Don't kid yourself: George A. Romero is a living legend. The 70 year-old filmmaker maintains a kind of independent status, not particularly affiliated with Hollywood, and still representing Pittsburgh whenever possible. He has his own distinct style, which runs through all his films, and he always manages something more in his work than just gore and scares. At least two of his films belong on the list of the greatest movies ever made, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and several more are on the list of underrated and overlooked classics, including, but not limited to the quasi-vampire film Martin (1977). One would think that Romero's more recent films, including his new Survival of the Dead, reveal a downfall in his work, but it's always a mistake to assume this, especially since the early films have had plenty of time to simmer, and the new films have not. (The same assumption is usually made about Orson Welles.) While the response to Survival so far has not been exactly enthusiastic, I like it very much. It's a fun combination of totally loopy and intermittently brilliant, employing a bizarre cross-section of genres (Westerns, sea pictures, "feud" films, cartoons, etc.). And even if I hadn't liked it, don't think I would pass up a chance to sit down with a living legend. (The new film opens May 28.)
[The interview begins after the jump.]
Cinematical: I'd consider this film a satire. I'm curious... when you're writing something like this does it make you laugh or does it make you angry?
George A. Romero: I guess somewhere in the back of my mind it starts with anger. Night of the Living Dead started with anger, really. We were all 1960s guys who were all pissed off that peace and love hadn't quite worked the way we hoped. So it starts there, but... I don't know... I've thought that all six of them were basically social satires. This one is too. This one's a little peculiar. My train was in this rail, headed this way, with the first four films. And I like the idea that they were far apart, so they were sort of snapshots of a decade, and all that. And I had that pattern going. And then suddenly we made Land of the Dead, and it was bigger. And I felt that I had let go of the reins or something, and I wanted to go back to the roots. And I had this idea... I wanted to do something about emerging media and citizen journalism. So I said, I'm going to do this really little film. Do a sidebar and go back to the first night. And I thought it would be a one-off, just a sidebar. And we met our financing partners at Artfire. They were great. They were willing to give me final cut and creative control -- which I haven't had since way back -- if I stay within a certain budget range. We made Diary of the Dead for under $3 million, and because of that, even though it had a limited release, it went out and made a lot of money. And so everybody said, "We've got to do that again!"
And that's where this one initially came from. But I said, "What if this one makes money? You're going to want another one. Why don't we hypothetically say we're going to do three films, all spinning out of Diary, taking characters from Diary? I can do this little set piece and they can meet up with each other and themes can cross and story points can cross." So then I just fell in love with that idea, and I've never been able to do that because the first four films are all free standing.
This is the first time there's a connection.
So we'll see. I don't know if we'll ever make two more. It depends on what happens with this one. But I'd love to do it. I took what I thought of as a more universal theme. It's not necessarily about what's happening today.
It can be, though.
It can be. It could be what's happening in the Senate, if you want to look at it that way. But you can take it anyway you want it. It could be Ireland; it could be the Middle East; it could be the Senate.
I thought you could even squeeze G.W. Bush in there if you wanted to.
Maybe, though I did my Bush era one already, and that was Land -- although Muldoon is a bit like that. But... so that's it. So then I said, "If we get to make these other ones, it'd be more fun for all of us if we really played around with different cinema styles." So once I had the beginnings of the story with the two old guys, I thought of an old William Wyler Western called The Big Country. And I made all the department heads watch The Big Country. And I said, "Let's go widescreen and not mute the colors and do it that way."
I was actually thinking about The Man from Laramie. There was a character that reminded me of The Man from Laramie. Do you know that movie?
I do. Jimmy Stewart? Uh. What character?
The ranch hand.
Oh! Chuck! Yeah. OK. A little bit.
Yeah. He reminded me of the character from The Man from Laramie, the ranch hand with the moral conundrum.
Anthony Mann. Boy those were great movies, weren't they? Bend of the River, The Far Country... Great. Love 'em.
I love the mishmash of stuff in here. You've got the military guys, the feuding, there's some sea stuff, some Western stuff.
A little bit of African Queen thrown in!
And the gimmick of the zombies standing on the bottom of the water is fantastic. It's one of the spookiest things I've seen in a while.
Again, I keep sort of "cross-calateralizing" my ideas. In Land of the Dead, that's how they get into the city is walking on the bottom.
Another very interesting touch is the armored car full of money. They're actually fighting over the money, even though it doesn't mean anything.
I love playing with those things. They're all ideas that come to you in the shower. You wind up somehow being able to wind 'em all together. I even got some Chuck Jones in there, some real Looney Tunes stuff.
I hate to use the word "trapped," but you remind me of a filmmaker like Chaplin. He wanted to make some dramas from time to time, but the only thing he was really allowed to do was make Chaplin comedies. But you seem to have found a kind of freedom within these genres. Do you find that's true?
