For over forty years George Romero has kept audiences worldwide on the edge of their seats and has earned his place as one of the masters of horror. Regarded as the godfather of the modern zombie movie, Romero began his journey among the dead with his seminal film, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968. The decades to follow would usher in even more of the hungry young director’s classics, films such as ‘The Crazies’, ‘Martin’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Day of the Dead’. As his filmography grew, fans hungered for more and a new generation would soon discover Romero’s works in the Mom and Pop video stores that littered the neighborhoods of suburbia during the mid-eighties, elevating the man and his films to “cult” status. However, it would be another 19 years before Romero would direct another film for the sub-genre he created. That return would come with 2005’s Land of the Dead, a film which would revive not only the franchise, but Romero’s career as well. The experience with that film would fuel the creative fire within him once more and just two years later he would deliver the low budget social media commentary ‘Diary of the Dead’, . Now, over forty years after the release of ‘Night of The Living Dead’, this horror icon has unleashed the sixth film in the series, ‘Survival of the Dead’. Steve Johnson of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Romero to discuss all of the gory details of the latest installment of the ‘Dead’ franchise, his longevity and what the future may hold for him in the genre that he helped define.
When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I was slow to realize it. I had no aspirations to achieve this. I thought that you had to be born royalty to be part of it, but I always loved movies. A bunch of my friends from college got together and started a little company to do commercials and industrial films, just to work in film. Luckily, we wound up being successful! We had the cameras and the lights and everything, so we ended up making a movie which is what we always wanted to do! That was it!
Who were some of the influences that shaped you as a filmmaker?
Many! I loved John Ford and Anthony Mann. I loved movies! The one that really made me want to make movies, oddly enough, was a film of an opera by Michael Powell. The film was called ‘The Tales of Hoffman’. As a kid, that film truly blew me away. You could see the techniques that he was using. He was working with a low budget and you could see that he was shooting and using reverse action. It became obvious and it was accessible. That made me think that maybe I could do it!
You have done it all when it comes to filmmaking — director, writer, editor and producer. Is there one aspect of the process that you prefer over the others?
Wow, that is a hard question to answer. [laughs] I love shooting the films but I think more than anything, I love the editing. I love being in the editing room. After shooting, everyone goes home and you are left alone with your footage and you can do what you want with it. So, I think that my favorite part.
Obviously, you have been in the film industry for decades now…
[laughs] Don’t remind me!
To what do you attribute your longevity in that medium?
I don’t know! [laughs] First of all, I guess genes! Ya know? I am still around! And I think I have always tried to make films that say something and are also fun. Listen, I completely appreciate my fans because they are very loyal and they stick with me. I try not to lie, to make films that are fun and that are not Hollywood formula films, maybe that is it! Another thing is video. Thanks to video, a lot of my films, when they first came out, nobody saw them. Once they made their way to video, people were diggin’ them. I would have to attribute a lot of my longevity to that.
Speaking of Hollywood, remaking popular films has been all the rage out there for many years. As a writer/director, what are your feelings on that trend?
I don’t think you should remake a film unless you have a passion or a reason for remaking it. Basically, I think a lot of the remakes are just the result of some producer or some studio getting the idea that “Well, we own this title, it is safer to remake it than to try something new.” I think most of it is ill-motived and most of the remakes aren’t very good. Some of them are but generally they are pale shadows of what the original films were.
Do you have any thoughts on the remakes of your films, that they have done?
I wouldn’t have done them. [laughs] I don’t know what else to say. In both cases, although I think Zack Snyder did a great job with the remake of ‘Dawn of The Dead’, I wouldn’t have done it. I mean, when I made ‘Dawn’, that shopping mall was the first shopping mall that many of us had ever seen. Now they are everywhere, so it sorta loses it’s meaning. With ‘The Crazies’, my film was more an angry film about Vietnam and I wouldn’t have remade it. I think that someone had the idea that the remake could be something more like ‘Twenty Eight Days Later’ or something like that. I think Breck Eisner did a great job on it but I don’t think either film needed to be remade.
What do you consider your best film?
I made a little film called ‘Martin’. That is my favorite film that I have done.
I actually just picked that up on DVD recently. It was a great film, one of the one’s that you remember seeing on the video store shelves in years past but it wasn’t readily available for a long time.
Yeah! There ya go! It’s video, man! It is video that has kept this stuff alive! It is fabulous and I am very grateful that the stuff is out there and that the people are able to see it once again. I go to the horror cons and I am blown away because I have sixteen year old fans and I have seventy year old fans.
Your latest project is ‘Survival of The Dead’. For those who haven’t had a chance to check out the trailer, how would you best describe it?
