The legendary horror icon talks about his new film, the remastered release of Night of the Living Dead and the horror films of today
George A. Romero is simply a legend. After one fateful night, driving from Pittsburgh to New York City to screen a print of this little zombie film entitled Night of the Living Dead, Romero has become a god among horror fans. His work will be celebrated on May 20 with the bookended releases of his fabulous career: the remastered version of Night of the Living Dead and the DVD release of his latest film, Diary of the Dead. I had the honor to speak with Romero over the phone about both these films as well as his stellar career.
Before Land of the Dead, there hadn't been a movie in this series in 20 years. What made you want to start the franchise back up again?
George A. Romero: It wasn't really 20, I don't think. I did the 80s... I don't even remember when it was (Laughs). I wanted to do the 90s but I just missed it. I got tied up in Hollywood. I was involved in all these development deals. For 8 years, my partner and I never made a movie. We hadn't had a movie greenlit, it was actually more like 10 when we finally made one. There were these huge deals out there and writing scripts and I made more money than I'd ever made in my life, but I never made a film, all the while, wanting to do another zombie film. I sort of got settled into this thing that I would do another one every 10 years, and I just never had the chance. I fled, basically, all those development deals and I decided to make a little film called Bruiser. Then I started to work on Land of the Dead and it took a year to get it all sorted out, so that's what happened with that. This one, Diary of the Dead, it came very quickly, but I actually had an idea for it before we even shot Land of the Dead, but we didn't have it fleshed out. I wanted to do something about the emerging media. As soon as we finished Land of the Dead, then that began.
So, Diary of the Dead was an idea you'd had brewing for awhile?
George A. Romero: Yeah, but thank goodness I waited. I had this observation before we shot Land of the Dead that, Jesus Christ, all this emerging media and the Internet and all this stuff is getting so strong and I wanted to do something about that. By the time we finished Land of the Dead, it was SO strong. All of the sudden, the Presidential Debates, the questions aren't being asked by anchors anymore, they're being asked by people with iPhone's or something.
Yeah. That worked out for the best then.
George A. Romero: Yeah, it did. I think the message is a little stronger. I didn't change what I did, substantially. Just like the first film (Night of the Living Dead). When we shot it with a black guy in the lead, we didn't realize what kind of strength it would have. When we finished that film and we were driving to New York, with the first master print in the trunk of a car, that night, in that car, we heard that Martin Luther King had been killed. All of the sudden, that film took on that. It happens, man. The world out there changes and then all of the sudden it sometimes affects you.
Diary of the Dead revolves around some young film students making a low-budget horror. Did you give any tutelege to the cast about how to handle cameras or filmmaking in general?
George A. Romero: No. The cinematographer did, but not on how to make a film. We didn't need to go that deep, but it was more technically how to hold a camera. It was all technical shit like that.
I had an email interview with Shawn Roberts before the theatrical release of Diary of the Dead. He had some great things to say about you. How was he to work with as well as the rest of the young cast?
George A. Romero: Well, Shawn is great. He is a good friend and he was in Land of the Dead and I wish I had kept the name, I wish that I had called him Mike because then we might be able to see him sometime after Diary of the Dead he went over to Dennis Hopper's domain. He's a great guy. The whole cast, let me tell you, first of all, a lot of them had theatrical experience. Shawn and Michelle (Morgan) and a couple of others had had film experience, but they all had theatrical experience. We could not have made this movie without these guys. First of all, they are all great guys and Shawn is just terrific. I love him. There were no bad apples, no primadonas, and they knew their lines! We couldn't make this film if they weren't able to do a six-minute scene. We never lost a take because an actor flubbed a line.
Yeah, Shawn was saying there were these long scenes that were like six or seven pages long. It was nothing like he's done before.
George A. Romero: It was amazing. They all pulled it off. They all had that discipline. Usually film actors that have a lot of experience, they'll say, 'Well, what are we shooting today?' And you'll say 'Well, it's where you tell them to go to hell.' Then you say go on to the next line and they don't know it!
"I was just prepared for 'go to hell.' That's it."
George A. Romero: (Laughs)
The release of Diary of the Dead on DVD is also the release of the 40th Anniversary of Night of the Living Dead. What are some of the better bonus features on that Night of the Living Dead DVD that we should watch out for?
George A. Romero: Well, first of all, there's this fellow named Don May, who's the premiere film restoration artist, who did it. It looks beautiful. It's almost too good. Wow. It's actually stunning to me that they got it that well because it's all these initial prints and all the garbage prints that were floating around. They're all chewed up and dark and grainy so it's the first time you can see actually what we shot. The sound has been remastered. There's not music changes or anything like that, but that's mainly the thing. There's also a documentary on there that was done by Michael Felcher, who also did the documentary on Diary of the Dead. It's really great because there are interviews with all of us that are still alive. Unfortunately one that is no longer alive, but did this final interview, Carl Hardman. That's it. It's a youthful restoration of the film and this documentary is really interesting. There are some really moving moments, all these interviews with all these old guys who were around then and are still around.
