George Romero keeps zombie enthusiasm alive with ‘Survival of the Dead’

The zombie, from its origins in Haitian Vodou to the movies of George Romero.

George A. Romero’s been called everything from a genius to the devil’s spawn (His response to that one? “I wish I had the powers, man,” he quips), but it’s hard to argue against him being a horror institution. Without Romero, would his signature line “They’re coming to get you, Baaaaarbara…” be half as creepy? Without Romero, would people outside of Pittsburgh know about the Monroeville Mall? Without Romero, would Rob Zombie have been, say, Rob Werewolf? The legendary director and grand poobah of zombie flicks has been a genre icon ever since the first members of the undead shambled through the field of the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, and then hit the mall 10 years later in Dawn of the Dead. Released on DVD today, Survival of the Dead marks Romero’s sixth zombie film in his five-decade career, and both fans and the horrorati continue to hail his achievements. “The guy is a freaking genius. I don’t think I’m overusing the word,” says Scott Weinberg, film critic for  Cinematical  and FearNet. “It’s as simple as this: There’s your Carpenters and your Cronenbergs and your legendary, well-regarded horror filmmakers, and with no disrespect to those men, they didn’t invent a genre.” I had the chance to talk with Romero about his cinematic legacy, so read below for our conversation and his thoughts on sequels, which Romero classic he’d redo and the famous pals with whom he frequents horror movies.

Have you gotten used to all the zombie love you’ve garnered over the years?
It’s really the last few years that it’s been hot. I don’t quite get it. There’s only been one blockbuster zombie movie, Zombieland, which was pretty recent. My stuff never broke the ceiling that way. I don’t think anybody ever made the $100 million mark until Zombieland. So I don’t think it’s film. On the other hand, there’s Resident Evil and House of the Dead and all these video games, and then graphic novels, and then actual novels like Max Brooks’ [World War Z] and Stephen King. It seems like everyone’s a bit apologetic. They don’t want to make them dead. I don’t know whether they just don’t buy that idea or whatever – it has to be some sort of virus or a rage bug of some kind. My guys are dead, and they don’t run. Somebody upstairs has just changed the rules on us – that’s my idea.

In Survival of the Dead, it seems like the humans almost kill more people than the zombies do.
Oh, they do! But I think that’s been true with all of my films anyway. I think of them as stories about the people, not the zombies. Particularly in this film, they’re not particularly threatening – they’re almost an annoyance. A lot of mosquitoes out tonight… [Laughs] My stories have always been about the people, and how they deal with the problem, fail to deal with it, deal with it stupidly, and they just keep on with their own agenda, even faced with this potentially game-changing disaster. I guess it’s just not the way I think. I would never say, “Oooh, let’s make a movie about people who stopped staying dead!” and then just deal with that as the premise. My mind always runs toward, “How would people react to this?” Zombies are just around. They’re the disaster.
You seem to have a lot of fun talking about this stuff.
I guess that comes from reading EC Comics as a kid. That was the warp that put me in that zone. Even though in some ways I do take it seriously on an allegorical level or as metaphor, I can’t help but have fun with it. Ghost stories around the campfire are meant to be fun. But it’s an acquired taste. Sort of like anchovies, not everybody likes it. I go to see a horror film with someone like Tom Savini or Steve King, and we’re sitting there at the goriest moments and just sort of chuckling and eating our popcorn while other people are gagging and running.
As a fan, do you enjoy horror or do you veer toward other genres?
Almost my entire collection is oldies, first of all, stuff I used to love and still do. I’m not the first one out to see the next horror film that comes out. I haven’t really been too keen on a lot of the new stuff. It seems like whenever there’s a trend, whether it’s Friday the 13th or Saw, they just became very self-imitative and it’s just doing the same old thing. Nobody’s really using it in any kind of way to be socially or politically critical. It’s just, “Hey, here’s a new kind of monster.” The second Jeepers Creepers was a pretty fun thing. If that’s what you’re gonna do, you’re going to make the Headless Horsemen, then that’s one thing. But if you’re going to try to create a world or a new mythology, it needs to be about something.