It spins out of the last film that I made, ‘Diary of The Dead’. It takes a minor character from that film, if you know ‘Diary’ you know that it is about a group of film students who go around in a Winnebago and get held up. They see these National Guardsmen, who they think are coming to help them but the National Guardsmen end up stealing from them and taking all of their shit. This film takes those National Guardsmen and takes them off on their own adventure. They go to an island, thinking that the best would be the easiest place to survive because you could control it easier. When they get there, the problem isn’t so much The Dead as it is the people on the island. There are these two old farts that have a feud that has been going on for years and they wind up in the middle of a shooting war. So as usual, the problem turns out to be the humans, not The Dead. That is what I try to do with these films. There is catastrophe going on but people can’t give up their old amenities, their old hatreds, their old agendas and they keep on trying to carry on as things were normal. I guess that is what I have tried to do with all of the films. It is a vessel. The underlying theme is basically war. You could think of it as Northern Ireland, The Middle East or even the United States Senate! I mean, people are shooting at each other for no reason, they don’t even remember why. “Well you a Republican! I am a Democrat God damn it! I’m gonna shoot at you!” These crazy ideas that people get in their heads, that “I belong to this team.” It is tribalism, that is what it is about.
Yeah, it looked like it had a little of that Hatfield-McCoy type of story ingrained in it.
Yes, completely. That is the whole idea. Then I remembered an old William Wyler western called ‘The Big Country’. We decided to make this movie look like ‘The Big Country’, so we went with a wide screen format and didn’t mute the colors and tried to make it look like an old Hollywood western. That is just fun for us as the filmmakers, ya know? Rather than come back and do the same damn thing over again, it is a lot of fun for us to try and be a little different with it. Also, there is some real Looney Toons type of humor in this and that is just me having fun again!
You casted a group of relatively unknown actors and actresses for this project. Do you think there is an advantage to doing so?
I do. Listen, when I made ‘Land of The Dead’, it was made by an independent producer but Universal got involved way at the beginning. The insisted on stars because the budget was bigger. I don’t think it was necessary because I think that it is more interesting and adds a little more tension when you don’t know the stars and they don’t bring any baggage with them. Kenneth Welsh who plays Patrick O’Flynn in this films has a very recognizable face. He has been around for ever and has done a lot of American film and television but he is not a household name and isn’t currently in the press. He is no Brad Pitt in that regard! [laughs] I think baggage comes when you have that celebrity. It was a great honor to work with Dennis Hooper and John Leguizamo. It was a great personal pleasure but I don’t think that celebrity is necessary in a zombie film.
What was the vibe like on the set?
It was great man. Everybody came to play. I’m not a tyrant. I’m not a dictator. I prefer collaboration. This film was really a collaborative effort on everybody’s part. It was just wonderful. The cast was great. We had terrible conditions. This was the second time that this happened to me. I did a film called ‘Knightriders’ and we were supposed to shoot for sixty days or something like that. Because of weather… We had a tornado that tore the set apart. Everything happened that could possibly happen. The whole cast and crew was just pulling for the goal post. Everybody stuck with it. Nobody complained. This film was exactly the same way. We had unbelievably bad weather and it seemed like everything was against us, but everybody on the whole cast and crew said, “We’ve got to get this done,” and we did somehow. That’s a wonderful thing. It’s really great. It brings a tear to your eye. [laughs]
Your films have seen an increase in digital effects rather than practical makeup effects. Do you have a preference and are there challenges to working with both types?
Well there are challenges to working with prosthetic effects. I used to work with Savini and Greg Nicotero, these masters of prosthetics. There are some things, first of all, that you can’t do. Like, there are a couple of gags in this film. There’s one with a flare gun. You can’t do it on the set. You can’t do it practically. This guy shoots a flare gun into a zombie’s chest and the zombie catches fire from inside. Savini can’t do that. There’s another gag with a fire extinguisher, where one of the heroes shoots foam from a fire extinguisher into a zombie’s mouth and the zombie short of blows up from the inside. His eyeballs pop out and all of that. Again, you can’t do that mechanically. You need CG. There’s a whole other thing with CG, it makes the process much quicker. If a gun doesn’t go off. A machine gun doesn’t go off, you’ve got to reset it. You’ve got to re-shoot it and all of that. Whereas this way, you just point the gun and you paint in the flashes and you’re off the set. It saves a tremendous amount of time and time is money.
The film opens in the U.S. on May 28th. When can we expect a DVD/Blu-Ray release in the U.S.?
Now I really don’t know. I imagine it depends on how well it does theatrically. I really don’t know.
