King Z

Pub date May 25, 2010
WriterCheryl Eddy

FILMMAKER INTERVIEW In the event of an actual zombie outbreak, legendary horror director George A. Romero would no doubt survive. For one thing, he stands an imposing six-feet, five inches, and happens to maintain an anti-zombie stronghold — er, getaway — in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he’d just been vacationing before the press tour for the sixth film in his "Dead" series, Survival of the Dead. Plus, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, meaning Romero has more than 40 years of experience wrangling the undead. I asked him about that, and more, on his recent visit to San Francisco.

SFBG Did you ever think in 1968 that you’d still be making zombie movies in 2010?

George A. Romero Never. And I never thought of it as a series — it was a film. I didn’t want to make another one, especially after [Night] got "discovered." I said, I really can’t do another one unless I have a strong idea. Ten years later, I knew the people who were developing the first indoor shopping mall that any of us had ever seen, near Pittsburgh. I went out to visit it before it was even open, and the trucks were bringing in all this stuff, and I said, "Jesus Christ, it’s like this Taj Mahal to consumerism" — and then I said, "Ok, this might serve."

Completely serendipitously, I got a call from [Italian horror filmmaker] Dario Argento, and he said, "George, please, you must make another." He flew me over to Rome, stuck me in a little apartment, and told me to write the script [for 1978’s Dawn of the Dead]. That’s when I first started to think, "Boy, I could have fun with this." I could express myself, express my politics a little bit, poke a finger at society, and bring the zombies out every once in a while. The first four [Dead movies] were more than 10 years or more apart from each other. And I liked the idea that they were snapshots of different decades, stylistically and everything else.

After Land of the Dead (2005) — which was the first sort of big one, and I’m not sure I should have studio’d it up, if you know what I mean — I wanted to do something about emerging media and citizen journalism, so I had this idea to go back to Night [for 2007’s Diary of the Dead], go back to the roots, do it real guerrilla-style. Just like with Night, I thought it would be a one-shot deal: "I’m gonna take this little sidebar now, and try to have fun while I’m at it." [The company that financed the film] gave me final cut, creative control — first time since the very early films that I made — and [since] I stayed within a certain budget range, even though it had a limited distribution, it wound up making a lot of money. That’s why [Survival of the Dead] is here.

SFBG Survival of the Dead spins off a minor character from Diary of the Dead. Did you have that story line in mind while you were making Diary?

GAM When [the financers] said, "Well, we made so much money, we gotta do it again," I said, "OK, what if we do it again, and it makes a lot of money? You’re gonna want to do it again. So why don’t we go in thinking of a plan? I could take these characters from Diary, I had ’em all picked out — we could make three films, and I know exactly where they’re gonna go. And I will interweave the stories and introduce plot elements that recur, and characters that meet each other again." Which is something I always wanted to do, but I couldn’t with the first four films because they’re all owned by different people. So I said, we’ll take a broader topic like war, enmities that don’t die, and do this sort of structured set piece. Small budget but bigger scope. Then I thought, well, let’s play around with style too. So I got the idea for doing it like a Western, which came from an old William Wyler film called The Big Country (1958) — it’s the same two old farts shooting at each other. The next one, if we do it, I’d love to do it noir.

SFBG The zombie attack is already underway when Survival begins. The human survivors are almost jaded by their presence — the undead take a back seat to the human conflict more often than not.

GAM Yes, in this film, more than any of the other ones that I’ve done. In a way, if you think of it, my stories are all about the humans, because the zombies could be almost any disaster — it’s just that zombies are more fun for me and for horror fans. But in this one, they’re almost just an annoyance, like mosquitoes. Also, except for Night and Diary, they’ve always started with the thing well underway. I think there’s also a horror tradition there, too — from the second Godzilla movie on, it’s, "Oh, it’s just Godzilla."

SFBG Zombies seem to be enjoying a particularly high pop culture profile these days. What do you think is the reason behind their neverending popularity?

GAM I think video games really popularized them. There’s only been one real blockbuster zombie film, Zombieland (2009), and that’s very recent. It started with Resident Evil, House of the Dead. Now there’s this huge thing, Left 4 Dead. Zombies are perfect targets for a first-person shooter — they’re like the coyotes of monsterland. It’s fun to see them eat a stick of dynamite. But zombie walks — I’ve had my voice piped into Budapest for a zombie walk. What? Thousands of people coming out and doing this. It’s sort of a happening — go out and get drunk. It’s cheap costuming — smear up your clothes, slap some goop on your face, and go stumbling out. Even if you’re drunk, you can still stumble.

SFBG Do you watch the new zombie movies, like Zombieland?

GAM I don’t like them very much. As I said, I think it all started with video games — they have to move fast in video games to make the game fun. So filmmakers like Zack [Snyder], when he did the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), made the zombies run. I thought that was crazy. That whole evolution seems to have just warped it. To me, zombies should be like my guys, kind of stupidly stumbling along, and only have power in numbers or when people make mistakes.

SFBG Final question. Do you ever get tired of talking about zombies?

GAM [Laughs] Yeah! *

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters.