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Crazies, Creeps and Living Dead: Interview with George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead

In autumn 2013, acclaimed horror film director George A. Romero visited London to conduct an on-stage interview and special screening of Night of the Living Dead as part of the BFI’s Gothic season. Alex Fitch caught up with the director to talk about his career so far, concentrating on his genre-defining zombie hexalogy, which began in 1968.

Alex Fitch: This year is the 45th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead.

George A. Romero: Don’t remind me! (laughs)

It’s astonishing how influential and continuingly popular the film is from generation to generation. I wonder if part of that is the political resonance that the film has, whether that was something you intended in the first place or not. If you look at the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, the students’ strike and other political unrest, these are themes in society that keep coming back, even in the present day.

Yeah. Certainly the racial aspect was not intentional, it was purely accident, because of the actor. He was the best actor from among our friends who we could get on the phone, and when he agreed to do it we consciously didn’t change the script. When we wrote the script, we never described his colour, and exactly the same things would have happened to him if he was white. So there’s that aspect of it…

Right when we finished the film, we were actually driving the first answer print of the film to New York, and that night we heard on the car radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. So, obviously, it then resonated that much more. When we were working on the film with Duane Jones, he was sensitive to it. We were all saying: ‘Come on, it’s 1968, we don’t have to worry about that’, but he was conscious of the fact that putting a black man in a role that wasn’t written for a black man was unusual. He thought it was bold, and we never recognised any of those issues, except only in conversation with him.

After Dr King was shot, did you think at all about changing the ending, or actually whether that happenstance made the film more powerful?

We had conversations in the car that night. We never talked about changing the ending, but in fact Columbia – who were the first ones who were interested in the film when we screened it on that trip, and wanted to distribute it – insisted that we change the ending, and we boldly said: ‘No! Of course not!’ We left New York without any distribution and then it took us a while to find some. We had to hire a producer’s representative to represent the film and he only found Walter Reade after Dr King was no longer in the headlines. I guess they weren’t as sensitive to it.

Most of the atrocities that were taking place in Vietnam at the time wouldn’t come to light until 1969 and beyond, but I assume you still felt that you were tapping into the zeitgeist.

It did, it felt that way. The documentary The American Nightmare (2000), puts the relevance right in there. There are some interesting parallels. There were some things we recognised, were conscious of. When I was shooting hand-held stuff, everyone was talking to us about the film as if it were like a newsreel. I was actually completely encumbered by the fact that we were using a ‘Blimp’ 35mm camera that you couldn’t move at all. We had no Dolly, so I think it’s a very static film, but that same camera would come out of the Blimp and you could hand-hold it with a pistol grip in one hand. In the posse scenes at the end of the film, that was where I was running around like a newsman, and consciously trying to make it look like news footage – the stuff with the dogs coming out of the wagons, the posse coming across the fields and all of that. I was conscious that I wanted those scenes to look like news footage, but that’s the only part of the film that looks that way.

You finally got to realise the idea of doing a movie in the style of cinema vérité when you made Diary of the Dead in 2007 – shooting it as if it was found footage that might have been distributed on the internet. Was it that new technology finally got around to bringing you the kind of equipment that would allow you to make a film that way?

No, it wasn’t that. The idea came from doing a piece on ‘citizen journalism’, which is something I find dangerous! So, that’s really where that came from. The second thought was, ‘let’s actually shoot it that way,’ and I developed the concept that these kids are out shooting a film and that’s how the plot develops, through their use of portable equipment.

Watch the original trailer for Diary of the Dead :

But since you have been cast as a political filmmaker, whether by intent or design, it seems that some of the found footage that you also included in that film – such as bombs being dropped on people in the Middle East and so on – is commenting on how on the internet you can quickly go from channel to channel and have someone’s self-aggrandizing YouTube video be followed by horrendous atrocities from across the globe.

Yes, and we were conscious of that. We were cherry-picking from archives all over the place – Getty and all the standard images that we could afford on our budget. Unfortunately there are too many of them out there, but we were very conscious of trying to do that. I’d say that I get too much credit for being a political filmmaker, but I do care about that. I also want to have something to say, even if it’s just simplistically said.