I just saw yesterday that it is on my Comcast On Demand.
Yeah. It’s On Demand. They’re doing this now. They’re putting films On Demand first. I guess they feel it’s less expensive than trailers or something. I don’t know. So it was On Demand and now it’s going to go into theaters and hopefully people will buy a few tickets. I don’t know when the DVDs will be out, but I will be the first in line to get one. [laughs]
Same here. I have all of the others.
Did you ever expect the ‘Dead’ series to have the longevity and success it has had?
Never! Never! I mean give me a break. When we made the first film, I thought we were making a film. I never had any idea that it would go this long or that I would be even still alive to do them. I just had no idea. I’m grateful that I am and I’m grateful that it’s still going. I’m having a ball doing this stuff man. Like I said, I grew up on the old EC Comic Books. I think horror should be sort of a bit of a chuckle. I find a lot of the new stuff is mean spirited. I don’t see much behind it. I don’t see any politics in it. I get discouraged by some of the new stuff that you see. I think it should be kind of… Maybe it’s my age. I get together with Stephen King, who’s a friend of mine. He also grew up on the old EC books. We sit around and chuckle at this stuff. We sit there and say, “Wouldn’t this be a cool way to kill somebody, or to kill a zombie, or to kill a monster?” We wind up chuckling. It should be entertaining. A lot of people don’t get that. A lot of people see the blood and just cringe away from it. They don’t get it. I always say, “Horror is like anchovies, you either like them or you don’t.” [laughs]
Will there be any further ‘Dead’ films after this one or are you looking to directing something outside the genre?
I’d love to. I don’t know man. Maybe I three or four more films in me. I don’t know. So I have to sort of pick my shot. I would love to do two more of these. When we made ‘Diary’… Because we made it on such low money, even though it had a limited release, it wound up making a lot of money. That’s why this film exists. That’s why ‘Survival’ exists. So I said, “I’m going to have as much fun with this as possible!” If this makes money, I’m ready with two more. I have two more story lines that I would love to do. They’re both based on characters from ‘Diary of the Dead’. I would love to do this series of four films, starting with ‘Diary’ as the base and then these three other films, and make it sort of one piece. One saga, where I can actually reuse characters, and reintroduce characters, and reuse story points. That’s something I’ve never been able to do. The first four films I made are all owned and controlled by different people. I would love to go back before ‘Day of the Dead’ and do a film about Bub before he died, but I can’t because somebody else owns that now. So I’m in a position now where my partner and I have an ownership position with these films and we can possible do it. I’d love to do it. I’d be a pig in shit if somebody said, “Yeah! Lets make the other two!” I would feel for the first time in my life, like I had a job. I would know what I was doing for the next couple of years. This business is always hit and miss.
What is the best piece of advice that someone has given you along the way in your career?
You know… The best piece of advice was do what you want to do. Find someway to do it. It was a lot harder when I was staring, because there was no such thing as video tape. I tell young filmmakers today, “You can’t walk into somebody’s office and say I know how to make a movie. You have to be able to show what you can do.” When I talk to students or whatever I say, “Get a camera some damn where if you don’t have one and shoot! Shoot! Make a little film.” If you really want to do it, you have to do it, otherwise nobody is going to believe that you know how.
What do you consider the defining moment of your career?
Oh man. [laughs] It’s very hard to say . I think that when… It wasn’t just me. There were a bunch of us. A bunch of my friends from college and everything when we made ‘Night of the Living Dead’. We decided to make that movie. What happened, we all loved film and we all wanted to be involved in film, but we didn’t know how to get involved. So we started a little company to do beer commercials, and industrial films, and shit like that. One day we all said, “Let’s make a movie!” That was it. There were other people around us saying, “You’re crazy! You can’t do this! You’ll never have a success!” We decided to do it anyway and that was it! It goes back to again, what I said about my best advice. We decided to do it and that was it. We did it and we were extremely lucky. Luck is huge in any endeavour. So, we did it. We stood up and made a flick and we got very lucky that it became ‘Night of the Living Dead’. That’s the real turning point.
Do you have any last words?
Last words? No! [laughs] I’m not ready to give out any last words. Call me in a few years, maybe I’ll have a couple of last words.
Well George, it’s been a pleasure and an honor. I’ve been watching your movies my whole life.
Thank you! That’s great! I don’t know whether to apologize or say thank you! [laughs] That’s great! It’s been nice chatting with you!
Thanks for your time George!
George A. Romero’s Survival of The Dead will arrive on single DVD, a two-DVD Ultimate Undead Edition and Blu-ray August 24th, 2010 from Magnolia Home Entertainment under the Magnet Releasing banner.