Zombies are boring, and I think George A. Romero knows this. Whereas vampires have free will and werewolves are cursed (Twilight not withstanding) , all zombies do is lurch and groan, decompose and feed. Despite their limited expression, Romero returns to them because a simple monster enables creativity elsewhere. For more than forty years, Romero has found ways for zombie movies to function as social commentary, whether it’s on consumerism or race relations. From his modest beginnings sprung forth a genuine phenomenon, one that would feel like overkill if aficionados didn’t consistently find innovative ways to celebrate Romero’s creation (even Jane Austen cannot escape the horde). Romero’s latest is Survivial of the Dead, which takes places months after the initial outbreak, and deals with two feuding families on a Delaware island. For those who think Romero’s work has gotten stale, rest assured Survival is energetic and fun, with a mix of gallows humor and creative gross-outs. A new zombie rule gets written, and there’s even a message about the futility of war. I recently sat with Romero on a round-table where we discussed his work and legacy.
BYT: The zombies of Survival of the Dead are more domesticated than before. Do you have an endgame where zombies and humans coexist?
GR: Nope. I think the farthest I’ll ever go is the end of Land of the Dead where they decide to leave each other alone. And I don’t want the zombies to take over or anything like that. I started the [coexistence] theme in Dawn of the Dead, where the hero is carrying a fancy rifle and a zombie is carrying an old .22 clunker, and later the zombie takes the hero’s rifle from him. [Zombie intelligence] is always something I’ve been playing with, but in this film I’ve kept them pretty stupid.
They’re stupid, but dangerous!
The danger from zombies is almost accidental – you should be able to figure them out. I’ve always thought the people are more dangerous because they’re too busy arguing about other shit. That’s been the case since the first film – to me, all the movies are all about humans and how they screw up. Actually, in this latest movie, the zombies are barely threatening. They’re an annoyance, like a mosquito.
And you’ll never make them more dangerous by having them run?
That’ll never happen. The closest I came was the very first zombie in the very first film, but at that point, I hadn’t thought of any rules yet. You know, I never thought I’d make six of these [movies].
In this movie, some of the zombie deaths are creative.
Oh, yeah. Only recently have I embraced the idea the zombie is like the coyote of monsters. It’s OK to damage them. It sorta makes you chuckle to see one of them blow up, kinda like a Road Runner cartoon. We really went all out with [the zombie deaths], particularly the one who’s killed with a fire extinguisher. You remember, right? The CG eyeballs? Still, one of the hazards of control is you don’t know if you’re overstepping the boundary of excessive silliness. And on some level, it’s pure indulgence to do a western zombie film. Then again, I loved the [extinguisher scene], my DP loved it, my designer loved it, so we all sat down and decided to have the scene be fun for us.
Are there other genres where you think zombies would fit in well?
I think they’d fit in anywhere. You can tell any story, and put zombies in it. I don’t know how I’d find the backing, but I think it’d be great to make a zombie gangster movie.
How about Precious with zombies?
Precious? That’d be really hard to take. It’s already hard enough to take [laughs].
After so many successes, why do you think you consistently have trouble backing your movies?
Hollywood doesn’t trust me, and we don’t really mix. Land of the Dead ended up costing around $22 million. When a movie has stars, everything in the budget goes up, even the catering costs. Also, my longtime fans were disappointed when I made that film, as if I’ve sold out or something. I just don’t like the process of having Suits all around, so I prefer casting unknowns. It adds another level of tension – you don’t quite know what to expect from them. My movies don’t even need that much money. With good technicians and good crews, I got this movie to look like it cost $12 mil, and I only made it for five. I don’t need that much – I mean, Dennis Hopper’s cigar budget was more than the total cost of Night of the Living Dead.
I’m surprised you have trouble even after Land of the Dead. I remember it doing very well.
It didn’t! Well, it did well on DVD. For some reason, my shit has a long shelf life. Theatrically, Land did poorly because it wasn’t distributed well. No posters or anything – they just threw it out there one week after War of the Worlds and one week before Batman Begins. Later I found out [the studio] released the movie only because they wanted a box set with Land and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.
Survival is a remake of an old western called The Big Country. Does it also have feuding Irish families?
One of them is. Burl Ives plays this guy named Hennessey.
So what inspired to make Survival about feuding Irish families?
I thought to myself, “This is a movie about war. What conflicts can I reference?” I knew I couldn’t make these two farmers an Arab and a Jew, so I went with Ireland. I wanted a way to talk about conflicts that don’t die, and even though Ireland is peaceful now, audiences will hopefully understand what I mean.
You were talking about the silliness in your latest movie. What do you think of the “torture porn” trend in recent horror?
I just find it mean-spirited. Torture shouldn’t be the point any more than 3D or CG should be the point. The story should be the point – I mean, you’ve got to make a movie, too! Those films are just nasty and all about the gore. I want those directors to tell me, “What does it mean?” There’s nothing behind them, so I don’t know what to think except we’ve become meaner.
Do you have any interest in making a non-zombie horror film?
I have a non-horror script I’ve been working on. I like it, and I know I can do it inexpensively. I’ve also got a non-horror script I’d like to do. But then again, I’m 70 years old and I’m not sure how much fight I have left. At this point it’s easier to take the path of least resistance. I’ve got maybe four more movies before I go around with breathing tubes like John Huston.
Is it humbling to think you started the zombie craze?
Well, I just can’t really believe it! I don’t accept it. What did I do? I basically ripped this idea from Richard Matheson. At first I was just calling them ghouls. All I did was take the zombie out of the Caribbean, and made them the neighbors next door.
Thanks for talking with me!
Oh, no problem! Take it easy.
Survival of the Dead opens at E Street on Friday. It’s only here for one week, so buy tickets soon!