You’ve had people such as Zack Snyder remake your films. Which one would you like to have another shot at?
The only film of mine I’d like to remake is a film called Season of the Witch, basically because we never had the money to do it right and the cast wasn’t good. I was trying to do a women’s lib thing, and I hadn’t had enough experience with women’s lib to understand what their issues might be.
Many men probably haven’t.
Yeah. [Laughs] Not that now I have, but I think it would be stronger today. It would be much more of a drama. It’s not even horror.
The 1970s and ‘80s were a heyday of sorts for original horror movies. Did you ever feel any pressure to up your game, either internally or professionally during that time?
When we were making the first films, all the way through including Knightriders and Creepshow [in the early ’80s] we had people that were financing who gave me the controls. They were willing to release the zombie films unrated, so I was able to do what I wanted to do. And because they were unrated, the fans really dug it. I don’t know if I would ever find that situation today. I was in a pretty lucky place there, as far as that goes. When my current partner and I were in Hollywood, we spent six and a half years doing development deals, big ones – The Mummy, Goosebumps, all this stuff, and several other projects of our own — and none of them were ever made into a movie. I just said, “Forget this!” It was really frustrating. I made more money in that six years than I’ve ever made or probably ever will, but it was all just rewriting scripts: “Let’s rewrite for Sharon Stone!’ It was silly. Unfortunately, it’s the way that system works, or at least it did then. I just fled again. As far as upping my game that way, I’ve never said no just because it’s Hollywood. But it was always a particularly frustrating experience for me. I never had the clout. I never was going in with a movie that had scored really big. I never had a blank check – I was always questioned and people always worried about me and didn’t know me. “Oh, that’s the guy from Baltimore, right?” [referring to John Waters] “No, no. That’s the other guy.”

Do you see a little bit of yourself in any of today’s filmmakers?
I’m sure that they’re there. I don’t know. Oddly, it won’t connect, but Atom Egoyan, he does a completely different ballgame, and a little bit in Sarah Polley and a little bit in Kathryn Bigelow. I don’t see it on the screen necessarily – just knowing them and the stuff that care about and do. Guillermo del Toro, he’s my man right now. I think he’s sensational.

You’re still making these great movies at 70. Realistically, will you ever retire?
No, I probably won’t. Not until the Reaper comes and get me. I don’t want to. I may wind up without the energy — I’ve had a pretty easy road here with these last couple of films. We’ve had wonderful financing partners and it’s been path of least resistance in a way. I would love to make these two other films, and if I do those, I don’t know. It’s all about physical energy. I’ve started a novel. We’ll see.

A zombie novel?
Yeah it is. It started by request by a publisher, but I never signed the deal because I didn’t want a deadline and I didn’t want the obligation of delivering “a zombie novel.” I’m enjoying that. I have another script in the bread basket that I’m working on. I could never go back and do Hollywood again. First of all, I don’t have the time to pitch for a year and a half and have it not happen. I’ll stay in the smaller scale, because I’m having a wonderful time. I had more fun making [Survival of the Dead]. I look at this film and I say, “Now THAT’s a movie I always sort of wanted to make! Look at these shots!” It’s got that old Hollywood Technicolor, too, so it was fun for me. I’m having a blast.

How do you see yourself in the annals of all of horror history? Do your zombie films belong in the same conversation as Nosferatu, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.?
It’s so hard for me to think of myself in the same league because I’m still a fan of the old famous monsters and all that stuff. I think that maybe I did a little something right. The first film was sort of creepy. I didn’t think I was creating 40 years later zombie walks in Budapest. But maybe I did, maybe I changed that creature a little bit. I didn’t call them zombies in Night of the Living Dead because I didn’t think of them as zombies. Zombies were those boys in the Caribbean doing the wetwork for Bela Lugosi. I didn’t think of that way, but now in retrospect, I can say, OK, maybe I created the neighbor. The neighbor zombie!

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