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Zombie maestro George A. Romero on ‘Survival of the Dead’ and unearthing more undead movies

By Todd Gilchrist

HollywoodNews.com: If there’s a shortlist of all-time most influential horror filmmakers, George A. Romero would have to be somewhere near the top of it. As for all intents and purposes the creator of zombies on film, he launched not only a subgenre but a cultural phenomenon that has continued and proliferated for decades, producing thousands of films worldwide that owe a debt of inspiration to at the very least his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, if not its two sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. More than 40 years later, Romero continues to push zombies into new territories with Survival of the Dead, a movie that leaves behind much of the social commentary of his earlier efforts in favor of a genre mash-up of horror conventions with western iconography.

Hollywood News recently sat down with Romero to discuss Survival of the Dead at the film’s Los Angeles press day. In addition to talking about his work reviving the subgenre yet again, he explored his own history with the subject matter, and offered a few details about what’s yet to come in his extensive canon of zombie stories.

[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]

Hollywood News: How did you come up with the sort of Hatfield and McCoy structure of this film, and how did you decide to make a sort of mash-up of a zombie movie and a western?

George Romero: Well, I wanted to – it’s sort of a longish story. Diary of the Dead, I made very quickly after Land of the Dead, and I really wanted to go back to the roots and go small after that film. We found partners in a company called Artfire out here, and they’re willing to finance projects below a certain number, finance 100 percent and gamble, sell it later, which is great for me. They were willing to give me creative control, so I thought Diary would maybe be a one-shot thing, and I wanted to do it quickly because it’s about emerging media, citizen journalism and all of that, and I wanted to do it before somebody beat me to the punch. I didn’t know people were already working on similar ideas. So we made that, and even though it had a limited release in North America anyway, it cost so little to make that it wound up worldwide with video and TV and everything else, it wound up making a lot of money and distributed by the Weinsteins who didn’t buy it until they saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. So, I thought okay, been there, done that, great.

My partner and I were noodling around with ideas for other projects, non-zombie things. All of a sudden when Diary made all that bread, Artfire wanted to make another one quickly. I was attracted for a couple of reasons. First of all, I saw it as a bit of a new franchise that my partner and I would actually own a little piece of. The first four films were all controlled by different people. I can’t even get enough cooperation from them to put out a boxed set so forget trying to cross-collateralize used characters. I’d love to take this Bub or Big Daddy and show them when they were alive. I’ve always wanted to do that and so I saw this as an opportunity to do that. So I actually came up with three story ideas based on taking minor characters from Diary and I had this conceit about wouldn’t it be nice to do this little collage of what the world is like three months, four months, five months in. I’d said well, it’s not about the Bush administration. It’s not about consumerism. I just wanted to go with a more generalized theme which is enmities that don’t die and war in general and anger — it seems like all of North America needs to take an anger management course – and the lack of civility. So, that was the theme. And then, I said okay. I had the idea of them going to an island. I said, okay, they get to the island and there’s the Hatfields and McCoys and they’re caught up in this feud that’s been going forever. And then I thought of how else we could have fun with these and I had the idea of let’s just really try to make them stylistically different as well, as different as possible.

Hollywood News: “Them” meaning the zombie films?

Romero: These films – this film, if there is another one, if there are two more which will entirely depend on how this one performs. I remembered the old William Wyler western, The Big Country, and I sat down with the DP, the production designer and everybody, and we just watched The Big Country and said let’s just make that our motto and that just made it that much more fun for us. It’s just sort of a layering, a stylistic layer that gave us something else to shoot for and be interested in.

Hollywood News: As you keep making these movies, how hard is it to make the zombies different? Is it really getting like what do I do next?

Romero: Not at all. (Laughs) No, I just love it. I mean, I could do this for[ever]…I’d like to do two more of them and I have a little stockpile of ideas that I’ve never been able to do over the years but now can do with CG, some of them. So that part of it is fun. I grew up on DC comic books and those were always full of gags, bad puns and humor. I love doing it. It’s not stale for me. What we try to do, my collaborators and I, is to keep them different stylistically and try to give it as much of a different character as we possibly can each time. As I say, that makes it more fun for us too.