Even though it turned out to be one of the most influential horror films of all time, is there anything you wished you would've done differently with Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero: Almost everything (Laughs). I didn't know what I was doing, man. I didn't know about screen direction, I didn't know about anything. The only thing that I can say is that it's creepy and it somehow still remains creepy and some of the imagery in it is imagery that basically I stole. I stole the original idea from Richard Matheson and then I stole imagery, mostly, from Orson Welles. Lighting, camera angles and all that. I was shooting the film myself. I think that some of the imagery is lasting, but other than that, I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how to make a narrative film. I was really flying on instruments and rip-offs from other movies that I've seen. I don't think we need to take as much credit as we get for casting a black guy. He was just the best actor that we knew. I think I dropped a few grounders. I think there are themes there that are alluded to but never completely grasped. Maybe if I tried to do that, the film wouldn't be as good. Sometimes if you try too hard, it gets worse. All I can think of is, I repeat, I didn't know what I was doing and I was just trying, doing my best and there's a million places I could point to, if we sat here and watched it.
The horror genre has really seen a resurgence in recent years. What are some of your favorite, more recent horror movies that have come out in the last few years?
George A. Romero: I don't have many, I can tell you that. I don't like the torture porn stuff. I also disagree. Horror genre ALWAYS has a resurgence and being a cynic, I think what happens is that something goes out and makes a lot of money and then there's seven of them in the next seven years. Then there are immitators. Those are commercial resurgences. I don't see very much happening in the genre that's advancing the genre. I don't see very many people at all using it metaphorically to criticize society. It's always, in a certain sense, been a disappointment that people don't do that. I mean, I think the last film that I really cheered for was They Live. I said, 'Yes!' It's hard to find people that are doing that. I'm not necessarily a fan. I mean, I love to watch it, but frankly, I'd love to watch a cheesy 50s horror film.
(Interviewer's Note: George, I forgot to mention this during the interview, but you should really check out American Zombie. From what you just told me, I think this is really right up your alley. It's an amazing film!)
You've done almost all horror your entire career. Has there ever been a comedy or a drama idea?
George A. Romero: Always, but I don't get those phone calls and I'm perfectly satisfied to have this position and pull these zombies out of the drawer and at least express myself. I don't know. Michael Moore makes docs, I make zombie movies.
I saw you have a small acting part in The I Scream Man. Have you filmed your part for that yet?
George A. Romero: No, I haven't worked on it, I don't know the guys, I haven't filmed it. Here's the problem. Shit gets on the Internet. There is this remake for Day of the Dead and I'm listed as screenwriter and director, blah blah blah. I'm not involved! I've never even gotten a phone call! It's all bullshit. The I Scream Man, I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it,' because I loved the script. I play a bartender and that's cool because maybe I could grab a couple of free drinks, but I haven't heard from those guys. They keep dropping out, I don't know. They keep postponing, so I can't tell you. All these projects that are on the Internet, that I'm supposedly attached to, I would tell you if there was anything real. There is nothing real. I'm hoping something will get real, but none of that stuff. I could list a dozen titles that people have attached me to, and none of it is real.
So, is the Diary of the Dead 2 sequel not real as well?
George A. Romero: No, I think that is probably going to happen. But, again, I haven't gotten the phone call to say that we're shooting on July 20. I mean, I haven't gotten the ultimate greenlight phone call. I'm working on the script, basically on spec, and I like it but I haven't gotten the shoot date. I don't know. It may be the next thing I do, it may not be. The moment it's real, I will tell somebody, and the moment I tell anybody - I could probably tell my cat - and the next moment it would be on the Net (Laughs).
Finally, with both these releases, it's really a celebration of your 40 year career. What has changed the most, for the better and for the worse, in those 40 years?
George A. Romero: For the better, guys like you want to talk to me (Laughs)! A few people have written some kind things, a few people other than the French, have written a few kind words about me, so that's a change for the better because I don't have to hang my head at home here anymore. For the worse, I'm getting old! I don't want to be old. I'm constantly aware and I'm constantly turning down projects. I've always turned down projects I don't like but now I'm saying, 'Hey man, I may only have two or three more films left.' I'm very wary of what I want to do next. It either needs to be big bucks or something that I love and I would much rather prefer that it was something that I loved.
Excellent. That's about all I have for you, George. Thank you so much for your time today.
George A. Romero: Hey man, thanks Brian. Nice talking to you.
You can find both of Romero's new horror discs, Diary of the Dead and the 40th Anniversary Edition of Night of the Living Dead on the DVD shelves on May 20.