Not with the first film: with Night we were only concerned with the disintegration of the family unit – things like that. That’s what we were rapping about. We were living in that farmhouse. It was never about race, and largely I think that was the big thing that made Night noticeable.

Based on the success of that though, you cast another charismatic black lead in Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Oh, I did. That was conscious! Dawn of the Dead I had resisted doing – people were already writing about Night as if it was ‘important’, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to have some kind of an idea before I think about trying to make a second one’. The idea came from the shopping mall. I knew socially the people who developed that mall, and it literally was the first one, the first indoor temple to consumerism that we’d ever seen, the first one in Pennsylvania.

When people talk about malls in Britain in the present day, they’re regarded as a bit of a scourge – they open these things on the outside of towns and then the town centres start to disintegrate.

Like Milton Keynes! (laughs) That is a mall, a city that became a mall!

That sort of potentially malign influence, was that something already present at that time?

Not at all. Like I said, this was the very first one. Once it was up and operating, that was the very beginning of young people hanging out there instead of on street corners. Soda shops disappeared then and everyone started to hang out at the mall. Even within the film, the characters don’t know what it is. When they’re looking down on it from the helicopter, one of them says: ‘It’s one of them new shopping malls, or something’. None of us had any idea that the mall culture was going to develop the way it did. I was responding to just the idea of this. Instead of a small farmhouse, it was all about having people holed up in a supermall – at that time it was a supermall, nowadays some of them are way more elaborate than that one – where you can buy anything you ever wanted.

It’s interesting that people mainly credit Night and Dawn in creating the modern zombie movie, but I think The Crazies (1973) also, in its own way, is responsible for some of the more recent films that use the idea of a pathogen spreading, of the enemy being a fast, mutated people. Do you think that film is appreciated for its legacy as much as your Dead movies?

Not that much. It’s amazing that my films have such a shelf life! When I go to these conventions – horror conventions and so forth – there are fans of all of the films, and that’s really great. I love talking about them with people, people who are discovering films that no one went to see in the first place. I don’t know about The Crazies… It has its fans – people who really like it a lot – but I don’t know about its legacy. Certainly the remake, that was a zombie movie, but I never thought of it that way. Thematically, I was sort of doing the same thing with The Crazies as Night – people responding to a situation, except there I made them mad!

Watch the original trailer for The Crazies :

It’s not easy from our modern standpoint to think of the cultural resonances that might have influenced The Crazies at the time. Were there concerns in the media about bioweapons, chemicals and the spread of diseases?

No more than at any other time. I would say that it was heightened, there was Vietnam and all that going on, so it was about Agent Orange, napalm, that kind of stuff. There wasn’t any particular concern at that point, as there is today, about dirty bombs, sarin and whatever else.

But, in terms of the military and scientists being responsible, or at least exacerbating a bad situation, Day of the Dead (1985) seemed to pick up on some of the themes of The Crazies and develop them still further: this is all that’s left and we’re stuck with the people who were responsible for it in the first place.

Yeah. Well, that’s exactly what the idea for that film was. Originally I had written it bigger in terms of the script, but the finance company wouldn’t do it unrated. They said, ‘we’ll pay to shoot this, but it’s going to cost a little bit too much to risk releasing it without a rating’, so they asked if we could do it for $3 million. They’d go for $3 million without a rating and there were negotiations based on the ratings, so I said, ‘sure’. I chose then to go for the unrated version and cut the script back. It’s essentially exactly what it was and that’s the theme of it: that the military that caused the infestation are preventing the people who were trying to cure it from solving the problem.

I think the claustrophobia really works in the film’s favour. If the apocalypse happens, it is just going to be handful of people in a hole in the ground…

…somewhere! Unfortunately, it’ll probably just be the President and his cabinet!

In the 80s, you got into adaptation as well, particularly stories by Stephen King, films like Creepshow (1982), Creepshow 2 (1987), and The Dark Half (1993). What was it about his books that attracted you?