Hollywood News: I don’t know how much information you want to give away about what you might be doing next with the zombies evolving into the dead with Bub and now they’re eating the animal which I thought was very interesting.

Romero: Yes, but nobody knows it.

Hollywood News: Nobody does know because of the feud that’s going on.

Romero: I have thoughts in my head about how. That’s what I mean about interweaving themes and having things happen at the same time and having the ability now because we have an ownership position in these films to do whatever I want – sort of do Steve King’s Castle Rock. I’m sort of planting little seeds that I can bring back and use in the other films. I have the characters picked out. I know who they would be if this happens. This could all blow away if this film goes out and goes in the toilet, then I won’t be able to do that. But, I’d love to do it, even rather than chase down the other projects that we’re working on. I’m at a point where it would almost be like a vacation. If somebody said, “We’re going to do two more,” I would say, “Wow.” It would be like the first time I ever had a steady job for at least a couple years. I would really enjoy it. I think it would actually clear my head rather than clutter it because I’d be able to do that and have a good time with it while further developing these other ideas that we have.

Hollywood News: Do you see these films as completely separate from the other ones or is there a sense that given the canon of all the films that you’ve made, they all fit into different points on a timeline?

Romero: Yes, this is sort of a parallel timeline with the first four. The first four seem to progress along a certain line and now these would be the first night and then a few months later what’s the world like a few months later. So I do see these two as the beginning of a new little chapter, a different, parallel chapter.

Hollywood News: People over the years came around to Day of the Dead. Night was groundbreaking. Dawn was sort of the one everyone latched onto and then people revisited Day.

Romero: Yes, thankfully. In fact, the jacket notes in the DVD were written by a guy that initially tore Day apart and then he writes in the jacket notes that it only took him several years to discover it and come back. I’ve been incredibly lucky, man. My stuff has this shelf life. I mean, it’s all still around. I go to these horror conventions and I have 17-year-old fans and 70-year-old fans. It’s trippy, you know. There’s always new editions coming out. I don’t know where they get the supposedly “new” footage. (Laughs) I sure didn’t shoot it.

Hollywood News: I was upset when a horse got ripped to pieces – more upset than the people. Do you think that other people will have that reaction?

Romero: There is a little bit of a knee jerk there. Right? How dare you hurt an animal?! Zombies, first of all, they’re like the Coyote and the Road Runner things. It’s fun to see them get blown up some. For some reason, there are these schlubby things that it’s okay. Hurt them. I don’t quite know why that is but it really is sort of that Coyote mentality. You’re just waiting – like the guy with the stick of dynamite in this movie looking on and the fuse goes out and he’s sort of disappointed. So I’m going for those Chuck Jones kind of things.

Hollywood News: If a zombie bites a horse, won’t you have horse zombies?

Romero: Well you might. You might.

Hollywood News: When I see these kinds of movies, I always wonder why do zombies have to move like robots? Why can’t they be graceful and witty?

Romero: They’re not. Like that sheriff said in the first film, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up.” That’s my idea about it. But you can’t direct. I mean, you’ve got 50 zombies in front of you. If I do this, everybody does this. So I just say “Do your best dead, man.” People are incredibly inventive. I’ve seen people, they do the zombie walk in Toronto, they do it in a lot of cities, which is another thing that blows me away. But they’re so inventive even with their wardrobe and the makeup and everything else. They all have their own characteristic walks. It’s such fun to see what people come up with and sometimes, of course, they go way over the top with it and you have to tell them “Would you step into the background?” You sort of know whether it’s something you can cut out, but if it’s in a group shot you have to just be careful that it doesn’t [mess it up]. But people are tremendously creative if you just let them do their own thing. It’s all different.

Hollywood News: So if you decapitate a zombie, the body doesn’t just keep lumbering on?

Romero: (Laughs) No, it needs the brain.

Hollywood News: But they haven’t actually destroyed the brain, they’ve just separated it.

Romero: The heads in this film, they’re still alive. But the bodies are somewhere else, dead.

Hollywood News: Well it’s important to nail down the rules.

Romero: I don’t know. I’d like to do that.  It’s number 6 and people still don’t get the idea that everybody that dies becomes a zombie.