Over the course of these last two films... these are the first two films since the very early stuff where I've really had control. I've gotten to make other kinds of films. It's just that none of them got reasonably good distribution. I sort of painted myself into a corner, not with the genre stuff, not necessarily with genre. But just because I don't want to take a job. Honestly, that's what it is. So I've always generated my own material. Except Creepshow. Steve King wrote Creepshow, and the very second film I made after Night of the Living Dead was written by a friend of mine.
There's Always Vanilla...
There's Always Vanilla, or The Affair, a.k.a. I don't know. It's one of those films that never got any kind of reasonable distribution. Projects that I was really interested in, like I wanted to do The Dark Half. And I was able to convince Steve to let me take it and pitch it. But then I did the screenplay for it. I've never gotten a job through my agent. I've never been sent a script that I go "Wow! I'd love to do this." It never really happened. I think it's a sense of auteurism or something that I have, that has kept me from doing other things -- in some cases from doing things that probably would have made a lot of money. But I don't care. I've been having a good time, and I'm still around. As far as the genre stuff, if we get to make these two films, I'll be delighted. It's almost like a vacation. It's fun. It really is fun. Particularly when you have enough control that you can play around and do what you want. So I'll take it. In a New York minute.
Did you have more fun on this one with the big wide screen and the full color, as opposed to the video?
Oh, yeah. Well... I didn't notice that kind of difference. My job is always the same, while you're making it. But I love the freedom of these digital... we used the red camera on this one. I love it, man. You can do so much. It makes it so flexible. It makes the whole job a bit easier. You don't even have to light. If you don't have time to get the lighting perfect you can do it later. You can put shadows in. You can do anything you want. It's incredible. It makes it so you can do a film under 5 or under 4, and get off the set. You gotta do these in 21 days. This went 24 or 25, all because of weather. We got clobbered. The conditions were terrible. So I really appreciate that. Also, just being able to do... I love mechanical effects, prosthetic effects, like the kind that [Tom] Savini and [Gregory] Nicotero do. It's more interactive. It's easier for the actors to react more if they're actually pulling stuff off their face. But again it's just a time saver. Even squibs. If a squib goes wrong, the blood squirts the wrong way, you gotta clean it up, and you lose 45 minutes. The whole object when you're running and gunning, is to just get off the set.
Then once you're back in the studio, you can spend as much time as you want.
Yeah. Once the payroll comes in!
The movie looks terrific.
I think it does. I think Adam [Swica] did a sensational job. When you bring the stuff back to film, it looks like film.
A couple of years ago, I assistant-taught a class on Night of the Living Dead, and a comment came up. I had read that when you cast the Ben character, Duane Jones, happened to be the best guy who auditioned. He was not written as a black character, and there's no reference to him being black. And even the Harry character doesn't use any racial slurs against him. But it worked out really interestingly because it became a snapshot of the time. Is that true?
That's completely true. Duane was the best actor from among our acquaintances. When he agreed to do it we thought we were being very hip by not changing the script. In retrospect, I think maybe we should have made some subtle reference there. Because, also, he's wrong. There's a theme that I think we missed there: he's wrong. I think it would have been neat to explore the theme that his anger makes him automatically oppose the other guy, and make bad decisions. I think that could have been interesting. But we decided not to change it. Duane was sensitive to how much more power it gave the film.
I would say at the time it was a bolder move not to change anything.
I don't know. Possibly. Otherwise, you could go the way of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones. You could get carried away with it. I don't really mean to make that a central theme.
Well, but it worked out as a great snapshot of the time.
It did. In those days, it was before videotape, so cities the size of Pittsburgh had film labs. The news was on film. My first job was... I used to live in those labs. Film school was nothing. You watched Potemkin and talked about it. You could never get your hands on equipment. So I hung out at these labs, and that's how I learned the basics. So we completely finished the film. And I had an answer print, and I threw it in the trunk of the car and drove it to New York to show it to distributors. That night on the car radio, we heard that King had been assassinated. And that was... all that stuff that Duane was talking about how much more powerful it is with him being black. This ups the ante. It played drive-ins and neighborhood theaters and went away. It actually made money. It returned money to us. And we said, "OK. This is a pretty easy business. Let's make another one." And then Cahiers du Cinema wrote a four-page article about the "wonders" of this film and how intrinsically American and a film of its time and all this shit... I think the single biggest reason for this and the thing that would seem to be in your face the most was the fact that Duane was African-American.
A friend wanted to know if there's going to be a sequel to Knightriders.
I hope not. I'd love to do a sequel, but I don't have an idea for it. I'm worried that they're going to remake it. I seem to be remade all over the place these days.
The Crazies turned out pretty well, I thought.
It was OK. It sort of lost its reason for being. It didn't have the anger. The biggest point that we were trying to make is that you couldn't tell who was crazy, all the way up to the guys in the Pentagon. When they have pustules and glowing red eyes, you sort of know!