiveté in a certain sense. Is this guy the best guy? I'm not saying yes, no or otherwise -- but it's so easy to ... I mean, Christ, televangelists have people sending in their last five dollars! I mean, if I was to blame anybody for anything? I basically blame the audience. I blame the public. I mean, they don't do their homework; they'd rather look up from their beers and be told what to think instead of trying to look into issues and form an opinion. I mean, if Hitler was around today and threw up a Blog, forget about it -- he's got three million people right off the bat, and that's the first night.
Cinematical: Now the world can be anyone's Munich beer hall.
Cinematical: On a lighter note, let me ask you this: Which of the presidential candidates ...
(Romero starts laughing.) ... do you think could best defend America from the zombie invasion? Which Presidential candidate would you want as your Commander-in-Chief against the armies of the dead?
GR: Oh, gimme a break! I don't know, man. You know what? I think I'd have to go with Charlton Heston.
Cinematical: He does have the experience.
GR: And, you know,' my cold, dead hands' ... although I can hardly tell the difference ...
Cinematical: When you made the decision to shoot Diary as a film that was being shot, did you think "Oh, this will be fun ..." or, when you got on the set, did you realize there were complications and curves to it that you hadn't quite predicted?
GR: Both! Thankfully, I was already immune -- I'd already made four of these before, so I though "If people aren't buying this, if I can't suspend disbelief, we're dead anyways." So really, that doesn't hit you at all. And really, its not movies that have made this creature, whatever you want to call it -- because when I made the first movie, I never called them zombies, I called them 'flesheaters" or 'ghouls' -- back then, Zombies were those boys in the Caribbean who were doing wetwork for Lugosi -- I never thought of them as zombies. It's all about suspending disbelief, to some extent, and these creatures -- whatever they are -- have been popularized not so much by films, I don't think, but by videogames and comic books and all of that; the Resident Evil stuff and all of that. So if I created anything in the beginning, it was the "neighborhood zombie" -- if you know what I mean; the guy with Nikes and a sweatshirt. He isn't some voodoo creature in the Caribbean that Abbot and Costello were running away from; he's just the neighbor. Neighbors are scary, and when they're dead they're a bit scarier. If I did anything, maybe I came up with that guy, that form of it. But once you have that, it's idiomatic; I mean, the rules are idiomatic. I half expect the zombies to show up on Sesame Street hanging out with The Count, because it's become idiomatic, almost as idiomatic as vampire rules.
Cinematical: So Bert and Ernie know you have to go for a headshot, or they'll just get back up again?
GR: Yeah! But that's my pathology -- I've spent some time trying to destroy the vampire mythology, and now created this other mythology. And those are my rules. And they MOVE SLOW! They CAN'T Run! That's the other thing I insist on; 28 Days Later, I can forgive, because they're not dead; they're infected with some kind of a virus, so they're still human, therefore they are still capable of moving fast. That Dawn of the Dead remake, Christ, what did they do, get up from the dead and immediately take up a membership at a gym?