Hollywood News: Do you employ the same people from film to film because some of the people look familiar from the Diary?

Romero: You mean zombies? No. There’s one guy, sort of a white-haired older gent, that is in Land and Diary and this. We tried to dye his hair to make him look a little bit different. There’s a lot of production in Toronto but there’s only so many union extras.

Hollywood News: Have anyone ever pressured you to save money and just do CGI zombie crowds?

Romero: Yes, and I did it in Land but we had the budget on Land to do it, multiply them. But I also needed a bigger mob when they’re coming across the river there at the end of that film. It’s not pressure, but [basically] I didn’t need to do that. There are hundreds of volunteers. In Canada, they way the regs are, I forgot the way it is here, but as long as you hire so many union extras, I think it’s 35 or 40, then you can bring in your kids. So, you can use volunteers as long as you have reached the quota of hiring the minimum number of union people. Every time we go off to shoot one of these things, I just get hundreds of emails going “Please let me come in.”

Hollywood News: You said it’s easy to come up with kills in those kinds of sequences. Is it easy to go back to the well for zombie stories and find either new themes to explore or new stories to tell?

Romero: It is. I mean, there’s not too much of a zombie storyline is there really? Their stories are really people stories. They’ve all been about the humans, as I say, and how they respond or fail to respond or respond stupidly. I don’t have a problem with that either. I can leave the zombies in the closet until I’m ready for them. I have the storyline and I go, “Okay, boys. Let’s go.” So, that part’s not a problem either. Thematically it’s hard if I do these … if we do two more. I think I’ll just stick with the same, you know, make it one like a one piece about the same things – enmity and the fact that people can’t pull together and stick with that and just try to find other ways to make it interesting and explore new rules and figure out interesting ways to cross the storylines.

Hollywood News: I know you’ve worked on some TV projects. Have you ever gone to Artfire about doing a TV show — something zombie related or something closer to Tales?

Romero: We’ve talked about it. I would love to do another anthology show but everybody still is shying away from anthology. It’s weird to me. I had a great time doing it, at least the first year I thought was great. Tom Allen is a great story editor. I had a helluva good time doing that but you can’t sell it today. They want to advertise. It’s got to be the same set. Some of it is production bucks. They don’t want to have to do a different set every week and different characters. They don’t think it tracks.

Hollywood News: NBC tried to one a couple years ago and it lasted a season.

Romero: I don’t know why it doesn’t work, man. When you think of the classics like Twilight Zone, that stuff was great. But it may have just been less expensive to do it. We were able to do Tales From the Darkside guerilla. We shot here and New York and it was real guerilla stuff. Again, it was all union but it was no frills.

Hollywood News: Is there a sense that as successful as you’ve been able to be with making zombie films and zombie-themed projects like that that it can be sort of a trap and that it limits maybe the opportunity to explore other ideas that you’ve had?

Romero: It certainly does but I don’t know. My partner and I were out here 6-1/2 years and we made all that money doing development in development hell and never made a movie. It was big stuff – The Mummy, Goosebumps, big projects – but for one reason or another all of them blew up. I just got fed up and said forget it. I’ll go back to the $2 betting window. So that’s what I did. I wrote this little script for a film called Bruiser. We financed it in France through Canal Plus before they got swallowed up in merger hell. That was one of the first films I did in Canada and worked with the same people that worked on this film. I love working with this group family of collaborators. So I think I will stick with at least this scale.

My partner and I have one non-horror project and we have one horror project that’s non-zombie and I can do them on pretty low bucks, and so why fight it, I mean, particularly at my age. I don’t have time to come out and pitch something for a year and a half and then have it blow up and then have somebody else own it, because I can’t retrieve a couple of those projects that I loved but there’s so much money against it. There’s one that was at New Line, MGM and Fox with Chris Columbus was producing at one point. Scott Free was producing it at one point, the same project. But you want … They hired (Patrick) Tatopoulos to do the design work. Pretty soon there’s four million bucks against this thing. Nobody’s going to pay that kind of a fee just to get the script out of hock and it just blows away. That’s a real tragedy as far as I’m concerned. So many wonderful scripts that I’ve seen that nobody has enough green stamps to redeem them.

Zombie maestro George A. Romero on ‘Survival of the Dead’ and more zombie sequels

If there’s a shortlist of all-time most influential horror filmmakers, George A. Romero would have to be somewhere near the top of it. As for all intents and purposes the creator of zombies on film, he launched not only a subgenre but a cultural phenomenon that has continued and proliferated for decades, producing thousands of films worldwide that owe a debt of inspiration to at the very least his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, if not its two sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. More than 40 years later, Romero continues to push zombies into new territories with Survival of the Dead, a movie that leaves behind much of the social commentary of his earlier efforts in favor of a genre mash-up of horror conventions with western iconography.

Hollywood News recently sat down with Romero to discuss Survival of the Dead at the film’s Los Angeles press day. In addition to talking about his work reviving the subgenre yet again, he explored his own history with the subject matter, and offered a few details about what’s yet to come in his extensive canon of zombie stories.

[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]

Hollywood News: How did you come up with the sort of Hatfield and McCoy structure of this film, and how did you decide to make a sort of mash-up of a zombie movie and a western?

George Romero: Well, I wanted to – it’s sort of a longish story. Diary of the Dead, I made very quickly after Land of the Dead, and I really wanted to go back to the roots and go small after that film. We found partners in a company called Artfire out here, and they’re willing to finance projects below a certain number, finance 100 percent and gamble, sell it later, which is great for me. They were willing to give me creative control, so I thought Diary would maybe be a one-shot thing, and I wanted to do it quickly because it’s about emerging media, citizen journalism and all of that, and I wanted to do it before somebody beat me to the punch. I didn’t know people were already working on similar ideas. So we made that, and even though it had a limited release in North America anyway, it cost so little to make that it wound up worldwide with video and TV and everything else, it wound up making a lot of money and distributed by the Weinsteins who didn’t buy it until they saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. So, I thought okay, been there, done that, great.

My partner and I were noodling around with ideas for other projects, non-zombie things. All of a sudden when Diary made all that bread, Artfire wanted to make another one quickly. I was attracted for a couple of reasons. First of all, I saw it as a bit of a new franchise that my partner and I would actually own a little piece of. The first four films were all controlled by different people. I can’t even get enough cooperation from them to put out a boxed set so forget trying to cross-collateralize used characters. I’d love to take this Bub or Big Daddy and show them when they were alive. I’ve always wanted to do that and so I saw this as an opportunity to do that. So I actually came up with three story ideas based on taking minor characters from Diary and I had this conceit about wouldn’t it be nice to do this little collage of what the world is like three months, four months, five months in. I’d said well, it’s not about the Bush administration. It’s not about consumerism. I just wanted to go with a more generalized theme which is enmities that don’t die and war in general and anger — it seems like all of North America needs to take an anger management course – and the lack of civility. So, that was the theme. And then, I said okay. I had the idea of them going to an island. I said, okay, they get to the island and there’s the Hatfields and McCoys and they’re caught up in this feud that’s been going forever. And then I thought of how else we could have fun with these and I had the idea of let’s just really try to make them stylistically different as well, as different as possible.

Hollywood News: “Them” meaning the zombie films?

Romero: These films – this film, if there is another one, if there are two more which will entirely depend on how this one performs. I remembered the old William Wyler western, The Big Country, and I sat down with the DP, the production designer and everybody, and we just watched The Big Country and said let’s just make that our motto and that just made it that much more fun for us. It’s just sort of a layering, a stylistic layer that gave us something else to shoot for and be interested in.

Hollywood News: As you keep making these movies, how hard is it to make the zombies different? Is it really getting like what do I do next?

Romero: Not at all. (Laughs) No, I just love it. I mean, I could do this for[ever]…I’d like to do two more of them and I have a little stockpile of ideas that I’ve never been able to do over the years but now can do with CG, some of them. So that part of it is fun. I grew up on DC comic books and those were always full of gags, bad puns and humor. I love doing it. It’s not stale for me. What we try to do, my collaborators and I, is to keep them different stylistically and try to give it as much of a different character as we possibly can each time. As I say, that makes it more fun for us too.

