“A Lot of People Settle for the Vanilla”: George A. Romero on Diary Of The Dead
With the passing yesterday of legendary horror auteur George Romero, we’re reposting Nick Dawson’s 2008 interview with the director on the release of the penultimate chapter of his zombie series, Diary of the Dead. R.I.P. George Romero.
No matter how you look at it, George A. Romero will always be remembered as the godfather of the zombie movie. Born in 1940 in New York City, Romero graduated from Carnegie Mellon in the early 60s and stayed in Pittsburgh to set up a commercial production company. In 1968, he segued into features with his seminal debut, Night of the Living Dead, a low budget zombie movie which, in what would become Romero’s trademark style, combined horror elements with dark and incisive sociopolitical satire. Romero continued to establish himself with unconventional horror films like Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1977), before returning to zombies with Dawn of the Dead (1978). Since then he has collaborated with other horror luminaries such as Stephen King and Dario Argento, and made two further movies in his Dead series, Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005).
While some Romero fanatics criticized Land of the Dead for being too much of a Hollywood film, Diary of the Dead is very much a return to the director’s roots. The majority of the movie is made up of The Death of Death, a documentary movie shot by film student Jason Creed (Josh Close) and edited and introduced by his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan). The documentary captures the experiences of Creed and his friends as they attempt to escape Pittsburgh when the dead refuse to stay dead. The familiar premise of the zombie apocalypse is here examined from the perspective of an American youth hooked on new technology and desensitized by the media. Diary of the Dead is quintessential Romero: the film’s moments of humor and thrills cannot conceal its serious underlying message, that zombies or no zombies our society is very much heading in the wrong direction.
Filmmaker spoke to Romero about his going back to low budget filmmaking, the problem with Hollywood, and Meryl Streep being called yesterday’s pizza.
Filmmaker: Is Diary of the Dead a response to fans’ criticisms that Land of the Dead was too much of a Hollywood movie?
Romero: To some extent, yeah. It actually surprised me that so many fans felt that way. There’s really a mixture of people who thought it was too big [and people who didn’t]. I thought it was too big. I thought that it had lost touch with its roots completely, and gotten too “Thunderdome,” and I didn’t know where to go next with it. But it wasn’t so much that, man. I had this idea I wanted to do something about this emerging media and the dangers. To me, it seems that it’s fraught with dangers. Anybody can throw up a blog, anybody with radical ideas, and if they can make it sound half-way reasonable all of a sudden you’ve got a million followers. [laughs] I can see tribes being formed, and the last thing we need is more tribes.
Filmmaker: How familiar are you with that emerging technology?
Romero: Familiar enough. I don’t sit there, I don’t surf around, I don’t really use it, I’ve just looked at it for research purposes. I had a website of my own for a while, but I just got really sick and tired of it. I tried to be diligent, I tried to show up at least two nights a week and actually answer questions and have conversations, but pretty soon people were just sniping at each other and it was sort of a party that had nothing to do with me anymore. Sort of coming over to my house, eating stuff out of my fridge, [laughs] and just calling each other names. So I just wrote a letter saying, “Guys, gotta go. Help yourself to what’s in the fridge…” The stuff that really worries me is that [the] tube has always had a kind of power, like Walter Kronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” I think a lot of the blame falls on the people out there. Nobody bothers to do their homework, they’d rather just look up from their beer and say, “Ah, you hear that?” and buy it without looking into anything that might go behind it. That’s really the danger. It’s very easy to suck people in. You could be a TV evangelist, you could be a Nazi, you could be a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, whatever, and there’s going to be millions of people out there that are willing to say “Yeah, man, I’ll join your team!” So I wanted to do something about that, plus the way people are being invited to become reporters. Like CNN with the tornadoes: “Be careful, folks, but if you can get a good shot, please send it in and we’ll put it on the air and send you a CNN coffee mug.”
Filmmaker: So how do you get around the problem of biased news media? How do you find sources you can trust?
