George Romero, whose classic “Night of the Living Dead” and other horror films turned zombie movies into social commentaries and who saw his flesh-devouring undead spawn countless imitators, remakes and homages, has died. He was 77. This interview with Romero, from the Miami Herald archives, was published June 24, 2005.
Forget what you saw in 28 Days Later or last year’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Every self-respecting horror fan knows real zombies don’t run. They can only stagger and lumber their way toward their prey - more tortoise than hare, perhaps. But look how that race turned out. For confirmation, we turn to George A. Romero, who is to zombies what Bram Stoker is to vampires. Romero, of course, directed 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the low-budget chiller about flesh-eating ghouls that is now part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, as well as two sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, that earned him the undisputed title of Zombie King.
So when Romero, speaking via telephone from his hometown of Pittsburgh, says “I think their ankles would snap if they tried to run, “ the matter is definitively settled. “I know other people disagree, but I just don’t like them moving fast. I’d rather develop them mentally. I think that’s much more threatening.”
In Land of the Dead, which opens today, Romero does just that. The movie envisions what life would be like more than a decade after the dead started rising from their graves to eat the living. Short version: It ain’t pretty.
Longer version: Mankind’s survivors have gathered into a fortified city, protected by water on one side and an electrified fence on the other, to keep the ever-growing hordes of the undead at bay. The zombies, meanwhile, have continued to develop mentally. If they’re not quite ready to join Oprah’s Book Club just yet, they’ve certainly started to display traces of emotion - anger, compassion, sorrow - that distinguish them from the mere eating machines of yore.
It’s a progression that Romero, 65, has been gradually building in his movies. In Dawn, the zombies were instinctively attracted to a shopping mall, a remnant of their consumerist habits. In Day, a zombie named Bub was taught simple commands and eventually figured out how to shoot a gun.
It does not spoil a thing to reveal that in Land, zombies continue to rediscover their love for firearms, but only as a means of self-defense (if left undisturbed, they’d much rather just eat you).
“I’ve been doing this curve for a while, beginning with Dawn, so I hope people don’t think it’s too extreme, “ Romero says of his zombies’ development. “I wanted to do it gradually, because it stands to reason they would eventually develop these skills.”
More importantly, Land of the Dead continues Romero’s tradition of using these films as social commentary. Initially, the director had written a drastically different script and began shopping it around to studios - on Sept. 8, 2001.
Three days later, that script went back on the shelf forever. “After Sept. 11, nobody wanted to touch anything that was hard-ass, “ Romero says. “Everyone wanted to do soft, fuzzy flicks, so we pulled it off the market.”
Two years later, Romero sat down to write again, this time conscious of what he calls the “post-9/11 new normal, “ as well as the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“We tried to make an action-adventure movie first and foremost, “ he says. “If you don’t want to pay attention to what’s going on underneath, you don’t have to. People may not pick up on some of the imagery at all - like the sight of an armored vehicle going through a small town and mowing people down, then wondering why they’re so pissed off at us - because I don’t clobber you over the head with it.
“But to me, this is a story about people holing up in a city and believing they’re safe because they’re surrounded by water and the administration is telling them there is nothing to worry about and that they’ll take care of everything, “ he adds. “It’s very important that the movie be entertaining on the surface, but it’s equally important to me that it reflects something about the times.”
It is also important that the movie be unbelievably, indescribably gory. Outrageous violence is one of the trademarks of Romero’s living dead series, but Land of the Dead is the first film in the franchise to be distributed by a major studio (Universal Pictures put up the $20 million budget), which meant Romero was contractually bound to deliver - horrors! - an R rating.
Although Romero has already promised an unrated version will be available on DVD, diehard fans will be pleased to know it’s hard to imagine Land of the Dead being much gorier than it already is, R-rating or not. Entrails fly, limbs are torn off, brains splatter - the works.
How did Romero manage to sneak all this mayhem past the notoriously squeamish ratings board? Two words: Stanley Kubrick.
“I did what Kubrick did when he needed to get an R for ‘Eyes Wide Shut’: I shot zombies walking around against a green screen, then I was able to composite them over shots to cover up the violence. So, for example, when the guy’s guts are being torn out in the street, you’ll notice there’s a couple of zombies who walk by in front of it, so you can’t get a full view.”
Land of the Dead marks Romero’s return to directing after a nearly 14-year absence: With the exception of the little-seen, straight-to-video Bruiser, he has not directed a movie since 1991’s The Dark Half. Although he flirted with various projects (including Resident Evil and The Mummy), everything stalled in development. With Land marching into theaters, Romero now plans to reunite with Stephen King (who wrote the screenplay for Creepshow, Romero’s most successful film to date) for an adaptation of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
“But you never know what’s going to happen next, “ Romero warns. “If Land of the Dead scores and the studio wants a sequel, that will probably trump everything else.”