I think it was being comfortable with Stephen himself, and we became friends. We were introduced by Warner Bros., years before, because they had seen Martin (1976), and in typical studio fashion they reasoned that Martin was about a vampire in a small town, Steve had just written Salem’s Lot, which was vampires in a small town, so they thought we should meet! They sent me up to Maine and we hung out. My doing an adaptation of that book never happened, but on that visit Steve gave me a copy of The Stand and said: ‘Let’s make this!’ and I said, ‘sure…

…but how many movies is this going to be?’

Quite. So, I never did make The Stand, but at that time, Steve didn’t want to do it for television because they’d water it down too much, and he never made a film deal to produce it. In the end he did do a television version, with my ex-producing partner – Richard P. Rubinstein – who we’d worked with on the Creepshow films. So, it was just really being comfortable with Steve and having access to him. When he wrote Pet Sematary, right away he called Richard and me, and said: ‘What do you think about this?’ That’s how that relationship went.

Watch the original trailer for Creepshow :

The Creepshow movies are the first obvious example of your interest in comics in your career. Had you been interested in EC Comics’ horror comics in the preceding years?

Under the covers, with a flashlight! They were the forbidden fruit! Of course that’s before the 1950s Comics Code Authority came in. The censorship code busted EC Comics and turned Mad into a magazine instead of a comic book. At least that lived on, but Tales from the Crypt and other comics like that were thought to be amoral! Stephen, in fact, wrote a tagline for Creepshow: ‘A Laurel Comic is a Moral Comic’!

In them, I always thought the bad guys got their comeuppance, good basically triumphed over evil, even though the Crypt Keeper always was there to chuckle, and there’s that dark humour… It’s funny, the humour was an important part of those comics. Even though it’s so hard to convince people today that humour is the flipside of the same coin as horror – they don’t like to mix it.

You’ve had elements of that mix of horror and slapstick comedy in your more recent zombie films. A particularly memorable scene in Diary shows an Amish character stabbing himself in the head with a scythe! It seems that when you can put in a gag, there’s no reason not to…

There is no reason not to, and I can’t resist doing it! Also, there’s that fire extinguisher gag in Survival of the Dead (2009), with the eyes popping out; that’s completely like a comic book. I love comics, and actually as a defence against all of these zombie things that are out there now, I’m writing a 15-issue Dead story for Marvel Comics right now. Hopefully when the zombie furore dies, if it ever does, I can come back and turn the comic into another film.

I certainly can’t do what I used to do. I used to be able to hide in the corner somewhere and bring the zombies out once in a while, when I had something I want to talk about. But for now, it doesn’t work. In order to sell a zombie film these days, you have to promise that you’ll spend $250 million at least!

…and with a comic book you can show what a $250 million zombie film looks like…

That’s right!

Interview by Alex Fitch

Remember the Alamo: Alternative fortresses in film

Dog Soldiers

‘Know what this reminds me of? Rorke’s Drift. A hundred men of Harlech, making a desperate stand against 10,000 Zulu warriors. Outnumbered, surrounded, staring death in the face and not flinching for a moment. Balls of British steel.’ Dog Soldiers’ (Neil Marshall, 2002)

Pvt ‘Spoon’ Witherspoon may grossly exaggerate the enemy numbers faced during the Anglo-Zulu War’s most famous battle, but as he prepares to help defend a farmhouse from an attack by werewolves the comparison is a resonant one. Holed up with his squaddie comrades deep in the Scottish Highlands, and under siege from lycanthrope adversaries, Spoon draws attention to a trait common to many horror movies: the backs-to-the-wall stand carried out in an ad-hoc ‘fortress’. Complete with a scene where a letterbox becomes the horizontal equivalent of a loophole, enabling a burst of gunfire rather than arrows to be deployed, Dog Soldiers casts the humble farmhouse in the role of a castle, a fortification designed to keep its inhabitants safe and the enemy on the outside. Though predominantly used in horror movies, the embattled-last-stand plot-line also crops up elsewhere: Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), itself inspired by Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), and Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), in which a small, rural village is fortified, are notable entries into the non-traditional siege movie.