Romero: I don’t think that you can trust any of them necessarily. All of them are going to spin it to some extent. There don’t seem to be any [Ed] Murrows around these days. Maybe there are, I don’t know. Michael Moore is certainly not a terrific spokesman, I mean he seems to exaggerate and lie. It’s very hard to trust anybody. I think you just have to do your own homework. You have to do a lot of reading and digging and it’s pretty hard to get to the truth. Normally you don’t have time, so you just try and intuit as best you can. But a lot of people don’t, a lot of people just buy what they hear. I wanted to do something about people who get obsessed with being part of this, and believing they can help and losing sight of their own survival behind this, looking through that lens, and coming to the point where you just become blind and completely insensitive and you’re not doing anything to help anyone, you’re just shooting. Which is ironic, because that’s theoretically the journalist’s mandate, right? Don’t get involved, just report.
Filmmaker: There’s a line in the film where someone says “If it didn’t happen on screen, it’s like it didn’t happen.”
Romero: That’s at the center of [what I’m trying to say], yeah. I was trying to throw in stuff from all over the map, I was trying to make this patchwork quilt of media over past the 10 years. The radio reports that they’re listening to when they go into the hospital are real 9/11 police radios, and there’s footage from Katrina. I just wanted to lay this patchwork on top of it, and to just give you a gut impression so it’s almost like Rorschach, a barrage.
Filmmaker: The conceit of this being a documentary meant that you had to have a very basic approach to how you made the film. What was that experience like?
Romero: I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had the control of this film. Normally you’d have to sign each page and you’d have to shoot that page, and if you see a sunset and want to shoot it, you’ve got to write a memo to get permission — and then the sunset’s gone. So it was great having the complete control.
Filmmaker: You started making 8mm movies when you were 14, so this pared down style almost seems to hark back to that.
Romero: [laughs] It does to some extent, but it really goes back to The Night of the Living Dead and the days when we were just a bunch of buddies in Pittsburgh desperate to try to [make a movie]. We started a commercial production company doing beer commercials and industrial films and all that, and we said, “Well, we have the lights, we have the cameras — let’s try and make a movie.” It was just real guerilla stuff, audacious, you know? In my mind, there’s a throwback to that. But I’ve always tried to do that from my childhood, when I had an uncle with an 8mm camera. I would just mess around with it and learn how to use it: what an F-stop was, running film in reverse, double exposing accidentally, and never thinking that I could have a career out of it. I thought you had to be born royalty, I didn’t think you could just work your way up. There was no such thing as film school in those days.
Filmmaker: Do you still feel like an outsider?
Romero: An outsider? No. I can get into all the offices, I can get any meeting I want, but I certainly prefer to be. I wouldn’t like living in Los Angeles — I never have. I’ve probably lived there on the aggregate for three or four years doing post [production], but I prefer to stay out of that influence. There are so many bad influences when you live out there. Suddenly everyone’s using the same new film stock, this new technique. When the Steadicam first came out, it was “Oh man!” There are so many influences that make everything look the same, as far as I’m concerned.
Filmmaker: Talking of influences, your films have been a big influence on this current generation of horror filmmakers. What are your feelings on movies like 28 Days Later or Resident Evil?
Romero: Well, I have a sore spot about Resident Evil because I worked on that script for about a year and half, and I thought it was great. I resisted it at first, and then said, “Oh, maybe I can have some fun with this” and did a script that I thought was pretty good. Capcom liked it, the L.A. branch really liked it, and I thought, “O.K., we’re going to make this movie.” But it’s a German company and it’s basically one guy [who] runs it. And it just wasn’t the way he wanted to go. But, again, it’s the typical thing: he doesn’t look at it until it’s all over. My partner, Peter, and I were at New Line for two years. They would buy a novel for us, they’d hire a writer and have it adapted and Bob Shaye wouldn’t look at it until it was all finished. He never read the book. So we would bust ass doing this screenplay, and he’d come in and say, “That’s what this is about?! We’d never make a movie about this!” Basically, something that could have been stopped on Day 1, so it’s just a lot of wasted time and money, and that’s the stuff that used to drive me crazy. For about seven years I never made a film; I made more money than I’ve ever made before or since [from] development deals: The Mummy, Goosebumps, this thing Before I Wake, all of these projects that either got too expensive and became cast-dependent, or for one reason or another didn’t get made. You know, [like] Scholastic suddenly has a battle royale with Fox, and they don’t make Goosebumps, stuff that’s unavoidable.