Hollywood News: I don’t know how much information you want to give away about what you might be doing next with the zombies evolving into the dead with Bub and now they’re eating the animal which I thought was very interesting.

Romero: Yes, but nobody knows it.

Hollywood News: Nobody does know because of the feud that’s going on.

Romero: I have thoughts in my head about how. That’s what I mean about interweaving themes and having things happen at the same time and having the ability now because we have an ownership position in these films to do whatever I want – sort of do Steve King’s Castle Rock. I’m sort of planting little seeds that I can bring back and use in the other films. I have the characters picked out. I know who they would be if this happens. This could all blow away if this film goes out and goes in the toilet, then I won’t be able to do that. But, I’d love to do it, even rather than chase down the other projects that we’re working on. I’m at a point where it would almost be like a vacation. If somebody said, “We’re going to do two more,” I would say, “Wow.” It would be like the first time I ever had a steady job for at least a couple years. I would really enjoy it. I think it would actually clear my head rather than clutter it because I’d be able to do that and have a good time with it while further developing these other ideas that we have.

Hollywood News: Do you see these films as completely separate from the other ones or is there a sense that given the canon of all the films that you’ve made, they all fit into different points on a timeline?

Romero: Yes, this is sort of a parallel timeline with the first four. The first four seem to progress along a certain line and now these would be the first night and then a few months later what’s the world like a few months later. So I do see these two as the beginning of a new little chapter, a different, parallel chapter.

Hollywood News: People over the years came around to Day of the Dead. Night was groundbreaking. Dawn was sort of the one everyone latched onto and then people revisited Day.

Romero: Yes, thankfully. In fact, the jacket notes in the DVD were written by a guy that initially tore Day apart and then he writes in the jacket notes that it only took him several years to discover it and come back. I’ve been incredibly lucky, man. My stuff has this shelf life. I mean, it’s all still around. I go to these horror conventions and I have 17-year-old fans and 70-year-old fans. It’s trippy, you know. There’s always new editions coming out. I don’t know where they get the supposedly “new” footage. (Laughs) I sure didn’t shoot it.

Hollywood News: I was upset when a horse got ripped to pieces – more upset than the people. Do you think that other people will have that reaction?

Romero: There is a little bit of a knee jerk there. Right? How dare you hurt an animal?! Zombies, first of all, they’re like the Coyote and the Road Runner things. It’s fun to see them get blown up some. For some reason, there are these schlubby things that it’s okay. Hurt them. I don’t quite know why that is but it really is sort of that Coyote mentality. You’re just waiting – like the guy with the stick of dynamite in this movie looking on and the fuse goes out and he’s sort of disappointed. So I’m going for those Chuck Jones kind of things.

Hollywood News: If a zombie bites a horse, won’t you have horse zombies?

Romero: Well you might. You might.

Hollywood News: When I see these kinds of movies, I always wonder why do zombies have to move like robots? Why can’t they be graceful and witty?

Romero: They’re not. Like that sheriff said in the first film, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up.” That’s my idea about it. But you can’t direct. I mean, you’ve got 50 zombies in front of you. If I do this, everybody does this. So I just say “Do your best dead, man.” People are incredibly inventive. I’ve seen people, they do the zombie walk in Toronto, they do it in a lot of cities, which is another thing that blows me away. But they’re so inventive even with their wardrobe and the makeup and everything else. They all have their own characteristic walks. It’s such fun to see what people come up with and sometimes, of course, they go way over the top with it and you have to tell them “Would you step into the background?” You sort of know whether it’s something you can cut out, but if it’s in a group shot you have to just be careful that it doesn’t [mess it up]. But people are tremendously creative if you just let them do their own thing. It’s all different.

Hollywood News: So if you decapitate a zombie, the body doesn’t just keep lumbering on?

Romero: (Laughs) No, it needs the brain.

Hollywood News: But they haven’t actually destroyed the brain, they’ve just separated it.

Romero: The heads in this film, they’re still alive. But the bodies are somewhere else, dead.

Hollywood News: Well it’s important to nail down the rules.

Romero: I don’t know. I’d like to do that.  It’s number 6 and people still don’t get the idea that everybody that dies becomes a zombie.