Evoking, either consciously or not, many historical sieges and last stands, from Masada to The Alamo and Leningrad, the alternative siege movie (for wont of a better catch-all definition), utilises many types of architectural structures as their last line of defence. Shopping malls, pubs, supermarkets, brothels, police stations, mansions, tower blocks and underground silos have all been co-opted to (rarely successfully) provide safety from all manner of adversarial forces in movies such as Red Lion (Kihachi Okamoto, 1969), From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) and 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002). Zombies, vampires, criminal gangs, samurai armies, inter-dimensional entities and drunken, repressed locals have stalked, attacked and sometimes destroyed places not designed to withstand prolonged violent assaults. Even sanctuaries constructed with safety in mind, such as the oil-rich compound in George Miller’s Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981), a post-apocalyptic version of the circled wagons defensive technique seen in many Westerns, struggle to keep villainous gangs at arm’s length. Characterised by lengthy sequences set in one location inhabited by diverse, fractious characters, or ones intimate with each other but driven to the edge of breaking point, the alternative siege movie rarely ends well for the majority of its protagonists, even if the enemy is finally repelled. When actual weaponry is spent or absent, anything that can be brandished in its place usually will be. Cricket bats, man traps, gas canisters, kitchen implements and gardening equipment among other things take the place of guns, swords, bombs and shields. After all, when you’re staring death in the face, it’s better to be armed with a kitchen knife than nothing at all.

The zombie movie almost always revolves around a hardy group of survivors being laid siege to, and the Don of the genre, George A. Romero, placed his central characters in increasingly fortified, if not infallible, locations in his original Dead Trilogy. The isolated house in Night of the Living Dead (1969) gave way to the imposing, sprawling Monroeville Mall, replete with a storage room version of a castle’s keep, in Dawn of the Dead (1978), itself, ostensibly, usurped in the safety stakes by the underground silo in Day of the Dead (1985). That all of these places were eventually fatally compromised, from outside and within, flags up the necessity in terms of narrative drive and tension for the line between safety and danger, civilisation and anarchy, and life and death never to be full-proof. Even Day‘s silo – underground, window-free and populated in part by the military – was rendered useless by the actions of an insane soldier, and the foolhardy decision to hold scientific ‘specimens’ below ground. Indeed, internal schisms, the emotional, physical and mental pressures of life-or-death situations and the inadvertent or unavoidable presence of ‘the enemy’ inside a makeshift castle/fort are often as hazardous to survival rates as external threats.

Windows are a major problem for those trapped inside an embattled location, for while they may afford the opportunity to keep an eye on the enemy, they are also a relatively easily traversed entry point. The all-glass façade of the supermarket in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, The Mist (2007), The Winchester’s eyes onto the street in the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and the windows of the Sumners’ home in Straw Dogs are all architectural Achilles’ heels when it comes to fending off attackers. The Lovecraftian creatures drawn to The Mist‘s ‘fort’, the shuffling undead hordes of Wright and Simon Pegg’s horror spoof and the aggressive, insular locals threatening the married couple in Peckinpah’s psychological thriller penetrate the safety barrier, the dividing line between order and chaos, through what should be merely a source of light. The scalding of one of the locals with boiling oil thrown through a broken window by David (Dustin Hoffman) historically references the dark ages and specifically an oft used method of repelling invaders from castles.

Even family movies aren’t averse to conjuring up the ghosts of sieges past, for what are the latter stages of Christopher Columbus’s Home Alone (1990) but a siege movie played for laughs? Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin, a precocious, loveable youngster, finds himself essentially in the same situation as Straw Dogs‘ complex beta male David and the strained but mutually advantageous policeman/prisoner partnership in Precinct 13. His enemy, two bungling thieves, may break in but Kevin’s array of booby traps – internal defence mechanisms – succeed in protecting the McCallister family home.

They say that everyone loves an underdog, and the alternative siege movie gives audiences a chance to root for characters, some sympathetic, some not so, up against the wall with no apparent escape route and no option but to fight for their very existence. Be the presentation horrific, psychological or comedic, the base essence is the same: the survival instinct will kick in, however insurmountable the odds may appear.

Neil Mitchell