Filmmaker: In 2002, you told Sight and Sound your top 10 movies, and they were all great movies, but there was not a single horror movie in there. You’ve said in the past that people see you purely as a genre director, so do you still have aspirations to make other kinds of films?
Romero: You know, “aspirations” may be too strong a word. I just grew up lovin’ movies, man. I find that there’s this prejudice against anything that might smack of romance or schmaltz or whatever, so so many films seem to be so vacant or seem to have lost their soul. They ran Brief Encounter on Turner [recently], and I watched. You look at it and it’s corny and you sort of laugh at the old fashioned techniques and you laugh at the style and everything else, but at the end there’s a tear in your eye. And that’s missing today. Nobody wants to step over that line, everybody’s afraid.
Filmmaker: I believe you’re a big Powell and Pressburger fan.
Romero: Oh yeah. Powell is the man. Experimenting with that little 8mm camera when I first saw Tales of Hoffman and I saw some of those techniques, it made it accessible. It actually made me be able to say to myself, “I know how he did that,” and it made the process more accessible and it gave me a little spark and think,”Maybe I could do this some day,” because the tricks he was using were so obvious. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film, and I’m a big Michael Powell fan. What an amazing body of work. In the old days, before video, if you wanted to watch a movie at home you had to go rent a 16mm print and a projector. So I always used to go down to Janus and get The Tales of Hoffman, [laughs] and no one ever took that movie out until some other kid started to take it out. There was this kid in Brooklyn and he felt the same way. I think we were the only two guys. It was Scorsese. We’ve since both done commentary tracks on the laser [disc] and the DVD of that film. I think we were both really influenced by that movie pretty substantially.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Romero: [laughs loud and long] I don’t know if it ever has gone in the right direction, it hasn’t gone far enough west. You know, it’s supposed to have snapped off by now and drifted into the sea. [laughs] But that hasn’t happened yet. You know, Hollywood is just so predictable and unfortunately I find it this genocidal business of release patterns and “Let’s beat this guy up,” and “Let’s beat the other guy up,” and so much good stuff gets lost or not made because it just gets too expensive in development. It reminds me of the way they run the Homeland Security Department. They’re killing themselves, frankly, with release patterns, with spending too much money on the wrong things, and very few of the executives having any affection — forget the genre — just for the medium itself. So that’s too bad.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Romero: The first movie I ever saw was The Thief of Bagdad. My dad rented a television: no cabinet, all the guts hanging out, tubes, and a circular picture tube. We would sit and wait until something was on. It was not picking from what was on, it was “When is something going to be on?” Every once in a while something would come on, and one of the first things that came on was The Thief of Bagdad. The first movie I ever watched, I watched on that tiny circular screen, and that was it. I said, “Wow, this is great!” I was eight or nine, something like that.
Filmmaker: What phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
Romero: That’s a tough one, I’ve got to think about that. I don’t really have a philosophy on life, I just… I don’t know. I guess I’ve always done what I do and figured out some way to do it. I think a lot of people don’t do that and that a lot of people settle for vanilla. [laughs]
Filmmaker: What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received?
Romero: They all came from my mother — I could do no wrong in her eyes. I could fart and she would say, “That was great!” [laughs] As a filmmaker, there have been a couple of people who have written about my stuff that I think give it too much credit. [Vincent] Canby’s review of The Dark Half was probably the review I appreciated most because no one liked that movie and Canby was the only guy who saw what I was trying to do with it, and was able to get past Steve King. I mean, I got blamed by all these reviewers, and I got blamed because of Steve! [laughs] It was like, “Steve, what are you doing to me here?!”
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced during your time in the film industry?
Romero: Strangest? I don’t know. It’s not strange, it’s just sort of sad how people drop in and out of favor. I was trying to get a film financed and it was one of those projects that had become star-dependent, and Meryl Streep had semi-agreed to do the role in it. This executive said, “Meryl Streep? Yesterday’s pizza.” So I used that line in Bruiser, because that was the worst line I’d ever heard. That was the pits.