Hollywood News: Do you employ the same people from film to film because some of the people look familiar from the Diary?

Romero: You mean zombies? No. There’s one guy, sort of a white-haired older gent, that is in Land and Diary and this. We tried to dye his hair to make him look a little bit different. There’s a lot of production in Toronto but there’s only so many union extras.

Hollywood News: Have anyone ever pressured you to save money and just do CGI zombie crowds?

Romero: Yes, and I did it in Land but we had the budget on Land to do it, multiply them. But I also needed a bigger mob when they’re coming across the river there at the end of that film. It’s not pressure, but [basically] I didn’t need to do that. There are hundreds of volunteers. In Canada, they way the regs are, I forgot the way it is here, but as long as you hire so many union extras, I think it’s 35 or 40, then you can bring in your kids. So, you can use volunteers as long as you have reached the quota of hiring the minimum number of union people. Every time we go off to shoot one of these things, I just get hundreds of emails going “Please let me come in.”

Hollywood News: You said it’s easy to come up with kills in those kinds of sequences. Is it easy to go back to the well for zombie stories and find either new themes to explore or new stories to tell?

Romero: It is. I mean, there’s not too much of a zombie storyline is there really? Their stories are really people stories. They’ve all been about the humans, as I say, and how they respond or fail to respond or respond stupidly. I don’t have a problem with that either. I can leave the zombies in the closet until I’m ready for them. I have the storyline and I go, “Okay, boys. Let’s go.” So, that part’s not a problem either. Thematically it’s hard if I do these … if we do two more. I think I’ll just stick with the same, you know, make it one like a one piece about the same things – enmity and the fact that people can’t pull together and stick with that and just try to find other ways to make it interesting and explore new rules and figure out interesting ways to cross the storylines.

Hollywood News: I know you’ve worked on some TV projects. Have you ever gone to Artfire about doing a TV show — something zombie related or something closer to Tales?

Romero: We’ve talked about it. I would love to do another anthology show but everybody still is shying away from anthology. It’s weird to me. I had a great time doing it, at least the first year I thought was great. Tom Allen is a great story editor. I had a helluva good time doing that but you can’t sell it today. They want to advertise. It’s got to be the same set. Some of it is production bucks. They don’t want to have to do a different set every week and different characters. They don’t think it tracks.

Hollywood News: NBC tried to one a couple years ago and it lasted a season.

Romero: I don’t know why it doesn’t work, man. When you think of the classics like Twilight Zone, that stuff was great. But it may have just been less expensive to do it. We were able to do Tales From the Darkside guerilla. We shot here and New York and it was real guerilla stuff. Again, it was all union but it was no frills.

Hollywood News: Is there a sense that as successful as you’ve been able to be with making zombie films and zombie-themed projects like that that it can be sort of a trap and that it limits maybe the opportunity to explore other ideas that you’ve had?

Romero: It certainly does but I don’t know. My partner and I were out here 6-1/2 years and we made all that money doing development in development hell and never made a movie. It was big stuff – The Mummy, Goosebumps, big projects – but for one reason or another all of them blew up. I just got fed up and said forget it. I’ll go back to the $2 betting window. So that’s what I did. I wrote this little script for a film called Bruiser. We financed it in France through Canal Plus before they got swallowed up in merger hell. That was one of the first films I did in Canada and worked with the same people that worked on this film. I love working with this group family of collaborators. So I think I will stick with at least this scale.

My partner and I have one non-horror project and we have one horror project that’s non-zombie and I can do them on pretty low bucks, and so why fight it, I mean, particularly at my age. I don’t have time to come out and pitch something for a year and a half and then have it blow up and then have somebody else own it, because I can’t retrieve a couple of those projects that I loved but there’s so much money against it. There’s one that was at New Line, MGM and Fox with Chris Columbus was producing at one point. Scott Free was producing it at one point, the same project. But you want … They hired (Patrick) Tatopoulos to do the design work. Pretty soon there’s four million bucks against this thing. Nobody’s going to pay that kind of a fee just to get the script out of hock and it just blows away. That’s a real tragedy as far as I’m concerned. So many wonderful scripts that I’ve seen that nobody has enough green stamps to redeem them.

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