When you’re lucky enough to meet one of your lifelong icons sometimes you’re really not lucky at all. Damn these people for being human. Like a first date, I was more than a little nervous at the prospect of sitting for a media roundtable interview with one of my movie gods, George A. Romero, and the prayer went something like this: “Please don’t let him be a dick.”
Thankfully my prayer was answered…and then some.
Romero, all 6′ 5″ of him, wearing his trademark vest and ponytail, walked in the room a little early, pleasantly shook everyone’s hand and then announced he would be back at the appointed time but first had to take care of a nagging cough. Then, like a mischievous kid, the Horror Icon gave us a quick flash of his cough medicine: a pack of Marlboro Reds stashed in his vest pocket.
A 70 year-old man smoking Marlboro Reds right in the heart of Health-Nazi Land?
Oh, yeah, George Romero was everything I had hoped for.
Before The Mighty George Romero came along film-goers had already been introduced to zombies and even what would famously become known as the Zombie Apocalypse. Before George Romero came along, there were horror films, even those that made you cover your eyes and afraid to look under the bed. Then, in 1968, a black and white, $114,000, indie shot-across-Hollywood’s bow changed everything. Audiences who had become accustomed to the delightfully creepy atmospherics of such Hollywood offerings as Universal’s famous Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man franchise certainly knew what it was like to be scared. But it would be “Night of the Living Dead” that for the first time introduced them to pure, unrelenting terror.
And ever since, no one’s looked back.
I am an unabashed George Romero fan. There are few filmmakers who have brought as much pure pleasure into my life as the creator of “Night of the Living Dead” and its sequels, “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), “Day of the Dead” (1985), and “Land of the Dead” (2004) – movies rivaled only by the aforementioned Universal franchise as my favorite horror films of all time. You can keep your Caribbean cruises and European ski vacations. Some of the very bestest days of my life have been spent with the decks cleared enough to allow for me to get my Dead on, one right after the other.
Not only are these films timeless, they get better with each viewing because Romero puts so much into crafting his stories and characters. As he told us in the interview:
“There’s not much of a zombie storyline, is there? My stories are really people. They’ve all been about the humans and how they’ve responded or failed to respond or responded stupidly.”
Beyond that and even beyond the gore, violence and cannibalism that the series might be most famous for (and I do love me all of that), Romero told us he starts each new film with the only foundation upon which you can build a masterpiece, and that’s a theme.
“Night of the Living Dead”
Do I agree with Romero’s politics? Nope. At times, do I find his depiction of the military and rural good ole’ boys overly simplistic and borderline unfair? Yes. Where we strongly agree, however, is the layer at work just below all of that. Romero has zero respect for authority or power, and the heroes and anti-heroes that populate his imagination are always individualists who understand that if you want to die during a crisis, the fastest way to accomplish that is to trust the media or wait around for the government to come save you. His protagonists might not always make the right choices but they generally do tend to outlive the hand-wringers doing a puppy dog circle waiting for someone to tell them what to do. It wouldn’t be my choice to bring that theme to life using the military, but when it comes to not trusting and being skeptical of those in power – anyone with any kind of authority — Romero and I are blood brothers.
And when you hear the Horror Master’s horror stories of trying to work within the Hollywood system you come to understand that this is more than just a theme Romero dabbles in, this is who he really is. His last studio film, “Land of the Dead,” was made in 2004 for a mere $16 million and grossed over $40 million. But still, after years of turnaround hell, Romero could stand it no longer, took charge of his own fate, and found independent financing for 2007’s “Diary of the Dead.” That entry cost $3 million to make and made such a profit, “Survival of the Dead,” which hits theatres today, was immediately put into production.
“Dawn of the Dead”
Along with this newfound independence came a complete creative control and an ownership position that allows the director a freedom he hasn’t enjoyed in decades. He told us that because his first four films are each owned by different companies he can’t even get enough cooperation between the owners to launch a DVD boxed-set. Creatively, it’s even worse. Since he has no ownership position in any of those films, he can’t go back and take advantage of his most popular characters. He said he would love to revisit Bub, the zombie who started to regain his humanity in “Day,” and Big Daddy from “Land,” a zombie who evolved to the point that he became a competent leader to his cannibal brethren.
This subtle but effective evolution of his zombies is another characteristic that adds to each new entry’s richness. I won’t give anything away, but “Survival,” which is set mostly on an island and involves two warring families each with different ideas on how to handle the undead, adds another evolutionary step to the ongoing zombie arc that could pay off nicely in the next two chapters Romero has planned should “Survival” prove to be as profitable as ‘Diary.”
I wasn’t a fan of “Diary.” It had its moments but Romero’s obvious animus towards the Bush Administration allowed him to take his eye off the “theme” ball, and the story paid the price. Even so, in The Department of Zombie Moviemaking the director was still batting a cool .800. “Survival,” an imperfect but much better film, is a near return to form with a theme Romero describes simply as “animus.” His inspiration is William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (1958), and its story of two warring patriarchs.
Bub in “Day of the Dead”
For a man who introduced the concept of unrelenting terror to the American filmgoer, Romero’s a surprisingly warm, down-to-earth and obviously intelligent guy who enjoys talking about his craft, isn’t out to impress anyone, and displays no hint of bitterness or lingering frustration towards a Hollywood system that appears to have chewed up years and years of his artistic life with that never-ending mind game called “Development.”
The idea that of all people, freakin’ George Romero gets jerked by the same studios pumping out remakes of “The Hitcher” and “The Stepfather” is hard for anyone living on Planet Sane to grasp. What really crystallized the madness of the Hollywood system, however, was when Romero offhandedly dropped the bomb that he wasn’t allowed to hire John Carpenter to do the score for “Land of the Dead.”
The following, I do not say lightly: Worst. Studio. Decision. Ever.
I should also add that knowing Romero wanted Carpenter has now become a terrible curse; the ultimate woulda’, coulda’, shoulda’. I love “Land,” but now, with every screening, I’ll be haunted with the awful knowledge that John Carpenter could’ve – should’ve! — been the one cranking the epic awesomeness out over the soundtrack. Given a choice, I would’ve preferred Romero told me the date of my death.
Big Daddy in “Land of the Dead”
For all the obvious frustrations and setbacks a forty-year career in filmmaking must bring, Romero doesn’t even come off as world-weary. Wise? Yes. But with his standing in cinema lore already in place, the creative spark hasn’t diminished in the least. Though he much prefers practical special-effects and would love to work with FX Master Tom Savini (who did both “Dawn,” and what in my opinion are the greatest gore effects ever in “Day”) again, they’re simply not affordable anymore and so rather than complain, the ever pragmatic director chooses to delight in the idea that CGI will make it possible to dig into his notebook of creative zombie kills and deliver them onscreen. And now that he owns a piece of the action, he’s eager to tie the next two chapters currently bubbling in his mind into “Diary” and “Survival” to create a whole new series.
George Romero’s no complainer, isn’t resting on his laurels and although he’s a living icon, doesn’t come off as a man who feels as though he’s entitled to anything from anyone. He just wants to make zombie moves, and to do what he loves, he turned his back on Hollywood’s madness and made it happen all on his own by falling back on the kind of low-budget indie filmmaking that started it all.
And for that reason, the legend of George Romero that lives in my movie-loving heart was only enhanced by contact with the real thing.
And be sure to check out “Survival of the Dead” (trailer is here), a good-humored lark of a B-movie that might not live up to its first four original predecessors, but has a number of good scenes and plenty of gore and action.